“I am reevaluating my career trajectory and thinking about moving away from traditional legal work,” her email read. “Law practice feels less and less like my passion and more and more like an overwhelming, unnecessary stressor,” she continued. “Can you help me to figure out what comes next?” This email from a prospective coaching client is representative of numerous inquiries I’ve recently received from attorneys exploring career transitions. Not only are attorneys asking for help with leaving the law, but firms are also seeking strategies to retain lawyers. “We are having a really difficult time recruiting and retaining associates during this phase of the pandemic,” a partner in a North Carolina firm recently shared. “We need strategies to help us compete with big city firms that are permitting associates to work remotely while paying them big law salaries. It’s challenging to attract and retain lawyers, specifically during the pandemic.”
After receiving numerous requests for assistance such as these, I was curious to research national attrition trends in the legal field, and find out which factors are impacting lawyers’ current career decisions. What I discovered is that the concerns of the attorneys and firms contacting me are echoing around the country. While many firms are asking, “Is there something we can do to compel lawyers to stay,” many lawyers are asking, “Is there something better-suited for my passion and purpose than the law?”
Research on Lawyer Stress During the Pandemic Shows...
Two recent studies researching lawyers’ stress levels during the pandemic indicate that there is an uptick in both stress and attrition among lawyers since the beginning of the pandemic. A large-scale study released in May 2021 (bit.ly/Winter2021Pathways) examined gender-specific risk factors for mental health problems and attrition among licensed attorneys. The study, which included data collected from nearly 3,000 legal professionals, found that 24% of females and 17% of male attorneys considered leaving law due to mental health problems, burnout, or stress. These numbers are quite staggering if you pause and consider what it would mean if a quarter of the women and a fifth of the men practicing law were to leave our profession.
Another study released in April 2021 based on input collected during the fall of 2020 from over 4,200 American Bar Association (ABA) members found that participating lawyers “generally show much higher levels of stress in trying to manage work and home; higher levels of disengagement with the social aspects of work; and more frequent thoughts about whether full-time work is worth it.”
The study results, published by the Coordinating Group on Practice Management in an informative downloadable report titled “Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward: Results and Best Practices from a Nationwide Survey of the Legal Profession” (bit.ly/Winter2021 Pathways2) also found distressing results about the effect of work-from-home stress on lawyers of color. The study found that “race and ethnicity showed an even greater impact. Compared to a year ago, lawyers of color have even higher levels of stress about work; are more likely to think the day never ends; have greater difficulty taking time off from work; feel overwhelmed with all the things they have to do; feel it is hard to keep work and home separate; and find work disrupted by family and household obligations.”
Like the first study, the ABA study also found gender differences between female and male lawyers, citing “significant gender differences in levels of stress and disengagement around work. Women experienced greater disruption in work than men. Thus, women were more likely to report increased frequency of work disrupted by family and household obligations, feel it is hard to keep work and home separate; feel overwhelmed with all the things they have to do (an effect especially true for women with younger children), experience stress about work, think their day never seems to end, and have trouble taking time off from work.”
If you are experiencing any of the challenges enumerated in the above research, it may be helpful to read that you are not alone. Although as lawyers we are accustomed to persevering despite significant stress, additional pandemic-related setbacks are pushing many of us beyond a level of tolerable stress. Lawyering beyond our resilience capacity may leave some of us wondering if the benefits of practicing law outweigh the burdens; and if not, what is next.
“Pandemic Flux Syndrome”
An additional factor that may play a role in increasing numbers of lawyers considering career changes is “Pandemic Flux Syndrome.” I was introduced to this new term on one of my favorite podcasts, “Dare to Lead’’ with Brené Brown (from the episode “Brené with Amy Cuddy on Pandemic Flux Syndrome,” bit.ly/Winter 2021Pathways3). On the podcast, Professor Brené Brown—one of our country’s leading experts on the topics of courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy—interviews social psychologist and expert on behavioral science Professor Amy Cuddy about “Pandemic Flux Syndrome,” a term which Dr. Cuddy first discussed in the article she co-authored in the Washington Post in August called “Why this stage of the pandemic makes us so anxious: Many of us are suffering from ‘pandemic flux syndrome.’” (bit.ly/Winter2021Pathways4). In the article and podcast, Dr. Cuddy discusses the psychological impact that being in constant pandemic-related flux has had on our mental health, nervous system, and our decision-making. As the pandemic wears on, Dr. Cuddy observes, many people’s anxiety and/or depression are exacerbated, causing an increased desire to “escape from a threat that we feel we can’t control.” She suggests that we may be “changing something about our lives that gives us the feeling that we are ‘getting away from the threat.’” For example, if we are anxious, we may try to escape by making a drastic change—like switching professions, moving, or reinventing ourselves in some new way. Or, if we are depressed, we may do something that allows us to “turn off for a while” so that we can “wake up when it’s over”—like quit our jobs without a plan for finding a new one, or ending a relationship to avoid having to work through relational conflicts.
What Are You Running Toward?
Pandemic Flux Syndrome aside, the story of lawyers leaving the law does not begin and end with trying to escape or avoiding overwhelming stress. Through conversations with lawyers around the country during the pandemic, lawyers are sharing that they are not just running away from stress, they are running toward their passions to fulfill a greater purpose. This is a phenomenon that Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University, refers to as “pandemic epiphanies.” In his research, Professor Klotz refers to the national surge of voluntary job departures as “The Great Resignation,” noting that in many industries there is an increase in voluntary departures (bit.ly/Winter2021Pathways5). Professor Klotz attributes the increase in voluntary departures to four main causes: (see bit.ly/Winter2021Pathways6):
1. a backlog of workers who wanted to resign before the pandemic but held on a bit longer;
2. heightened levels of burnout leading to heightened levels of resignations;
3. “pandemic epiphanies”—where people have had major shifts in their lives and identities that are leading them to pursue new careers and start their own businesses; and
4. an aversion to returning to offices after a year or more of working remotely.
The third main cause, “pandemic epiphanies,” lines up with the conversations I’m having with lawyers who are “running toward” greater alignment of their passion, purpose, and profession. These lawyers are asking questions, such as: “Do I feel good about what I accomplish as a lawyer on a daily basis?” “Does practicing law truly fulfill me...or is there something more I could do?” “Is what I’m doing in line with my personal goals?” Additionally, many lawyers who are committing to their well-being are curious if they might find a career in which they can have an authentic balance between work and home, self-care and client care.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
Does this discussion mean that you’re missing the boat if you decide to stay put? Absolutely not! There are numerous lawyers who are satisfied with their jobs and may have found greater meaning and purpose in their work during the pandemic, and greater work-home balance as well. There are many reasons to stay the course; the reasons to stay or go are personal to you and your life circumstances.
If you are considering leaving your current job, however, either for a sabbatical or to pursue a new job or career, it may be helpful to work with a professional—such as a coach or therapist—who can help you to navigate your choices and make the best decision possible. If you’re new to working with a professional mental health care provider or coach, this article on help-seeking for attorneys may be useful: bit.ly/Winter2021Pathways8.
In my experience, it is likely that for some lawyers, it is time to actually do something different for work; for others, it may be more accurate that they need to do what they do differently. A business coach or therapist who specializes in resilience and burnout can help you get clear on whether you’re burned out on the practice of law or burned out in general. Professional help can also help you navigate the fears about change that may hold you back from making a much needed shift (including alterations that would allow you to keep your job but enjoy it more) or prevent you from fully enjoying the modifications you make.
Working with a coach or a therapist can also help you get clear on what “asks” may be the most crucial if you need modifications in order to stay at your current job. For example, would a hybrid schedule, working part-time temporarily, or taking a month-long “sabbatical” help? If you’re considering leaving your current job because of the return-to-office policy, make sure that you fully understand the policy, and ask for clarification if you have questions. You may consider trying out returning to the office before you resign; give it a try and see how it actually feels rather than make a decision based on how you think it may feel.
If you are a legal employer, consider thinking about new ways to retain lawyers and staff in the current context. Given the statistics above on attorney overwhelm, offering options where individual attorneys can choose ways to work that meet both the attorney’s individual needs and the firm’s collective needs is optimal. For example, is there a way that your firm can have more flexibility with return-to-office schedules, such as a gradual transition back to the office, more flexible flex-time, and a temporary leave policy for parents beyond maternity leave? Or, can you offer part-time work that has clear pathways for advancement, including options for “making partner?” In addition, offering wellness resources may be key to both attracting and retaining legal talent. The above-referenced ABA study showed that, “A substantial number of lawyers (34%) report that guidance about enhancing mental health and well-being would help them in the practice of law going forward. Over one-third of respondents (37%) think that wellness resources are ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important.’” If you would like more ideas for firms returning to the office post-pandemic, please read my article “The Mental Health Factor: Accounting for the Emotional Toll of the Pandemic” (bit.ly/Winter2021 Pathways9) and the above-mentioned ABA publication (bit.ly/Winter2021 Pathways2).
As we navigate the upcoming months, there are likely more pandemic-related changes and unknowns on the horizon. Finding ways to resource ourselves and strengthen our firm’s wellness culture so that we navigate life as resiliently and steadily as possible may help us cope with “Pandemic Flux Syndrome,” and help us to mindfully consider career options. Notwithstanding the stress of the pandemic, there is an opportunity available to us now as individuals and firms for reflection, growth, goal clarification, and improved strategies. Taking time to reflect and reorient is important, as the realizations that come from our reflections can lead to increased passion and meaning in all of our personal and professional lives.
Laura Mahr is a North Carolina and Oregon lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness based well-being coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Her work is informed by 13 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, a love of neuroscience, and a passion for resilience. If you would like to learn more about Laura’s CLE course offerings for your firm, or to find out more about one-on-one resilience coaching, please email Laura through consciouslegalminds.com.
If you’d like to learn more about stress reduction and improved cognitive functioning using mindfulness, check out: “Mindfulness for Lawyers: Building Resilience to Stress Using Mindfulness, Meditation, and Neuroscience” (online, on demand mental health CLE approved by the NC State Bar): consciouslegalminds.com/register.