Law Student Life: How to Prevent Burnout in Law School (& in Applying for Your First "Real" Law Job)
It's that time of year again.
As positive as it is to see students mentioning their successes, for every success, there's a seemingly a dozen "didn't get a summer position" posts. Articling applications are coming up, and clearly that means if you don't get either, you are eventually going to construct your own apartment out of cardboard boxes and eat half of that "apartment" for sustenance on any given day.
Or maybe you're finishing up law school without having a position lined up. Either way, students are constantly inundated with the fact that by comparison to the "highs" of someone's life being posted on LinkedIn, they are a future owner of a proud cardboard box and lint in their wallet.
On top of this, this is usually compressed in tandem with either finishing up law school, looking towards completing their third year (where elective selection becomes more important and you're also supposed to demonstrate a "strong upwards trend" in grades), or while working a law-adjacent job while applying to articling positions after graduating.
Either way, it's hardly a position conducive to taking a couple of days off to recover from burnout (although if you're able to, by all means).
One of the things lawyers constantly stress is time management. It's something we aren't particularly taught in law school, but can be the key to preventing burnout in that all-too-important job search or barrelling through your law school curriculum.
So without further ado, here are some of the top tips I've collected in terms of riding through a period of burnout when you still have several commitments on hand.
Ride the stress, move the other obligations to the back-burner, and let people know you are busy.
Look. People know articling, law school, or the first few years of practice are no walk in the park. I've even had a judge openly say to me (through his massage therapist nephew when I asked him to ask his uncle for advice, so thereby hearsay) that "The first few years of practice suck, but then it's a great career."
Most lawyers and people in the legal profession understand that law students aren't robots (and those who don't aren't the people you want to be working for anyhow). Being honest about your current commitments shows responsibility, the ability to own up to the current work you're doing, and that you respect what you're currently committed to enough to not spread yourself too thinly.
The only thing that will make you look "irresponsible" to either a law professor you're hoping for a recommendation from, or a future/current employer is not responding to further obligations or requests, or not following through on commitments you've already committed to.
Avoiding talking about your current burnout state (especially when everyone has reached the stage of just wanting COVID-19 to be over on some level), honestly probably looks odd in comparison. It's completely natural, it's completely understandable, and it demonstrates a depth of maturity to admit when you've hit your limitations for the time being.
It's Called the "Practice" of Law, not the "Mastery" of Law.
One of the greatest things someone ever told me happened on a Zoom call in passing. Basically, after a partner admitted to law firms essentially just being collections of very smart people who don't know all the answers, he said bluntly, "It's called the practice of law, not the mastery of law."
And he's right. You will never know every area of law to a tee, nor should you (it would honestly be a little bit terrifying). Most lawyers, even those who articled at full-service firms, specialise in one to two areas of practice, and end up knowing those areas really well. And law by it's nature is constantly changing. You have to get used to change, and to quote The Princess Bride, "Get used to disappointment."
Additional commitments are additional.
While it is important to respect your previous, essential commitments when you hit a wall, people will respect you more if you admit to being too full up and burnt out to take on additional commitments. If someone comes up to you and asks you to take on additional work, you're going to have to say no more often than not, especially when riding a burnout wave.
In this situation, I recommend focusing only on necessary deadlines. See if anyone is willing to help you out with some of the load, and if not, buckle down, get it done, and try to take a weekend off without any additional commitments and to catch up on sleep.
Which leads me to a painfully important lesson in a modern day, "work from home" scenario...
Create your own boundaries in terms of technology.
Either turn off notifications on phone so you can check your phone only when you need to, only check your email once daily unless otherwise expecting an email, or a combination of your own boundary plan when it comes to being inundated with messages.
While it's arguably great we all have more flexibility now working from home, it also creates less of a balance of a work-life split when the same phone you're probably playing some variant of Candy Crush on is the same phone you can casually scroll through your emails on. Constantly being "on" after hours and answering texts immediately from coworkers or bosses about work is a result.
Make sure you know when you're entering a workplace that a firm (somewhat) respects your boundaries. There will be emergencies, and that is somewhat the life of a lawyer. You'll probably see the phrase "there is no nine-to-five" at some point in your years of practice.
However, it doesn't mean you can't have someone in your corner who tries to work towards at least respecting that balance on a basic level and your time as a human being.
This can be seen through a variety of practices- one of my closest mentors literally checks her emails once daily. Just once, and then refuses to check it further unless she's expecting an important email. That way, she can focus on the task at hand, and if she actually wants to talk to you, she encourages a text instead.
Another popular response I've seen (which is more prevalent in BigLaw) is if someone is going to be out of the office for the weekend, to pass the buck to an assistant for "emergencies." Nice if you have an assistant, probably not as fun for the assistant who has to monitor the email all weekend, but there's the nature of the beast.
Personally, I will actually use my email checks as breaks from work, because besides projects I'm currently working on, they're usually concerning additional commitments/projects. I also am extremely protective of my mobile number, only answer texts or messages when I actually have the brain power to do so, and completely take advantage of the "Schedule send" button.
Schedule Send for those Pesky "Later in the Week" Emails.
If you have enough time and energy at a certain point during the day to answer emails, but you know a person is expecting an answer "later in the week" right after you talk, 'Schedule Send" is a godsend.
For me, it makes too much sense:
A) I'm more likely to comprehend my own notes and remember details of our conversation more accurately right after talking to that person.
B) It shows you've taken the initiative to remember all those details technically "later in the week" (but really you got on it right away without sending them bothersome emails right away)
C) You don't have to waste time later in the week composing an email about something that happened half a week before
D) If something happens in the meantime that would change the parameters of the email, you can always go back in, cancel the send, change it, and reset it for the same time, or even earlier if the issue becomes more pressing.
With "schedule send," you look on top of the ball (relatively speaking), and I can gain myself some time before continuing to work on that project/file. It keeps the timeline of a project/file ticking, but doesn't feel like you're not on top of the timeline/ playing catchup, or constantly answering emails.
Make sure you actually like your workplace/ are targeting workplaces/areas of law you actually want to work in.
This is why looking for a "firm fit" is so important, as well as focusing on areas of law you actually like. Law is a tough profession- otherwise, everyone would do it. Don't make something more difficult for yourself day-in and day-out by focusing on an area of law you hate to practice just because it may be the flavour of the month.
Find one thing to help you through the hard times to focus on besides law.
This can be especially hard in COVID-19 for extroverts, but find an activity (even if it leans more towards being an introvert activity) that moves you, either literally or figuratively.
A) Law firms want actual people working at their firms and not robots (despite what people like to joke), so getting involved in extracurriculars outside of law will not only demonstrate your "well-roundedness," it will undoubtedly save you mentally when all you're thinking about are parameters of research/ a case (Why do you think every firm worth their salt lists their lawyers/student's interests at the bottom of their biography?).
B) It's honestly unhealthy to focus on anything to the dismissal of all other life commitments (also, the more commitments you garner in life, you'll realise how relatively impossible this task is in the first place). It's also harder when you realise you've been unintentionally dismissing all other life commitments for law, are in the middle of a burnout cycle, and still have other commitments coming down the pipe that aren't going to stop anytime soon.
As counterintuitive as it seems, stepping away gives you perspective, focus, and helps refresh your brain. Have you ever been forced to move away from eight hours of studying to sleep, eat, or even just go for a walk? Have you ever been in that stage of studying where you're just staring at the papers in front of you and you have a literal "brain block?"
That's where mental health comes in. If you have nothing left to give, you have nothing left to give. That's why it's best to have things that add to your storage of energy, rather than zap from it. Having a hobby that builds up your energy stores will allow you to fall back on it when the going gets tough, and hopefully prevent the worst from happening (total burnout).
Think of your Energy as Spoons.
As someone with a chronic illness which, thanks to my doctors, is relatively under control, I stumbled across something that I honestly think is a helpful metaphor even if you don't have a chronic illness you need to maintain.
"The "spoon theory" is a way of describing the experience of chronic illness and its limitations using a metaphor. It was created by Christine Miserandino, who has lupus, an invisible illness which causes chronic fatigue, chronic pain and many other symptoms that limit her energy levels and ability to do everyday things."
Every person has a variant number of "spoons" to represent how much energy can be measured per activity. In the chronic illness example, many people with chronic illness refer to themselves as "Spoonies," to demonstrate how they identify with this theory.
An example and great explanation from the organisation Dysautonomia International follows:
Dependent on how difficult each action is for you (or how many 'spoons' of energy it takes to do a certain task), you can create your own reference for when the going gets tough.
For example, my chronic illness (thankfully) is well maintained, and only presents itself occasionally nowadays, as opposed to when I was in high school and it was literally the bane of my existence. I would consider my 'spoons' closer to 20-22 spoons of energy daily, unless its a day where I'm feeling particularly burnt out/experiencing symptoms (then it's closer to the average, 12). You take these things day by day, and when you reach close to 2-3 spoons left of energy, you do something to fill up that energy again by giving yourself 'more spoons' (whether it be a nap, yoga, you name it).
So, to apply it to someone dealing with mental health difficulties or burnout, you might be closer to 24-25 spoons daily (which I tend to believe is closer to the 'average' 'healthy' individual, rather than 'unlimited' spoons as some examples say).
Maybe you don't have to travel to school anymore, so you don't have to waste three-to-four spoons doing that.
However, you also have to be on Zoom calls day in and day out. Your eyes constantly strain, and you know if anything passes watching four-to-six hours of Zoom calls, you hit a wall. Maybe each Zoom call is three spoons for you.
Presuming each Zoom call is an hour in this example, and you have six Zoom calls, you're suddenly at a loss of eighteen 'spoons' of energy. A big hit. You only have six spoons left for the rest of your day, including making meals, showering, talking with family- basically other life commitments. Even after your plethora of Zoom calls, if you go make yourself coffee or lunch, maybe thats one or two spoons. That's now closer to four spoons- at the same time, you really haven't done anything in that day for yourself, and you're basically dead at one to two spoons.
It's time to recharge that spoon count. Nap, go for a walk, or try to organise other commitments while you do so (I know nowadays that personally that if I can manage a good old fashioned phone call rather than a Zoom call where my eyes are straining for an hour plus, I'll do it. If I know the person well enough, I will most likely go for a walk, like if I'm catching up with a friend who I'm socially distanced from because of Zoom. Talking to friends, taking a walk, getting exercise. Triple whammy in terms of getting some spoons back.
I also love how this theory doesn't just give you the same amount of spoons every day. You take away four spoons if you're sick, so automatically you're starting out with less, and if you had a terrible sleep the night before (I'm a night owl, so this is a particular bugaboo of mine), take away another spoon (but for my personal rating system, it's closer to two or three).
It might not work for you, but I think it's a helpful metaphor for anyone who struggles with burnout or the "ins-and-outs" of life, even if you don't have a chronic illness to contend with.
Still in law school? Help help help. In a firm? Help help help.
Lastly, don't underestimate the resources you have at hand.
If you're still in law school, you're incredibly lucky that you have resources at your beck and call (even if you have to go and search for them: welcome to life).
If you've played your cards right, you should land in a firm where you're actually encouraged to ask questions, and that really see themselves in the "practice" and not "mastery" of law.
Everyone understands that people hit lows in terms of energy. Everyone has experienced lows in terms of energy (if they say they haven't, they're lying).
Grit your teeth, take care of yourself the best you can through your commitments, and remember, "Ninety percent of life is showing up."
Until next time.
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