Well, it’s been a year. A full 365 days of our new mask wearing, obsessive hand washing, home schooling, Zoom working, physically distanced “normal.” I’m tired. Honestly, I’m exhausted. Between the reality of a pandemic and the anxiety, grief, and isolation that comes with it, my bucket is just plain empty.
How are you?
How is it going holding up your family, your clients, your community, and yourself? If you’re legs are starting to wobble under the weight of the last year, you are not alone. That fatigue you are feeling is real. I see you.
A word I have been hearing a lot recently from colleagues, mentees, mentors, and leaders in the legal profession is burnout.
Burnout is the state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion of the human body caused by an excessive amount of stress. At least, that’s the quickest and most textbook definition I could find for you. But let me tell you what my burnout looks like: it looks like unrehearsed PowerPoint presentations because I just can’t be in front of a screen for another minute. It looks like barely washed dishes and undone laundry because physical rest and mentally “checking out” is all that my brain will let me think about on the weekends. It looks like forcing every last bit of energy into pulling myself together to put on real pants every day. This isn’t all my burnout looks like. It also shows up as back-breaking pressure to do everything—be everything—because as a queer lawyer in a leadership role in the profession I have no room for error.
This burnout is real, but it likely looks very different from your burnout. I also looks very different than the burnout of a first-generation lawyer navigating a profession nobody they know has ever lived in before. The burnout of a young Black man in our profession looks different than his white counterparts because he is fighting to live and work in a system that is focused on diminishing his value as a lawyer. The burnout of many lawyers today whose identities meet at the crossroads of their oppression and who don’t have the luxury to run away from the world or the profession, so they choose to push through the rough waters of a system that may be sucking the life out of them.
So often we don’t even take into consideration the systemic forces that contribute to mental and emotional exhaustion. I have rarely ever placed my stress in a larger societal context. I didn’t know how systemic oppression like racism, sexism, xenophobia, or the contemporary effects of colonization could trickle down into my own personal struggles and present themselves in my everyday problems. But navigating through my burnout is still easier for me because I have the privilege of being white – a privilege that shelters me from the outright racism, bias, and discrimination faced by many lawyers of color in our profession. Their burnout is very different than mine.
In Tiana Clark’s article “This is What Black Burnout Feels Like”, she writes that “Burnout for white, upper-middle-class millennials might be taxing mentally, but the consequences of being overworked and underpaid while managing microaggressions towards marginalized groups damage our bodies by the minute with greater intensity.” We all experience burnout because life can be intense, but many people of color, especially Black people, don’t feel as though they have the room to be exhausted and overwhelmed.
I will not speak on what Black burnout feels like because that space does not belong to me. However, we know that the impacts of this COVID pandemic have disproportionately affected women, specifically women of color. In the early days of lockdown, an estimated 12.1million women lost, quit, or downshifted their jobs as a result of new family demands. These impacts are exacerbated by race, as even as women are beginning to return to the workforce, Black and Latina women are the more likely to remain unemployed, suffering larger losses than other demographics.
The legal profession is not immune to this trend. At a time when progress for women and people of color in the law has been hard fought for decades (it’s only in the last year or so that women finally hit the 20% equity partnership mark), all the progress we’ve seen over the past several years could be erased.
At the same time, there is evidence of what I call the “great humanization” of the legal profession: With many lawyers facing the same stay-at-home challenges, some legal employers have learned to be more flexible, empathetic and supportive of working families. Underrepresented lawyers are increasingly unapologetic and straightforward about their lived experience in the profession and their corresponding equity and inclusion calls to action. Legal employers and individual lawyers alike have recognized that we all share a responsibility to effect change and commit to maintaining accountability in working toward systemic change within legal organizations, the profession as a whole, and our personal communities.
The “good news/bad news” attributes of this pandemic creates a gaslighting dynamic that may cause many of us to question our perception of reality in experiencing burnout, fatigue, and exhaustion. I often find myself wondering “Is it really all that bad?” and “Maybe I just don’t have the right coping skills?” While at the same time, I can feel my head aching and my eyes struggling to stay open at the dinner table. “Get your life together!” I tell myself before reaching for more coffee or what’s left of last year’s Halloween candy.
The fact that burnout looks and feels different to marginalized groups doesn’t mean that we can’t also support each other in fighting the burdening feeling of exhaustion. This starts by making space for each of us to prioritize the “self” in self-care. We talk so much about what we can be doing for others through “-ship building” - in mentorship, allyship, relationship, and leadership. While service to those around us is integral to the broader well-being of our community and our profession, we can best serve others when we have first taken care of ourselves.
Self-care starts first with you taking care of yourself.
Self-care begins by understanding that your emotional, physical, and mental health has to come before anything else. It is finding space in your life to manage the expectations that create the weight of the world on your shoulders. I can’t give you or anyone the solution to burnout because I still don’t have that answer for myself. But I can leave you with this, a litany of reminders or mantras to get you through these difficult days:
1. If I don’t put myself first, then this system will happily chew me up and spit me back out.
2. My worth isn’t measured by my success, my professional competencies, or my title.
3. I am worthy of love and happiness, no matter what.
So if you needed to hear it today, you are ENOUGH.
You have permission to prioritize YOU.
Finally, if you need or want help in processing your own unique experience of burnout, exhaustion, or overwhelm contact the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program (COLAP) a free, confidential resource available to any member of the Colorado legal community for a variety of personal and professional issues. COLAP can be reached at www.coloradolap.org.
*Portions adapted from Mannal Babar "My Burnout is Not Your Burnout"