How do you know you’ve got a raging case of burnout?
You start a blog called Paralegal Hell.
Or at least that’s what one senior paralegal – we’ll call her PH – decided to do in order to cope with the stress of her long hours at a mid-sized law firm in Texas.
The job initially was OK, according to PH.
“But then the lead attorney woke up one day and decided that he really didn’t care anymore,” she said. “This, of course, placed a great deal of a burden on the paralegals and his associate, as he honestly did nothing all day. No client interaction, no going to … meetings, nothing. I was working late hours and coming home depressed and dreading the next day. It was at that point that my fiancé, then boyfriend, suggested I blog.
“I never thought I would have any readers,” she said.
She was wrong.
Today – just nine months after its inception – 292 people “like” Paralegal Hell on Facebook. PH even has coffee mugs and mouse pads designed with the Paralegal Hell logo available for purchase.
She said low morale and burnout is endemic in the profession.
“Currently I am in charge of 10 paralegals in my department and nine of them want out of the legal field,” PH told CPN. “They are miserable, overworked, underpaid and unappreciated.”
Paralegals report a variety of factors about the job can lead to burnout, such as erratic compensation, a lack of career ladder and too much work.
The size of the firm doesn’t make a difference either, said Stephanie Crosby, a paralegal with Ward and Smith in New Bern, N.C.
“In a small firm, when you don’t have anyone to rely on except the attorney and receptionist, that can cause a lot of burnout. But working at a big firm, you’ve also got the stress of trying to meet the requirements that are in place,” she explained.
For Stephanie Gillespie, a paralegal with BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina, what got to her while working in a private law firm was the billable hour.
“I used to think of everything I did at work and at home in increments. With my housework, I’d think, ‘OK, this is going to take 0.5 to do,’” she said.
She also found the law firm environment and long hours at trial kept her away from her son, who was in elementary school at the time.
“I wasn’t mopey or miserable,” Gillespie said. “It was a very internalized thing, just a general thought of ‘This is not where I want to be.’”
So she tried switching firms, only to find the same sense of disillusionment “once the honeymoon was over and the makeup came off.”
But at Blue Cross, she found her niche. Even though she has a longer commute to the office, she doesn’t have to bill her time anymore. “It doesn’t even come on my radar, and that’s huge,” Gillespie said.
Sending out an S.O.S.
Most State Bars or bar associations have expressed concern about growing number of practitioners who report problems of substance abuse and depression as a result of burnout. But most often that’s mentioned in the context of stress among attorneys, not paralegals.
Both the North Carolina State Bar and the South Carolina Bar offer mental health programs for lawyers, but do not extend those services to paralegals.
This is less unexpected in South Carolina, whose Bar has repeatedly chosen not to formally recognize paralegals despite advocacy efforts.
But the N.C. State Bar does formally recognize paralegals through its certification program. When that program was instituted in 2005, there was some discussion about extending the Bar’s mental health services to paralegals, said Don Carroll, director of the Lawyers Assistance Program.
But that didn’t happen. Bar leaders told Carolina Paralegal News that they couldn’t remember exactly why. However, Tara Wilder, assistant director of the Bar’s Board of Paralegal Certification, speculated that because the program was an entirely new creation, planners were hesitant to create a whole new arm before seeing how well the inaugural version of the program would fare in the first place.
Carroll does get calls from paralegals curious about whether the services apply to them.
“It would certainly be possible for the Bar to let us do that,” he said in an e-mail to CPN. “For example, the [N.C. Medical Board's] Physicians Health Program, which is equivalent to the LAP, also includes physician’s assistants and nurse practitioners. If the paralegal [board] wished to have that benefit, they would simply need to approach Bar leaders about it.”
Members of the Paralegal Division of the N.C. Bar Association do have the ability to make use of its BarCares program, which provides three free counseling sessions to participants, said Crosby, a board member of BarCares.
About five paralegals have contacted the program this year for help.
“And we’ve had several repeat users, which is great,” Crosby said. “It helps us know they’ve gotten something out of it.”
For PH, there’s one simple thing that she said would help alleviate paralegal burnout.
“Simple appreciation and a thank-you goes a long way for a paralegal,” she said. “If the attorneys I currently work for would just say thank you or show any appreciation that I am at work getting their dockets together at the last minute, I would maybe work a little harder and care more about the work I am doing.”
- Protect your schedule: Build a time buffer to minimize the impact of unexpected glitches that arise in the day.
- Manage your manager: Proactively contact your supervising attorney with e-mail reminders and frequent updates to try and avoid disasters that could be prevented with better time management.
- Maximize your peak times: Save the most demanding or complex tasks for the time of day when you can concentrate best.
- Limit distractions: Set aside blocks of time to respond to e-mails and phone calls.
- Avoid “super paralegal” syndrome: Don’t be afraid to ask for help or delegate tasks when you’re overwhelmed.
- Find ways to relax: Try exercise, breathing exercises or reading a humorous book to relieve tension.
- Reflect: Think about your talents, goals and skills. Do they mesh with your current responsibilities? If not, perhaps it’s time to consider another position, whether it’s in the legal field or elsewhere.
- Seek counseling: If things reach a crisis point, utilize mental health benefits offered by employers or other associations.
Sources: “Better workload management leads to peak productivity” by Charles A. Volkert, Esq. and “Combat strategies at the burnout battlefront” by Mark Gorkin, LICSW.