WATCH: Why Family Lawyers Burn Out – and How to Avoid it

Attorney coach Gray Robinson discusses why lawyers burn out and offers strategies for creating a successful practice – without sacrificing your health or happiness.

Transcript: Why Family Lawyers Burn Out – and How to be Happy, Healthy, and Successful Instead

My name is Diana Shepherd and I’m the Editorial Director of Family Lawyer Magazine. Today it is a true pleasure for me to be speaking with attorney and attorney coach Gray Robinson about why lawyers quit practicing law and strategies for creating a successful practice without sacrificing your health or happiness. Gray’s a third-generation trial lawyer who was born and raised with lawyers, but that didn’t stop him from quitting law, unfortunately. He spent 16 years researching what happened to him in his career. From that work, he created a program of resilience training for lawyers, and he’s going to share some of his best tips and strategies with us in this video. Welcome, Gray!

Gray Robinson: Hi Diana – thank you for letting me share my experiences today.

You quit practicing law in 2004, after 27 years of being a trial and family law attorney. By all accounts, you were a successful lawyer, so what happened?

Lawyers burn out and that’s a very popular term these days. But I definitely burned out if it wasn’t a full-blown nervous breakdown, I just got to the point where I could not go to the office and confront what I had to do on a daily basis. A lot of attorneys who are trial attorneys usually have some adversity, some days better than others, but they are able to balance the stress of that with the rest of their lives. What I experienced was that I didn’t have the tools. I didn’t have the knowledge. I didn’t understand what was going on with me. I just was in a deep pit of depression and basically called curled up in a fetal position and said, I can’t do this anymore.

To make things even worse I had to go into my senior partner’s office – who also happened to be my father – and let him know that I couldn’t practice law anymore. I could have been speaking Russian to him. He just couldn’t understand a word I was saying because he was one of these people who absolutely relished combat. He was in the military during World War II, and he went straight into the law after that. He was one of the fiercest and most combative trial lawyers on the east coast and he thrived on that. Some people thrive on adversity and other people burn out. What I found out since then is that there are several different ways that can adversely affect your psyche when you’re under stress all the time.

Some people have one traumatic event that just completely blows them either literally or metaphorically out of their mind and they can no longer function. They’re in shock, they’re in panic mode and they just can’t deal with the adversity anymore. Other people such as myself experience what is called secondary trauma or compassion fatigue is a term of art these days. It’s that drip, drip, drip of adversity every day, and the secret of surviving and thriving in an environment like that is what you focus on.

This is not new science: it has been around for a long time. People like Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale, and a lot of other people at the turn of the 20th century started writing about the idea that what you think about matters. Books like Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Hill’s Think and Grow Rich all focus on the fact that if you have a positive mindset then you’ll be better able to weather the storms of a stressful career. But that’s easier said than done.

How can lawyers get past feeling like failures when they lose?

What I have been involved in over the last 15 years is answering the question, “How do you do that?” Starting to think positively is not as easy as it sounds because our minds are wired – literally hardwired in certain ways – from birth. We also are influenced by what happens to us over our lifetime and if we’re constantly bombarded with negative results or negative situations, it’s very difficult to put a Pollyanna smile on that and say, “Oh, everything’s just fine” when you don’t feel that way.

What happened to me was that I got mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally burnt out, exhausted. I had to start from square one and try to find out who I was as a person and what made me tick. Why do I think this way or that way? What makes me think that everything’s going to be wonderful – or why do I think that everything’s going to go to heck in a handbasket?

I found out that over my lifetime, I had basically been trained to think in a negative way. Some people call that “worst-case-scenario thinking”. That’s what a lot of lawyers do because we’re trained to think, especially if you’re a trial lawyer, about what could go wrong. You can be ready for that when you’re standing there in the courthouse – or if you’re in a high-level business meeting and there are a lot of interests that are competing – you have to think of ways to deal with the competing interests, how to compromise and how to come to a happy resolution.

But if you think of what could go wrong all the time, all you’re doing is focusing on what can go wrong. There’s a lot of truth to the theories such as “The Secret” and all of those other new philosophies that are coming out that say that the power of your mind and visualization creates your reality.

“I’m stupid. I’m an imposter. People are going to find out that I’m incompetent and I’m going to lose everything and I’m going to die.” That’s what’s really going on in your subconscious mind if you’ve been programmed with those beliefs.

In psychological terms, they call that cognitive bias and or negative bias. The beliefs that we have that are formed as we’re adolescents or young adults, or mature adults, those beliefs will create your results and that’s all in your subconscious mind.

Most people don’t understand that your conscious mind is just the tip of the iceberg: it’s 10% of what we know, 10% of what our minds are doing at any one given moment. There’s a lot of stuff going on beneath the conscious mind that is actually making us see things in certain ways. These beliefs will make us think something is good or bad. That in turn dictates the decisions we make and the behaviors we engage in, which creates our results.

Although it’s overly simplistic, the more positive outcome you can envision, the more likely you are to have that positive outcome than if you think that you’re terrible at your job. “This job sucks. I’m terrible. I’m stupid. I’m an imposter. People are going to find out that I’m incompetent and I’m going to lose everything and I’m going to die.” That’s what’s really going on in the subconscious mind if you’ve been programmed with these beliefs.

I have a very lengthy vetting process with my attorney clients to determine if that’s what is causing their problems, and what beliefs they may have that may be causing these negative results. We change those through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, hypnotherapy, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming – which are all valid scientific methods to change the way you think.

Then my clients start having much better results. They start being happy in situations where there was once panic. It is really remarkable how this all works. I could get into the neurobiology of it all, but we don’t have enough time for that. But trust me, there is solid science behind all of this. This is not hocus-pocus, wave a magic wand, or snap your fingers and suddenly everything is all better. This is actually hard work – but if the lawyers want to change, they can actually change.

It’s quick, painless, and can be done in a couple of days. Quite frankly, the results are remarkable. You’re no longer stuck with the programming that makes you think you’re going to make a mistake, you’re going to screw up, you’re never going to make enough money, you’re not going to make Partner.

Let me put it this way. My mother loved to needlepoint, and she made this cushion that me and my brothers, who were all lawyers as well, wanted and fought over. It was an old Southern saying, which was, “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s tough to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.” What that means, and what a lot of lawyers are confronted by, is that when we started practicing law, we all had grand altruistic motivations. We were going to change the world. We’re going to save people; we’re going to make the world better. I don’t know of any lawyers who thought that they were going to commit malpractice and cheat everybody. They wanted to make a positive difference in the world.

Then what happens is that every day is that we hit a different landmine – emotionally, physically, or professionally. Things don’t go our way. Judges rule against us. Clients fire us. We say the wrong thing at the wrong time, with the best intentions. That’s just the way the law is. It’s a very, very difficult way to make money. People give lip service to that when they start practicing law. They know it’s hard. They’ve all heard how stressful it is. These days, people are well acquainted with the fact that quite a lot of people do burn out, or they quit and get into another career. It’s not a surprise to people when they find out that practicing law is really stressful. Unfortunately, they don’t have any counter training, any alternative ways or mindsets to deal with that stress.

Resilience is acknowledging the fact that sometimes, you’re going to make a mistake. The proper way of looking at that is not that you’re bad or a bad lawyer. The way you have to view that is as a lesson: it’s something that you need to learn and then not do again.

A popular word now is “resilience”. Basically, resilience is like that old saying, “It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down – what matters is how many times you get up.” Resilience is acknowledging the fact that you’re going to have good days and bad days, and acknowledging the fact that sometimes, you’re going to make a mistake. The proper way of looking at that is not that you’re bad or a bad lawyer. The way you have to view that is as a lesson: it’s something that you need to learn and then not do again. If you have the proper mindset, then making mistakes or having bad results isn’t the end of the world.

Then also throw in things that a lot of lawyers suffer from, things like perfectionism which is also a popular word these days.

Having gone through the educational process of becoming a lawyer, you find that you have to be better than good. You have to be the best – and if you’re not the best, then ergo you’re a failure. The problem with it is people actually believe that if they’re not reaching some artificial standard – like making half a million dollars a year, or bringing in $3 million in revenues a year, or making partner by a certain date or winning those big cases or getting the big cases in for the firm. If they don’t do that perfectly then they are a failure and they honestly believe that they’re a failure. If you’ve got that mindset that you’re a failure, and you may be making $450,000 a year, but the belief is you’re a failure.

Most people would kill to have a job that paid $450,000 a year. But lawyers who believe they should be making $500,000 a year think that they’re doing something wrong. They can’t handle that from a psychological standpoint. All they do is think of how bad they are. If you put perfectionism on top of bad beliefs and conclusions that you’ve drawn in your subconscious mind it’s just a big conflict every day.

Your conscious mind is saying, “Do better, do better, do better!” Your subconscious mind is whispering in your ear, “You’re terrible. You’re a failure. You’re going to lose this case and every case you got. You’re never going to be good. People are going to hate you and you’re going to die.” You have these two competing voices in your mind, and it’s literally the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other whispering to you that you can do this, or you’re terrible.

It doesn’t matter if your conscious mind says, “You’re good – just keep going, do the best you can, white knuckle it,” if you have this subconscious belief that you’re terrible whispering in your ear. At best, you’re just going to burn out because your conscious mind cannot change your subconscious mind. Researchers have proved this and test after test after test. You have to change your subconscious mind through those techniques that I’ve mentioned before. It’s not that you’re not thinking correctly.

Albert Einstein said, “You cannot solve the problem with the same thinking that created it.” That’s what lawyers who are going through this gristmill of “You’re good, you’re bad” every day are going through. They’re trying their best to figure out a way to have fun and be happy, but their subconscious mind is telling them that they’re terrible and they’re going to lose all their money and their family’s going to hate them et cetera, et cetera. That’s why people burn out.

Is it possible to be successful and happy, or are the two mutually exclusive?

Yes, it’s possible. Number one is you have to decide what your definition of success is. It’s really almost speaking a different language to each other, because when one person says “success”, they mean one thing – but when another person says it, they mean something quite different. If you pour on top of that the notion or the belief that to be successful, you have to sacrifice – you have to sacrifice your time, you have to sacrifice your family, you have to sacrifice your health – then that’s what you’re going to do.

You will sacrifice whatever your other beliefs are – the good beliefs, the healthy beliefs. You will sacrifice those in order to put your nose to the grindstone because you believe you have to. That’s what I mean by whatever’s running in your subconscious is going to control how you behave. if you believe that you have to sacrifice, that’s what you’re going to do.

You do not have to sacrifice to be successful. All you have to do is know how to properly think, to have the proper mindset in order to deal with a very stressful field that is very unkind.

You do not have to sacrifice to be successful. All you have to do is know how to properly think, to have the proper mindset in order to deal with a very stressful field that is very unkind. There are a couple of things you can do that I can tell you right off the bat. Number one is this whole notion of meditation, all different kinds of meditation. I’m a certified meditation coach, and I actually create a meditation specifically for a client to help them deal with the stress of any given day. With meditation, you’re rebooting your mind. In other words, when you meditate, you’re letting your conscious mind go quiet as you keep repeating a mantra or an affirmation, a saying. “I can do this.” “I’m getting better every day.” “This is really easy.” “I know what to do.” There are thousands of different things you can say to yourself in meditation.

Meditate several times a day for five minutes. I’d recommend that you do it on the hour every hour, but obviously there are days when you can’t do that. Meditate as often as you can to reboot your mind at regular intervals so your mind doesn’t give in to a negative spiral of thinking about what went wrong. “Everything is going to go wrong. I’m going to lose the case. I’m going to be fired.” It gets you out of that worst-case scenario thinking that a lot of lawyers are subject to. When you can stop that automatic thinking and replace it with pausing your thoughts on a regular basis every day, it makes a huge difference in how your day goes, because you’re preventing your subconscious mind from fooling you into making decisions that in hindsight may have not been that wise.

Another thing to do is get a sense of humor! The first thing you lose when you practice law is your sense of humor because everything becomes so important. If you laugh, if you smile, it seems like you’re being disrespectful or that there’s something wrong with you. If you can keep your sense of humor, then things that would otherwise weigh you down may not be such a burden. I recommend that people look up online joke websites and just read a joke a day so you can go to work thinking of this joke, so you’ll have a good frame of mind when you get to work. I highly recommend that you get your health checked because there’s a definite connection between your physical, mental, and emotional bodies.

What happens during a burnout is that your emotional and physical body has gotten to the state that it can’t function anymore, so it just shuts down and you’re in fight-or-flight thinking. You’re back to using your reptilian brain, and you can’t have many conscious thoughts because you’re totally under the boat.

Your mental and emotional body can definitely affect your physical body negatively and vice versa. If you’re sick, if there’s something, your glands, your endocrine system, isn’t working properly. You may have hypothyroidism. Your adrenals might be shot because of the physical things that happen to you when you are confronted with stress all the time. When you’re confronted with stress, your body reacts in a predetermined message that is hardwired, and that is it will produce adrenaline and cortisol. Whenever you’re confronted with a perceived threat that’s your body’s natural response. There’s nothing you can do to stop that other than work on that filter that perceives the threat until you get to where it’s not a perceived threat anymore.

But going back to your adrenal gland, if you are at DEFCON 5 constantly day in and day out you’re going to adversely affect your kidneys and your adrenal function which will throw your blood chemistry off, which will make you depressed.

You get depressed and so you start thinking, “There’s something wrong with me,” and that adversely affects your endocrine system. It all gets back to brain chemistry and endocrine system, and your adrenal glands are all tied together. If you are not aware of the fact that your body is suffering because of the way you’re thinking, then you will physically burn out. The last resort your body has to save your life is to shut down. What happens during a burnout is that your emotional and physical body has gotten to the state that it can’t function anymore, so it just shuts down and you’re in fight-or-flight thinking. You’re back to using your reptilian brain, and you can’t have many conscious thoughts because you’re totally under the boat.

There are a couple of things you can do to change that. Your vagus nerve is connected to your cranial nerves and your vagus nerve runs down the center of your body. It’s connected to all your organs, all your major glands, and there are a few exercises you can do to activate your vagus nerve to calm you down. It’s really amazing how science is now figuring out that if you just do a couple of these exercises a day then you can actually calm your heart rate. You can lower your blood pressure. My blood pressure was at 180 over 120 when I quit. Now, it’s at 110 over 70.

That’s amazing!

And that’s just because of these exercises I do every day that activate the vagus nerve. They will calm you down! I’ll give you one for your viewers. Put your arms and your hands up the side of your head and then you look all the way in one direction to your hand as far as you can, for 60 seconds. Don’t blink. Just keep your eye looking as far to the right as you can for 60 seconds. Then you shift over to the other direction, as far as you can for 60 seconds. At some point during those two minutes, you will actually yawn, sigh, or your body will just go, “Ah…” Your vagus nerve is activated and it’s telling you to calm down because your conscious mind can see that there’s no lion, tiger, or bear coming at you. It’s just opposing counsel saying things you don’t like, and so it allows you to relax.

When we’re confronted with threats or perceived threats, what do we do? We hold our breath. That’s our body’s natural reaction – and when we hold our breath, the oxygen doesn’t get to our frontal cortex and our primitive brain takes over.

The final tip I would give is to breathe. The problem with most lawyers and other professionals I work with is they don’t breathe properly.

Yoga and Ayurvedic medicine teach us to breathe in to the count of four, hold that for the count of four, exhale for the count of four, hold that for the count of four, and then repeat. That’s called a “box breath” or “life breath,” and it allows oxygen to go back to your frontal cortex so you can start using your rational mind again. When we’re confronted with threats or perceived threats, what do we do? We hold our breath. That’s our body’s natural reaction – and when we hold our breath, the oxygen doesn’t get to our frontal cortex and our primitive brain takes over. That’s the fight, flight, or freeze: our built-in survival mechanism to avoid getting eaten.

When we’re confronted by a dinosaur or a lion or a tiger, we’re not going to sit there and rationalize what their motivations are. We’re going get the heck out of Dodge, or we’re going to curl up in a ball and hope they don’t see us. It’s all biology – but if we’re not aware of how our body reacts to the way we’re thinking, the way we’re feeling, then the only result is going to be burnout. I work with breathing, activating the vagus nerve, and those sorts of seemingly extraneous things with my clients.

Here’s an interesting little fact about breathing. I used to teach riding when I was in university, and I could always tell when my students were holding their breath by their horses. Horses are very empathic, and they would start to get stiff, and their heads would go higher, and things would start to go badly wrong for the rider. I saw that something as simple as breathing makes a huge difference to the outcome. Thank you for those exercises. I’m going to try them out as soon as we get off this call!

Can you give us some advice for leaving your problems and stresses of the office at the office when it’s time to go home?

The easiest thing to do is write down what went wrong or what bothered you during the day, and then tear it up before you go inside your house. That has a couple of different effects on your psyche. First of all, when you write things down, it becomes basically physical matter. In other words, you brought it from thought down to paper, and that’s why people who invent things will tell you that you have to write down your thoughts on a piece of paper because you’re bringing it from the mental dimension into the physical dimension. If you put down those problems on a piece of paper, and then tear it up before you go into your home, it’s amazing: you won’t think of them at all while you’re with your family.

Another way is simply to have a sticky note on your rear-view mirror that says, “Leave the office at the office and the home at home”. One thing we all tend to do is to overthink – and in order to overthink, you have to do it 24 hours a day. The truth of the matter is that most problems are solved in the first five minutes of the day. When you’re at it late at night and you’re just running the same tape over and over and over again, you’re not really doing anything but mental masturbation. You need to stop that.

I’ve heard fables about guys who would write their worries on a piece of paper and then hang the paper in a tree outside their front door. The notion is that putting it on a piece of paper makes it physical, it literally takes it out of your mind, so you can leave it outside your door.

Same thing if you tear it up – or just put it on a “Things to do Tomorrow” list and then close the calendar and don’t think about it anymore. It’ll be there for you when you get up in the morning. My father used to say that he had his best ideas at 3:00 in the morning, and they somehow got written on the ceiling above his bed. I don’t believe that: his best ideas were done after the first cup of coffee.

Just how much can your body stand? How much of being at DEFCON 5 can your body stand? If you want to think about it all night, that’s fine and good, but that means you’re going to quit practicing law sooner.

I have seen lawyers proudly proclaiming, or their websites proudly proclaiming, that their clients can reach them 24/7. That sounds like a recipe for burnout to me. What advice would you give that 24/7 lawyer?

They have to have personal time. When we talk about mind, body, and spirit balance, that doesn’t mean eight hours for mind, eight hours for spirit, and eight hours for body. You have to find out how much these five-minute meditations that I’m recommending will balance all the stress that you’re getting from getting that 2:00 a.m. phone call. Whether you go get a massage or you go work out, or you do something physical, that creates endorphins, that will put you in a good mood it’s and I’m telling you, it’s all brain chemistry because you have endorphins, melatonin, serotonin on one side, and then you’ve got cortisol and adrenaline on the other.

If they’re not at least in equal balance, whoever got the tips on the scale is going to win that battle. If you don’t have enough endorphins and melatonin and serotonin in your system, then basically, you’re going to have to do something drastic to change that. But I’m not saying don’t take calls at two o’clock in the morning, I’m just saying, make sure you get some personal time with your family to offset that. It doesn’t have to be one minute for one minute, but it’s got to be enough so that it takes the stress out of that stressful situation.

Bottom line, how can a family lawyer be happier, win more cases and make more money while avoiding burnout? Because before this chat, I would’ve said that sounds like an oxymoron.

Change your mind. People get into trouble when they set up impossible goals for themselves or they set up realistic goals that can never be accomplished. That’s part of that perfectionism and imposter role kind of thing, where people are thinking, “If you really knew me, you would hate me.” You have to give yourself credit!

You probably did very well in high school, and you did very well in college in order to get into a good law school, and you had to graduate from law school so you could take the bar exam, and you took the bar exam and you passed it. I don’t care how many times it took you to do it. You passed it! Only a very, very small percentage of the population can do that.

You ought to give yourself some credit for being smart enough to get all of that done. The only issue about being stressed out and not being able to deal with it is you don’t have the tools. You aren’t trained in order to deal with the stress. Some people come back naturally.

I will never run a four-minute mile. Even in an automobile, I will never run a four-minute mile. But the thing is that I can probably get to a five-minute mile in a fast automobile, meaning that if you get the proper tools, then you can have fun. The stress isn’t so life-threatening.

Lawyers can actually have fun at work – and when they have fun, they start winning more because, I guarantee you, juries will connect with them. Judges will connect with lawyers who are having a good time much quicker than the lawyers who are so stern, and they’re having no fun, and you can tell they’re having three ulcers all at the same time. It’s very, very important to be able to know how to respond to all the give-and-take of the law practice and give yourself some credit. It’s not that hard. It’s just that you need to talk to somebody who’s been there.

On that note, I’m going to say thank you because this has been very enlightening for me, and I hope that lawyers have a lot of great takeaways from it as well. My guest today has been Gray Robinson, a family law attorney, and attorney coach. He arose from the ashes of his own burnout to create a resilience training program to help attorneys, judges, and other professionals understand why they get stressed and depressed and how to thrive without burning out and leaving the profession. For more information about Gray’s program, please visit Gray, thank you so much for being with us today. I really appreciate it.

I enjoyed it. Diana. Thank you.

About Gray Robinson

Gray Robinson is a third-generation trial lawyer who was born and raised with lawyers. He has law in his blood. Even with that pedigree, after 27 years of practicing law, Gray hit a wall and was overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. He quit practicing law in 2004 because he could not find any meaningful support and could not deal with the stress.

For the last 16 years Gray has been studying and researching what happened to him and his career and how to heal. He talked to therapists, experts, gurus, and went to every seminar he could find. What Gray noticed was there weren’t any programs for lawyers who were struggling with stress and anxiety like he did. Using the wisdom and counseling Gray had learned in his search he decided to climb back in the saddle and took the Oregon State Bar Exam. He passed!

Gray has since developed an effective program Lawyer Lifeline to help attorneys and judges (and other professionals) understand why they get stressed and how to manage it. Not only manage it, but thrive with it. Gray wants lawyers to enjoy their life, their practice, their families. He is a sage attorney coach helping litigation professionals avoid burnout, win more cases and make more money.

“You don’t have to be a strong silent suffering nervous wreck. I want you to remember why you became a lawyer in the first place, to have fun and help people.”