Burnout and digital culture in the legal profession

We’re raising awareness about the impact of burnout in digital working environments.

Digital overworking is becoming a high-profile issue, with the Labour party recently announcing plans to introduce right-to-disconnect legislation in the UK, which is already present in a number of European countries, should they win the next general election.

Burnout is an occupational risk that is unfortunately common for those working in professional services, with an especially high number of legal professionals affected by this issue. In this article, we explore ways of identifying burnout and its underlying causes and the practical steps that you can put in place for your digital workplace.

The rise of hybrid work in the legal profession

In recent years, the legal profession has come under enormous pressure due to high demand and increasing complexity of the industry. Along with other professional services, it has also seen the highest rates of hybrid working outside of the tech sector, a trend that has stabilised even after the end of pandemic workplace restrictions.

graph demonstrating the flexibility of different sectors and their approach to flexible working.

Across the economy as a whole, businesses are aware of the challenges in implementing hybrid work but seemingly unequipped to navigate what is becoming the future of work. The legal profession is no exception. Given the rapid changes to the industry, it’s understandable that law firms face steep challenges for adapting to the new normal. This includes unintended impacts to employee wellbeing, not least of which is burnout.

Burnout within the legal profession

Workplace stress causes widespread impacts to wellbeing, with disrupted sleep, anxiety, deterioration of personal relationships, depression and physical health issues being the most commonly reported impacts among lawyers. Of all the signs of poor wellbeing, burnout is especially important because it speaks of long-term overworking and exhaustion in a working environment that impedes recovery. Within the legal profession, burnout is perpetuated by ‘always-on’ workplace cultures that will be intimately familiar to legal professionals. This unfortunately common experience begins in law school and continues throughout professional life.

Working long hours into the night without breaks is common for attorneys. But there’s a point where your memory suffers, your stress level spikes, and you start making errors

Shailini Jandial George, Suffolk University Law School

In a 2021 survey by Bloomberg Law, respondents with burnout were nearly twice as likely as other employees to be unsatisfied at work. Nonetheless, it’s remarkable that of the 59% respondents who were generally satisfied at work, 29% of them experienced burnout. Evidently, lawyers are highly motivated and engaged but often find themselves burned out under working conditions where the demands of the job outstrip available resources.

Legal workplace culture and burnout

Paula Davis, founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, explains that the occupational phenomenon of burnout is caused by workload issues including understaffing, under-resourcing, excessive meetings, email overload and inadequate team building. Furthermore, a lack of personal recognition in these conditions exacerbates cynicism and exhaustion.

Almost all of my conversations with lawyers include something about culture – their perception about the ways in which culture impedes or supports well-being

Paula Davis, Stress & Resilience Institute

Davis emphasises that systemic issues within workplace cultures are responsible for creating the conditions for burnout. Cultural factors include:

  1. Lack of autonomy
  2. High workload and pressure
  3. Lack of mentoring or support from leaders and peers
  4. Perception of unfairness
  5. Conflicting value systems
  6. Lack of recognition or feedback

In their groundbreaking empirical study of happiness among lawyers in the US, Lawrence Krieger and Kennon Sheldon found that contrary to widespread industry beliefs, internal and psychological conditions have a much greater impact on wellbeing than external factors, such as salary or status. Lawyers are happiest when their needs for autonomy, competence, relatedness and motivation were met by their workplace. Unsurprisingly, the burnout conditions identified by Davis occur precisely in those workplace cultures where these needs are not being fulfilled.

The current data demonstrate that lawyers who find interest and meaning in their work are much more likely to be happy than others; such engagement also makes high productivity more likely

Lawrence S. Krieger, Florida State University College of Law

Kennon M. Sheldon, University of Missouri (Columbia)

The main wellbeing challenges faced by legal professionals – inability to disconnect from work, trouble focusing and rising workloads – are classic symptoms of workplace cultures that have significant room for improvement in promoting wellbeing.

Wellbeing challenges and opportunities in digital working environments

The hybrid and remote workplaces that have become so prevalent within the legal sector share similar challenges with other digital working cultures, with serious consequences for productivity, creativity, performance and staff retention:

  1. Isolation and loneliness arise from poor communication, while people feel detached from teams unable to foster strong virtual connections.
  2. A lack of belonging can lead to feelings of exclusion and alienation from their organisations, an issue that disproportionately affects people from marginalised backgrounds.
  3. Creativity and mentoring, which traditionally rely on in-person encounters, suffer from poorly designed hybrid and remote workplaces.
  4. Stressors that are found in digital workplaces increase the likelihood of burnout, including e-presenteeism, video call fatigue and digital distraction.

The costs to employers of poor mental health in the workplace are substantial. Using conservative assumptions, we estimate a total annual cost to businesses up to £45bn, comprising £7bn in absence costs, £27bn – £29bn in presenteeism costs and £9bn in costs of staff turnover

Deloitte, Mental health and employers: Refreshing the case for investment (2020)

Persistently high levels of burnout throughout 2021 and 2022 suggests that this is not a transitory after-effect of the pandemic, so we need to be proactive in tackling its causes. With the predominance of hybrid work throughout the legal profession, a key part of this is ensuring that we create healthy and productive digital working environments.

Thankfully, there are massive opportunities for improving digital working cultures. Organisations with healthy digital working cultures benefit from improved productivity, creativity, lower absenteeism and higher rates of staff retention. There is a huge financial reward: Deloitte estimated that there is a 5:1 return on investment for employers who proactively support mental health. Women, young people, those with caring responsibilities and people identifying with under-represented demographics are more likely to work remotely, so positive intervention significantly improves equality, diversity and inclusivity across an organisation. Jobseekers are increasingly choosing their employers on the basis of their working cultures, giving engaged companies a competitive edge in attracting and acquiring talent.

With so many benefits to well implemented hybrid workplaces, there is everything to gain from taking control of your digital culture and making it work for you.

Leadership and wellbeing in the legal profession

Leadership plays an absolutely vital part in transforming digital cultures. This requires an intentional approach with guidelines and policy changes that cascade throughout the organisation, followed by proactive engagement from leaders to team members. A firm’s wellbeing journey therefore begins as a leadership challenge. Here are some examples of law firms that have led the way in reducing burnout and improving productivity:

  1. Addleshaw GoddardPinsent Masons and Barclays founded the Mindful Business Charter, a set of principles and pledges for organisations to sign up to in order to reduce avoidable stress at work
  2. Goodwin identified overworking as a leading cause of burnout, leading them to reduce and restructure meetings as part of their strategy for improving productivity.
  3. Foley & Lardner LLP holds regular forums for senior managers to speak about burnout and team culture, where they can also discuss capacity issues and future projects.
  4. Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP took a new approach to workplace culture after running workshops on design thinking for senior leaders. This includes facilitating discussion groups for leaders and an ‘Unplug and Recharge’ programme that allocates a quota of billable credit time to associates to use for down-time.
  5. Arent Fox Schiff introduced one programme on resilient team building for lawyers and another on burnout for associates. The firm surveyed employees about causes of burnout and included problem solving for issues like burnout in their three-year leadership development programme.

Leading firms have used a combination of workshops, surveys, technology, design sprints, book clubs, and more to initiate much-needed conversations. What they all have in common is making sure that leaders (at all levels) are a central part of the conversation

Paula Davis, Stress & Resilience Institute

As seen in these examples, successful law firms are adapting to new ways of mentoring, providing feedback and building relationships in digital workplaces. Allowing new lawyers to shadow their senior colleagues, including time in 1:1 meetings for non-work related discussions, taking the time to recognise personal achievement, positive reinforcement in feedback and prioritising a seat at the table for junior and remote workers are practical ways to create belonging in digital workplaces.

Intentional hybrid

Businesses tend to struggle with hybrid when they fail to take the initiative in defining their culture, which leaves them reacting to the fragmented cultures that arise in their place. Getting the most out of hybrid work means deliberately putting into place a company-wide strategy with a coherent approach to managing locations of work, communication and digital productivity tools. Nick Bloom, economics professor at Stanford University, has shown that well organised hybrid workplaces are more productive than either their fully office or remote counterparts. Bloom sees this organised approach as achieving a happy medium between the office and remote working.

One common example of a top-down organised hybrid work policy is to require all employees to come into the office on Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays while working from home on other days. At a more detailed level, individual leaders have autonomy of how to structure their working patterns, for example by prioritising focus tasks like report writing on work from home days and strategic thinking on office days. In this way, organisations remain agile and flexible in how they implement hybrid working but in a shared culture that promotes productivity and wellbeing.

Well-organized hybrid seems like a win–win… My one piece of advice is just be intentional, be organized

Nick Bloom, Stanford University

At Live More Offline, we believe in the power of evidence-based decision making for creating healthy and productive work place cultures. We call this approach ‘intentional hybrid’, which harnesses data-driven solutions for measuring employees’ digital experiences, evaluating trends, delivering training and implementing productivity tools. Intentional hybrid follows a six-step plan for implementing successful working cultures:

  1. Define your desired outcomes, including business needs, KPIs and values
  2. Find out how your people experience digital work through surveys, digital culture diagnostics or starting the process with a conversation within your team
  3. Use your data insights to identify digital culture opportunities
  4. Define your desired working culture across your workforce
  5. Make positive interventions through training, process and policy changes
  6. Monitor your progress through surveys, which can be measured against your desired outcomes

Training for productivity, performance and wellbeing

Once you’ve set intentions for your culture and put into motion policies and guidelines, training is your main vehicle for transforming your working culture. Consider training your people in these four main areas:

1) Wellbeing

As we’ve seen, ingrained habits like e-presenteeism and multitasking erode productivity. Challenging workplace beliefs and deconstructing myths is therefore essential for freeing your people from unproductive modes of work and realigning your intentional workplace culture.

2) Productivity

You can boost your productivity and make impressive time savings by equipping your people with smarter ways of working and digital productivity tools. This includes concepts like structured focus time, techniques such as ways to reduce digital distraction and products, for example software that enables asynchronous working.

3) Virtual connection and belonging

The hardest part of adapting to the hybrid future of work is undoubtedly creating human connection in the digital workplace. Enable your teams with skills for bridging the digital divide, prioritising inclusivity and making sure that everyone’s voice is heard in your working environment.

4) Leadership

We’ve seen how leadership is vitally important for creating healthy digital working environments. Leadership coaching should be provided to senior decision makers for setting guidelines and leading by example, while leaders at all levels should be empowered in how to build teams and foster belonging in hybrid and remote workplaces.

Start your wellbeing journey today

Irrespective of how you plan to implement hybrid work in your organisation, there are practical steps that you can take right now to take control of your digital working culture.

1. Have a conversation with your team to understand how their personal digital habits and how your team’s digital culture is impacting them

Ask how your employees experience their digital working environment.

  1. Do they feel pressure to respond to emails out of hours?
  2. Do they feel overwhelmed by the number of emails, video calls or messages their receive?
  3. Do they have the opportunity for quality focus time without distraction?
  4. How easy do they find it to create healthy boundaries between work and home?

Uncovering the issues is the first step to being able to make the right changes for your team.

2. Boost your productivity

You can see immediate results by protecting your focus and restructuring the way that you work. Contrary to the popular myth, our minds can’t actually multitask. When we try, what we actually do is ‘task switching’, rapidly moving our concentration between lots of tasks. Our minds take a surprisingly long time to refocus on an activity after interruption. As well as reducing our productivity by as much as 40%, this also causes long-term reductions in our performance. In a busy working environment, distractions are the main cause of task switching. Time-boxing activities like emails that require shallower concentration and creating periods of the day where you won’t be tapped on the shoulder in the office will give you massive returns in productivity.

There are many practical changes you can make right now to improve your productivity. Try interspersing intense periods of focus with short breaks. The pomodoro technique involves working for 25 minute intervals, followed by a 5 minute break. You can extend this approach to meetings, too, for example limiting meeting times to 25 or 50 minutes so that you avoid those exhausting back-to-back meeting marathons.

3. Think about providing guidelines to support a healthy team culture

Guidelines are a good opportunity to lead by example. For instance, if you want to reduce the pressure of responding to email outside of the working day, can you set guidelines so that only critical emails are sent outside of regular hours? Can you use digital settings, such as delayed delivery, to ensure that emails only arrive during business hours?

Often there can be unwritten rules within a team’s dynamic that become an unintentional culture over time. These lack visibility and you might not even be aware of them. For example, e-presenteeism leads people to over-prioritise quick responses to email and instant messages to ‘prove’ they are working but end the day they are left wondering what they have really achieved. Consider introducing ‘focus time’ where your team can switch off from email, not be concerned about appearing online and devote themselves to tasks that can really only be done effectively in a state of deeper focus. You could set a particular time for the whole team or create a culture that empowers employees with the autonomy to schedule and communicate their own focused work hours.


The legal industry has seen a rapid transition to the digital workplace of the future during a time of upheaval. This has compounded threats to wellbeing in working cultures that were already prone to causing burnout, with deep impacts to business performance, mental health and staff turnover. Leading law firms have risen to the challenge by positively transforming their hybrid workplace cultures. In doing so, they have grasped a huge opportunity to improve productivity, creativity, inclusivity wellbeing and staff retention, with sizeable return on investment.

Implementing a healthy digital culture requires an intentional approach to hybrid or remote working, with a coherent strategy throughout the organisation. A good place to start is with hybrid working guidelines and leadership coaching that fosters a sense of belonging within teams. Training is essential for challenging unproductive beliefs, transforming digital habits and introducing smarter ways of working, including productivity tools. Firms should make more effective interventions with data-driven insights into employee experiences.

Your wellbeing journey with Live More Offline

Live More Offline offers a holistic range of solutions for creating the working culture that works best for you:


We structure bespoke training courses around our Three Pillars of a Healthy Digital Culture, with workshops on the themes of Digital Productivity, Digital Wellbeing and Virtual Connection and Engagement.


Our leadership courses are designed for specific levels of leadership within your firm, from executives to team leaders. They incorporate interactive workshops, seminars, peer coaching and independent learning.

Digital Culture Diagnostic™

Our unprecedented technology platform surveys your employees’ perceptions of workplace experiences and delivers insights into working culture and demographic trends. It seamlessly links with individually curated interactive learning modules and pulse surveys, allowing you to make targeted interventions and measure progress within your organisation.

Work with us

Simply get in touch to explore how Live More Offline can support you in crafting a digital workplace that cares for wellbeing, productivity and attracts and retains top talent.