Burn Out

Burnout is something that is absolutely never spoken about it my office.

It's something I hadn't put much thought into, but I started to when I read Indefensible. It made me wonder how I'll know when I'm really burnt out, and what I'll do when I am.

Someone in my office said to me the other day, "Am I going to be stuck here? Am I going to be a lifer?" My office really breaks down into two groups of people... the new guys and the lifers. There are lots of brand new baby attorneys (in their first three to five years of practice), and a big bunch of lifers who have been in the office ten, fifteen, twenty years. And there are just a few in-betweeners. I think some of them are well on their way to being lifers, and have every intention of becoming just that, and others seem like they maybe they just haven't taken the initiative to leave yet, or they're not sure yet what they want to do next. All I know is that I don't want to be "stuck" anywhere. If I'm still at the PD's office in ten years, I want it to be because I still love it.

So, back to burn out. I wonder if I'll know it when I see it. Some mornings, I walk into the courthouse, say hello to the same court officer who greets me every morning, and think to myself, "Oh my god, am I back here again?" Some mornings it feels like Groundhogs Day. Other days I feel like there is so much left to accomplish, and I think the factor that makes trial work a constant challenge - the fact that it can just never be completely mastered - has me so hooked.

But it really gets to me: The day to day, going through the motions, waiting for that next trial, waiting for something, anything, to happen. Maybe you could call it a baby burnout. Maybe I just need a vacation. Or a hobby. Or some type of distraction. Maybe I just need to be on trial again. I'm not sure.

I definitely started at the PD's office thinking that I would be a lifer. Now I feel sure that I'm going to want to do something else in the not-too-distant future. But I'm not so sure what that is. Maybe it'll be something that I can do while still at the PD's office, or something I can do for a set period of time and then come back. Or maybe I'll get out of it entirely. I have no idea. But I'm thinking about it.

I recently met someone who is in seminary. I thought about it for about two seconds and decided, "That's it. That's what I want to do, I want to go to seminary." Think about it - being a Pastor is a lot like being a Public Defender. You talk to people, you counsel them, you visit them in prison. Maybe I could even be a prison chaplin. Then I thought about it for another two minutes and decided, no, seminary is probably not the thing for me. But I know that I'm ready for something. Some kind of new challenge, some kind of new exercise for my brain.

One of the refreshing things about reading Indefensible was hearing (or, reading) another public defender's take on burn out. Among the PDs I work with, the term is taboo, I'm sure that I've never heard it spoken aloud. Even when people leave, no one ever says they're burnt out. Maybe that's a good thing - maybe it would be like freshman psychology class hypochondria, where you hear about a symptom and decide that you must have it. Maybe if one person declared himself burnt out, we'd all stop to evaluate ourselves and say, "Oh God, maybe I am too." Maybe that's what happened when I read Indefensible.

But, either way, it kind of has me thinking about my next life, and what I might like to do. Or, at the very least, where I can go for vacation.


  1. That's so funny. When I get to feeling burned out (I'm a civil litigator), I fantasize about going to some really small county and being a PD. In fact, that's my retirement plan.

  2. The Public Defenders I worked with (and around) when I was an investigator have done several things: 1. They have went up the chain and become the trainers/clinic professors/law professors for the baby attorneys/public defenders of tomorrow. 2. They go to the Federal PD when they get bored doing the murders and whatnot. 3. Some go to private practice and do the bigtime murders and whatnot. 4. Some move over and do white collar crime.

  3. Retirement plan?!? This has to be one of the most tiring jobs there is!

  4. I didn't say it was a SMART retirement plan!

  5. You know, if more people talked about the dreaded B word, there might be less of it in offices and people might be able to deal with it better.

    I'm pretty sure I wouldn't know it if I was burned out. I told a co-worker of mine that if I ever stop caring about clients/the work to pull me aside, slap me on the head, and tell me, You're Burning Out!

    Some of the Lifers I've met suffer from intense burnout but stick around so they can say, Five more years and my ass is retired! I don't ever want to be that person. Ever.

  6. I see myself as a lifer PD. I have almost nine years as a defender, but it's been at three different offices in two states, so maybe it's just that I haven't had the chance to get into a rut.

    My office is mostly people more experienced than me with about three pretty new defenders. The people that have been around a long time range from those who probably should've hung it up to those who are shining examples of what being a public defender is about.

    Learning the client's stories and personalities is what keeps it interesting for me. That's hard to do when there are hundreds of them (clients AND stories, from each client).

  7. Can you burn out after only 6 months? Because that's what I felt like. I didn't like anything about my job. I was yelling at clients, I was snippy in court, I didn't want to show up, and I didn't care.

    I'm better now. But I agree. I think that public defender offices need to address burnout. The way I think it should be addressed is not when it happens. It should be addressed in the course of regular supervision, as these things come up. We work with stressful clients in stressful situations and sometimes come across really shocking and gruesome things. To deny that we are human, to deny that these things affect us, to refuse to discuss the emotional toll this work takes... it only does a disservice to lawyering. Unfortunately, I've encountered an incredibly alpha male litigator attitude in my office, which does not account for feelings. Additionally, I even had my boss, who thought he was joking, say to an attorney in my office, "Well when you lose the hearing, just make sure you don't cry about it." And then he looked and me and snickered. He meant to joke with me, but I was angry.

  8. Wow. We all talk about burn out in my PD office. And the other commentators are right, talking about it helps. We tend to avoid losing people to burn out. Maybe that's b/c I work in a touchy-feely west coast city where I can say "I feel..." when making a motion for bail reduction. Wierdly, we've lost at least three people to the prosecutor this year. Now what's that about? I just don't understand how you can go THERE after being HERE.

  9. My brother's an assistant prosecutor, so even though I know he's evil and you're all good, I think it's the same kind of things that lead to burnout in both the PD and the prosecutor's office. After five-seven year, he started to think he was burning out. He was restless about his career and tired of doing the same thing every day, and sick of the kinds of things he had to fight about and with and for. He just knew he needed to start looking for his next job. Then, the judge he was assigned to pulled him aside and told him. By then, he was totally burnt out. The judge was very nice about it, but she thought he needed to know. She was right. He needed that confirmation. I wonder if he didn't stay just a little too long waiting for that confirmation because once he started the interviewing process, all he wanted to do was leave and it was even harder to stay.

    I think you'll know when you're burnt out. I think the more important thing is to know when you've started the burn out phase and get out before you're so totally burnt out that everything you do is just difficult. I don't know how you do that - how you prevent against total burn out, but I think there's a point where you do start to know you're on that road. The important thing is to listen to your instincts when you get to that place.

  10. For whatever it's worth, I think you'll know. Clearly. Not to re-iterate what I wrote in the book, but it's when you stop crying, stop caring that you need to worry. If it doesn't hurt, you're doing it wrong.

    I hope the book isn't responsible for getting you thinking about moving on--it was supposed to do the opposite. But hey--the best laid plans...

    I can tell you too (having done the work for well over a decade, that in the middle of it I took some time off. It was fun and interesting but nowhere near as meaningful. In the end, all it did was make me crave going back, and for me, changing offices was important. I found a new esprit de corps, and a new (and I think better) model of representation...

    Hang in there.


  11. I've been a public defender or a private attorney who did a lot of court appointed work for the last twenty-five years. I started getting burned out when I saw the system getting worse and worse and realized I could not change the system. Eventually, I just decided that I would look at my work one client at a time. Did I do something positive for that client? Did I listen? Did I at least try to make a difference in that case? It helped. Just the same, I'm going to retire in two years and become a sailboat captain.

  12. Thanks to the host and the other commentators for great comments. I'm coming to the party late, after a google search found this blog. There's not a lot out there about public interest burnout, especially when compared to biglaw burnout. Irony is, I'm praying for a PD opening to get out of civil legal services because, after two years of this, I'm so frustrated I'm more likely to spend the day on minesweeper than counseling clients.