You lawyers are a competitive breed, but sheesh.
The bet: Who will burn out first? To be fair, this is the same wager I have among my fellow educators where I have taught as a high school teacher for more than 20 years. Last year, a Bloomberg Law article noted that of the more than 600 lawyers it polled, 52% felt burnout.1 Meanwhile, the National Education Association highlighted that 55% of educators it surveyed were ready to leave the profession earlier than planned.2 I don’t need to read an article to know this. I feel it in my bones and see it in the faces of my colleagues while they let out a sigh at the lunch table — and our staffroom lunches are full of sighs.
When we start eyeballing our paychecks and scribbling out those job “benefits and drawbacks” lists, sometimes we need a reminder of what brought us to our professions in the first place.
For me, it was the money.
Kidding, of course. The only people who think teachers make lots of money are children, who also believe the Boardwalks and Park Places of the world can really be bought for $400 each. No, there are other reasons for entering my profession.
For example, every day I get to interact with about 150 humans. That’s 150 chances to make a difference. What will it be today? Do I get to make them better writers, readers, or speakers? Better yet, how do I help them become thinkers? That lost art is slowly frittering away thanks to Zuckerberg’s toys and the trendy ChatGPT.3 As an English, creative writing, and drama teacher, I have my own platform — one where juicy conversations occur daily and kids dig deeper for meaning in the pages of a novel. I listen for the cracking of shells. Kids break out of their shells in spectacular ways each day, standing in front of their peers doing a skit or talking about a difficult topic in small groups. These components are fulfilling, and the stuff that gets me to the next class, the next semester, the next school year.
I crave that throughline of creativity my profession offers in my profession. And your intrinsic motivation is …?
We bump up against two kinds of motivations every day: intrinsic and extrinsic. When staring at the benefits and drawbacks list you stored in your desk, which of those are tangible? The money you can hold in your hand and the certificates that hang on your office walls are extrinsic. Sure, a pat on the back makes you feel good on the inside, but that was a gift from a boss, colleague, or client. The intrinsic is the “you” in all of it. The thing you talk about at the dinner table because it makes your chest puff out.
According to author David Burkus, extrinsic motivation is any reason we do the work other than the joy of doing the work itself.4 So what brings you joy in your job?
I reached out to several of my lawyer buddies to ask what motivates them. Most responded that the desire to win in litigation was a motivating factor. And I think wrapped up in those sentiments is the bigger-picture view shared by former public defender David Toy when he recalled his days on the job.
My motivation as a public defender was almost purely intrinsic because the compensation, career accolades, and emotional taxation were not highlights of the job. On an annual basis, I handled significantly more cases than a retained attorney would handle and made significantly less per case. Court-appointed attorneys are generally considered the lowest of the low — prosecutors, judges, and police tolerate you; there’s a negative public perception of your work for being on the “wrong side” of the law; and even your own clients saw you as a necessary evil and assumed I was part of an unfair justice system designed to generate income and bent on oppression.
It took a lot of mental fortitude and emotional toughness to do the job. Every day, you witnessed lives being torn apart, going to jail, losing livelihoods, and hearing harrowing tales of the devastating impact on the lives of victims and families. It was necessary to form a certain callousness to the trauma you witnessed and the emotional depletion of any given day in order to shield the rest of your life from the long-term effects.
Quickly, it became clear to me that court-appointed attorney work was important work and that I had (most of the time) the stomach for it. I would love to paint a fairy-tale picture of our justice system — eloquent speeches, discovering the crucial piece of evidence, or getting the witness to break — but it just isn’t realistic. Caseloads, budgets, timelines, biases, public opinions, and an imbalance of power created a system where I often felt like I was the only thing standing between my client getting chewed up and spit out by the machine or receiving basic and minimal procedural rights.
I was almost always unappreciated most by the clients I worked hard for. Despite this — and despite struggling with internal questions as to my effectiveness or purpose sometimes — the tiny victories always (and immediately) outweighed the negatives. What seemed like small strides could have immeasurable effects on the people I was there to help: talking a judge into less jail time or weekend incarceration to save someone’s job; knocking a few bucks off a fine; working for alternative sentencing solutions like substance-abuse counseling or veterans’ care; or securing a plea deal so a conviction would not mar someone’s entire future because of rash decision as a teenager. Most of the time you were looking out for people’s rights, counseling them to make informed decisions, and being the voice for those who just don’t know how to get the words out. And every once in a great while, you were able to truly help someone very deserving in an extraordinary way.
As part of the constant struggle that is court-appointed criminal defense, you reach a point where you realize that the work is really important and that someone dedicated, competent, and caring needs to advocate for these defendants. If I didn’t do it, there might not be anyone else who will. I was somebody’s constitutional right to an attorney, and that meant something.5
I think about that in terms of my profession. As new teachers are becoming fewer and farther between,6 I feel like I do have a hand in the greater good by sticking it out in my job. My work is valued and valuable even though it doesn’t always feel that way.
As we cinch up our ties or roll the lint from our skirts, we also need to head into our respective professions with the mindset that change is occurring because of us. Paychecks and politics may find me (once again) picketing at my job but at the end of the day, I find solace in the dog-eared pages of a story that impacts a student’s life. That’s one of the reasons I do what I do.
Sit back and really look at your lists. Remember what got you to where you are now and what can get lost in the noise along the way. It’ll help keep your pilot lights lit because burnout is real.
Bet on it.