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Gartner Survey Shows Corporate Lawyers Exhausted Since the Pandemic

Exhausted Lawyers Frequently Experience Psychological Distress, Seek to Leave the Organization, and Slow Down Business Processes

The pandemic has taken a toll on many lawyers, as a survey of 202 corporate lawyers in July 2021 showed that 54% are exhausted to some degree, with 20% scoring as highly exhausted, according to Gartner, Inc.

“The fact that many corporate lawyers are exhausted is probably not that surprising to legal leaders after the pressures of the pandemic,” said James Crocker, senior principal, research in the Gartner Legal & Compliance practice. “But what stands out is the degree to which even moderate levels of exhaustion lead to severely negative outcomes for the individuals themselves, the legal department, and the overall business.”

Gartner evaluated exhaustion levels in 202 corporate lawyers by using a modified Bergen burnout inventory, which is a set of questions commonly used to quantify exhaustion. Of the 20% of corporate lawyers who scored as highly exhausted, 41% of them showed signs of psychological distress, 68% were looking to leave the organization, and 61% frequently delayed or killed projects in which they were involved. The biggest changes, however, are between those who are not exhausted and those who are even moderately exhausted (see Table 1).

Table 1. Key Impacts of Lawyer Exhaustion

Source: Gartner (September 2021)

“The fact that more than two thirds of highly exhausted lawyers looking to leave the company, and the extent to which even moderate exhaustion is associated with quantifiable psychological distress among corporate lawyers should be a cause for concern for legal leaders,” said Crocker.

Lawyer exhaustion is driving delays in the wider business with moderately exhausted lawyers 3.8 times more likely to delay or kill projects, and highly exhausted lawyers an additional 1.8 times more likely to do so.

“The negative impacts of lawyer exhaustion can spiral because lawyers leaving, or working inefficiently, simply increases the workload on the department,” said Crocker. “Legal leaders need a way to nip exhaustion in the bud, but common approaches to this have a limited effect.”


“While it is important for legal leaders to keep workload in mind, there is also a meaningful correlation between engagement and exhaustion.”


Addressing overwork and stress

The most common approach to mitigating exhaustion is intuitive – free up capacity and reallocate work away from lawyers who are visibly burned out. This does work, but in a limited way. From the results of this survey, it led to around a 16% drop in exhausted lawyers.

“While it is important for legal leaders to keep workload in mind, there is also a meaningful correlation between engagement and exhaustion,” said Crocker “Highly engaged lawyers are dramatically less likely to be exhausted than even moderately engaged lawyers, and just 4% of lawyers were both highly exhausted and highly engaged.”

Highly engaged lawyers are 70% more likely to explore novel ways to help business partners meet objectives; they are 30% more likely to explore ways to improve department processes; 143% more likely to show discretionary effort; and 17% less likely to be actively looking for another job than their moderately engaged counterparts.

Sixty-four percent of lawyers are only moderately engaged with their work, but 43% are on the cusp of being highly engaged. This means even incremental improvement in engagement can make a big difference. The survey showed that commonly used levers to drive engagement such as potential for growth, climate of trust, or work management do not differentiate departmental performance in engagement.

“These commonly used methods for driving engagement are necessary, but they are not sufficient for driving higher lawyer engagement,” said Crocker. “The things that really made most impact on engagement were firstly, personally fulfilling work and secondly, total rewards.”

Improvements in these areas are likely to improve the engagement of many lawyers and help them better cope with the psychological burden of post-pandemic workloads.

Gartner experts shared these research findings at a virtual executive retreat for Gartner clients in September.

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