A Lawyer’s Journey: From Burnout To Trailblazing

Thomas Dunlap, Managing Partner at Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig a vet-owned law firm representing clients in national and international matters.

Lawyers leave the private practice of law for myriad reasons. While the pay is generally high, the prestige can be great, and the work is usually exciting and intellectually stimulating; it also involves long hours and high stress. To combat this, I share this short article to help others forge a new and better path to stay engaged with and continue the practice of law.

Almost twenty-five years ago, a few short years after starting my career as an associate at a private law firm, I quit law. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I took a sabbatical. One day in the year 2000, I enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army infantry.

I was still interested in law. I still held the duty to protect and defend the Constitution. But I had decided that without a new direction, I could end up like the partners in my law firm. Senior lawyers in their mid-fifties still working ten to twelve hours a day under as much stress and scrutiny as I was as an associate, and they did not seem to enjoy their work. There was pride in work, but not joy.

At the time, I quit because I thought I hated being a lawyer. However, I later realized that it is not the profession of law that is so mentally exhausting; it is how I was engaging in the profession. After discovering that enlisted life was not as awesome as perhaps I had thought, I decided to attend Officer Candidate School, which gave me perspective on management and structure.

Later in life, after starting a nascent practice with a fellow former Army officer, I went back to school to earn an MBA and spent the last year of group projects trying to figure out some of the significant systemic issues I had seen as an associate and had encountered trying to make my own small two-person practice work.

I read business studies from both inside and outside the legal field, and together with empirical evidence gathered through personal observation and research, I developed a plan to change our firm’s structure and incorporate the ethos that a happy lawyer is a better lawyer. So, what did I learn?

• Law firms run by lawyers are, by definition, run poorly. Good lawyers are not professional CEOs, CFOs and CMOs.

• Lawyers will drop any business issue to ensure that the case, transaction or other legal work comes first. In other words, as they ethically should, lawyers prioritize law over their own business.

• The highest and best use for a person with a JD is, quite simply, practicing law and not running a business.

• A lawyer’s duty as a zealous advocate for a client versus their own business will end up in an inevitable time conflict.

No doubt, there are challenges to hiring professionals for every role. In smaller firms, a solo practitioner will often say they are “lean” and have little overhead. My favorite piece of evidence comes from a survey using data aggregated and anonymized from tens of thousands of legal professionals contained in the 2021 Legal Trends report by Clio that shows the average small firm lawyer realizes less than two hours for every eight hours of work. Three-quarters of the average small firm lawyer’s time is spent in non-law tasks of running and managing a business (24.55 % of the hours lawyers spend in the office are actually paid for).

So how does a small firm break the traditional mold of practicing law and transition into modernity? Consider shifting business tasks away from lawyers and to a dedicated team of professionals who can bring decades of specialized knowledge in operations, marketing, finance and human resources. At my company, this model has eliminated inefficiencies created by knowledge gaps, lack of time and lack of strategic insight.

Lawyers are taught to provide sound legal solutions while focusing on winning the client’s case or transaction. A C-Suite of business professionals marries the lawyer’s legal knowledge while ensuring our client-centric approach. A dedicated CEO, CMO, CFO and HR Director bring a wealth of knowledge and perspectives emphasizing client satisfaction, operational efficiency and innovation. Lawyers remain part of the internal business conversation to guide and direct but not to “do.” For example, our C-Level routinely meets with the executive partner team to review growth strategies and ensure our firm-wide messaging is harmonious.

Once this structure was established at my business, a culture shift was set into motion. A few of the reasons that caused me to leave law initially, were the brutal hours demanded and lack of flexibility and growth opportunities in law. If you seek to change that, consider implementing a flexible and collaborative culture that breeds collectiveness and ardent professionalism by implementing lifestyle policies for lawyers (individualized associate pathing, unlimited vacation, value measured on production, telecommuting, CSR initiatives, etc.).

The other substantial cultural value I sought and continue to instill into the practice comes straight from time in the Army. Lawyers take an oath that they will “support the Constitution, to faithfully discharge the duties of an attorney, and conduct oneself with integrity and civility.” Likewise, every officer in the United States military takes an oath that they will “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…” In my view, there is little difference in the words of these oaths and no distinction in their respective duties. The amalgam of these principles can serve as guidance to lawyers at your practice as it has at mine.

The legal industry is experiencing unprecedented change driven by artificial intelligence, technological advancements, globalization and constantly evolving client expectations. In my opinion, non-lawyer professionals will be increasingly vital in promoting innovation, embracing new technologies, managing and driving organizational change. A good C-Suite can help create and adapt new business models in a competitive landscape, from implementing a virtualized software suite of practice management and research tools to regular collaborative team meetings.

Every lawyer and law firm has its own journey. I am optimistic that my thoughts and experiences in this short commentary help.


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