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Stanford Ducks, Imposters and Overachievers

Stanford Ducks, Imposters and Insecure Overachievers and the Risk of Burnout

I learned a new term this week that applies to many law students, articling students and lawyers who are at risk of burnout: Stanford Duck Syndrome. The “Stanford” in this name is, you guessed it, the prestigious US university, where the duck syndrome name was first coined. Stanford Duck Syndrome refers to people in a highly competitive environment who all appear to be swimming smoothly on the surface of a pond, but some ducks are having to work harder and paddle faster. And of course, when you are working and paddling more than your peers appear to be (and are trying to hide it), you will probably run out of energy—burn out—earlier. Maybe we should personalize it for our profession and call it Lawyer Duck Syndrome.

Law attracts people who are success-oriented and who may not have ever experienced a failure. We are not used to struggling and we don’t want to admit it when we struggle, so we just work—or paddle--harder to try to keep up.

Does this sound familiar to you? It is reminiscent both of how we respond to Imposter Syndrome, where we believe that everyone else is more talented than we are and that we were hired by mistake, and Insecure Overachievers, where individuals who are underconfident work longer and harder to try to be “worthy.”

I wouldn’t be talking about ducks, imposter and overachievers if these were benign profiles. Unfortunately, for all of us who seem to have some of each in our DNA, we are greater risk of burnout, and burnout, if left untreated, can lead to more serious conditions like depressive disorders.

So, what is burnout? It is a combination of feelings of emotional exhaustion, negative feelings and perceptions which are work-related, often caused by overwork in committed and dedicated people. The World Health Organization’s adopts the International Classification of Diseases definition:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Emphasis is mine.

A more succinct definition of burnout for the legal community is provided by Paula Davis, a former lawyer and author, who defines burnout as:
Chronic exhaustion, chronic cynicism, and inefficiency, which is a sense of lost impact.

Law is a field where burnout occurs, not just in Canada but worldwide. According to the International Bar Association, lawyer burnout is prevalent globally. We know that in Canada, about 56% of lawyers have experienced burnout, and that about two-thirds of articling students have as well, which is shocking since they have only been in our profession, by definition, for less than one year.
Potential causes for lawyer burnout include:

Reading this list makes me visualize a pond filled with Stanford Ducks, placid on the surface, but paddling furiously underneath—or a new cohort of articling students struggling with both quantitative and qualitative work overload. No articling duck wants to look like they can’t keep up with the pack, so they commit to doing whatever it takes including sleepless nights so that they can appear to cruise on the surface of the pond. This results in overwork, and we know that overwork, in the context of swimming, will work for awhile but then exhaustion will set in.

We know that this happens with muscles. Many years ago, I was a keen runner and I remember being a long way from home when I developed pain across the sole of my foot. This was in the pre cellphone era, so I couldn’t call home and request a pickup. I continued to run so that I could get home and tend to my foot. I ran, and then I walked, and then I limped, and I was near crawling by the time I got home. By continuing to run, I caused a sprain and ended up on crutches. Answering the “what did you do to your foot?” question was very embarrassing.

But pushing a muscle to the point of a sprain is the image that I conjure up with the word “overwork”—whether physical or mental, we have pushed something past its reasonable limit. The first part of our response to a sign of overwork is to stop using the overworked component, as opposed to continuing to run. My experience taught me that overworking does not make a strain or cramp go away or get better. Continuing to use it only makes it worse.

This is why well-being advocates will recommend that lawyers take real vacations (referenced in the National Study as REAL vacations for emphasis)—you have to be able to get away from work in order to get the benefit of a vacation. Just as my foot needed rest and my continuing to run on it through the pain made the problem worse, taking time out of the office without being able to clear your mind of work issues may cause further strain.

Another helpful way of understanding burnout is that it is caused by a disparity between demands and resources. We can generally make do with a shortage of time—the lawyers’ key resource—while we deal with a large volume of work for awhile, but we can’t do it forever.

This ties into the Insecure Overachievers concept, as studied by British researcher Laura Empson, where successful professionals like accountants and lawyers push themselves to work punishing schedules on a regular basis because they are underconfident of the value of their work.

And we know that feeling like an imposter, as in Imposter Syndrome, causes the same behaviours. If we think we are not as capable as our peers and were hired by mistake, then working our tailfeathers off is a common strategy to hide what we perceive as our shortcomings.

If you feel exhausted, dissatisfied and unmotivated, marinating in negative perceptions and feeling like nothing you do matters, please consider talking to your family physician or an Assist counsellor. Burnout can be treated by a professional, and there are steps we can take to help heal ourselves.

A vacation—a REAL vacation, to use the National Study’s emphasis—can help alleviate the symptoms of burnout, which is why taking REAL vacations is one of the National Study’s recommendations for individuals.

If you feel that demands on you exceed your resources, please consider the following strategy of assessing the demands you face: what can be delegated or farmed out? What can be deferred? What can you eliminate?

Then review your resources: are there perhaps resources that you are not using? Can you apply your resources differently?

And then review how you recover from prolonged stress: does a vacation restore you? Does spending time on hobbies help?

Some commentators recommend that you schedule your personal needs before you allow your work schedule to take over your life. For example, Assist holds a fifteen-minute mindfulness session at noon on Tuesdays. We know that meetings run long and that emergencies pop up, but if you put this in your calendar each week (assuming that mindfulness and breathing exercises refresh you), you may be able to attend most of the time. I know from personal experience that if I don’t put something that I want to do in my calendar, it doesn’t happen, but if I out in in my calendar, I have a much better chance to making it happen.

You could also collaborate with an accountability partner—you and a colleague or friend can agree that you are both going to try to do one thing for your well-being once a week. You can start small. Once you establish a routine, you may find that you can accommodate a second well-being activity. Your accountability partner can support you when you reach your goals and can express understanding that sometimes a client calls with an urgent matter or a senior partner appears in the doorway, and you have to shift your plans. As lawyers, we tend to beat ourselves up easily so that job is already covered. Your accountability partner can help you move forwards rather than getting stuck in frustration.

Burnout is common in our profession--about half of us experience burnout. So, acknowledge that you are feeling burned out, and consider mapping out your resources and your demands. You may be able to delegate or contract out some activities—yard maintenance, housework, laundry—tasks that you don’t enjoy that someone else could do. We don’t have to do everything ourselves when we have demanding jobs.

You may also realize that you have resources you haven’t used. Perhaps you have family members who could pick your child up from daycare once or twice per week to reduce stress caused by frantic office exits.

We can give ourselves permission to ease up—we don’t have to be perfect 24/7!

Many of us are Stanford ducks, feel like imposters, or are perhaps insecure overachievers, causing us to overwork. Overwork is an occupational hazard in law—it increases our risk of burnout. There is no shame in experiencing burnout! And there are strategies and solutions for reducing and preventing burnour. Step one is easy—just call Assist.