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Beyond burnout and the law’s culture of crisis

business woman slumped over on desk in office as an illustration of burnout

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By Antonio Coronado, BridgeTower Media Newswires

BOSTON — One of the challenges of well-being in the legal profession is that new law students and lawyers feel alone as they enter a pre-existing environment with many elements that are antithetical to well-being. For those who are new to this environment, it is easy to rationalize those systems with the all-too-common idea of “this is just how it is.” It can feel impossible to change a pre-existing system, and as a result we often spend more of our energy adapting to or surviving said system as opposed to changing it. Only after some distance from the experience or after hearing an alternative perspective on the system can we begin to imagine how else it could be. One such story is from Antonio Coronado.

— Shawn Healy, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers

I began writing this article immediately after taking the bar exam. For me, this piece became a way to record the feelings of grief, uncertainty and exhaustion that had inundated every aspect of my life.

In naming the many forces that brought me to depletion and in insisting on their undoing, I hope that you, too, can release the many things we claim to need but that do not serve us.


I recently was in the process of moving. And, truth be told, it was as stressful as it was healing.

Packing the pictures and trinkets and sweaters that I’d stitched into a home for the past three years of law school brought bittersweet feelings of both emptiness and release. The mere action of packing away textbooks seemed to at last acknowledge a tension that had built in my chest while, at the same time, permitting me to exhale.

As I tried to write this article, my thoughts seemed disconnected from one another. I know this is because (at an emotional and deeply personal level) I remained consumed by the fact that I had sat for the Uniform Bar Exam only several weeks earlier, and while trying to move and acknowledge and exhale and release, I felt disoriented. I felt confused. I felt tired. I felt overwhelmed and more drained than I could ever hope to put into words.

Perhaps most distressing of those feelings was my certainty that they were not new ones, that they had just returned with newfound meaning and at a terrible time.

But is there ever a good time to process exhaustion? Burnout? What about disappointment? And when was I allowed to feel let down by the promises of what the legal profession could be?

For me, this piece was a start at trying to move and acknowledge — exhale and release — the feelings of disorientation that were readily gifted to me by the law.

I’ll start first with my move.

While unboxing that same stack of books, I found a binder from my first semester of law school. As I combed through the pages, trying to remember what my 1L self must have felt or thought, I found a page of notes. They read:

“I’m not doing this for people like you”

“I’m so exhausted”

“I’m so unhappy”

My initial reaction was to laugh. Who was this angsty person I’d stumbled upon — drained, judgmental and unhappy?

Next, I was confused. Who was I not pursuing a degree for? Why and how was I existentially drained so early on in my legal career? And, finally, I felt the hurt that clung to those pages. How alone was I that I wrote that? How disappointed was I in this journey that I already felt so dissatisfied with it?

To move in and between those feelings meant I had to acknowledge. It meant accepting that my post-bar exam feelings were indistinguishable from my feelings during 1L: On course but uncertain, driven but drained, and hopeful but lost.

It was from that perspective and with the lived knowledge of navigating the legal industry as a genderqueer and disabled Xicanx person that I turned to exhaling — to releasing the many things I had been told were simply part of this profession.

We must release our devotion to individualism and burnout culture.

I’ve re-read my “people like you” scribble over and over, trying to remember when in the semester I’d written the note in the hopes that context might provide some clarity. At first, it felt like a puzzle, trying to remember what could have happened in class or what microaggression I’d just heard to bring those feelings forward. But I’ve accepted that it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that, for people who have been historically marginalized and minoritized within the law, the decision to traverse legal education and practice can feel like a forever journey of isolation, exclusion and misunderstanding.

It is from this place that my notes were written, and it is precisely because I felt isolated, excluded and misunderstood that I was forced to hold tightly to the reasons that brought me to the law. What I’d confused for judgment in my notebook was instead an acknowledgment that I’d need to fight to survive this journey, that my self-preservation depended on identifying why I was here, on scrutinizing all the reasons I’d “chosen” to feel so alone, and on never losing them.

As I put my bookshelf back together and tried to trace the exhaustion that lingered in my hands from three years of forcing my way into this profession, I still felt isolated.

This feeling is complicated, though, as I know it to also be a lie. In fact, the endless care of my family, communities and mentors is the very reason I now hold a J.D. and am on the other side of the exam.

But thoughts and gratitude alone do not cure exhaustion. They do not remedy the resource drain that our profession operates under (e.g., that there will never be enough hours or lawyers or motions or cases to redress fiercely entrenched systems of injustice). And knowing that I’m loved does not protect me from a profession that does not love me.

But we are not truly alone. We are not individual legal workers or motions or hours. We are members of communities with problems and joys and crises that are all interrelated and interlocked with one another. We are not heroes or saviors or people without need for rest. It is this very emphasis on individualism within our profession that silos our work, that drives cultures of burnout in its many forms, and that creates a never-ending crisis.

I want us to want so much more. I want to join a profession that is grounded in intention and principles of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. I want to join a profession where my experiences are not electives or one-off panels and where commitments to care go beyond pro bono hours.

I want to join a profession that views burnout as a collective failure and not an individual struggle. I want to join a profession that is dedicated to its own reimagining.

We must release our reluctance to practices of dreaming.

In the past year, I’ve been surprised by the number of folks engaged in well-being work who see their efforts as detached from the intersecting and intertwined work of DEI&B.

To be clear, the increased attention to well-being within our profession is both urgent and necessary. Because we operate from a place of crisis, it is harmfully predictable that legal workers then move within these cogs of crisis.

But the number of times I’ve heard people reply to calls for institutional change with something like, “If I had to do it, so do you” has been equal parts confusing and disheartening. As a student leader, I was confused as to why well-being advocates could not see their efforts as tethered to the broader work of repair and reimagining.

Post-bar exam, though, I now understand the wound from which this contradictory sentiment comes: It is one of justification, not justice. What was this pain for, if not some institutional purpose? Without the debt, the bar, this isolation, our fear, and all the countless cold calls, who might we have been? These questions are, undeniably, from a place of pain.

As both a student and subject of the teachings of critical race, I share this counter-narrative and the stories of this piece to question our collective reluctance to dreaming. I invite you to imagine what your work might look like if it was dedicated to developing communities of care, both in your workplace and the very neighborhood in which you work.

What might it feel like for our profession to be dedicated to responsive cultures of work — ones that acknowledge when we’re depleted and ones that honor the energies that we’ve given beyond our work product?

Both in legal education and in practice, we must allow ourselves to dream what the future of care and support can look like. Perhaps most pertinent for healing, it is not enough to create anew; we must actively unimagine our systems and senses of self that are grounded in harm. And, so, as I continue to float alongside the hurt of three years’ time, I finally feel ready to release and am more dedicated to dreaming than ever before.


Since writing this piece, I found out that I passed the New York bar. When I opened the letter, I cried, but not from joy at first. I cried because I felt exhausted and because I was still paying installments on the July exam. I cried because the score did not reflect the intention or care that I bring to this profession.

The one thing I’ve known for certain across my journey into the law is that I never want another person to feel the way I’ve felt, to doubt themselves the way I did and for as long as I had.

It’s my hope that this reaches someone who needs a reminding of their abundance beyond the limits of this profession. May this piece bring you the same healing that it did for me in its writing.

For information on available resources and supports in the legal community, contact Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers at 617-482-9600 or visit lclma.org.