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Keeping the Flame Alive: Managing Burnout in the e-Discovery Industry

Celia O'Brien

Sitting in on Relativity Fest session “Managing Burnout in the e-Discovery Industry” felt like a game of pick-your-poison. Mediated by Relativity Sales Engineer Danny Frank, the five participating panelists cell-block-tango-ed their experiences with burnout. Some were grueling, some sudden, but all of them made one thing clear: stress comes in a myriad of shapes and sizes.

And it makes sense, right? We’re work-junkies. Addicted to success. Flirting with our limits. No matter your role or your field, you can probably relate to letting your work-life balance teeter from time to time. It prompts a daunting question: if so many business professionals encounter this crisis, what’s the antidote?

In this session, the panelists aired out the mistakes they’ve made, the walls they’ve hit, and what it looked like to pick themselves up in the wake of burnout. Read on for a peek at their stories—and their advice for rising up from those burnt-out flames.

Resetting Expectations

Meet Keith Willoughby. Before becoming an incident manager at Relativity, Keith spent 10 years as a police officer and 12 in the Army National Guard. He admits that because his previous careers were so boots-on-the-ground, he used to talk about people who worked from home had it easy, and he, in turn, assumed his transition to e-discovery would be a breeze. Keith quickly found out that while the e-discovery industry provided a less physically taxing workday, burnout is not always physical.

“I found out that there was another level of burnout.”

Keith’s encounter with unexpected burnout in an entirely different career taught him that it’s not specific to one type of job or to one space—we can all experience burnout.

As a self-diagnosed “do-er,” Keith is also familiar with trying to live up to the expectations we perceive people have about us. Expectations that often only exist in our minds, but that dictate the intensity of our work. It’s funny how we do that to ourselves, isn’t it?

Establishing Specific Boundaries

Meet Stephanie Clerkin, director of litigation support at Korein Tillery. With over 20 years in consulting and finance, Stephanie is no stranger to stressful roles. But even two decades of experience didn’t help diagnose her when she was experiencing burnout. Her stomach did.

Stephanie developed stomach issues due to the stress of her work. A physical illness—along with factors like the pandemic and meeting the needs of her two young children—forced her to slow down and rethink her priorities. This wakeup call left her asking, “Why am I answering emails at 1:00 a.m.?”

Stephanie’s advice is to be specific about the boundaries you set at work; it could be something as small as sending an out-of-office email.

“The more specific I am, the more respected the boundary seems to be.”

Leaning on Your Community

Meet Maggie Burtoft, principal, discovery + data insights, Control Risks. When Maggie entered the service provider side of things, she wanted to prove herself as an attorney. Her approach? Put her hand up for literally anything. The problem was that she continued putting her hand up even when her plate was overly full.

This led to resentment (when she noticed that not everyone on her team was reciprocating the effort) and, eventually, self-preservation (“I’m not putting my hand up for anything anymore”). Eventually, Maggie had to strategize a balance—to consider what worked best for her and her team. Maybe her workdays still went past 5:00 p.m. when necessary, but her stress was more manageable.

Maggie reflects on this mistake in her early years and on how, in her new job, she's been able to step back and strategize much quicker.

“I have to remind myself that e-discovery [...] isn’t life or death.”

She attributes a big piece of this growth to her community, inside and outside of the industry. People who make jokes on stressful days. Those who are happy to put their hands up when someone on the team is overwhelmed.

Knowing Your Limits

Meet Ruth Hauswirth, special counsel and head of litigation and e-discovery services and information retention counseling at Cooley LLP. Ruth normalizes how her personal life—a young son, a divorce, and running a 65-mile commute every day for 11 years—affected her wellbeing.

“I was juggling multiple jobs, I was running marathons, and doing all the things I thought I was supposed to be doing to try to keep my stress under control.”

For Ruth, this nonstop stress ended with a severe back injury and depression—a piece of her story she’s passionate about sharing and normalizing. Ruth is adamant: “it’s not a character flaw.” We all go through tough seasons in one way or another and have to learn (or relearn) how our systems work and what we need to stay healthy.

Her journey toward healing started with a great therapist and the practice of mindfulness, a tool she adamantly vouches for. She also advocates for talking kindly to ourselves, changing the way we interface with ourselves and with other when we’re struggling, and keeping wellness off of our to-do lists.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

If there’s anything to learn from Keith, Stephanie, Maggie, and Ruth, and their cautionary tales, it’s to pulse-check for signs of burnout regularly. If it happens to unsuspecting workaholics, to industry veterans, and to ambitious newbies, it can happen to anyone. Combating burnout sooner than later will help you keep the flame alive between you and your career for years to come.

Graphics for this article were created by Natalie Andrews.

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Celia O'Brien is a member of the marketing team at Relativity where she serves as a copywriter.

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