Q: When I decided to go to law school, it was to continue a family
tradition of social responsibility. I knew that it meant I would
not become wealthy, and that was fine with me. And I knew that,
since many new lawyers are interested in public service work, I was
fortunate to land a position at a nonprofit agency that serves a
clientele who are largely disadvantaged and have often experienced
tragedy or abuse. What was unprepared for was the impact that
working with these clients would have on me. I lose sleep worrying
about some of them, and, having seen the ways that human beings and
systems can treat the vulnerable, I've also lost trust in people in
general. My husband has begun to complain that I am always worn out
and my moments of happiness are few and far between. I am doing
what I wanted to do, but not feeling very good about it.
A: Much has been observed and written about the effects of work with
traumatized individuals on professionals who treat or assist them.
The picture you paint is all too common. While most of the
literature addresses itself to health workers, it is no less
applicable to lawyers who help the same population. It may be even
more problematic, in fact, since lawyers may be least likely to
seek support or share their burdens.
This syndrome is known by a few names - Compassion Fatigue,
Vicarious Traumatization and Secondary Traumatization. While it is
less severe than the post-traumatic stress likely endured by many
of your clients, and is a human reaction rather than a mental
illness, it has clear impact on too many people like yourself who
are doing important work. When it gets to the point that even your
home life is devoid of joy and positive connections and outlook,
it's time to make a change.
While some professionals find that they need to modify the focus of
their work or find a new job, others can reduce their compassion
fatigue by making some changes, such as:
- Carving out (without guilt) more time for self-nurturing
- Talking to others about what they are going through - so
simple, yet often a very significant source of relief.
- Being sure to include de-stressing and life balancing
activities like exercise, meditation or enjoying music.
- Deliberate re-exposure to social/cultural activities from which
they may have withdrawn.
- Finding ways (ideally within your organization) to actively
recognize and feel satisfaction in your mission as a helper to
those in need, since it can be easy, in the face of virtually
insurmountable societal problems to develop the sense that your
efforts are not effective or meaningful.
Various lawyer organizations and lawyer assistance programs such
as ours have become more attuned to the issue of Compassion
Fatigue. It is surprising how much difference it makes simply for
people to shed their lawyer "hat" and talk about the pressures and
distressing events in their work lives, as well as more overtly
developing plans for the kinds of self-supportive changes listed
above. This year, we also began offering a discussion/support group
as a setting in which lawyers from an array of settings involving
traumatized clients can share their experience with one another and
reduce their psychological burden. And we continue, as always, to
offer individual consultation, and referral to other supports when
indicated. These services are free and confidential, and are easily
arranged by giving us a call. In addition, organizations can help
counteract compassion fatigue through measures such as providing
internal discussion/support forums and developing a culture that
empowers and supports professionals like yourself, and keeps them
connection to their mission.
Questions quoted are either actual letters/emails or
paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking
assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. Questions for LCL
may be mailed to LCL, 31 Milk St., Suite 810, Boston, MA 02109 or called in to (617) 482-9600. LCL's
licensed clinicians will respond in confidence. Visit LCL online at