Compassion Fatigue in the Legal Industry

“I see families in their darkest hours. Some have made choices that put their children in danger–or worse, harmed them intentionally. Others are desperately trying to save a drug addicted child’s life. There are women desperate to get away from an abuser. Kids are acting out because they are in pain, getting into even worse situations. And they all expect me to make it better.” -Family law attorney

“As an attorney who has been in recovery for a while now, I wanted to pay it forward by helping to mentor and sponsor other attorneys in recovery. I wonder sometime, though, how much it hurts me to hold on to their pain and stress while still dealing with my own. It makes me feel guilty to say this, but maybe I should just focus on staying healthy myself. How can I help, but not let it hurt me?” -Volunteer mentor in a Lawyer Assistance Program.

“After a particularly hard criminal case involving a young victim the same age as my daughter, I kept having dreams that I put the child on the witness stand. When I would look up to ask a question, the child turned into my little girl. I would wake up sobbing every night. I felt like I was going crazy for a while.” -Prosecutor

“I know that by the time a client comes to see me, they are experiencing one of the lowest or hardest points in their lives. They are facing losing a job, or already have. They have experienced harassment or discrimination. I know they are struggling. Lately, however, I have had a hard time forcing myself to care. I want to, but I just don’t feel anything. It’s like I’m numb.” -Employment attorney

Compassion fatigue is a unique challenge within the larger spectrum of mental health and wellness in the legal industry. It is defined as a cumulative physical, emotional, and psychological effect of exposure to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity. Combined with the impact of stress and strain of every day life, it can be debilitating. We often think of those in the “helping professions” as medical professionals, first responders, or therapists. As evidenced by the quotes above, attorneys are very much in the helping profession and are exposed to experiencing compassion fatigue in a multitude of ways. It impacts both their personal and professional lives. There are ways to avoid compassion fatigue and climb out of it if already experiencing signs of it.

Know The Signs

Physical Signs

  • Chronic physical exhaustion
  • Inability or difficulty going to or staying asleep
  • Chronic headaches
  • GI and other digestive problems
  • Weight change (loss/gain)
  • Self-medicating (drugs, alcohol, shopping, sex)

Emotional Signs

  • Apathy/ numbness
  • Quick to anger, cynical, pessimistic
  • Crying jags (inability/difficulty to stop crying)
  • Intrusive, disturbing images or dreams
  • Decreased self-esteem, worthiness

Relational Signs

  • Resentment toward clients and colleagues
  • Emotional detachment from people in personal and professional life
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Arguing with colleagues, friends, and family

What To Do

  • Recognize the signs. Awareness is the key to early intervention.
  • Talk it out. Whether it is a debrief with an understanding colleague or with a counselor or therapist, talking helps to maintain perspective and gain composure.
  • Set healthy boundaries. This is particularly important when dealing with trauma. Decide what is healthy for you and then make those boundaries known to others.
  • Cultivate resilience. Through practices of self-soothing, expanding optimism and gratitude, and increasing distress tolerance, resilience is the inoculation against compassion fatigue.

If you believe that you are experiencing compassion fatigue or want your law firm or professional services organization to learn more about compassion fatigue in your industry, contact us for presentations, workshops, and consulting.

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