Most lawyers I talk to just want the stress to stop so they can sleep at night.

Nearly everyone is tired and overwhelmed by the pandemic and current events. While dealing with the exhaustion and overwhelm, most family lawyers wouldn’t think to connect their symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia to battle fatigue, PTSD, or long-term exposure to trauma.

As a family lawyer, you may be surprised to learn that you can be negatively affected by trauma in your professional and personal lives just like first responders, military frontline troops, and victims of abuse – and the effects can be similar. This is known as “legal fatigue” or “second-hand trauma.”

I have represented victims of domestic violence pro bono and encountered horrific situations that shocked me – even as a seasoned family lawyer with more than 25 years of experience under my belt.

My heart goes out to any lawyer who has lost a client and/or their children to domestic violence; the burden of guilt and shame that they may carry because they failed to save a client’s life must be almost unbearable.

Combine a family lawyer’s “normal” job stress with a world-wide pandemic and the current political and social upheaval in this country and you have a perfect recipe for burnout.

The question is: how long can lawyers expose themselves to their clients’ trauma (or second-hand trauma in general) before they start being negatively impacted? When family lawyers listen to their clients’ heart-wrenching personal stories and review the evidence of abuse, injury, or loss, the second-hand trauma will eventually lead to burnout (or worse) if lawyers don’t find healthy ways to cope.

Recent reports of attorney suicides have brought these discussions out of theoretical and hypothetical into reality.

Most family lawyers I know are compassionate, sympathetic, and empathetic – which means they truly understand (and may even identify with) what their clients are going through. If they don’t have a suitable outlet – or an effective shield to protect their psyches when dealing with traumatized clients – they may start internalizing the pain and taking it home with them at night.

I am not talking about whether your client wins or loses – which is another source of stress – I am talking about simply being on the “front line” too long without respite.

How do you know if you are succumbing to secondary stress and legal fatigue? Consider these five symptoms:

1. Feelings of Overwhelm

When we don’t have a healthy life balance, we can go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. We avoid clients, miss deadlines, keep continuing court dates, miss meetings, and often self-medicate.

2. Increasing Isolation

We crawl into our office and don’t want to come out. We don’t have time for social interaction and delegate more and more to our subordinates. We don’t communicate with our staff and colleagues in an effective way. We avoid client calls.

3. Loss of Perspective

We start obsessing on details and forget the big picture. Everything we do is life or death, and our perfectionist nature is blown totally out of proportion. We quit trusting our intuition; everything has to be overthought. Overthinking becomes unmanageable.

4. Focusing Only on What Could Go Wrong

All that we think about is what will happen when we lose. We go into a downward spiral of negative thoughts, which ends up with us in a fetal position or will a bottle in our hands.

5. Self-Medicating with Increasing Frequency

Lawyers who suffer from emotional distress over long periods of time must seek relief. When we don’t have a program to deal with and heal legal fatigue, we will look for whatever we can find to stop the pain –
even for a little while. Oftentimes, lawyers turn to alcohol and drugs, which is self-defeating and could become career- or life-ending.

What can you do to avoid or at least ameliorate legal fatigue? Here are four simple steps you can take to deal and heal the overwhelm.

1. Recognizing the Problem

As most transformational teachers will tell us, recognizing that there is a problem is the most critical step. The issue for many suffering lawyers is that they don’t know why they are suffering; they just think it is part of the business. For many years, I thought I was happy from time to time. I eventually realized it was just a low form of anxiety. 

2. Asking for Help

There is no shame in asking for help. When we ask for help, we may find the problem isn’t as big as we thought. When we ask for help, we will find out that there are solutions. When we ask for help, we find out that we aren’t terminally unique. Who do you ask? Most bar associations have committees offering confidential counseling or referrals. There are lots of resources for suffering lawyers, including trusted colleagues or friends.

3. Honoring Yourself

There are no requirements in the Rules of Ethics that lawyers have to work 24/7 or suffer nervous breakdowns. Establish boundaries to give yourself time to balance life and work. Establish periods of time every day and on the weekends where you don’t think about your clients or the stress. Meditation can help but taking a break from the mental overwhelm is critical. Make yourself the hero of your own story.

4. Making a Plan (and Sticking to It)

Many lawyers have calendars that don’t leave enough time to go to the bathroom. They have surrounded themselves with chaos because it makes them feel like they are important and busy. It only adds stress and anxiety to their day. We have to prioritize our time and decide where to allocate our resources. If you are finding you don’t have enough time to do your work efficiently, you need to reduce your workload.

We have to accept the fact that we are living in times that will cause tragic consequences for us or our colleagues if we don’t protect ourselves. If you see a colleague who seems to be struggling with anxiety or despair, or shows signs of self-medicating with alcohol and/or drugs, it is critical to reach out and help. We don’t need to be reading about any more suicides.

This article first appeared in Family Lawyer magazine here.