When Lawyers Care Too Much

Some steps lawyers can take to deal with compassion fatigue

Lawyers care. That is why we make the sacrifices required to be successful and effective. We work long hours, we deal with adversity on a daily basis, and we are often criticized for what we do. Yet when we feel the pain of others, we often want to help out of a sense of compassion.

One consequence of our caring is that problems may arise when lawyers regularly deal with traumatized clients in stressful situations. Without proper boundaries, lawyers can be overwhelmed by the trauma and stress of their clients. In medical terms, this is known as compassion fatigue and is common among medical care professionals, first responders, and attorneys.

Compassion fatigue symptoms include emotional and physical exhaustion, anger, irritability, addiction to mood enhancing substances, career burnout, and impaired judgment. It occurs when lawyers are repeatedly exposed to clients who are struggling with trauma or stress and aren’t properly trained to deal mentally and emotionally with these stressors over long periods of time. The cumulative effect of witnessing secondhand stress, anxiety, and depression eventually leads to the symptoms of the condition.[2] 

Medical experts differentiate between burnout and compassion fatigue. Although the symptoms are similar, compassion fatigue results over a shorter period of time due to the intensity of the suffering. Not only do attorneys experience the symptoms listed above, their judgment tends to be impaired and they may blame others for their suffering. They often engage in counterproductive behavior such as quitting their law practice, getting a divorce, having an affair(s), self-medicating and ignoring their health.[3] 

There are steps that lawyers can take to avoid experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout, stress, anxiety and depression. The steps below are based on my experiences and recommendations of the American Bar Association. They include:

  1. Talking to someone. This can be a colleague, a lawyer coach, or a mental health professional. This can be particularly challenging to lawyers suffering from burnout or compassion fatigue because they tend to isolate. We must crack through that barrier and reach out to someone we can trust.
  2. Understanding the symptoms are natural and can be managed. We chose a challenging and rewarding profession. Any worthwhile endeavor requires effort, discipline, and confidence. As noted, compassion by lawyers without healthy boundaries can bring on fatigue and stress. If we didn’t care, we would less likely face burn out, yet this is what makes our work so worthwhile.
  3. Establishing healthy routines, including sleep. Although life isn’t routine for lawyers, we must have healthy habits, including sleep. If you have to go through a lengthy period of high stress projects, be aware that you will pay the price. At least get proper nutrition, rest, and exercise.
  4. Developing interests outside of your career. Have a hobby, go outside, join a social group. Get your mind off of the stressors of your work. Have at least one endeavor that is stress-free and enjoyable 
  5. Making assessments of your practice areas and adjust if necessary. When you can take a step back and observe that you are mostly dealing with high stress clients and/or soul-sucking situations, it would be smart to consider adjusting or changing your practice area. 
  6. Finding experiences that give you joy and practice them daily. Have a photo album in your desk or on your computer/smart phone that you can pull out and remember fun times. Pray and meditate for brief periods regularly during the day. Breathe!
  7. Thinking of something that makes you laugh. Humor is a powerful healing energy and can reset our mood and energy at any time. With YouTube, we can watch funny videos whenever we need.
  8. Connecting with people you love. Check in with your family, best friends, and other loved ones every day. They may think you have lost your mind, yet actually you will save it.
  9. Taking vacations. Mother Theresa required her nuns to take a year off every five years. Avoid working vacations. You have to take a break in order to recharge your batteries whenever possible.
  10. Thinking of yourself as the hero in your story. When we are confronted with people who are going through stressful and traumatic times, we have to think of ourselves as noble and heroic to give us a sense of hope and wonder. Heroes don’t control every aspect of their environment; they thrive on their resilience and perseverance. They know that life is unpredictable and that is what makes them heroes. Be a hero in your own mind, not a victim.

Burnout and compassion fatigue are unfortunately human responses to overwhelming tragedy and stress. Bear in mind that being a lawyer is challenging but rewarding. Focus on the big picture rewards of living a balanced life and you will go a long way in thriving in your environment.

View this articles as it appeared on AboveTheLaw.com here.