Combating Attorney Compassion Fatigue

I recently read an article about compassion fatigue and its effects on various professions and I realized something. Attorneys are kind of like Vulcans. There are a lot of emotions being bandied about in any court proceeding, but attorneys aren’t supposed to feel any of them. They must observe the emotions of their clients and those of the opposition with impassive stoicism and use their cool logic and reasoning to win the day.

However, like the inimitable Spock, attorneys are only half Vulcan. And like Spock, if they attempt to ignore or repress the emotions they may be feeling, it can send shock-waves through their personal and professional lives. Emotional burn-out and compassion fatigue are serious concerns that can lead to destructive behavior. It’s not only the public defenders and attorneys who specialize in domestic relations, criminal law and juvenile law who are susceptible. All attorneys and support staff across all specializations can fall victim to compassion fatigue. So, how do you prevent it? Here are some steps, in Mr. Spock’s own words, to help you live long and prosper.

1. “Insufficient facts always invite danger”
Translation: Know the warning signs so you can recognize when you’re in danger.

Warning signs of emotional burn-out and compassion fatigue include:
a. Lack of empathy. You may find yourself blaming the person for their situation or ignorance.
b. Irritability
c. Fatigue
d. Lack of interest in things you used to enjoy
e. Feeling overly emotional or completely emotionally drained
f. Dreading work
g. Dreaming about work or a client
h. Trouble sleeping
i. Depression
j. Excessive drinking
k. Drug abuse
l. Over or under eating

2. “It is the lot of ‘man’ to strive, no matter how content he is.”
Translation: Take time out for yourself.

I know this one’s much easier said than done, but it is essential to maintaining a healthy work-life balance and preventing emotional burn-out. Build time into every day to de-stress. Take a walk. Do some deep breathing exercises. Sit quietly in your car, at your desk or where ever you are least likely to be disturbed and let your mind rest. Do this every day.

For me, walking is my go-to method of relaxation. I put some soothing music on my phone and walk for the majority of my lunch break. I also park a mile from where I work, so I use that walk to mentally separate home from work and leave the stress of each in their appropriate places. Take advantage of situations that might otherwise seem inconvenient and use the time to let your mind rest or do some deep breathing.
Eat well. Exercise. Stretch. Rest when you are sick. Stop when you are tired. Again, I know I’m asking for miracles here, but just taking 10 minutes each day for yourself can make a huge difference in your stress and emotional well-being.

3. “Creativity is necessary for the health of the body.”
Translation: Get a hobby.

Find a thing that you enjoy doing and do it at least once a week. This is important. If your hobby is expensive, season-dependent or very time-consuming, make a firm plan of the next time you will be able to indulge in that hobby and use that to look forward to when you are feeling stressed. Take five minutes out of a stressful day to plan your next boating trip or look at new gear for scuba-diving. If you can’t engage in your hobby as often as you would like, take comfort in the delights of anticipation.

4. “Insults are effective only when emotion is present.”
Translation: Don’t give your hardest clients emotional power over you.

It’s fairly rare for an attorney-client meeting to devolve into a screaming matching in the Law Library, but it does happen. There will be clients that you just don’t like. There will be conflicts, no matter what you do. Recognize this and accept it, but don’t let it ruin or color your interactions with other clients or colleagues. Just because you didn’t get along with one client who wears red shoes doesn’t mean you won’t get along with all clients who wear red shoes. If you need to, create some kind of ritual when a rough case ends to clear the difficult client from your head. Take some advice from Elsa and let it go.

5. “I have been – and always shall be – your friend.”
Translation: Get a life.

This one cannot be stressed enough. Socialize with people who make you feel good. Get together with friends. Go out to eat. Join a book club. Take up line dancing. The best way to refill that compassion well is to experience some for yourself. Do this every week.

6. “Captain, I see no reason to stand here and be insulted”
Translation: Find an outlet for your feelings.

Every morning in the subscriber lounge of the Law Library, an informal meeting takes place between many of our attorneys. They ask for advice, talk over their cases and, most importantly, they vent and commiserate. Find a constructive outlet for your feelings. Bottling them up will only lead to problems. If you don’t have a strong support system among other attorneys, try journaling, art or music. If you’re not artistic, try kickboxing, jogging or some other physical activity to vent frustration. Whatever way works best for you, just let it out.

7. “The most unfortunate lack in current computer programming is that there is nothing available to immediately replace the starship’s surgeon.”
Translation: Recognize when you need professional help and seek it.

Even Spock knew that sometimes there’s just no replacing a trained medical professional. If you find yourself experiencing the symptoms listed above, if you feel like you don’t want to keep doing what you’ve been doing, if you think you might be in danger, get help. Here are some resources. Use them. As Spock would say, logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end. Recognizing you need help is the first step. Below is how you take the second.

Ohio Lawyer’s Assistance Program

The Cincinnati Bar Association’s Health and Wellbeing Committee
With resources and a Balanced Living Series to help combat emotional burn-out.