What They Didn’t Teach You in Law School #9: Your Clients’ Stress Can Be Contagious

In popular culture, we usually do not hear people talk about compassion and lawyers in the same sentence.

There are countless movies and one-liners dedicated to tales of heartless, angry lawyers, but jokes and stories aside, attorneys are still one of the first places people turn to when they are in need of help.

Day in and day out, attorneys must listen to the problems of their clients—individuals who might be going through a divorce, reading the will of a deceased loved one, entering into a risky business venture, suffering from trauma, paying for medical expenses or doing any number of stressful things that require legal assistance.

It is usually easy to understand the stress or suffering of , but do we ever stop to think about the effects of working closely with these clients?

Compassion fatigue, sometimes known as secondary trauma, is a disorder that is common among individuals that work directly with victims of trauma.Sufferers often have symptoms such as hopelessness, isolation, irritability, sleeplessness, stress, anxiety, pessimism and decreased experiences of pleasure.

Do these symptoms sound familiar? Job factors that often contribute to the development of compassion fatigue are common in the legal profession: heavy workloads, minimal support from supervisors, lack of peer support, excessive paperwork, limited job recognition and inadequate resources to meet demands.

Attorneys can take steps to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue by developing a self-care plan to prevent and recover from the physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion caused by working with high-stress clients:

  • Be aware of the symptoms and regularly assess for compassion fatigue.
  • Don’t waste time complaining. Instead, look for more constructive ways to share your feelings.
  • Talk regularly to another attorney who is supportive and who can help you process your feelings and create a plan to deal with stressful clients.
  • Recharge you mind and body by eating healthy, getting enough sleep, exercising and setting aside quiet time for yourself on a regular basis.
  • Develop interests outside of your law practice and look for healthy diversions from the intensity of your work, such as a round of golf or a weekend vacation with your family.
  • Celebrate victories and personal accomplishments, even the little things.
  • Avoid self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, and get professional help if needed.
  • For other resources and for more tips on how to deal with stressful clients and stressful work environments, check out the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.