Law is a “helping profession” that seeks to resolve conflicts of many different natures, dimensions, and with a diversity of clients. This constant involvement with conflict can often take a toll and result in compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and burnout, or what I call the “three burdens”, which are seen in high rates among other helping professions such as doctors, nurses, social workers, and therapists.
So what are the “three burdens”?
- Compassion fatigue is a “profound emotional and physical erosion” that occurs when lawyers don’t have the opportunity to rest, relax, refuel, and regenerate.
- Vicarious trauma describes a significant shift in the lawyer’s worldview after being repeatedly exposed to the trauma of their clients
- Burnout describes the physical and emotional exhaustion that lawyers may feel if they are overwhelmed and/or feel powerless in the work they do. Often this is accompanied by low job satisfaction. With burnout however, there isn’t always a shift in worldview.
Every day, lawyers are exposed to different dimensions of conflict, including their client’s trauma or intense emotional states, particularly in family, estates, and criminal law.
Now add the following: overwhelming billable targets, long hours, stressful deadlines, competition for job security and significant expectations from partners or clients.
Lawyers may face one or all three burdens of compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, or burnout at some point in their careers. Young lawyers in particular may be more susceptible given their desire to perform well at an early stage in their careers, so it is important to recognize some of the symptoms at an early stage.