Vol. 83, No. 5, May 2010
Attorney Mike Long came to visit from the state of Oregon a few weeks ago. He’d heard about some training that the State Bar of Wisconsin was doing and wanted to see it for himself, because Oregon is confronting some of the same issues that helped prompt the Wisconsin training. He is working to develop a training program for the lawyers and judges he serves as an attorney counselor for the Oregon Attorneys Assistance Program. Some legal professionals seem to be experiencing similar symptoms.
The symptoms can include increased stress, irritability, sleep disturbances, pessimism, and isolation. They develop in men and women who serve in helping professions, including social work, medicine, nursing, and, yes, law. Together the symptoms have been characterized as the cumulative physical, emotional, and psychological effects of being continually exposed to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity. If the symptoms are left unaddressed, individuals’ work and home lives may suffer; if addressed, people can adopt measures to mitigate the effect on all areas in their lives.
This syndrome is called compassion fatigue or sometimes secondary trauma. It is real and is a significant contributing factor in lawyer burnout. Researchers recently have begun focusing on specific areas of the law, especially criminal, juvenile, and family law, in which the problem is particularly prevalent.
Linda Albert, coordinator of the State Bar’s Wisconsin Lawyer Assistance Program (WisLAP) is conducting a study with Dr. Andrew Levin, medical director of Westchester Jewish Community Services in Westchester, N.Y. Employees of the State Public Defender (SPD) program throughout Wisconsin, including lawyers, support staff, and all other personnel are the study group. Levin has written on the topic of compassion fatigue and lawyers and previously has engaged in a smaller-scale study. Albert, who holds a MSSW degree and is a licensed clinical social worker and a certified substance abuse counselor, is overseeing administration of the survey instrument and providing training to SPD lawyers and staff on compassion fatigue.
The study, using an online survey, elicits information from SPD lawyers and staff about how their lives and overall functioning are affected by the work they do. Determining factors that are unique to legal services jobs and that create hardship in legal services workers’ lives will provide information about what type of training, assistance, and outreach would be most helpful for lawyers dealing with compassion fatigue. Levin and a colleague will interpret the data. Members of the SPD staff attend training sessions conducted by Albert, on topics such as defining compassion fatigue and discovering what contributing factors exist in the participants’ own lives. The participants are given an opportunity to gain self-awareness and skills to increase their resistance to developing the condition. These sessions on mitigating compassion fatigue are given at regional meetings throughout the state. Five of the 10 training sessions are complete. The survey will be redistributed every three months over an 18- to 24-month period to all lawyers and staff to measure the outcomes of the training and investigate comparisons among lawyers, support staff, and administrators.
In this cooperative effort between WisLAP and the Wisconsin SPD office, both entities will work to establish changes that encourage well-being for lawyers and staff. Programs that address well-being can improve lawyers’ psychological, physical, and emotional health and increase their fitness to practice law. A final goal is to establish a program that can be replicated by other groups to prevent and mitigate compassion fatigue among lawyers.
This is cutting edge research. The results should help Wisconsin lawyers and lawyers throughout the country. Oregon lawyer Mike Long went away impressed.