Vol. 84, No. 12, December 2011
“I DON’T KNOW IF I CAN DO THIS ANYMORE.”
How many times have you heard a colleague say this? How many times have you said it yourself?
Because lawyers’ work involves helping other people solve their problems, we rarely see the potential problems for our own health when we work too hard for too long with too few resources. Yet groundbreaking research completed this year by Linda Albert, LCSW, of the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) and Dr. Andrew Levin of the Westchester Jewish Community Center in Hartsdale, N.Y., documents the negative health-related impacts associated with public defenders’ repeated exposure to traumatic stories and events in their professional work coupled with high caseloads and diminished resources. These effects can include depression, secondary traumatic stress, and other outcomes known collectively as “compassion fatigue.”
In recent decades, compassion fatigue has been a widely recognized challenge among first responders and others, but few researchers have focused on the risks it poses for attorneys. The State Bar partnered with the Wisconsin State Public Defender Office to collect detailed data from SPD attorneys and support staff in the largest known study of compassion fatigue among attorneys. The study found that participating attorneys demonstrated significantly higher levels of compassion fatigue than the general public.
I have little doubt that surveys of prosecutors, family lawyers, and other attorneys would reveal similar risks.
A key term here is “risk” because many veteran public defenders have avoided or mitigated the impacts associated with compassion fatigue. A second study will attempt to isolate the factors associated with this outcome.
But we already know that proven strategies are available to minimize these risks. Please read “The Toll of Trauma” in this issue, and if you’re facing signs of compassion fatigue, contact Linda Albert at (800) 543-2625 to take advantage of our confidential WisLAP services and resources.
We undertook this research to help develop programs and strategies to directly benefit State Bar members in their professional and personal lives, and we will share our results with the ABA and other legal organizations nationwide.