“Caring for myself is not self indulgence, it is an act of self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Audre Lorde, poet, activist
Defender Well-Being: Keeping Legal Hearts and Minds Intact
Attorneys and others legal professionals who work with clients who have suffered great hardship and trauma can find themselves significantly impacted by the work. This impact can appear both on the job and outside of work, in the personal realm.
Public defenders may simultaneously feel both inspired and enthused by the important mission, AND exhausted and overwhelmed by the volume and intensity of the work.
Sometimes legal professionals struggle as a result of their work. They may develop mental health symptoms similar to those of the traumatized clients they serve, including depression, anxiety and PTSD.
There are a number of terms and related conditions used to describe this experience: burnout, secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, the cost of caring, or the trauma exposure response.
These conditions all result from the cumulative toll that results when working with traumatized individuals repeatedly over time in a system that further traumatizes them.
Secondary trauma can impact both individuals and organizations. Burnout can lead to poor work performance and can even contribute to violations of the rules of professional conduct (RPCs). Compassion fatigue can lead to high rates of turn over, causing directors and managers to spend more time and resources on recruiting, hiring and training new employees.
The news is not all bad; there are strategies for these challenges, and resources and practices that can improve well-being in the defender community. The Defender Well Being project at WDA is dedicated to helping legal professionals in the defender community understand the stressors and pressures involved in this work, learn ways to manage the impact, to mitigate and metabolize the trauma exposure, to live in good health and to have job satisfaction rather than burnout.
In this resource section of WDA website, legal professionals can learn about:
- Research studies and findings involving secondary trauma and burnout in public defense,
- Tips and coping skills for managing emotional well-being while working in a high stress environment serving individuals impacted by trauma, and
- Strategies to reduce stress, observe and manage emotional well-being, including knowing when to seek support and where to turn for resources when help is needed.
The Social Science: Research on Defender Stress and Burnout
Publications on Legal Professional Well Being