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Defining and Tackling Compassion Fatigue for Law Professionals

The high-stress nature of legal work means that legal professionals are at risk for compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is a condition in which empathy towards others begins to diminish and can lead to burnout, depression, or anxiety. It’s not just for doctors and nurses anymore! It’s caused by prolonged exposure to traumatic stories (often told by clients in their time of distress) or distressing images of physical injury, disease, abuse, or neglect. It can lead to avoidance behaviors, such as keeping interactions with clients short and superficial, turning down new client work, or disconnecting from colleagues who also work with traumatized clients.

For some lawyers, every single day is focused on events that, for many of their clients, were the worst days of their lives. Judges will spend weeks-long trials analyzing every inch and angle of gruesome, tragic crimes. It takes a toll. This constant contact with other people’s trauma bleeds into a person’s own sense of well-being.

Paraprofessionals, who often deal directly with the affected clients and their families, can also be impacted by compassion fatigue. And in mass torts, this can come from client intake and the direction of where the case goes.

Being emotionally affected by the stories of others is to be human. But when you are in a profession that involves working with people who have suffered extreme trauma or abuse, it’s important to find ways to protect yourself.

Why Mass Tort Professionals May be More Vulnerable.

The nature of mass tort cases can mean exclusively dealing with people who are facing physical and emotional trauma and ongoing distress. From medical harm to sexual abuse cases, mass tort cases often mean that law professionals must face the experiences of multiple victims head-on, making them more vulnerable to losing empathy toward their clients. And therefore, it is extra important for mass tort attorneys, paralegals, and other staff to be aware of what compassion fatigue looks like, and its prevention methods.

How Do You Stop Yourself From Developing Compassion Fatigue?

Below are some ways to protect yourself from compassion fatigue as a law professional:

1) Reflect

The first step is self-awareness and reflection. Taking time out from difficult interactions to acknowledge your reaction and process emotions can help you avoid overwhelming feelings of helplessness. This doesn’t mean that you need to leave the legal industry but be diligent when it comes to taking time for yourself and protect your mental health.

2) Unplug

Legal professionals must also engage in sufficient non-work-related hobbies and activities.  Remember to find time to disconnect from your work life. This might mean turning off alerts on your phone or not checking email every five minutes while you are off the clock. It’s harder than ever these days to unplug but it is crucial to prevent the effects of compassion fatigue.

3) Practice Self-Care

Lastly, practice self-care. This means addressing both physical and mental needs. Eating well, exercising, and getting outside for fresh air are all important ways to replenish your energy after a long day. Self-care doesn’t have to be elaborate. Listening to music, reading a book, or simply finding a daily meditation can assist with preventing compassion fatigue.

4) Take Advantage of Lawyer Assistance Programs (LAPs)

Lawyer Assistance Programs are available throughout the nation, to help attorneys, judges, paralegals, paraprofessionals, and law students who are struggling with their mental health, or with substance abuse issues.

Compassion fatigue can happen to law professionals simply because of the work they do. However, the good news is that there are ways that you can protect yourself. A combination of reflecting on your emotions, unplugging from work, and practicing self-care can all help you keep empathy inside and outside of the legal field.

The Mass Tort Institute is committed to improving health outcomes for those advocating on behalf of victims of corporate wrongdoing. Our weekly Wellness in Law FB Lives and Well-Being in Law Mini-Course provides the legal community with insight into how individuals, teams, managers, and owners can prioritize wellness in law firms so lawyers and paraprofessionals can be their best selves while doing their best work.

Written by Kelley Tenny 

About the Author 

Kelley Tenny is the Director of Operations at The Mass Tort Institute. She also serves as a health educator and California State University Long Beach. Her background includes health and wellness with a masters in Curriculum and Instruction. Kelley is passionate about up-leveling the education available and supporting the health and wellness of those working in the mass tort industry. 


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