How compassion fatigue affects lawyers and what they can do about it

Learn signs, symptoms and ways to fight the common condition

How compassion fatigue affects lawyers and what they can do about it

In a profession often driven by empathy for victims of injustice and those marginalized and discriminated against, compassion fatigue can be a serious drain on the professional battery of lawyers and judges.

For some lawyers, every single day is focussed on events which, for their clients, were the worst days of their lives. Judges will spend weeks-long trials analysing every inch and angle of gruesome, tragic crimes. It takes a toll. Compassion fatigue develops when constant contact with other people’s trauma bleeds into a person’s own sense of well-being. It is also known as vicarious trauma, secondary trauma and secondary stress.

The condition is commonly found among workers in healthcare, emergency services and social work.  But among lawyers, those in criminal, family and child protection law are especially at risk, writes Anne Chambers for The Missouri Bar.

Compassion fatigue can lead to existential crisis. The sufferer may feel as if their life’s goals, their work, their foundational values and principles have lost all meaning. A sense of powerless and alienation can occur and their former worldview skews toward pessimism. They have difficulty concentrating or sleeping, become angry, anxious and irritable and begin to isolate from friends, family and colleagues and avoid certain clients or legal matters.

Writing for the Canadian Bar Association, Janice Mucalov describes one common symptom as “losing faith in God or humanity.”

Just as a military veteran with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder may have flashbacks of combat and remain vigilant, on-guard and paranoid of possible threats, a judge may experience the same, haunted by victim testimony, graphic medical evidence, 911 tapes and other crime-scene evidence. According to Fiona Cocker and Nerida Joss in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, compassion fatigue can even lead to PTSD – as well as anxiety and depression.

Lawyers in the U.S. are five times more likely to experience compassion fatigue than other professions and a Canadian study showed almost two-thirds of judges had it, said Mucalov.

Compassion fatigue versus burnout

Though workplace stress can cause lawyers and judges can experience both, compassion fatigue is different from burnout. Burnout is the mental and physical exhaustion from prolonged stress, caused by an overwhelming workload. Compassion fatigue consists of burnout, plus a negative shift in a person’s worldview, said Chambers. While burnout is related to work conditions, compassion fatigue comes from clients.


Certain personality traits make some more vulnerable to compassion fatigue than others, said Chambers. Control freaks, the over-dedicated, perfectionists and workaholics are at a higher risk. Same with idealists, those with unrealistic expectations of themselves and poor coping abilities.

But to avoid compassion fatigue, lawyers and judges neither have to stop caring nor turn their professional attention away from traumatized and afflicted clients.

How to combat compassion fatigue

A 2016 article in the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review details the education and training that can help the justice system and legal profession cope. First, legal professionals must maintain “strong, supportive social networks outside of work.” If a lawyer works until 7 pm and then is alone until bedtime, their brain is in a “rigid feedback loop,” rehashing work scenarios and their challenges. As the authors write, “neurons that fire together wire together.” Interactions with people who think differently will create new neural pathways and exercise the mind in novel ways, opening new perspectives and cultivating new ways of learning and responding.

Legal professionals must also engage in “sufficient non-work-related hobbies and activities,” said the authors. Just as social interaction forms new neural pathways, investing mental effort in new tasks exercises parts of the brain unengaged in work tasks, which “increases plasticity and ultimately the quality of work while increasing our resilience to stressful material.”

The authors also advise having “reasonable expectations” of oneself and others and suggest that outsiders to the legal profession are best suited to provide appraisals on goals and expectations.

And take your holidays. “Time away” and exposure to “nature, art, music, sports [and] people” will electrify other parts of the brain and allow its over-worked regions to cool down and recalibrate.

Finally, the authors suggest “self-care,” which comes in many forms but is always about identifying and responding to our needs – especially sleep and food. An enormous industry is built around this popular hashtag, so there is no shortage of meditation apps, yoga tutorials and scented candles on offer. But the authors highlight the goal of these practices and products should be to notice and evaluate patterned responses and triggers, to train the mind to react calmly in the moment.

Benefits of a career driven by compassion

Learning how to avoid compassion fatigue enables the compassion-instinct to remain a central motivation factor, which is, in itself, an aid to mental health, according to Jennifer Stellar, an assistant professor in the University of Toronto Mississauga department of psychology.

Stellar studies prosocial emotions, such as compassion, gratitude and awe, which she says foster a sense of well-being because they allow a person to focus outside of themselves.

“I think the idea is that the self, the ego, can be noisy – it can be negative,” Stellar told U of T News. “It can be self-deprecating, so sometimes we need a little break.”

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