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Are Lawyers Jerks? Or Is It 'Compassion Fatigue?'

Overworked woman with her head resting on her desk
By Laura Temme, Esq. on December 13, 2019 1:58 PM

Exposure to traumatic situations day in and day out can have a serious impact on someone when their work is focused on helping others through those traumatic events. Add in the stress of everyday life, and it can easily take over a person's work and worldview. Attorneys are there for their clients, often during the worst of times, and without the right boundaries they can end up in a difficult place mentally.

It's tempting to categorize all lawyers as "sharks" who are emotionless, detached, and just focused on the weakness of the opposition. But are all those emotional traits just symptoms of something deeper? Could it be that many simply suffer from "compassion fatigue"?

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Also known as "secondary traumatic stress" and "vicarious trauma," compassion fatigue is a common condition among lawyers as well as members of other professions who are exposed to traumatic situations. Repeated exposure to trauma, even secondhand, takes a toll on a professional's mental state. Although they can manifest in similar ways, compassion fatigue is different from burnout.

How to Spot Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue can rear its head in many ways, many of which will sound familiar to those of the bench and bar. It can start with feeling overwhelmed and physically/emotionally exhausted. Someone suffering from compassion fatigue might also begin viewing the world as inherently dangerous, feeling the need to be hyper-vigilant about personal and family safety.

According to the ABA, other symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Becoming pessimistic, cynical, irritable, and prone to anger
  • Feeling emotionally detached or numb
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Avoiding clients
  • Having disturbing images from cases intrude thoughts or dreams

The good news is: compassion fatigue is treatable. And addressing it early can help prevent other more serious emotional/psychological disorders. Talking about these struggles, whether it's with a mental health professional or someone close to you, is often the best first step. Experts also recommend committing to regular exercise, a healthy diet, restful sleep, and developing hobbies outside of work.

That's easier said than done, we know. Just remember: There are many others out there who feel the same way you do.

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