Why Burnout Is So Pertinent in Lawyers…and How To Recognize It

By Brandon Vogel

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It is well known that lawyers are exposed to the trauma that their clients experience and disproportionately suffer from high levels of depression and substance use compared to social workers, mental health professionals and doctors.

These were among several key takeaways from Dr. Kerry O’Hara, Psy.D. (DBT Wellness & Psychological Services) on the recent CLE Webinar, “Vicarious Trauma is Real.” She discussed the concept, also known as secondary trauma or compassion fatigue, that is a trauma process that occurs over time when an individual is exposed indirectly to the suffering of others for whom they feel responsible.

“What we know is that when lawyers have a great deal of commitment to their clients and really feels responsible for the outcome of their clients, this puts them at significantly higher risk for vicarious trauma,” said O’Hara.

How mental burnout physically affects lawyers

O’Hara acknowledged that lawyers are more willing to talk with each other now about their stress and challenges. “I am always struck by the stories that lawyers are in all of the time, the narratives and the pain,” said O’Hara. “It’s a lot.”

She noted that the vicarious trauma experience tends to be cumulative over the course of time, if not caught and managed up front. “It doesn’t dissipate and go away overnight,” she said.

Secondary trauma also is multi-faceted and affects numerous areas of one’s life, O’Hara said. It often starts as a feeling of hypervigilance. “Essentially what that is is our sympathetic nervous system being geared up and kicking into overdrive so the fight or flight, and the one we often forget, the freeze response, is kicked into gear,” said O’Hara.

Lawyers are prone to having difficulty going from the work environment to the home environment and not having intrusive thoughts or feelings or remembering details about certain significantly emotional experiences that they engaged in with clients.

“That is the re-experiencing part of trauma,” said O’Hara, who explained that it could be memories or images that trigger this experience.

Sleep deprivation is common with lawyers experiencing vicarious trauma, as well as depression, anxiety and numbing.

“If you are working in highly emotionally laden situations, you can experience what is called a stress exhaustion phase, where the anxiety releases a lot of neurotransmitters and stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline within your physiology, which stay at escalated levels over the course of time, which is not healthy for any of us,” said O’Hara.

These high levels of stress hormones can lead to an impaired immune system and high blood pressure, in addition to headaches and gastrointestinal effects. Exhaustion can affect lawyers cognitively and lead to “a lot of mistakes.”

Burnout can also damage relationships with spouses and children, said O’Hara. Non-lawyers may not understand the environment of lawyers, adding to the stress.

Healthy boundaries

Bruce Lawrence of Rochester (Boylan Code) said that, as a business lawyer, he did not realize how stressful it would be to represent businesspeople whose businesses failed and needed to go through bankruptcy and discharge their debts. In my cases, he said, his clients inherited businesses from their spouse’s family. “It’s like a divorce,” he said.

When dealing with a highly emotional case, O’Hara advised to simply listen and validate the stress your client is experiencing, then “really clearly define your role to help them through this. My piece is to do ABC with you.”

This way, lawyers can set the tone and set clear boundaries for responsibilities.

“Really containing those healthy boundaries would be protective for you. We don’t want to wall it off and create sort of an us vs. them to not experience it but to make sure you are maintaining those boundaries.” Taking calls on a weekend or during your family time is a sign that you need to notice that you are overextending yourself, which leads to burnout.

Simple exercises including walking or yoga can reduce cortisol levels in your body. Ask trusted colleagues and family if they have seen a change in how you approach stress. She also suggested having “moments of gratitude” each day to recognize the things that are going well in your life. Instead of checking email or your to-do list in the morning, make an “I’m thankful for” list.

Remembering why you do the work you do, what it is that is intrinsically rewarding and has value can bring you back to the big picture, said O’Hara.

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