Stress and burnout


A panel discussion at Touro Law School in 2004 [1] began with an anecdote about an ethics class for law students. ‘Would there be a conflict of interest if a lawyer begins a sexual relationship with their client?’ Of course, the students all agree. ‘What if an attorney develops a strong, amorous feeling toward a client but does not act on it?’ The students are again quick to react: “Thought police!” “1984” “You can’t do anything about that!”


The law professor realises that as lawyers we are “trained to assume that the only thing relevant to their relationships with their clients are how well they know the law and how well they can read and apply it”.


As legal aid or social justice lawyers, we deal with more than just black letter law. We are often in situations that demand an emotional connection on some level with our clients, in order to gain their trust, put them at ease, or simply because we work with some clients over many years and to not develop a more emotional relationship is practically impossible. Maybe we can also suppose that lawyers in certain areas of law are drawn to that work and those clients because of a particularly empathetic nature. But, empathetic or not, listening to accounts of trauma, distress, deprivation, conflict and struggle, as we do almost every day of our careers, will always have an effect of some kind.


Increasingly (but slowly) the legal profession is becoming aware of the effects of stress and burnout on its junior members. These effects are amplified in our corner of the profession where budgets are so much tighter, political rhetoric is so much more hostile, and our clients are so much more vulnerable. The stakes are higher for our clients and the risk of vicarious trauma are higher too. 


You don’t need to have a detailed knowledge of the diagnostic criteria for psychiatric conditions to be able to better manage your own mental health. In fact some of us will be very familiar with not just the diagnosis but also treatment of many common mental health diagnoses. Our focus is on the experience of practitioners and their own ability to recognise and speak about the effects of the work on their own mental health in a supportive group setting.  Informally it’s been what humans have done for millennia, but it has a particular place in the story of trauma and recovery in the last century, and is now becoming more prominent in the discourse around mental health.


Peer support work has a long and fascinating history: it is not counselling or therapy; there are no medical or psychology professionals; it is a space created by its attendees, which provides the support for recognition and reflection on individual experiences as well as sharing coping strategies. It also provides the basis for a louder collective voice that can speak up to the structures and policies within which these individuals sit. 


As legal aid and social justice lawyers, we sit within many structures - the Legal Aid Agency, successive governments, our colleagues and supervisors, the SRA, all on top of the the oppressive social, familial and political structures that effect our clients and which also affect us as a result. 


It’s actually a bit of a hard sell, to say we won’t (and can’t) promise to take away stress or stop you from experiencing any of the symptoms of vicarious trauma or burn out. Simply recognising that this work does have these effects can be a huge step in some corners of our profession and is the first step to making changes on a personal, employer and regulatory level. Claiming Space will face, head on, the perception that these feelings are unusual, shameful or invalid. They are not; they are part of our professional and human experience and remain important, even in the context of the gravity of our clients' problems. 


As lawyers we are nearly constantly aware of the particular duties and boundaries of the lawyer-client relationship. We are doing ourselves and our clients a disservice not to address the “emotional content” of that relationship too. 


[1] Peters, Jean Koh; Silver, Marjorie A.; and Portnoy, Sanford, “Stress, Burnout and Vicarious Trauma, and Other Emotional Realities in the Lawyer/Client Relationship: A Panel Discussion” (2004) Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 2190