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Secondary Trauma: Doing Good Can Feel Bad

Many lawyers went to law school hoping to make a contribution to justice by working on behalf of the unfortunate, oppressed, and vulnerable, inspired by figures like the fictional Atticus Finch or the real life Jan Schlichtmann. Some actually end up doing this kind of work, where the demands may be less about billable hours than about dealing continuously with human pain – cases, for example, of domestic violence, tragic events, tales of torture in those seeking asylum, child neglect, and more.

Like others who work with traumatized individuals (e.g., physicians, nurses, mental health professionals), these lawyers are subject to a particular kind of stress – hearing the details of traumatic experiences in the presence of the individual who has experienced them and is still reacting to them. Often compounding the situation is a degree of relative helplessness to fix the problem in the face of various entrenched systems, very limited resources, and having to repeatedly confront some very bad realities.

In response to a steady diet of that kind of stress, professionals often develop a cluster of reactive features that may include:
• Loss of sense of satisfaction/accomplishment
• Disconnection from people and from their original mission
• Feelings of depletion
• Loss of positive expectations or trust for people in general
• Numbing or muted experience of joy or optimism

Although there is no “official” diagnosis for this pattern, since it is not a pathology and is less severe than clinical depression, it is a deeper source of difficulty than simple burnout, and is often known as “Compassion Fatigue” (also sometimes as vicarious or secondary traumatization). With increased recognition that many lawyers are dealing, often alone, with the experience, LCL has decided to more explicitly invite referrals and self-referrals of lawyers who do this kind of work, to provide a confidential place to share these experiences and consider additional ways to cope with them. Lawyers as a good tend to present a façade of having everything under control; in the LCL setting, they can be more open and genuine – either in a Compassion Fatigue Discussion Group (time-limited, offered recurrently) or in individual meetings with an LCL clinician. The primary contact for the Compassion Fatigue program is psychologist Dr. Jeff Fortgang, who is reachable at 617-482-5003 or at DrJeff@LCLMA.org.

Jeff Fortgang, PhD

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