Compassion Fatigue

Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, once said, “In compassion lies the world's true strength.”In many ways, becoming compassionate has made me a better a lawyer; sometimes being compassionate is the best way to put already nervous clients at ease. In other ways, a compassionate approach has taken an emotional toll on me—especially, I found, after I got married and had children and could identify more with my family law clients.

Though I have been aware of Assist since its inception, in January 2012, I took the training and became a Peer Support Volunteer. I am excited to help other lawyers who might battle various compassion fatigue issues. In March 2012, I invited Assist to speak to my firm, the Family Law Office. The presentation was a reminder to us that we need to take care of our clients and ourselves, so we can do our best in the courtroom and in our lives. I found that after the session (and, particularly, the self-test Assist administered), I became more self-aware about how and what I was feeling when I worked with difficult client and cases and how to better address this. 

As lawyers, we are among professionals that are susceptible to compassion fatigue. Though we are trained to be objective and to distance ourselves from our clients, it is difficult not to absorb at least some of the emotion and intensity. I encourage everyone to read this issues with an eye to how you can better address compassion fatigue and lead a balanced professional and personal life.

- Sharon C. Ramraj-Thompson, Peer Support Volunteer     

This edition of Assist In Your Community focuses on ‘compassion fatigue,’ also known as vicarious trauma and secondary shock. There are many names for this condition, but they all refer to the physical and emotional effects of helping clients through traumatic incidents. We hope to raise awareness of this condition in the legal community, and remind everyone to be kind to themselves and take the time to stay healthy and happy; your well-being is always a worthwhile investment.

Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue is defined as the cumulative physical, emotional and psychological effects of being continually exposed to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity. Lawyers and judges dealing with criminal or family law are most often affected by compassion fatigue, but it can happen in any practice area. Symptoms of compassion fatigue include, but are not limited to: sleep disturbance, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, a sense of futility or pessimism about people, lethargy, isolation, and irritability.

Lawyers and judges when exposed to traumatic stories and events may have physiological reactions such as increased heart rate, breathing rate and muscle tension. They can have emotional responses such as anger or fear. They may also experience changes in their assumptions about life, other people and issues of safety. Often legal professionals will be unaware of these reactions or ignore or dismiss them as unimportant. These reactions are indicative of the physiological and psychological changes occurring within the mind/body due to the processes of empathy or identification, reactions of the autonomic nervous system and patterns of thinking. If left unchecked and unattended to these reactions wear on the mind and the body resulting in the above mentioned cluster of symptoms known as compassion fatigue.

Thanks to Linda Albert from the Wisconsin Lawyers’ Assistance Program for sharing this information. To read the full article, click on the link below.

Link to PDF Keeping Legal Minds Intact by Linda Albert

Combatting Compassion Fatigue:

The following tips are taken from “Practical Pain Management for Lawyers Exposed to Vicarious Trauma”, by Donald C. Murray, Q.C. Click on the link below to read the full article.
  • Vent with a colleague. Talk about what is personally or professionally disturbing about the information at hand, or set up informal de-briefing sessions in your office.
  • Remind yourself of the value that you are working to achieve.
  • Maintain alternative intellectual pursuits, such as analyzing sports statistics or reading. This can prevent the mind from falling into a traditional legal rut.
  • Engage in creative intellectual activity, such as painting or writing poetry.
  • Get physical and keep physical.
  • Maintain a connection with a community that is separate from your career.
  • Find personal fulfillment outside of workby volunteering or helping others outside of your career.
  • Vary your work diet. By taking on other work that does not involve traumatized clients (wills, business incorporations, etc.) impacts of vicarious trauma are moderated.
  • Find a spiritual home. Spirituality is the resource which provides the kind of confidence and assurance that is the unfailing companion of a lawyer’s competence.
Link to PDF Practical Pain Management article

Thank You

In 2011 Assist raised $33,472 as a result of a mail campaign to the Alberta Bar and Judiciary. 

In 2012, newly appointed Q.C.’s continued the tradition of giving by commemorating their appointment with a donation to Assist. Assist has received $19,800 from 41 donors.

Assist commits to raising private donations to ensure that its programs and services are effective and sustainable. Assist served more Albertans in 2011, with a 57% increase over 2010 in individuals seeking help through professional counselling services. Your generosity has allowed Assist to provide resources and training so that peer support is facilitated. The peer support program has successfully matched 16 lawyers with peer support.

What Assist has been up to:

In partnership with CBA Alberta and Pro Bono Law Alberta, Assist sponsored and presented at the CPLED sessions in Calgary and Edmonton.  The Honourable Justices Ken Nielsen and Barbara Romaine addressed the students about the importance of involvement in the legal community.

Carolyn McCartney held peer support training sessions in Calgary and Edmonton. Thanks to those who attended, Assist now has 31 volunteers ready to support their peers.

Thanks to the CBA, Assist hosted an exhibitor’s booth at the Alberta Law Conference. To announce Assist’s focus on wellness and prevention, Assist provided corporate massages provided courtesy of CDI College.  Marian and Carolyn enjoyed connecting with the bar and presenting a spa gift package valued at $450, thanks to Riverside Spa.

Assist hosted a lunch and learn with the Legal Aid Family Law Office in Calgary to discuss Compassion Fatigue and coping strategies. Information on this topic is featured in this issue and on our website.

Assist’s AGM took place in Edmonton this year.  Six new Board members were welcomed.  Look for Assist’s article in the next issue of Law Matters to meet the new Board.

Go to our website to view Assist’s Annual and Financial Reports.

Assist helped support the University of Calgary Student Rural Access to Justice initiative.  Assist offers expertise to support sustainable legal careers in areas outside Edmonton and Calgary.

2nd Annual Walk for Wellness

Thursday July 19, 2012 at 12:00 pm.

Join Assist and your fellow colleagues for our 2nd Annual Walk for Wellness as we encourage all Calgarians to nuture their physical and mental health.

The walk is FREE! Participants are only asked to pledge to enjoy more: family time, active time, quiet time, reflective time, or fun time.

Join us to promote health and wellness within the Calgary community and to raise awareness of Assist's services.

We will meet at the Calgary Courthouse Park - 5 Street & 6 Avenue SW

Copyright © 2012 Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society, All rights reserved.
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