Compassion fatigueExhaustion, fatigue, detachment, boredom, cynicism, sadness, and annoyance.  These and other symptoms can correlate with burnout, according to the Director of MOLAP, the Missouri Lawyers Assistance Program.  In “Judges and Compassion Fatigue:  What Is It and What To Do About It” see here, MOLAP Director Anne Chambers, LCSW, lays out a very nice summary of two very important concepts which threaten the integrity of the legal profession and the lives and health of its members:  burnout and compassion fatigue (also referred to as vicarious trauma).  This post provides a brief summary of an article that all judicial officers, legal academics, law students, court administrators, and lawyers should read.

Burnout – An Advanced State of Physical and Mental Exhaustion

Judges [lawyers, too] can experience prolonged stress and frustration in their work.  This state can exhaust physical and emotional strength or motivation.  One description cited by Chambers states in part “. . . complete mental or physical fatigue lasting weeks at a time, generally as a result of stress that is pervasive, complete and prolonged.”  This causes a person to feel drained and as if nothing remains to give.  Feelings of lack of achievement, lack of purpose, and loss of a sense of hope can accompany this.  These things can cause a person to feel disillusioned.  Doing the minimum becomes a great challenge.  One’s demeanor can harden.  Detachment may show.

According to Chambers, judges [and lawyers] who suffer from burnout may become so afflicted that “. . . burnout may harden into a fixed element of one’s outlook and depersonalization of cases one must deal with.”  Burnout involves job stress. It does not involve a negative shift of world view.  Compassion fatigue, however, does involve that shift.

Compassion Fatigue

Persons who work in a helping capacity may experience compassion fatigue.  Judges and lawyers work in a helping capacity.  Their various professional roles fit into this category.  Compassion fatigue results from continued exposure to distressing stories and events.  The cumulative effect of “working with the big uglies” of life can result in compassion fatigue.  MOLAP Director Chambers cites to several sources in her article, some dating back over ten years ago, and describes compassion fatigue in terms of emotional impact.  This can include “feelings of powerlessness, alienation from others and becoming indecisive or anxious.”

Those who experience compassion fatigue, can question the meaning of their work and have once solid senses of safety, security, and truth and justice shaken.  This results from the cumulative impact of long term exposure to disturbing things, like accident victim photos, victim impact statements, 911 call evidence, and trial and sentencing hearings.  Compassion fatigue, the result,  “involves burnout plus a negative shift in one’s world view.”

Compassion Fatigue Risk Factors

Chambers suggests that judges’ unique role exposes them to increased risk of compassion fatigue.  They face human tragedy and heightened emotion on a number of fronts. But, “They are expected to be neutral in the face of tragedy, perform duties impartially without being unduly swayed by emotion, and serve as the balance point and decision maker.”  Their unique role isolates them. They must “keep their own counsel.”  These extract a toll over time.

A number of other factors influence legal service professionals’ vulnerability to compassion fatigue: individual factors (health problems, drug or alcohol abuse, poor job performance, depression or anxiety); life factors (spousal, children, parents, finances); organizational (multiple tasks, budget cuts, downsizing, little recognition); caseload (type – criminal, family, juvenile, human injury; numbers – large dockets); personality (need for control, perfectionism, workaholism, idealism, unrealistic expectations, low coping skills); high empathy people can pour themselves out over time.

Warning Signs

MOLAP Director Chambers outlines some of the signs of compassion fatigue in judges and lawyers:

•     Elevated anxiety, such as being vigilant, jumpy or easily startled
•     Being constantly on guard and alert to possible threats to self, family or loved ones
•     Difficulty concentrating
•     Difficulty sleeping
•     Anger or irritability
•     Having images from cases intruding into thoughts and dreams
•     Dreading working with certain types of cases or clients
•    Avoiding or becoming less responsive to clients, cases or colleagues, family members or social         network
•    Avoiding people, places or events connected with trauma
•    Starting to become numb

Coping Tools

The MOLAP News article also notes and briefly discusses highlights from a number of scholarly commentaries and articles from which Chambers has distilled a number of suggestions, some of the big ideas noted here:

  • Research based suggestions (increase self-awareness, debrief, self-inventory, be more intentional about balance and self-protection)
  • Buffers (humor, exercise, adequate sleep, friendships, hobbies, vacations, healthy team environment, supervision and support)
  • Re-establish boundaries (work, family)

Conclusion. . . . Get Help, Refresh, Renew, and Feel Rewarded

Chambers ends her fine article by noting “Burnout and compassion fatigue are not mental health diagnoses.”  But, their signs and symptoms can overlap with signs of depression:  sadness, detachment, pessimism, and irritability.  She ends with a caution coupled with a sunny viewpoint – “Judges and attorneys who suspect they are facing burnout or compassion fatigue combined with depression may benefit from additional assistance.  By using the right tools, you can exercise compassion in ways that allow you to be a great professional who feels rewarded by the work you can do.  The time you take to refresh and renew will be time well spent.”

Other Resources

The American Bar Association, “Compassion Fatigue”, see here.

Professional Quality of Life Measure,, Dr. Beth Hudnall Stamm, PhD, Developer and Director see here.  “The ProQOL is the most commonly used measure of the negative and positive affects of helping others who experience suffering and trauma. The ProQOL has sub-scales for compassion satisfaction, burnout and compassion fatigue.”  Excellent resource for those interested in pursuing more knowledge and gaining more understanding.

Image Credits:  Compassion Fatigue here / Refresh and Renew here

Missouri Lawyers Assistance Program (MOLAP) link here is a professional, confidential counseling program for members of The Missouri Bar, their families, and law students. Through a variety of free services, MOLAP helps individuals overcome personal problems such as depression, substance abuse, stress, and burnout. (800) 688-7859 (Confidential helpline for attorneys, judges, and law students.).  For professional, confidential assistance in coping with burnout or compassion fatigue, contact MOLAP.

Thank you

Please visit again soon. See you next time.  Dan DeFoe JD MS – Adlitem Solutions | Organization Development for Professional Services Firms and the Legal Profession: People. Projects. Practices || | Blog –

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.

Comments are closed.