Tuesday, April 29, 2014
At the 2014 AALS Conference on Clinical Legal Education, my colleague, Brittany Stringfellow Otey (also a writer for this blog), convened a panel on self-care, vicarious trauma, resilience and empathy. Margaret Drew, soon to be of UMass, Lynette Parker of Santa Clara, and Virgil Wiebe of St. Thomas (and of this blog), joined the panel. This is the description from the program:
Within the legal profession, and certainly within public interest communities, there is the risk of unintended sacrifice: the significant cost to attorney mental health. Too often, the tradeoff for meaningful, justice-oriented work includes burnout, vicarious trauma/compassion fatigue, blurred boundaries and general dissatisfaction.
Despite increasing awareness, research and resources, there remains a disconnect between what we know about how to combat, preempt and heal these side effects and what we actually do in response.
The program was rich, but one theme resonates with me as a teacher and lawyer. Burn-out and vicarious trauma are a justice issue. As lawyers expend themselves for their clients, especially in practices devoted to serve clients in poverty and violence, we run the risk of deteriorating capacity, clarity, strength and objectivity. We can become less effective, then ultimately leave the practice, no longer serving the clients in need. This adversely affects our performance, then ultimately our clients’ access to justice. If we cannot function well, we jeopardize our competence and our capacity to provide diligent advocacy.
These conversations are relatively new to our profession, and we lag behind social workers, nurses, and other service professions who treat resilience as a discipline. We are too prone to tough it out, to disconnect and objectify our clients in pity, or to follow our clients into their own trauma and struggle to find a way out.
Prof. Otey used this video from Brene Brown, demonstrating the differences between sympathy and empathy, and asked us to consider our jobs from the point of view of the bear and asked how we can go into the cave and have the ability to get out again.
Prof. Parker’s article on teaching these virtues to students is Increasing Law Students' Effectiveness When Representing Traumatized Clients: A Case Study of the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center, 21 GEORGETOWN IMMIGRATION LAW JOURNAL 163-199 (2007).
The presenters plan to put their materials on the conference website, but in the meantime, consider these resources that they referenced in the session:
The theme of the conference is Becoming a Better Clinician. If we can be more resilient, healthier and better able to live integrated, whole and balanced lives, we can be better, stronger lawyers in the service of clients and justice.