Is Working in Public Defense Good for You?

Um, no. Obviously not.

I’m not trying to be a downer, but the research on this topic is not uplifting. In 2011, Linda Albert’s groundbreaking study of Wisconsin State Public Defenders examined “the effects of compassion fatigue—the cumulative physical, emotional, and psychological effects resulting from continual exposure to others’ traumatic experiences.” The study found significantly higher levels among public defenders than the general population of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. 74.8% of attorneys described experiencing functional impairment, defined in the study as “the extent to which exposure to traumatic material interferes with functioning in work, social/leisure life and family/home life.” 34.7% of attorneys reported experiencing burnout, defined in the study as “job-induced physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about one’s competence and the value of one’s work.”

Those who conducted the Wisconsin study also saw what we see every day, that public defenders are dedicated and determined. They observed of public defenders: “It’s amazing what they do. They are handling the demands of the job, but not easily and not without it having an impact on their lives.”

The American Bar Association has issued a series of reports on lawyer well-being, including: Keeping Legal Minds Intact: Mitigating Compassion Fatigue Among Legal Professionals (2014), The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys (2016 Ford Foundation Study for ABA), The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change. Report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being (ABA 2017), and Well-Being Toolkit For Lawyers and Legal Employers, (ABA 2018).

To put it bluntly, the legal profession is struggling with mental health concerns and substance use, especially alcohol. The statistics in the 2016 Ford Foundation Study are concerning:

2016 Ford Foundation Study of US Lawyers

21-36 % qualify as problem drinkers
28 % struggle with depression
23 % struggle with stress
19% struggle with anxiety

The ABA 2016 Ford Foundation Study describes a “parade of difficulties” that includes suicide, social alienation, work addiction, sleep deprivation, job dissatisfaction, a diversity crisis, and complaints of work-life conflict. Why do I think we need to have this conversation about well being early and often? According to this study, younger lawyers in the first ten years of practice experience the highest rates of problem drinking and depression.

This job takes a toll on us. By us I mean everyone who works in public defense— attorneys, investigators, social workers, paralegals, law office professionals, everyone.

One perpetually irritating aspect of this discussion is that, while the causes are often recognized as systemic, the proposed solutions are too quick to slide the responsibility for what to do about it over to the individual. For example, in its 2014 report Keeping Legal Minds Intact: Mitigating Compassion Fatigue Among Legal Professionals, the ABA lists these organizational contributions to compassion fatigue: heavy caseloads and long hours, inefficient administration, excessive paperwork, inadequate resources to meet the demands, and lack of supportive supervision. Even though these are organizational contributions, the majority of the suggestions for mitigating compassion fatigue focus on the individual: recognize the risks for yourself, find a way to debrief distressing material, work on self-awareness every day, take an inventory of how balanced your life is, evaluate your tension reducing behaviors, be intentional about protecting yourself. This will be the subject of future posts: the need to push for systemic organizational change and to find individual strategies to sustain ourselves in the meantime.

When I first became aware of these studies and statistics, I found them both daunting and reassuring. The daunting part is obvious. But right along with that was what a relief to know I’m not the only one. The fact that I think this job takes a toll on me isn’t just in my head.

Lizzy McLellan wrote a few months ago about Battling an Epidemic of Loneliness Among Lawyers (May 28, 2019). She described a sense of loneliness, isolation, and sadness that comes from feeling “I’m the only one who can’t handle it.” She wrote that loneliness and isolation are reasons “people are turning to all these coping mechanisms and ending their lives and having anxiety and depression.”

We suffer when our profession sees acknowledging this emotional toll as weakness. It’s my hope that this site and conversation might make this topic feel a little less isolating for some public defenders.

Also, at risk of revealing myself as an unreliable narrator, I believe it is possible to thrive in public defense. There are ways it can be good for you. Sitting here writing this at year 23, taking on new roles in training and handling capital cases as challenging and complex as I’ve ever seen, I feel as positive and energized as I ever have about public defense. This work can be incredibly difficult, and it can also be energizing and even transformative. We have opportunities to develop empathy and compassion that can transform our relationships with others, and with ourselves.

Please send or post your thoughts and comments to join this conversation. And take care of yourselves.

#besustained #publicdefensewellbeing #secondarytrauma #compassionfatigue

4 thoughts on “Is Working in Public Defense Good for You?”

  1. This is a critical gap in our training and another reason we need a “Public Defender Community” . There’s a ridiculous amount of elitism in our leadership, many of them no longer doing interactive work with clients, some never have done it! Many leaders get into a rut and don’t like to have new ideas and new perspectives. State bar associations are beginning to use support services, free counseling and education on this but is onto a lifesaving purpose here, literally.

    Liked by 1 person

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