3 Spheres of Public Defense Well-Being: A Framework for Understanding Impacts and Obstacles, and for Responding with Appropriate Tools and Strategies

I’ve been thinking for a while about a useful framework for discussing well-being in public defense. I believe there are three spheres relevant to our well-being in public defense work: self, service and system. These three spheres provide a useful framework for understanding impacts, obstacles and challenges to sustaining well being, and also guide us in responding with appropriate tools and strategies

The Self sphere refers to the personal experiences we bring to this work and the personal practices we rely on to sustain us—things like mindfulness or gratitude journals. This circle also includes the ways we approach our work, like struggles with boundaries or work addiction. And it includes the basic self-maintenance like proper sleep, nutrition and exercise.

The Service sphere contains the impacts of this work. Public defense work has undeniable traumatic impacts that we must mitigate and process in order to stay in this work. It also includes public defense culture—the leadership, training, mentorship and support that impacts well-being.

The System sphere contains the larger systemic obstacles discourage us and wear us down when they get in the way of us providing the high quality and client centered representation that motivated us to do this work in the first place. System obstacles are things like high caseloads, racist systems, under resourced offices, and hostility toward the defense function from other system actors.

What public defenders need to sustain well-being are strategies in all three spheres.

(1) Individual strategies and practices to promote wellness and to mitigate inevitable impacts of trauma.

(2) Colleagues and leaders that build a culture that supports well-being.

(3) Systemic strategies to reduce obstacles to providing highest levels of representation.

It is essential to match the appropriate response and strategy to the obstacle or impact. It is common to shift the responsibility to the individual to fix everything with self-care. But systemic obstacles need systemic responses.

What do you think? Let me know if this framework feels useful to you. It’s one small piece of the A-Z Resource Guide I’ve been working on. A new update has been uploaded.

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