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Lawyers and Compassion Fatigue: Understanding Organizational and Operational Stressors

This blog post was written by Patrick Barnes, JD and Michael Barnes, Ph.D., MAC, LPC. It is published on this website and on Wave of Change Coaching and Consulting, LLC website.

Working as a legal professional is hard! Any attorney, no matter the practice area, will tell you that the profession is stressful. Sometimes it can feel like juggling, while walking through a minefield! Phone calls, deadlines, long hours, heavy caseloads, angry clients and working with traumatic material are just a few of the reason’s attorneys should be concerned about the cost of stress on their job performance, job satisfaction, mental health and overall wellness.

Attorneys frequently talk with colleagues about the stressors they experience in their daily work responsibilities. The longer they carry on without relief, the easier it is to exceed their emotional and intellectual bandwidth. In order to avoid certain exhaustion, it is critical for legal professionals to understand the various sources of stress in the work environment, and the consequences that can lead to the experience of Compassion Fatigue.

Compassion Fatigue is a reaction to stress and regular interaction with traumatized clients and their stories.[1] It commonly emerges when helping professionals experience work related burnout and secondary trauma.[2] It is experienced as physical and emotional exhaustion, and it results in doubts about our professional effectiveness, a negative view of our clients, negative alterations in worldview,[3] increased work-related cynicism,[4] and a number of biological, psychological, and relational symptoms.

When most attorneys are introduced to the concept of Compassion Fatigue in the legal profession, their initial reaction is to minimize or dismiss it. After some discussion and consideration, they are able to recognize that most clients seek legal assistance after an event that most people would consider traumatic. Once they gain this insight, they can begin to consider the impact of inundating themselves with traumatic material.

It is critical for attorneys and other legal team members to recognize the various stressors, as well as the importance of understanding how each is different! Operational stress (secondary trauma), organizational stress (burnout), along with personal stressors can all use energy reserved for other stressors, causing exhaustion and possibly contribute to compassion fatigue. We use the term “attorney,” in this article, but these concepts can be applied to paralegals, administrative assistants, judges, and lots of other professionals in the legal field.

What is Operational Stress?

Operational stress is derived from an operational stress injury (OSI), a Canadian term referring to “persistent psychological difficulty” as a result of serving in the Canadian military.[5] “Common OSIs include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse disorders, and other conditions that may interfere with daily functioning.”[6]

OSI’s derivative, operational stress, is broadly defined as, “any persistent psychological difficulty resulting from operational duties performed as part of the job.”[7] Operational stress parallels secondary trauma, which is the “profound shift that workers experience in their world view when they work with clients who have experienced trauma.”[8] Operational stress can result from an attorney’s day to day interactions with traumatized clients. Listening to stories of traumatic events, viewing graphic pictures, and dealing with the pervasive hypervigilance, control, and distrust can vicariously traumatize the helping professional. Other “lawyer” tasks such as speaking with upset clients, maintaining deadlines, ensuring trust accounts are balanced, preparing for trial, and all aspects of litigation, can compound the effects of operational stress.

A BMC Public Health Study by Amrit Purba and Evangelia Demou on organizational and occupational stressors for police officers mention three stressors that we believe are complementary to the work experience of attorneys: constant exposure to people suffering distress and pain, having to be in control of emotions when provoked, and the inconclusive nature of police work.[9] As was stated above, most attorneys work with individuals that suffered some kind of harm or injustice that is causing pain and distress. Difficult interactions with upset clients, opposing counsel, and others can create significant stress for the attorney. They are often challenged with the dual needs of dealing with their own emotional upset, while simultaneously maintaining a cool head in a heated situation. Attorneys can also experience emotions associated with the empathy they have for their clients’ situation. Anger, sympathy, hopelessness, etc. are all emotions that attorneys must keep under control while working.

The inconclusive nature of legal work is an interesting stressor that is rarely considered. Some jobs have new clients or new situations every day. These professionals can arrive at work with the assurance that each day will be started with a clean slate. Attorneys rarely have this luxury. As most cases can last months or years, there is little opportunity for daily closure. The same cases will be there tomorrow and in the foreseeable future. As cases remain active, traumatized clients can become increasingly anxious or angry. An uncomfortable call from a client will often result in intrusive thoughts about the case after business hours. These work-related thoughts can negatively interfere when the attorney is spending time with family and friends. As the case can progress for months or even years, the client and legal team are challenged to review the traumatic story, images, and emotions through the intake, deposition, in-person and telephone contacts, and through the trial. This provides many opportunities for re-traumatization of the client and secondary trauma for members of the team.

Almost every practice area will have stressors of the profession, and they are unavoidable to one extent or another. Attorneys most equipped to handle and process the stressors are those with low organizational stress, life/work balance, and self-care. Attorneys with high levels of organizational stress and poor self-care may find energy that was once reserved for the occupational stressors now depleted.

What is Organizational Stress?

Operational stress comes from the actual work and tasks of the profession. Organizational stress is derived from an employee’s response to “harmful aspects of work, work environment, and organizational climate.”[10] Causes of organizational stress include “concern for the organization’s future, inappropriate management style, excessive centralization of authority, the existence of poorly professional trained subordinates . . .”[11]

Sources of Organizational stress are similar to that of burnout, evolving from expectations, interactions and relationships within the firm. Employees frequently cite a lack of control, low empowerment to make decisions, poor communication, too much change, and impossible requirements as sources of burnout.[12] The more toxic a workplace, the higher the likelihood of organizational stress. Office politics, rumors, job performance and evaluations, turnover, anger and anxiety all contribute to organizational stress.

The methods of mitigating organizational stress revolve around how partners, managing partners, and supervising attorneys maintain the structure of the firm. Traditionally, law firms are hierarchical in nature, with each level being less available to the staff members at the lower levels. An employee dealing with symptoms of operational stress and secondary trauma can feel isolated, overwhelmed, and powerless, especially if supervisors and others in the administrative levels are not available. This can make the supervisor appear disinterested or lacking in empathy to the employee’s struggle. Overcoming the hierarchical issues requires the highest personnel within the firm to “endorse and actively foster an environment that emphasizes the value of all personnel, regardless of their standing in the institutional hierarchy.”[13]

Interweaving of the Stresses

Attorneys and other legal team members are not superhuman! They only have so much energy to engage in their work and personal lives. Given the significant number of cases that most teams are managing, it doesn’t take many traumatic cases to exhaust the team members and negatively impact how they manage all of their cases, their inter-team interactions, and their relationships with other employees within the firm.

Operational and organizations stressors can take their toll on the strongest and most intelligent employees! As attorneys and other team members attempt to stay focused on fulfilling their obligation to manage each case with the highest of ethical and professional standards, operational and organizational stressors can silently impact the client relationship and legal process. As attorneys become exhausted from working with difficult clients, they become more susceptible to experiencing secondary trauma.[14] Increased secondary trauma requires more energy to maintain composure and carry out work assignments, which can create increased burnout.[15] As an attorney experiences more burnout, they become more exhausted and have reduced ego defenses.[16] Thus, increased burnout will cause the attorney to be more impacted by normal daily activities, and situations that would typically be acknowledged and discarded. In this situation, burnout and secondary trauma will serve a recursive process, that forces the attorney to experience both as more severe than would be experienced if they were to only experience one of the stressors. In these cases, problems will linger and become increasingly challenging. This in turn, can greatly impact employee job satisfaction, turnover rates, and organizational trauma.

For example, a personal injury attorney who is inundated with the details of an auto accident that involved the death of a minor child, may unknowingly take that case home with them. They may experience intrusive thoughts and concerns about the wellbeing of the client/family and accept an unrealistic responsibility to ensure that the case has a positive outcome. As they review the details of the case, it may become clear that this type of event could happen to anyone. They may experience transference of feelings associated with the case, leading to hypervigilance and an increased focus on protecting their own family from a similar situation. The fixation and worry reduce the available energy needed for other daily functions. If the attorney’s paralegal brings a relatively minor issue regarding another client to the attorney’s attention, one that would typically be an easy fix, the attorney may overreact, or worse, engage in avoidance behaviors and avoid dealing with the issue entirely. Both options allow the minor issue to fester into a larger problem.

Another example would be an attorney after a long deposition preparation meeting with a client for horrific injuries sustained in a car wreck may be so drained, that they feel they do not have the energy to return voicemails from other clients that built up during the deposition prep, irritating those clients, and causing more issues in the days to come. This scenario can cause organizational stress for the other employees, who may have to handle the fallout from the missed communication.

These examples show how operational, organizational, and personal stress intertwine with one another, and when one area is unusually demanding, the reserves for the other categories are depleted.


Françoise Mathieu categorized compassion fatigue as an occupational hazard, and anybody empathically working with traumatized clients will likely develop compassion fatigue to one degree or another. As operational and organizational stressors are unavoidable in the legal profession, and closely tied to secondary trauma, awareness of and mitigation of the symptoms are crucial to combat compassion fatigue.[17]

Attorneys must prepare their body and mind for the inevitable stressors of the profession. Taking care of your physical body by exercising, eating right, and getting enough sleep will help you combat the stressors of the day. Having peer groups to blow off steam and talk about how you’re feeling is essential.

Attorneys should assess where their energy goes and utilize the methods to restore and avoid unnecessary depletion. Firms can assist in this process by acknowledging that Compassion Fatigue is real and that it can be experienced by any employee. It is important to provide opportunity for communication between staff members who may be impacted, as well as providing supervision and opportunity to interact with mentors within the firm. It is critical for firm leadership to be aware that rates of addiction, depression, and anxiety within the legal profession are in many cases double what is found in the general population.[18] Providing opportunity for self-care, counseling and coaching will assist employees to deal with these issues and reduce costly turnover rates.

[1] Mathieu, Françoise. “Chapter 2: Understanding the Cost of Caring.” The Compassion Fatigue Workbook, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC, 2012, p. 14.

[2] Mathieu, Françoise. “Chapter 2: Understanding the Cost of Caring.” The Compassion Fatigue Workbook, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC, 2012, p. 14.

[3] Mathieu, Françoise. “Chapter 2: Understanding the Cost of Caring.” The Compassion Fatigue Workbook, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC, 2012, p. 8.

[4] Hopkins, V. & Gardner, D. (2012). The Mediating Role of Work Engagement and Burnout in the Relationship between Job Characteristics and Psychological Distress among Lawyers. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 41(1), pp. 59-68.

[5] “Operational Stress Injury Clinic.” The Royal,

[6] “Operational Stress Injury Clinic.” The Royal,

[7] Maran, Daniela Acquadro, et al. “Organizational and Occupational Stressors, Their Consequences and Coping Strategies: A Questionnaire Survey among Italian Patrol Police Officers.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 21 Jan. 2018, p. 1.,

[8] Mathieu, Françoise. “Chapter 2: Understanding the Cost of Caring.” The Compassion Fatigue Workbook, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC, 2012, p. 9.

[9] Purba, A., Demou, E. The relationship between organisational stressors and mental wellbeing within police officers: a systematic review. BMC Public Health 19, 1286 (2019) doi:10.1186/s12889-019-7609-0

[10] Bucurean, Mirela, and Costin Adriana. “Organizational Stress and It's Impact on Work Performance.” Annals of Faculty of Economics , vol. 1, doi:2011/07/01.

[11] Bucurean, Mirela, and Costin Adriana. “Organizational Stress and It's Impact on Work Performance.” Annals of Faculty of Economics , vol. 1, doi:2011/07/01.

[12] Barnes, M.F. (2019) Beyond Compassion Fatigue. Presentation Powerpoint

[13] Catherall, Don R., and Charles R. Figley. “Preventing Institutional Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized, Taylor & Francis Group, 1995, p. 237.

[14] Barnes, M.F. (2019) Beyond Compassion Fatigue. Presentation Powerpoint

[15] Barnes, M.F. (2019) Beyond Compassion Fatigue. Presentation Powerpoint

[16] Barnes, M.F. (2019) Beyond Compassion Fatigue. Presentation Powerpoint

[17] Mathieu, Françoise. “Chapter 2: Understanding the Cost of Caring.” The Compassion Fatigue Workbook, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC, 2012, p. 9.

[18] Krill, P.R., Johnson, B.R., & Albert, L. (2016). The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys. Journal of Addiction Medicine. January/February 2016, 10(1), 46-52

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