When MSBA created the nation’s first Lawyer Assistance Program in 1981, the principal focus was offering help to members of the bar who faced both professional and personal problems stemming from substance abuse. Indeed, substance abuse accounted for nearly three-quarters of the referrals the MSBA Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) received in the course of its first 20 years.
However, over the last three decades, increasing emphasis has been placed on issues related to mental health and general wellness throughout the legal community, according to Maryland Deputy Public Defender Charles H. Dorsey III, a nine-year veteran of the Lawyer Assistance Committee, which oversees the program.
“Initially, LAP dealt with law students, attorneys, and judges with substance abuse problems,” says Dorsey, “but we found that this was just a symptom of the problem.”
Much of that greater problem, explains LAP Program Counselor Lisa Caplan, LCSW-C, CAC, stems from secondary traumatic stress disorder, also known as “compassion fatigue.”
“Secondary traumatic stress disorder comes from repeatedly hearing about and dealing with traumatic incidents,” notes Caplan. “For example, you see it a lot with those who deal with child custody cases, domestic cases – anybody who is hearing traumatic stories over and over again.”
Over time, she says, compassion fatigue will ultimately lead to burnout, placing both the individual’s professional and personal lives in jeopardy. Twice a year, Caplan addresses the issue in presentations to attorneys with the Office of the Public Defender, which Dorsey says certainly “fits the mold” of a “high-stress, high-volume practice.”
A 2010 study of attorneys with the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office concurred: indeed, 40 percent of its subjects exhibited signs of depression – roughly four times the number found in the general population – while nearly the same ratio of attorneys (34 percent) displayed signs of secondary traumatic stress.
In turn, Dorsey often joins Caplan in discussing compassion fatigue in other venues, such as Visiting Assistant Professor Sara E. Gold’s Health Care Delivery and HIV/AIDS Clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore.
Gold’s students, she explains, “represent indigent people living with or impacted by HIV/AIDS in a range of civil cases, including family, law, public benefits, and life-planning matters.”
“We invited LAP to speak with our students about the personal and emotional toll that helping others can take on professionals,” says Gold. “As our students prepare to enter the legal profession, we wanted to introduce the importance of not only zealous advocacy on behalf of clients, but also the need to take care of one’s self in order to be an effective lawyer and healthy person.”
That’s not always an easy task within what Caplan characterizes as a frequently “adversarial” profession in which practitioners are often wont to bury their own emotional responses.
“We wanted our students to know that compassion fatigue can be a normal part of lawyering,” says Gold, “and that resources exist within the legal profession to support lawyers throughout all stages of their careers.”
“We hope to give law students, lawyers, and judges healthy tools that allow them to continue being effective social problem-solvers and, at the same time, practice healthy self-care,” adds Dorsey.
Caplan welcomes the growing awareness of such mental health and wellness issues; indeed, both she and LAP Director James P. Quinn are slated to address compassion fatigue at several upcoming programs, including panel discussions at the Partners for Justice Conference on May 16 in Baltimore and the MSBA Annual Meeting in June.
The MSBA Lawyer Assistance Program offers free, confidential counseling services to judges, lawyers, law students, legal staff, and their families who are experiencing personal problems that interfere with their personal lives or their ability to serve as counsel or officers of the court.