It’s the time of year when law students are finishing their final exams and many are returning home for a few weeks of R&R before spring semester starts. This year, my students seemed more stressed than usual, probably in part because the pandemic won’t seem to go away. We powered through for awhile, but many people – including me! – are hitting a breaking point.
So it seems like a good time to discuss burnout, which although it is not solely a pandemic problem, has certainly gotten much worse. Even pre-pandemic, public interest lawyers were at a high risk of burnout. In addition to all of the stress that everyone faces, they also have the added stress of representing clients who are facing major stresses of their own. My clinic students, for example, are not only navigating a once-in-a-lifetime public health emergency while trying to survive law school, they are also representing clients who are detained or are at risk of being deported back to places where they fear torture or death. Some still have family members at risk in their home countries. Many will be spending the holidays separated from family and community. All are being ground down by a Kafkaeqsue legal system that is inherently unfair and comically dysfunctional. It is extremely difficult to represent people in these circumstances without absorbing some of this stress, which increases the risk of burnout down the line.
Burnout affects all lawyers, but public interest lawyers are disproportionately affected. Why? Because their clients are likely to belong to the most marginalized groups in society, people for whom a legal problem isn’t just a nuisance but often disrupts the very fabric of their lives. As Stephen Wexler explained decades ago:
Poor people do not have legal problems like those of private plaintiffs and defendants in law school casebooks. People who are not poor are like casebook people. In so far as the law is concerned, they lead harmonious and settled private lives; except for their business involvement, their lives usually do not demand the skills of a lawyer…Poor people do not lead settled lives into which the law seldom intrudes; they are constantly involved with the law in its most intrusive forms…Poverty creates an abrasive interface with society; poor people are always bumping into sharp legal things.
As a public interest lawyer, your clients’ legal problems are likely to be more central to their lives and more painful. Deciding to be a public interest lawyer means accepting this aspect of the job. But you have to find a way to do it that allows you to live a healthy life. This is harder than it sounds. Most public interest attorneys have high levels of empathy, which is one reason they chose their vocation. But too much empathy over time can be destructive to your mental health.
In my experience, burnout tends to hit public interest lawyers at two distinct points in their careers. The first point is either in law school or shortly after starting your first job. The excitement and adrenaline rush of practicing law may sustain you for awhile, but if you don’t learn to manage stress and vicarious trauma, you will quickly hit a point where it becomes too much. Some common trigger events are losing a case that you think you should have won or counseling a client that their legal problem will be difficult to resolve favorably. The client will be understandably upset and you will feel responsible.
The second point is somewhere mid-career where the practice of law is no longer novel and you have seen enough to know that most societal problems have no easy answers. Perhaps you suffer a large setback on an issue you have been working on for years. You begin to feel like all of the effort you have put in has been futile, and it is difficult to keep going.
Each of these types of burnout requires a different response. For the first kind, your goal should be to create habits that protect you from the worst of the pain that comes with representing clients. You should not aim to become less empathetic, though that is the path that some lawyers take. Instead, you need to find some emotional distance from your empathy so that you can manage it. Once thing I have found very useful when I am feeling overwhelmed with stress and worry about a client is repeating mantras to myself. My favorites are: “I am not in complete control of what happens to my client. There are many forces outside of my control” and “These things are not happening to me. I can be empathetic without absorbing all of the negative emotions of my client.” I know these things at this point, but sometimes I still need to hear them.
Young public interest lawyers must also learn how to set healthy boundaries with clients. They should not be calling you at 2:00 am unless it is truly an emergency. They should not be asking you for money or to fix their non-legal problems. Clients may try to push your boundaries. I once had a detained client who called 15-20 times a day no matter how many times I told him that he should only call during business hours and when we needed to talk. When I would fail to pick up, the next time we spoke he would berate me to missing his calls. “It must be nice to be home with your family enjoying your comfortable life while I am sitting here rotting in jail,” he would say. It is particularly important to maintain boundaries with these kinds of clients.
The second kind of burnout is more complex. It can’t be solved by repeating mantras or setting boundaries, because it is caused by an acknowledgment of a fundamental truth: that we are limited in what we can accomplish as individuals. Most injustices will be bigger than us, and will take generations to fix. Much of the work we do as a public interest lawyer will amount to naught. Sometimes, the individual successes we have won’t be enough to sustain us through dark times.
The most effective way to prevent burnout is to make sure you have good work-life balance before burnout hits. Cultivate close friendships. Read for pleasure. Travel. Start a hobby. Get married and have kids (or not!). Don’t work every second of every day, and even more importantly, have an identity that is not solely based on your profession. That way, when things seem hopeless, you’ll have something to fall back on. And if you feel like you are starting to burn out, do not ignore it. Take a long vacation, a sabbatical, or a leave of absence (if you are able to do so financially). If you wait until it is a crisis, it may be too late.
Law students should start developing good work-life habits now. It is never too early. So take the next few weeks off. When you return in January, you will feel refreshed and ready to take on the world. At least until finals in the spring.