"How ARE you feeling?" - The Impact of Working in Public Defense
Feelings of vicarious trauma, secondary stress, compassion fatigue, and burnout are all perfectly normal responses to working in a defender office. We confront heart-wrenching stories regularly. We feel responsible for the nearly impossible task of lifting a person up out of a bad situation and using legal acumen and craftiness to fix things for them. We battle against (and within) an oppressive system. Much is expected of us with few resources. We work in offices that value toughness.A year ago, I found myself at work, ignoring the flashing red light notifying me of new voice mails and searching the Tofurky website in vain for employment opportunities as in-house counsel. I fantasized about moving my family from Brooklyn, New York to Hood River in Eastern Oregon. We'd go hiking in the Cascades, drink microbrews and I'd spend my working hours reviewing tofu contracts. This would still be public interest work, I rationalized; I'd be promoting a healthy, sustainable, cruelty-free product.
We've all had days where the grass looks greener in another courtroom, or another profession all together. After ten years as a defender, though, I felt like what I was going through was more serious. The gap between my own cynicism and the eagerness, enthusiasm, and quick outrage of the summer interns seemed wider than ever. I remember zipping through an arraignment interview, startled to hear the intern murmur to the client, “How horrible! That must have been difficult for you!” I had to pause and remind myself: that's how compassionate humans respond to other humans in crisis.
I doubted all my decisions, felt helpless,and certain that whatever I was doing wasn't good enough for my clients. I was snippish at home, at one point irritated with my husband for describing what I was feeling as “burnout,” when I preferred the more heroic sounding “vicarious trauma.” How did I get to the point where I wanted to escape my career as a public defender and serve as in-house counsel to a purveyor of fake meats?
Feelings of vicarious trauma, secondary stress, compassion fatigue, and burnout are all perfectly normal responses to working in a defender office. We confront heart-wrenching stories regularly. We feel responsible for the nearly impossible task of lifting a person up out of a bad situation and using legal acumen and craftiness to fix things for them. We battle against (and within) an oppressive system. Much is expected of us with few resources. We work in offices that value toughness.
Making sure that the nutritional information on a pack of vegan sausage meets the FDA guidelines seems pretty appealing compared to that.
Lucky for us, there are people and organizations out there that work with care providers to prevent burnout and help restore those suffering from secondary stress to a more balanced state. I invite you to join me as I explore this topic more in a series of essays. I'd like to hear more about what other individuals and offices are doing to prevent burn out and re-energize those who are stressed. Please share your stories with me, via email or Twitter (@rjlunn).
I promise to end each post with a tip to help the rejuvenation process. We need to look out for ourselves and each other. Let's start by asking our colleagues, “How are you feeling?”
Father Jeff Puttoff, the former executive director of Hopeworks ‘N Camden, began a workshop for Legal Aid staff recently, by asking the participants to each say how they were feeling. The workshop topic was how toxic stress affects the brain and how Hopeworks developed a model of trauma-informed care. Before launching into his presentation, however, Father Puttoff assigned us the surprisingly difficult and awkward task of naming our current feeling. We were discouraged from using words like “good” or “fine.” I felt vulnerable when asked to share with a group of colleagues what my emotions were. It was also challenging to figure out what exactly I was feeling. So much of my day is spent moving from one crisis to the next that I don't actually reflect on my current emotions
There is power in identifying your own feelings. There is comfort in knowing that is safe to talk with a friend or colleague about those feelings. Imagine the difference between the following two scenes. First, you go into a colleague's office to vent about a recent plea that a teenage client of yours took. The conversation takes the form of vague generalizations, “It sucks when kids take pleas that give them a record and send them to prison.” Barely looking up from his computer screen your colleague agrees, “it sucks, but that's the job.” Maybe he even attempts to one up the level of suckiness with an anecdote about a client in an even worse situation. The conversation ends in a trip to a local watering hole to numb the general feeling of misery.
Now imagine griping to your colleague about that miserable plea, and he puts down whatever was in his hand, swivels towards you and asks, “How are feeling about that right now?” Honored that you have his full attention, you pause, reflect, and admit that you feel guilty because you're worried that you should have encouraged your client to take the case to trial. Now you're in a position to have a productive conversation.
There are no easy fixes for the stressors of our work. Simply admitting that our difficult work sparks intense emotions, talking about those emotions, and listening to each other when we talk about them might be a first step.
In future essays, I'll explore some of the signs of vicarious trauma and secondary stress and more ways to address them. Tofurkey doesn't have any job openings now anyway.
Editors note: Also check out the Facebook group Public Defense Zen -
A place for public defenders, investigators, social workers and other in the field of public defense to share resources related to developing resilience and coping with the challenges of our work.
This is a place to find encouragement and strength from others who take on this challenging work. Share inspiring stories, resources on wellness issues, and your experiences in building your own ability to bounce back and thrive.