Compassion, Client-Centeredness and the Imperative for Self Care
Whether healthy or not, most public defenders carry their compassion for their clients with them all the time. Client centered representation demands empathy and compassion for our clients and their families. Sometimes, this emotional investment in clients can come at the expense of the lawyer and the lawyer’s family.
Sometimes, this investment, results in lawyers or staff who become emotionally attached to some clients at the expense of the other clients. The reality of all it is, that in order for each of us to represent poor people in the criminal court system, client after client, year after year, we must engage in self care for everyone in our offices to assure we continue to help clients who need us now and those who need us in the future. This work is infinitely rewarding and hard.
Self care plans are essential for public defender systems as well as individuals to assure staff and lawyers are able to help clients well into the future. Public defender leaders should not wait until burnout is apparent to figure out that there was an issue which should have been addressed. Likewise, leaning only an Employee Assistance Program referral to help one’s lawyers and staff is an insufficient solution to the problem as it is reactive and attends only to the health of one person at a time. EAP referrals are not designed to address the well being of everyone involve with client representation in an office. We want to retain people in our offices who care about our clients and their families and have healthy emotional lives with their own social circles.
We must take a page from other professions engaged in helping those in need, and self assess where we are in our emotional and professional well being. Like many professions where helping those in need is a professional stressor, substance abuse, family disruption, physical health issues, and professional lapses in judgment are all common when burnout is a factor. Just powering through the tough spots may work as a short term strategy, but it will not carry the lawyer or staff member over the long term.
Our ethical obligations to our clients require that we be able to give them the best advice we can under the circumstances each client presents to us and to fight for that client’s decisions within the criminal court system. To meet this standard, we must be clear headed, emotionally sound, and professionally strong which makes us truly competent as lawyers to meet the challenges and requirements of the Sixth Amendment and client centered representation. These duties and challenges require strong emotional resiliency.
“Can you be effective if you are not healthy? If you are negative, exhausted and overworked can you be fully present for your clients?” Research related to therapists suggests that these conditions make it difficult to be effective for that profession. See: https://blogs.psychcentral.com/whole-self/2016/09/self-care-an-ethical-imperative-for-helping-professionals/. While, I have not located any direct research related to public defenders on this issue, the idea resonates as a strong consideration in client centered representation, as being fully present for the client, is at the heart of client centered representation. Therefore, emotional issues which detract from being fully present with the client, can also detract from quality ethical representation.
As such, each leader, lawyer, and staff member should consider self assessing emotional health at work. Other NAPD blogs have discussed some of these ideas, such as Renate Lunn’s “Always Have a Third Thing You Must, and “Trauma’s Hidden Ripple Effects.” Gina Pruski's NAPD webinar on “Mindfulness for Public Defenders” on My Gideon, are great resources and places for thought and exploration of this issue.
For a quick self assessment, please see “Professional Quality of Life: Compassion Satisfaction and Fatigue Version 5, www.Proqol.org by B. Hudnall Stamm. This assessment is 30 questions covering Compassion Satisfaction, Burnout, and Secondary Trauma Stress.
Other web based resources include but there are many more:
Please take care of yourselves, so you can take care of your families, your clients and their families, and the communities where we all live and work for a long time in the future. If your assessment does not turn out the way you would like it to, please take the time to address whatever it is that is challenging you at the moment. There are ups and downs in this work, but emotional health is crucial to sustaining oneself. Me, I have to work on that burnout thing a little. But, I wouldn’t do any other kind of law practice.
This is my own opinion and not that of the Georgia Public Defender Council.