Self-Care for Public Defenders

Self-care is a social worker and therapist idea, basically, wherein the practitioner makes an effort to care for himself and his own mental wellbeing as a way of staying healthy and being able to persevere, successfully, in the field. In the social work field, it is taught as a "survival skill," as the University of Buffalo Social Work school noted on its website Self-Care Starter Kit, which has a lot of great resources for social work students and practitioners.

When I started out as a public defender, many years ago, I was surprised how little attention was paid to the attorneys' well-being. I distinctly remember sitting through the first-day training on health benefits, and when we got to the part about mental health, the only coverage was for in-patient mental health treatment and in-patient drug and alcohol treatment. Even then, not having experienced it, I thought, "Wouldn't this be a profession where it'd be nice to talk to a therapist or something once in a while?"

But what I learned is that, at least in the offices I've worked in, self-care was largely ignored. All the therapy you needed was in a pint at the pub with colleagues. And, don't get me wrong, I think collegiality is important, but maybe that's how we ended up as the profession with the highest alcoholism rates? (Attorneys in general, not public defenders. I've never seen stats on alcoholism among different legal fields.)

In the offices where I've practiced, to talk about being "burnt out" was to be seen as someone who couldn't handle the job, someone who wasn't a "true believer." To struggle with how to avoid taking our clients' issues home was to be seen as naive, a rookie lawyer who didn't "get it yet."

I bring all this up because, after a lot of consideration, I have decided to reenter the world of public defense. But this time, I want to do it differently.

I'm not quite sure yet how to do it, but I want to be more cognizant of my own needs this time. I want to engage in more self-care. A google search for self-care turns up tons of information for therapists and social workers. A google search for self-care and public defense turns up articles about self-representation and self-defense. My plan is to read up on self-care and see how it can be adapted to public defense (because, after all, social worker can be one of the hats a public defender wears).  One thing that I'm thinking is to research things like yoga classes and other things that will be healthy and relaxing for me and, from day one at my new office, to start by saying something like, "On Wednesdays, I have to leave by 5 p.m., I have a standing appointment." I know emergencies will come up, and that it won't always be realistic to leave early, but if it happens more often than not, I'd be happy.

Besides that... I'm not sure yet. If there's anyone out there still reading this (besides the comment spam bots), I'd like to hear from you. How do you engage in self-care?


  1. I'm still here! But I'm not a PD or in an emotionally stressful job.
    I think you could start a revolution here. And while I can't tell you from my own experience, I would think that either regular therapy or regular sessions with like-minded PDs who want to delve deeper into their work and their feelings about it than you can do over a pint at the bar would be helpful. While yoga, meditation, or other things that keep you generally healthy are good, my guess is that talking over and exploring your work and its effect on you will be essential.

  2. Like most, I probably don't enough. But we seem to lose at least one member of the criminal defense community in our state to suicide each year, which is appalling. The reasons vary, of course, but the problem is real. Our state's criminal defense lawyers association is starting an outreach group to try as best we can to catch and intervene. There are issues of mental health, financial health, physical health. We're not competent to address them, but maybe we're able to recognize some of the problems in others and try to offer something - we'll see what as we see if this goes anywhere.

    And we're talking about adding some component of work on these things as a small part of every CLE we put on.

    Meanwhile, welcome back to PD land.

  3. I just wrapped up a several month stint of therapy. It was helpful. I think I'm ready to give the gig a shot without it again. But the PD world appears to this rookie as an unrelenting one, so I'm trying to figure out what other things I can do. Exercise, eating well, time with my partner, all the usual old saws do help. Ultimately, though, what works best for me is working less whenever I possibly can. Taking a full weekend for myself here and there really makes a world of difference.

    My office is pretty supportive. If you're burning hard in a trial rotation, you can request a placement in arraignments or a similar placement. But I realize this isn't the norm, and the culture is still a little judgmental about what we can and can't hack. It's tough in general, and especially tough as a young woman, since I feel like I have that much more to prove.

  4. Two-beer ball. I frequently engage in the game throughout the week, but it is a must after trial, when it sometimes becomes three-beer ball. It is easy and cathartic, especially after a grueling ass-kicking. Once I get home and change, I show my dog my ear buds which sets her into a tizzy. She then grabs her ball, and we head to the back yard. Once there, I grab a beer from the garage, turn on my music and play fetch with my pooch. I decompress, and she loves it. She generally lasts for about two beers (maybe three if we've both had a long week of no two-beer ball). Works for me every time.