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Burning Out: How Immigration Lawyers Can Cope with a Rapidly Changing Practice

December 05, 2019 (3 min read)

It’s not easy being a U.S. immigration lawyer these days—members of the immigration bar are reporting levels of stress not seen in decades. From working with asylum seekers to securing employment visas for professionals, it seems everything is more difficult due to a maelstrom of policy changes. Judges, too, are also stressed out by how they have been told to handle cases amidst an ever-growing docket backlog.

In short, nearly everyone who works in immigration feels like they are under siege—and quickly burning out.

Or, to use preferred terminology from the American Bar Association®, they are experiencing compassion fatigue. Also known as “vicarious trauma” or “secondary traumatic stress,” it refers to the “cumulative physical, emotional and psychological effect of exposure to traumatic stories or events.” Lawyers in practice areas that compel them to empathize with stories of human-induced trauma (including immigration, criminal or juvenile law) are particularly susceptible to compassion fatigue.

It doesn’t help that immigration is an area of law where clients need certainty—and fast, because their very lives could depend on it. To an immigration lawyer, not being able to give a quick, definite answer can be especially troubling.

Despite this, immigration lawyers are finding ways to cope. Here’s how.

Spot the Issue

Just as lawyers are trained to spot legal issues, immigration lawyers should learn to spot signs of compassion fatigue. One immigration lawyer, writing a moving account in The Huffington Post®, began her story this way: “The first time I realized something might be wrong, I was crying in the produce section of Costco®.”

The ABA has identified a number of symptoms of compassion fatigue that practitioners can and should watch for in themselves, including:

  • Having disturbing images from cases intrude on their thoughts
  • Becoming pessimistic and prone to anger
  • Becoming emotionally detached and numb in professional and personal life
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Secretive self-medication, through alcohol, drugs, gambling or other outlets

The entire list is worth reviewing, because treating compassion fatigue early on can prevent more serious disorders.

Become a Rising Star of Self-Care

Lawyers receive accolades for all kinds of things (cases won, clients signed, results achieved), but self-care isn’t one of them in a profession where long hours are still worn like a badge of honor.

It should be, however. Good self-care is the only way to sustain a legal career, especially in high-stress practices like immigration law.

Bar associations and groups like the National Immigration Project or the National Lawyers Guild are providing members with more self-care resources. The National Immigration Project website features a podcast from psychotherapist Penelope Young Andrade, in which she offers self-care reminders for immigration volunteers and attorneys.

Her ten tips include these reminders:

  • It is not disloyal to feel good
  • Thousands of people appreciate the work you are doing
  • It’s important to commit to self-care

Andrade recommends at least five to 10 minutes of some soothing practice (like walking outside or yoga) each day.

Lawyer-assistance programs offered by state bars can also help. These used to focus mainly on substance abuse, another severe problem in the legal profession, but now also offer broader wellness support focused on preventing burnout. Addressing mental health and wellness in the legal industry is long overdue, but it is good to see legal associations taking the lead on the issue. 

Make Changes to Practice Management

As we noted in this post about why lawyers should take vacations, there’s a great temptation among attorneys to handle everything themselves and never ask for help. That’s just a recipe for burnout, especially when the nature of the work is already stressful, as is often the case with immigration attorneys.

Even immigration lawyers in small and solo firms can delegate and streamline their work. This can include everything from using appointment scheduling and billing software to setting up websites that enable clients to access information about their cases. This can cut down on administrative time as well as reduce unnecessary emails and phone calls. These tools are readily available and can be cost-effective and relatively easy to use.

Burnout Doesn’t Have to be Inevitable

Practicing law is stressful, and immigration lawyers are commonly faced with circumstances that make their jobs immensely draining. In addition to the physical costs of keeping up with a heavy case load, the emotional toll can be significant. And, while many members of the immigration bar are dealing with burnout, awareness can go a long way to mitigating its negative effects.

Good self-care and taking steps to make a practice run more efficiently can both help immigration lawyers deal with the pressure that surrounds their work. Healthy lawyers also make better lawyers.


And that’s good for clients—who are probably facing a lot of stress too.