Addressing Burnout in Human Rights Lawyering

Selene Nafisi
Law Students for Human Rights

In my early morning commute to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) building in Beirut, Lebanon, I passed by dozens of Syrian refugee families. They wait for hours under the scorching summer sun hoping for an opportunity to tell their harrowing stories in exchange for assistance. Yet demand outweighs supply. Many refugees walk away disappointed, with only what they had when they arrived—vulnerability.

Even with technical assistance and the support of governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the situation for Syrian refugees in the region remains dire. Lebanon hosts over 1.1 million Syrian refugees—the highest per capita refugee population in the world. Refugees in Lebanon are largely barred from working, and many face discrimination and abuse. Only 1% of refugees in the country—those deemed most vulnerable by the UNHCR—are referred for resettlement to other countries.

As the Syrian conflict swells into its sixth year, it becomes difficult for human rights practitioners to manage feelings of exhaustion. This seemingly inevitable emotional response is detrimental to human rights movements, which draw on continuous solidarity for those most affected.

Exhaustion is not unique to the Syrian context. Legal advocates in the U.S. also struggle with burnout from the increasing challenges and demands that arise in their work. From criminal justice reform to immigration to healthcare, advocate fatigue depletes momentum from movements for social equality and human dignity.

As legal advocates, what actions should we take when feeling overwhelmed by the complexities of the challenges we face?  

We should focus on actively reminding ourselves of the stories we present and why.

When advocating for human rights, we sometimes focus on the broader issues, populations, and institutions at the expense of thinking of the individuals—our clients—whose lives we aim to improve.

There was a moment—perhaps a series of moments—in our lives when we felt so deeply moved—perhaps even outraged—by something. That something ingrained in us a feeling so powerful that we consciously reacted by choosing to become advocates.

When we feel overwhelmed, exhausted, or defeated, we must remember that something that is unique for each of us. For me, that something is captured in the stories, faces, and memories of my family and friends, who had no choice but to leave their homes and lives forever behind.

As advocates, we must nurture the spirit of that something by directly engaging with our clients. The people I impact now and in the future are not, and will never be, those friends and family members that led me to law school. Yet their stories live on in the lives of those I hope to accompany through my work.

By focusing on our clients, we are reminded of how human rights work operates most significantly at the individual, human level. We should open ourselves up fully to our clients’ experiences—feel their fears, mourn their losses, and celebrate their victories. We become effective empathizers, storytellers, and lawyers.

Margaret Satterthwaite, NYU Professor of Clinical Law and Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ), says that “connecting to people’s lives and having proximity to how human rights are violated” is fundamental to effective lawyering. She continues, “Lawyers must advance the stories people tell about their own lives.”

Whether in offices, courtrooms, or on our morning commute, we must feel that something by keeping our clients’ stories alive as we advocate. In the words of Asma Peracha, ‘17 and former LSHR co-chair, “​As wearing as human rights work can be, all the things you care about are a part of your work, directly or indirectly.”

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