Asylum Attorney Burnout and Secondary Trauma

94 Pages Posted: 25 Mar 2021 Last revised: 22 Dec 2022

See all articles by Lindsay Muir Harris

Lindsay Muir Harris

University of San Francisco School of Law

Hillary Mellinger

George Mason University

Date Written: February 18, 2021


We are in the midst of a crisis of mental health for attorneys across all practice areas. Illustrating this broader phenomenon, this interdisciplinary article shares the results of the 2020 National Asylum Attorney Burnout and Secondary Traumatic Stress Survey. Using well-established tools (the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory and the Secondary Stress Trauma Survey), the Survey assessed the well-being of over 700 immigration attorneys navigating the tumultuous asylum space. As the first study of its kind regarding U.S. immigration lawyers and the largest study of U.S. attorneys to date, it is particularly timely. Between 2017-2021, the Trump Administration’s extreme policies, sweeping regulatory changes, and Attorney General decisions catapulted immigration law practice into the public spotlight and created deeper dimensions of stress in an already dysfunctional system intent on re-traumatizing asylum seekers. The Survey findings include much higher self-reported symptoms of burnout and secondary traumatic stress among asylum attorneys than previously surveyed populations, including immigration judges, social workers, hospital doctors, nurses, and prison wardens. In addition, female-identifying attorneys, attorneys of color, and solo practitioners reported higher symptoms of burnout and secondary traumatic stress.

This piece explores the inherently traumatic nature of asylum-seeking and asylum-lawyering, briefly touching on the ever-changing landscape of asylum law and policy. In doing so, the article considers specifically how these changes impact asylum attorneys, as one subset of immigration attorneys and indeed of attorneys exposed to trauma. We contribute to the literature around trauma stewardship and a need for self-care, institutional care, and proactive measures to support those joining and continuing in the field. Further, the article provides data to inform funders and other stakeholders about the need for support managing trauma exposure and to normalize a culture of openly discussing burnout and secondary trauma within law school settings, non-profits, government agencies, and law firms. Ultimately, this article argues for a fundamental shift in legal education and the legal profession more broadly in terms of how we think, talk, and teach about the psychological realities of lawyering.

Keywords: asylum, mental health, immigration, well-being, lawyers, attorneys, secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, burnout, stress, law schools, continuing legal education, policy, reform, trauma, trauma exposure

Suggested Citation

Harris, Lindsay M and Mellinger, Hillary, Asylum Attorney Burnout and Secondary Trauma (February 18, 2021). 56 Wake Forest Law Review 733 (2021), Available at SSRN:

Lindsay M Harris (Contact Author)

University of San Francisco School of Law ( email )

2130 Fulton Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
United States

Hillary Mellinger

George Mason University ( email )

4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
United States

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