A typical lawyer’s day is likely to involve hearing or reading an account from a client about something bad happening in their life. The gravity of the problem might range from something that hasn’t happened yet - a request for advice for some possible future occurrence - to a life-changing accident or the death of a loved one. Lawyers are problem-solvers, and that can be stressful, but those lawyers who regularly deal with particularly traumatic accounts and experiences are at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma.
Vicarious traumaThere are lots of ways to describe the effect of working in this area, including secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue. We use the term vicarious trauma, to encompass the wide range of potential negative effects of being immersed in trauma day-to-day at work. These effects might include physical symptoms (intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, sleep disturbance) as well as psychological (memory loss, being unable to engage with client material or the news, finding it hard to concentrate, or being irritable for no apparent reason) and even deeper shifts in how we view the world, as an inherently dark or dangerous place.
Although we do not experience the trauma directly, we can experience the same effects as our clients, including a sense of profound guilt. Where our clients may feel guilty for surviving, or for allowing the trauma to happen (when it is not their fault), lawyers feel guilty for experiencing these symptoms at all when it is our clients who have suffered. This guilt might even stop us seeking help.
Ultimately though, our clients aren’t served best by burnt out and traumatised lawyers. Sleep disturbances will affect the quality of our work and our ability to concentrate. Avoidant-type symptoms and avoidant coping strategies can be especially difficult, where it starts to feel impossible to even open certain files or read certain witness statements. Lawyers in these fields are also likely to be working in legal aid or other lower paid areas of the profession and therefore less able to seek private counselling support. It is therefore imperative that changing working patterns and taking proactive protective steps to prevent vicarious trauma, happens at the systemic level of work-place training, supervision and regulation, rather than by heaping yet more expectation individual lawyers to be able to protect themselves against these effects.
What can we do about it?One of the most difficult aspects of vicarious trauma is the sense of hopelessness that can follow. This makes it particularly hard for lawyers to identify clearly the impact on themselves personally or to take action. Vicarious trauma is not a personal failing, it arises in the context of a myriad of contributing factors: caseload, personal experience, availability of a supportive network, political and social climates, to name a few. The ways in which we need to deal with it are therefore also multiple.
By simply acknowledging the inevitable effect of working with some of the cases that we do, we can help reduce the severity of the impact. To do this, we need space and time within our legal practice to reflect, to share experiences with peers and supervisors, and to learn techniques to improve how we cope with the effects. Together, these approaches can reduce the stigma and shame around vicarious trauma, will help those of us struggling, and will improve our legal practice overall.
Lawyers cannot and should not have to cope with vicarious trauma alone. However, there are some positive practices that individuals can adopt:
ReflectionAllowing some space and time within your schedule to reflect on your own practice, either individually or in groups. If you are based in London, you might want to try our free monthly evening space or contact us for support in setting up your own group out of London.
MindfulnessThere is strong scientific evidence that higher levels of mindfulness are link to lower levels of vicarious trauma. Our reflective spaces and training sessions include short mindfulness practices to settle the mind and body.
Looking after yourselfSelf-care is not self-indulgence. If every day you are supporting survivors of trauma, it is imperative that you take care of yourself too. Exercise, a good diet, sleep, and having friends and activities outside of the legal world. These things are sometimes easier said than done, but taking time in the day to recharge is vital to make the important work lawyers do sustainable.
Professional helpRequesting more formal support for your mental health from your GP is important if you are really struggling, particularly if you are also dealing with your own trauma history. It’s also important that we ask our employers, chambers and universities to do more to provide the support needed.
Vicarious ResilienceLawyers who work with survivors of trauma will also know that our clients are among some of the bravest, most compassionate and determined people on earth. So, just as we can sometimes absorb the sadness and stress of our clients’ experiences, we can also take great comfort and benefit from them too. This is sometimes called vicarious resilience (sometimes, post-traumatic growth).
Claiming Space was set up following long conversations between Rachel Francis and Joanna Fleck, both lawyers working in legal aid. We knew that other professions had better structures to support people exposed to traumatic material and there was something valuable to learn from the reflective practices of therapists and mental health professionals.
Since we started having these conversations, over a year ago, we’ve certainly noticed an increase in recognition of vicarious trauma, which is encouraging. There is still a huge amount more to do.
Joanna Fleck has spent over 8 years working in legal aid law, qualifying as a solicitor in 2014. She recently completed a Master’s degree in psychology, researching secondary traumatic stress in the legal profession, and is particularly interested in the intersection between mental health, physical health, and social justice. She now works in the mental health sector, teaches yoga and meditation, and still does some legal work.
Rachel Francis is a barrister practising in immigration and family law. She is the former co-chair of Young Legal Aid Lawyers. During her time as co-chair, Rachel was jointly responsible for the strategic direction of the group and for co-ordinating its activities campaigning against legal aid cuts, promoting social mobility and protecting the interests of junior lawyers who believe in the importance of legally-aided work as a means of achieving social justice.
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