Lawyers are problem solvers and are a natural source of assistance for clients to share and air their problems.  These problems may be past, present or future – such is the range of the expertise required by lawyers! It is safe to say that often lawyers have to deal with vulnerable or traumatised clients.  Lawyers may read or hear accounts of bad things happening in a client’s life, or of things that haven’t happened yet but are causing angst, or of a past life-changing event such as an accident or the death of a loved one.  Given the exposure to such potentially harrowing experiences, lawyers are at risk from vicarious trauma.

But what is “vicarious trauma”?

Simply, vicarious trauma is a process of change. It is a process that unfolds over time. It encompasses a wide range of potential negative effects brought about from being immersed in trauma day-to-day at work.   It arises from a myriad of contributing factors like caseload, personal experience, availability of a support network and empathy.

It is not just a response to one person, one story, or one situation. It is the cumulative effect of contact with clients who have experienced or suffered extreme events or behaviours.  Although lawyers do not suffer the trauma directly, they can experience the same effects. The fact that the process of vicarious trauma is cumulative is important because it provides hope:  Hope that there will be many opportunities along the way to recognise the impact that certain work is having on an individual, so that attention can be given as to how to protect and care for them while they undertake their work.

Vicarious trauma happens because lawyers can often empathize with people who are hurting in some way. Empathy is the ability to identify with another person, to understand and feel another person’s pain and joy. Empathy doesn’t mean feeling exactly what someone else is feeling because everyone has their own Life story. Whilst lawyers cannot ever feel exactly what a client is feeling, to a certain extent, they can relate to the client’s experiences, reactions, and feelings. So it begins that when a lawyer cares about and identifies with the pain of clients who have endured terrible things, the client’s grief, fear, anger, and despair  can infiltrate into their own awareness and experience and they can start to feel it along with the client in some way.

Over time, vicarious trauma leads to changes in a lawyer’s own psychological and spiritual well-being unless it is kept in check!

Being impacted by vicarious trauma is a predictable outcome of being in a job that is focused on helping others during or after traumatic experiences.  Being predictable, however, means active steps can be taken to be aware of it, what the signs and symptoms are, and how to effectively prevent it taking control.

One of the keys to tackling vicarious trauma is to know or be aware as to how it can manifest itself.  Some of the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma can be linked to other problems as well, but in broad terms, some common difficulties associated with vicarious trauma include:

• Difficulty managing your emotions, experiencing intrusive thoughts, suffering panic attacks;

• Difficulty accepting or feeling okay about yourself;

• Difficulty making good decisions;

• Problems managing the boundaries between yourself and others (e.g., taking on too much responsibility, having difficulty leaving work at the end of the day, trying to step in and control other people’s lives);

• Problems in relationships, being irritable for no apparent reason;

• Physical problems such as aches & pains, illnesses, accidents, memory loss, sleep disturbance, experiencing burn out;

• Difficulty feeling connected to what’s going on around and within you, finding it hard to concentrate, being unable to engage with clients or client material; and

• Loss of meaning and hope, or a shift in how you view the world e.g seeing it as an inherently hostile, hopeless, dark or dangerous place.

Additionally, unrecognized and unaddressed vicarious trauma can also affect the workplace itself, work colleagues, the overall functioning of the organization, and the quality of assistance being provided to clients. Some common problems manifesting in the workplace include:

• Making decisions without adequate reflection;

• Making mistakes that cost time or money, and may even put people at risk;

• Taking on too much work, or too many assignments so that the individual lawyer’s team or the  business as a whole is ill-prepared to complete the work, or complete it well;

• Not fulfilling commitments;

• Taking excessive unplanned time off;

• Blaming others instead of seeking understanding and productive collaboration;

• Devaluing and/or ridiculing other staff members; and

• Infecting colleagues with their own cynicism, depression, and/or lack of motivation.

The problems can be severe, yet, lawyers are quick to hide the impact of vicarious trauma, whether consciously or unconsciously, through a sense of guilt and hopelessness, and so they fail to acknowledge that they need help. But an individual lawyer is not guilty of a personal failing.

Given that  lawyers try to keep any self-imposed so-called “failing”quiet, who can be affected? Who needs watching?  Well, it’s not as simple as being able to point the finger at the more obvious legal disciplines where trauma would be more likely to be a day-to-day experience, for example personal injury, matrimonial or relationship work and criminal cases.  Vicarious trauma is far more subtle and creeps in to many disciplines like probate matters, property litigation, conveyancing and even company commercial. Essentially it’s wherever there can be a vulnerable or traumatised client, and who is to say what causes such anguish to an individual client?  A lawyer’s life can be fraught with daily “trauma”. The nature of the job is to be exposed to things that go wrong, or could go wrong, and when they go wrong they can go terribly wrong. Lawyers would be hard-pressed not to be affected in some way.

So what can be done about this?

First, just consider the extreme options that could possibly cross the mind of someone affected by vicarious trauma: Stop empathizing with people? Stop feeling committed and responsible? Quit the job? Those are options, but they are extreme, probably unworkable, and there are better options!

Simply acknowledging  the inevitable effect of working with a type of caseload that would open the door to vicarious trauma, or merely understanding more about vicarious trauma are great first steps. This kind of knowledge will help clarify what needs to be done in order to best prevent and address vicarious trauma.

The best place to start tackling vicarious trauma is in the workplace, and employers need to consider providing time and space for lawyers to reflect upon and share experiences with colleagues, and then decide upon best practices to deal with the issues and the effects.  Individual lawyers should not have to deal with vicarious trauma alone and a pro-active firm will be aware of the negative side-effects of not helping struggling lawyers, as outlined above. Some law firms have already taken initial steps to ensure that lawyers have access to support within the firm, perhaps from Mental Health First Aiders, and, crucially, from outside the firm, for example by having access to a life coach funded by the firm, or with whom they have agreed discounted rates for employees who wish to have this type of support.

There are positive practices that individual lawyers can take for themselves as well.

Self-awareness or Mindfulness can help address vicarious trauma in at least two ways. First, it can help identify and understand the reactions a lawyer has to situations. Second, the practice of self-awareness itself can also be good for helping address vicarious trauma symptoms and effects. The earlier an individual notices that something is getting to them – making them tense, uncomfortable, distressed, annoyed, or tired, for example – the easier it is to prevent bigger problems. A self-awareness check can help figure out potential risk factors that an individual is being exposed to and how they are responding; sometimes the self-awareness check will indicate that an individual has just had a bad day, but this is a one-off, but sometimes there will be something that needs to be addressed immediately; or perhaps the self-awareness check will reveal that something has triggered a negative reaction, but the event itself is outside the individual’s control and as such the lawyer should accept that nothing can be done for now.

Self care is vital.  Lawyers often need to acknowledge and appreciate that a work-life integration is important. Many talk about a work-life balance, but that somehow feels like to create “balance” something from one side has to give in favour of the other.  An integration follows the premise that an individual is the source of everything in their life. As such we can all have everything we want, provided it is all correctly aligned. In achieving a successful work-life integration it is imperative that a lawyer takes exercise, has a good diet, sleeps well and has a social life outside of the legal environment.  This may sometimes seem beyond the realms of possibility for lawyers, but everyone has to recharge, or burn out, stress or overwhelm will result.

Whilst more firms are initiating outside help to be made available for lawyers, lawyers can always seek professional help themselves.  Assistance is available through GPs, and, of course, life coaches can be invaluable in helping to see the bigger picture and in facilitating a solution for the individual lawyer.  Life coaches can see the blind spots that people do not see for themselves.

In summary, whilst vicarious trauma is commonplace, it is often not talked about.  Somehow there is a stigma and shame attached to it, which adds more pressure on an individual suffering with it to try and keep the effects under wraps.  The effects of vicarious trauma can be catastrophic for the individual and the firm they work for because they are so far-reaching and crippling. However, we should be encouraged by the massive change in the way the legal profession is approaching wellbeing in the workplace.  This should include and address much of the stigma surrounding vicarious trauma, as clearly this needs to be on the agenda for all law firms. When everyone pulls together vicarious resilience can be built.

Suzie Stanley

Suzie is a Strategic Intervention Life Coach who helps lawyers deal with the demands of their career and achieve a successful work-life integration, and assists law firms with the implementation of wellbeing practices.  As a former lawyer herself, Suzie knows the pitfalls of a demanding legal career.