The term “vicarious trauma” describes the process of one person being exposed, indirectly, to the trauma experienced by another. Lawyers hear directly about traumatic experiences from clients, read written accounts, and sometimes see images or watch video footage of traumatic events. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is included within this definition, although it is more often thought of as a condition that lawyers read about in the clinical reports about their own clients.
Lawyers may represent people who have committed acts which they find morally offensive, or spend long periods of time building a relationship of trust with a traumatised client in order to take a detailed account from them. As a result, a lawyer’s worldview may shift: where they once saw the world being a generally benign place, it becomes one where danger and death are normal.
The exposure may be more of a slow build, like the private client lawyer dealing with estate management, deaths and grieving relatives. For others, it may be a one-off exposure to graphic images or video footage of an accident or violent incident which triggers a particularly intense and long-lasting reaction. This could happen at any stage of a professional’s career.
The symptoms of traumatic stress are often grouped into three types: intrusion, avoidance and arousal.
Reactions to traumatic material will be influenced by our own personal experience of trauma. It may be hard to separate the effects of a lawyer’s own experience from the effects of a client’s experience of trauma.
If you are struggling, it is important to speak to your GP or a mental health professional. It is also important to remember that these reactions are not only common but very natural ones to exposure to trauma, but that no one should suffer in silence.
Over the last two years, the co-directors of Claiming Space have been speaking to lawyers across the profession, of all backgrounds, sectors and years of qualification. They note a noticeable rise in awareness of the issues of vicarious trauma and a growing effort to increase the support for lawyers who are at risk. Better awareness of vicarious trauma is an important first step in tackling the issue. Even lawyers who regularly work with clients with trauma may struggle to recognise those same symptoms in themselves. It is also understandable that there is some guilt around one’s own feelings of distress: i.e.: “my clients have it so much worse”. If lawyers have spent a long time studying, training and working to reach qualified status, they may feel even more pressure about “coping”, the thought that: “I have not trained this long and hard to leave the profession now”.
There are things that can be done on an individual and on an organisational level, including creating space to debrief after dealing with difficult cases, specialist training for staff, offering opportunities for peer support and providing independent clinical supervision. Claiming Space run a free monthly group for junior lawyers (including trainees and paralegals) as well as bespoke workplace training and consultancy.
Claiming Space have developed a half-day training with LawCare and Anna Robinson (a solicitor and psychotherapist) on Thursday 9 May 2019. For more details go to claiming.space or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To hear more, sign up to their mailing list or follow Claiming Space on Twitter
Claiming Space is a community interest company that has grown from peer support groups to offering innovative training for lawyers working with vulnerable populations and was founded by Joanna Fleck and Rachel Francis.