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Five Things Attorneys Should Know About Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma is caused by continuous, indirect exposure to trauma through another person’s firsthand account or narrative. Anyone who regularly interacts with trauma survivors may experience vicarious trauma, including attorneys representing clients who have experienced domestic or sexual violence.

 What is vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma, also called secondary traumatic stress, is caused by continuous, indirect exposure to trauma through another person’s firsthand account or narrative of trauma. While those experiencing vicarious trauma are not the direct victims of trauma, they often experience post-traumatic stress symptoms similar to those who are. Vicarious trauma may, in some instances, lead to compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is the loss of one’s ability to feel empathy for clients, coworkers, and/or loved ones. Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue may contribute to burnout, which is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long-term exposure to and involvement with emotionally demanding situations. Burnout may result in attorneys leaving their jobs or the practice of law. However, not all responses to vicarious trauma are negative. Vicarious resilience and vicarious transformation are positive responses to vicarious trauma. Moreover, compassion satisfaction reflects the positive sense of purpose that is gained from working in direct service. Such positive outcomes may contribute toward motivating and protecting attorneys against the negative effects of trauma exposure.

 What are some signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma may inevitably lead to a change in one’s world view. This may include a change of one's values, identity, and/or beliefs. Vicarious trauma may also result in physical and psychological symptoms such as fatigue, sleepiness, or difficulty falling asleep; physical problems or complaints, such as aches, pains, and decreased resistance to illness; lack of focus; increased or decreased sensitivity to violence; increased irritability; aggressive, explosive, or violent outbursts and behavior; destructive coping or addictive behaviors (e.g., over/under eating, substance abuse, gambling, taking undue risks); difficulty managing emotions; feeling emotionally numb or shut down; lack of or decreased participation in activities that used to be enjoyable. Cynicism, social withdrawal, and disconnection from loved ones may be symptomatic of vicarious trauma. It is important for practitioners to understand how vicarious trauma symptoms may manifest in a workplace setting. Behavioral impacts at work may include avoidance of traumatic material, intense desire to help certain clients, thoughts and feelings of inadequacy as a professional, loss of hope or sense of dread when working with certain clients, dissatisfaction with work, and an inability to let go of work-related matters outside of work hours. 

 Who does vicarious trauma affect?

Anyone who regularly interacts with trauma survivors may experience vicarious trauma, including attorneys representing clients who have experienced domestic or sexual violence. Certain factors may make individuals more vulnerable to the negative effects of vicarious trauma. These factors include: prior traumatic experiences; social isolation, both on and off the job; lack of preparation, orientation, training, and supervision in their jobs; being newer employees and less experienced at their jobs; large or unmanageable caseloads; constant and intense exposure to trauma with little or no variation in work tasks; and lack of an effective and supportive process for discussing the traumatic content of their work.

 What are some ways to cope with the negative effects of vicarious trauma?

On an individual level, there are certain proactive measures that attorneys may implement to avoid or alleviate the negative effects of vicarious trauma. First, set boundaries: keep your client relationships professional, not personal; take breaks throughout the day and leave the office at a reasonable hour each day; avoid working outside normal office hours except in an emergency; have an agreement with your colleagues not to contact each other off-hours unless it is truly an emergency; and take regular time off. Next, make self-care and healthy habits a priority. Exercise regularly, maintain a regular sleeping schedule to ensure adequate sleep and eat nutritious, mindful meals. Self-monitor for potential symptoms of vicarious trauma and seek the appropriate help. Finally, connect with others: maintaining nurturing relationships and meaningful contact with family, friends, and colleagues may help lessen the negative impact of vicarious trauma. It is important to understand that vicarious trauma is a common occurrence amongst those who provide direct services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Struggling with vicarious trauma should not be deemed a personal failing.

 How can organizations support staff and help reduce vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma is an occupational hazard in the field of direct services. It is crucial that organizations understand and acknowledge the impact of vicarious trauma on both individual staff members and the organization as a whole. There are numerous proactive measures management may take to reduce the occurrence of vicarious trauma among staff. On an organizational level, agencies may consider offering their staff access to medical and mental health support services, including comprehensive health insurance and confidential counseling; providing competitive pay and paid time off for all staff; providing adequate opportunities for effective supervision and consultation; and paying attention to caseload. It is crucial that management be cognizant of the examples they set for those they supervise. They may also want to consider setting an example of work life vs. home life boundaries, such as not checking emails after the end of the workday, or on weekends where there is no emergency. They may want to consider openly valuing life experiences outside of work (e.g., time spent with family), taking allocated leave time, and acknowledging that a healthy work/life balance takes both practice and intentionality.

The American Bar Association Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence is here to help your organization provide trauma-informed legal services to survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking through our Trauma-Informed Representation Project.

You can request training and technical assistance here.