How Lawyers Can Cope with Vicarious Trauma

Jeena Cho
Vicarious trauma, along with other mental illnesses, needs to be discussed starting in law school.

Vicarious trauma, along with other mental illnesses, needs to be discussed starting in law school.

10'000 Hours/DigitalVision via GettyImages

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One thing they don’t teach in law school is how to cope with the trauma associated with legal work. One such unintended consequence is vicarious trauma.

In my work as a bankruptcy lawyer, I meet a lot of clients who are in deep distress.

Often, clients end up in my office due to some life trauma—divorce, death, extended illness, and so on. We know from research that first responders are at risk for vicarious trauma when they’re helping those in crisis. Lawyers are similarly at risk.

Jan Newman, a psychologist and mindset coach in Charlotte, North Carolina, says that vicarious trauma occurs when a professional experiences the signs and symptoms that mimic post-traumatic stress disorder in connection with traumatic material presented by the client. Newman says these signs and symptoms can include intrusive or persistent negative thoughts, avoidance, and withdrawal, hyperarousal and hypervigilance, or sleep disturbance.

Clients experiencing trauma put their lawyers at a higher risk for vicarious trauma, says Jeff Sherr, training director for the National Association for Public Defense.

He says that public defenders and criminal defense lawyers are at risk for vicarious trauma because “we see a multitude of trauma inflicted on our clients and their families by the criminal punishment bureaucracy.”

These lawyers frequently see their clients lose their jobs, housing, and support when they are not able to post bond; they watch innocent clients take plea deals; they see clients with mental illness and substance abuse disorders not being able to get the treatment they need.

These lawyers are surrounded by trauma, and they’re underresourced. They are juggling heavy caseloads while struggling to pay the bills. “In my career, I’ve seen dozens of public defenders suffer from anxiety, depression, substance abuse disorders, and even commit suicide,” Sherr says.

Many lawyers shared that it’s not necessarily the type of case but rather the trauma the clients are experiencing that is so painful to deal with.

Setting Boundaries

As a Florida-based personal injury attorney, Chelsie M. Lamie often represents victims of crime in civil lawsuits against the businesses that fail to protect them from crime occurring on their property.

Dealing with these sorts of cases contributes to vicarious trauma. Lamie has learned to cope by setting healthy boundaries with her clients and reminding herself that “I am walking with them through the case for a relatively short time.” She reminds herself that she can be empathetic to her clients but that it is important to separate herself from the case for her own well-being. “I also take a lot of time for self-care, including time away from the office, like spa days and travel with my husband and children.”

According to Newman, people who have their own unresolved trauma may be at greater risk for vicarious trauma. Andrea Vacca, a collaborative divorce attorney and mediator in New York City, recalls hearing her female divorce clients describing their marriages and thinking, “That sounds like my boyfriend.” She would then imagine her own relationship in 10 years. In hindsight, she can see that she was “purposely picking the wrong men so that I wouldn’t have to commit.” After a few years of therapy, Vacca was able to commit to a healthy and drama-free relationship.

Vacca says domestic relations lawyers are at risk for vicarious trauma because “in litigation, I was encouraging my clients to rehash all of the terrible things that their spouse did during the marriage. This leads to the clients seeing themselves as a victim.”

The lawyer may then start to personalize—and internalize—the client’s stories.

Rachel Regenold worked as a public defender for 11 years. In 2015, after being named attorney of the year by the Public Defenders Association of Iowa, she resigned to enroll in massage school and teach yoga. She has since returned to practicing law but is no longer practicing criminal law. She is now a sole practitioner advising health-and-wellness business owners in Des Moines, Iowa.

Regenold says it’s important to make self-care a priority, including wellness practices like meditation, bodywork and movement practices, and setting boundaries. One telltale sign to look out for is withdrawal. “That’s classic with compassion fatigue—withdrawing from all the things you love, and what you’re left with is the darkness of your work.

If you can stay engaged in people and activities that have nothing to do with the law, you’ll remember there is light and good in the world.”

Normalizing Discussion

Practicing self-care and seeking therapy are important steps for mitigating the impact of vicarious trauma. But it can be challenging. The long hours that lawyers tend to work leave little room for spending time in nature, pursuing hobbies, or simply pausing to assess one’s inner state.

There’s also a stigma in our profession for getting therapy.

Additionally, talk therapy may be difficult to access in managed health care systems, which tend to favor medication instead.

Vicarious trauma, along with other mental illnesses, needs to be discussed starting in law school, and seeking help for these issues should be normalized. On an organizational level, law firms, bar associations, public defender offices, and district attorney’s offices should regularly address lawyer well-being and make it a priority. Lawyers are not immune from mental health issues, and struggling with vicarious trauma isn’t a personal failing. It’s simply a sign that you’re human.

This article originally appeared in the FebruaryMarch 2020 issue of the ABA Journal magazine with the title "Taking on Client Suffering: When Caring Costs You." You can also find it on the ABA Journal website

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Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms on stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness, and meditation. She cowrote The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with the JC Law Group in San Francisco.