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Rachel Rothwell

Freelance Journalist,

Quotation Marks
Vicarious trauma can be a ‘slow burn’ with the symptoms creeping up on lawyers without them realising

In too deep

In too deep


Lawyers whose clients have endured terrible events can themselves suffer from 'vicarious trauma' as a result. Rachel Rothwell reports

In many walks of life – paramedic, police officer, fire fighter, social worker – the emotional stress that comes with the job is well recognised and understood and support is implemented to help employees. But the professionals on the front line of traumatic events are not the only ones to suffer. There is growing evidence that lawyers can be affected by what is known as ‘vicarious trauma’ – a condition defined by the British Medical Association as “a process of change resulting from empathetic engagement with trauma survivors”. Whether the lawyer’s work involves dealing with events involving the abuse of children, people who have fled from war torn countries, families whose loved one has been left paralysed through medical negligence, or simply witnessing the ongoing, daily struggle suffered by many client groups – the emotional strain can take a heavy toll on legal professionals. Those in fields such as immigration, family law, criminal law, personal injury, housing and civil liberties law can be particularly at risk. Mary Jackson is co-ordinator at charity LawCare and provides training sessions to lawyers on dealing with vicarious trauma. She explains: “Vicarious trauma is something that has not been recognised until recently in the legal profession.

The research on this is much further ahead in the US and Australia. “People tend to think it is something that just affects people such as those working in the emergency services. But lawyers see and hear terrible things.” Early signs of vicarious trauma can include memory loss or feelings of anxiousness. But it can develop to include nightmares, intrusive thoughts, a racing heartbeat, palpitations, numbness or a feeling of shutting down. Ultimately, it can end in compassion fatigue, or even ‘burnout’ – a point at which the individual is simply unable to cope. Jackson cites the example of a barrister suffering from burnout during a double murder trial. “When he stood up in court, he was unable to speak. He had gone beyond the point of coping, but he was not aware of it himself ”, she says. She adds that in some cases, lawyers can find themselves ‘living and breathing’ their clients, to the point where they can ‘haunt’ their dreams. She explains: “One solicitor told me of how she had started sleepwalking, and her husband would find her talking about her cases in her sleep, with her hands moving, as if arranging her papers. Things had had really crept in on her.” Joanna Fleck, a former lawyer with an MSc in psychology, has conducted research on secondary traumatic stress in the legal profession. She is co-founder of Claiming Space, an organisation providing specialist training for lawyers working with vulnerable people. Fleck points out that vicarious trauma can be a ‘slow burn’ with the symptoms creeping up on lawyers without them realising it. “That is why it is so insidious,” she remarks. “Lawyers working with these client groups are often very dedicated, and they tend to ignore what is happening to themselves, or they feel a sense of guilt that they should not have any complaints – after all, they are going home to a nice safe home with food on the table.” She says that the more severe a client’s trauma has been, the higher the risk of vicarious trauma; but lawyers can also be affected by the cumulative effect of dealing with clients who have endured so much over the course of their lives. “It’s not always about trauma with a capital ‘T’”, she says. “Life happens on a scale.” Sometimes lawyers can find themselves troubled by intrusive thoughts long after their relationship with the client has ended, for example, where an immigration client loses their claim and is deported to an unsafe situation. “It can haunt people for a long time”, notes Fleck. “Just talking about the client might bring them to tears.”

Occasionally, lawyers can find themselves directly exposed to the client’s trauma. In her role at LawCare, Jackson is one of the team who work on the charity’s telephone helpline. She recently took a call from a young lawyer who was distressed by the situation she found herself in, when one of her clients learned that she had been refused asylum. The client became extremely distressed, screaming and throwing herself against the wall repeatedly. The young lawyer was alone in the office, with no colleague to assist her. “I asked the lawyer to describe how all this had made her feel, and she said she felt ‘bruised on the inside’”, Jackson reports. “It had affected her so deeply.” A lawyer’s stress can be heightened further by the pressure of deadlines, the failings of the court system and battles with the legal aid agency. There is also what Jackson describes as the “tyranny of perfection” in which lawyers feel they cannot afford to make mistakes. Client expectation can also weigh heavily upon them. As part of her training sessions, Jackson asks solicitors to name the roles their clients expect them to play, along with that of a lawyer. Typical answers are: counsellor, doctor, judge, friend, parent, partner, miracle worker, fortune teller, bank – and a Mary Poppins, perfect in every way.

EMOTIONAL CURRENCY For solicitors who work with vulnerable clients, good people skills are essential. Showing empathy towards clients is the key to enabling them to open up and engage with their legal adviser – sometimes having to recount extremely difficult events that have happened to them. But for the lawyer, it is important to ensure that their boundaries do not become too porous. Fleck recalls one of her first assignments as a young paralegal, which required her to speak to a daughter about the death of her father. “You learn very quickly that to [engage with the client] you have to open yourself up, give something of yourself. It is sometimes referred to as ‘emotional currency’. Lawyers who are doing the work well are doing this, but perhaps without understanding what it might cost them in the long term.” She adds: “Clients don’t tell you neat bundles of just the information that you need to know. When they are talking to an empathetic lawyer, you can find that they start telling you everything – things that they have never told anyone before. The lawyer will be listening, but might also be worrying about the time pressure they are under [to finish the meeting] or worried that the client is going deeper into events that are traumatic for them. “There is evidence to suggest that the effect on lawyers is much worse than on other professions dealing with similar client groups. That could be because we have no training on this and no supervision. We are not even told that vicarious trauma is something that can happen to us.” Lawyers can be particularly vulnerable where they have experienced difficulties in their own lives that resonate with the problems being suffered by their client. In a recent example, a solicitor was struck off the roll in October 2019 for an error of judgement that had been triggered by his empathy towards the fact that the client had suffered a stillbirth. The solicitor had experienced a similar tragic event in his own life – his own baby son had died at the age of six months. He suffered depression and anxiety as a result, and these emotions were heightened by the client’s experience to the point where his judgement was clouded.


What then can solicitors do to ensure they do not fall victim to vicarious trauma? Firstly, as an air steward might say, it is important to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Fleck says: “Self-care has become something of a buzzword; but part of you does need to think about yourself, rather than the client in front of you, so that you can keep on doing this work for the clients of the future. “Many people in these areas of law are very hardworking and compassionate, but they still don’t feel they’re doing enough – because nothing ever actually feels like enough.” On a fundamental level, lawyers need to ensure they are eating, sleeping and exercising properly. An awareness of techniques on how to step back from work for a few minutes and refocus is also beneficial. Jackson, who teaches these methods as part of LawCare’s training, says: “When I mention mindfulness in a training session, people think I’m going to ask them to sit on the floor and assume the lotus position. But it is nothing like that.” She will bring along some posh chocolates to her training sessions and ask participants to spend a minute or so looking at the chocolate, unwrapping it and eating it – with a focus on all five senses. The feedback is that people find it very helpful to be given the opportunity to ‘switch off ’ through such a simple exercise. She explains: “The science suggests that it’s possible to re-wire the brain to make it more positive thinking… If you just take a little bit of time out before making that difficult phone call, or going to see that client in a state of high emotion – just literally take a minute to calm yourself down – it can make the difference.” But while there are actions that individual lawyers can take to help themselves, a lot comes down to the willingness of their firms to recognise vicarious trauma as an issue, and to provide a working environment that guards against it. Fleck says: “There has to be responsibility at an organisational and professional level, to ensure people are properly trained and supervised for the work they are doing. It’s also about developing a ‘reflective’ practice – making sure there is space and time in the workplace for these issues to be acknowledged.” Where lawyers have a busy caseload, it is important to ensure that where something goes well for them, these successes are recognised – rather than them moving straight onto the next thing, without pausing to consider the positive difference they have made for their client. For lawyers who rarely leave their desks for lunch, it is also a good idea to set aside one lunchtime for the team to leave the office and go for a walk. Some law firms provide an employee assistance programme (EAP) through which lawyers can speak confidentially to a counsellor from outside the firm. But internal dialogue is also hugely important. Jackson reports that one firm she visits has now begun holding meetings with the whole clinical negligence team. Lawyers are given time to discuss the more traumatic aspects of their caseload that they are finding difficult to deal with, and how they are coping. “Sometimes, just talking about things is enough”, she says. Jackson offers sound counsel to firms: “They should be taking the health of their lawyers seriously, and providing opportunities to talk about the impact that this work is having on them. They can provide EAPS, but it is also about acknowledging that it is a tough job that their lawyers are being asked to do; and recognising that this kind of work will result in a particular kind of emotional stress compared to other lawyers. “As I’ve heard it said, ‘healthy justice needs healthy lawyers’. Otherwise, in the long term we will have more breakdowns in the profession and our clients will be less well served.”

Rachel Rothwell is a freelance journalist