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Richard Cross

Director, Midhurst Children’s Therapeutic Services

Quotation Marks
The initial step is to cultivate an environment where mental health is openly discussed and not stigmatised

Professionally stressed: navigating the emotional terrain of being a solicitor

Professionally stressed: navigating the emotional terrain of being a solicitor


Richard Cross examines why safeguarding the health and wellbeing of those who uphold justice and advocate for those in need is crucial

Legal professionals are responsible for navigating complex systems, advocating for their clients and frequently dealing with emotionally charged cases. While their primary focus is on providing the best possible legal service, it is crucial to recognise the emotional toll that such work can take on solicitors themselves and consider protective measures to mitigate its impact.

Introducing compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress

Initially a term used in healthcare, compassion fatigue is the state of emotional and physical exhaustion that a person experiences due to their empathic engagement with clients’ hardships.

Solicitors, particularly those in areas like family law, criminal defence, or human rights, tend to get exposed to the distressing experiences of their clients. Over time, the cumulative effect of absorbing these stories can lead to a reduced capacity for empathy, which is a hallmark of compassion fatigue.

Secondary traumatic stress (STS) is a type of emotional distress that can occur when we are exposed to other people’s traumatic experiences. It is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it affects people who have not directly experienced the trauma themselves; rather, they are emotionally affected by their clients’ traumatic material. Symptoms of STS may include intrusive thoughts, increased anxiety and difficulty regulating emotions.

Both are types of chronic stress that can lead to burnout, which can significantly impact upon a person’s wellbeing and professional performance.

Understanding the impact of clients’ traumatic material

Solicitors often must listen to their clients’ traumatic experiences in detail to build a case or provide appropriate advice. However, this exposure to such stories can naturally create a sense of burden, as solicitors might find themselves constantly thinking about them, which can impact their mental health and personal life.

Furthermore, the pressure to maintain a professional demeanour and the culture of stoicism in the legal field can make things worse. Solicitors might feel obliged to suppress their emotional responses, leading to compassion fatigue and STS.

Reducing the risks - protective measures that can help

The initial step is to cultivate an environment where mental health is openly discussed and not stigmatised. Leaders within the legal community can set a precedent by sharing their own experiences and advocating for mental wellness.

This understanding paves the way for others to identify symptoms of compassion fatigue and STS. Everyone needs to be mindful of the signs, embrace the importance of self-care and seek professional support when needed.

  • Legal firms should provide regular training on stress management, including recognising the signs of compassion fatigue and STS. Understanding these concepts helps normalise the conversation and encourages people to seek support.
  • With or without formal training, you can choose your own physical and emotional self-care strategies. This can include regular exercise, adequate sleep, healthy eating, mindfulness practices and entertaining hobbies or interests outside of work.
  • Professional boundaries with clients should be established and maintained. This can help prevent over-identification with clients’ experiences and can support you to keep a healthy distance from their traumatic material.
  • Supervision and mentorship programmes are an ideal way of offering support and maintaining an open culture. More experienced solicitors can guide colleagues through the emotional challenges of the work and provide a space for reflection and advice on managing complex cases. It also encourages a healthy work–life balance and workload monitoring to ensure they are manageable and don’t contribute to stress and burnout.
  • After challenging cases, find space to offer debriefing sessions to help colleagues process their experiences, particularly where the case or material may have been traumatic. A mental health professional can facilitate these sessions.
  • Mindfulness and resilience training can help solicitors remain grounded and present, reducing the impact of stress. Resilience training can provide solicitors with tools to cope with and recover from the emotional demands of their work.

Your wellbeing is as crucial as your legal expertise

The legal profession inherently involves dealing with clients’ traumatic material, and the potential for compassion fatigue and STS is high. Legal firms and institutions are responsible for supporting their people through education, supportive policies and access to mental health resources. But beyond this, our professional culture must evolve to prioritise the mental health of all practitioners, ensuring that they are equipped to handle the emotional challenges of the work, while maintaining their own resilience and wellbeing.

By taking proactive steps to mitigate the risks associated with compassion fatigue and STS, solicitors can maintain their capacity for compassion without sacrificing their mental health. These protective measures not only benefit individual solicitors, but they also enhance the legal profession’s quality and effectiveness overall.

Richard Cross is an expert witness, psychotherapist and director at Midhurst Children’s Therapeutic Services