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Vicarious Trauma in the Legal Profession: What to Watch For

Karen Munoz meets with fellow lawyers

The Takeaways:

  • Lawyers can develop vicarious trauma by identifying or deeply empathizing with clients who have experienced a life-threatening event or who are intensely emotionally overwhelmed.
  • Legal training often lacks an emphasis on how to effectively and competently work with humans experiencing strife and conflict, and to manage stress and the emotional toll cases can take.
  • Becoming aware of the signs of trauma and vicarious trauma, building a supportive workplace, and encouraging mental health training can help mitigate the toll that suffering and troubled clients can exact.

Imagine this scenario: You’ve just been sworn in as a lawyer and are eager to dive into your first case. You meet a distraught woman seeking a divorce. She is a stay-at-home mom with two children under the age of four. When you meet with her, she is tearful and seems nervous. As you get the pertinent facts from her, she starts to cry. You ask how you can help her. She tells you that her marriage has always been difficult and that her husband threatens her constantly. She is fearful that her husband will take the kids, and she does not know how she will support herself. She married young and her family lives out of the country. She has never worked outside of the home. You sit with her and listen. She begins to reveal more. Her husband manages the finances but lately he has been spending multiple evenings a month at a casino. In private, he berates, demeans, and on occasion strikes her. The kids fear him. He can be unpredictable and fly into fits of rage for any reason or no reason at all. Outside of the home though, he is a respected member of the community and seen as a caring and loving father and spouse. Your heart goes out to her and her kids. After consulting with the managing partner, you decide to accept her as a client. You formulate a legal strategy and get to work immediately.

Soon after accepting representation, she begins to call and text you daily. Sometimes it is after hours or in the middle of the night. Occasionally, her texts start very early and continue throughout the day. You explain the legal process and all-important dates and filings on several occasions, and you reassure her that you and your team are doing everything to move her case along as quickly as possible. That does not help. She texts and emails you several times a week, detailing her emotional status and that of her children. You start to feel overwhelmed and anxious. Anxiety arises when she reaches out because you worry for the safety and well-being of her and her children. You are overwhelmed because you respond immediately to every single communication and have dozens of other family law matters to attend to — all while you are learning the ropes of the practice at the same time. You notice that you start dreading going to work, you begin to silence your phone, and cringe before opening your email. You become easily distracted. You may become irritated by things that never bothered you before. You begin to struggle with your caseload.

Another attorney facing a similar situation may start to experience nightmares. He may begin having intrusive thoughts of the abuse his client is exposed to while he is arguing a motion in court, or while he is at dinner. Or he may begin to spend all his time trying to rescue or save the client from the situation, bordering on the obsessive.

The stories above are a glimpse into the challenging world of legal practice, where lawyers often serve as emotional anchors for clients in distress. It is undeniable that many of these types of cases are emotionally taxing and involve the representation of individuals who have been traumatized and are suffering. Clients are sometimes angry, scared, and agitated by the slowness of the legal process and having to go to court every time the ex wants to modify an order, and annoyed with your legal bill. You may notice that you have stopped going to the gym or seeing friends outside of work. You can’t remember the last time you didn’t eat dinner at your desk. When you go to your supervising partner for support, you receive half-hearted advice that does not help; or worse, is ambivalent. After a while, you begin to question whether being a lawyer is what you want to do.

Unfortunately, these fictional lawyers are in difficult predicaments, ones not often talked about. As lawyers, we are the safeguards and receptacles for our client’s legal problems and issues. Clients come to us from many walks of life, with varying legal situations. In law school we are fastidiously taught the law; we are taught different ways to view and interpret a set of facts; and we examine, assess, and analyze texts, statutes, and the common law. We absorb precedent. When we leave law school, we have memorized black-letter law, principles of evidence and procedure, and have learned the basics of oral advocacy. Once we take and pass the bar, we are ready to practice and represent real people with real problems.

The Missing Piece of Legal Education: Secondary Traumatic Stress

What is often missing from this extensive legal education, preparation, and job training is the interpersonal element of the practice, which includes emotional intelligence and the ability to manage relationships and expectations. We lack awareness of the emotional toll cases can often take. We sometimes are not prepared to walk the long walk with clients who may be facing some of the most difficult challenges of their lives. Sometimes, clients who lack support from their families and social communities look to you, as the lawyer, to help. Many times, the lawyer lacks an understanding of the many facets of a client’s life, which includes their social, economic, educational, mental, medical, or political statuses, and the impact those facts of life are currently having on the client.

As the lawyer, are you able to recognize your client’s felt experiences, and healthily engage with your client? Do you know how to recognize signs of stress and burnout? Were you given the tools in law school or later in your career to do so? Are you able to recognize and set boundaries with your clients? Or do you end up giving so much of yourself that you begin to feel resentful?

As comprehensive as a legal education or job training may be, there may exist a gap or emphasis on how to effectively and competently work with humans experiencing strife and conflict, and to manage stress and the emotional toll cases can take. When people come to us for help, they normally do not present as a set of cold hard facts to analyze and dissect. Instead, they present as people in varying degrees of psychological and/or physical pain. Sometimes, they are scared, fearful, anxious, or traumatized. Sometimes, it is a combination of all these states. This is particularly true in family, domestic violence, immigration, criminal, and personal injury law. This is in no means an exhaustive list where clients are facing these emotional states. These are just examples of where stress, burnout, trauma, and vicarious trauma can come into play.

Vicarious Trauma and Its Impact on the Legal Profession

Why is this important? Why should lawyers be aware of vicarious trauma it?

First, what is trauma? Generally, trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, sexual assault, or natural disaster. It is an event that can feel life-threatening or intensely emotionally overwhelming. Trauma can form in response to an acute event, or it can build over time and can become chronic. Many of us will experience multiple traumas throughout our lifespan. But one traumatic event or chronic exposure can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is characterized by the experiencing of a terrifying event and intense physical and emotional reactions because of that experience. Symptoms include nightmares, intrusive thoughts, avoidant behavior, heightened responses, anxiety, and depression. These can persist for months or years and can be triggered by memories of the event.

Both clients and lawyers may be impacted, particularly when the attorney is continuously exposed to traumatic narratives. In cases where the attorney is exposed continuously to trauma, there is the risk of secondary or vicarious trauma. Exposure over time can affect the lawyer’s ability to be present in the legal relationship, competently provide representation, or process everyday life without some intrusive or avoidant symptomology. It can also lead to burnout, dissatisfaction with the profession (like what happened to the fictional lawyer in the beginning of this article), depression, and anxiety. It can negatively affect the lawyer in all intra- and interpersonal areas of life. Many times, the lawyer may not even realize why they are feeling so drained, stressed, or dreading their work.

Becoming Aware of Trauma’s Affect on Mental Health

What can be done? How can lawyers better manage their states of well-being or be better prepared for when it arises in their practice?

The first and simplest answer is awareness of its actual existence. Secondary or vicarious trauma can and does exist in our profession and can result from hearing clients talk about what they experienced and seeing their physical reaction to the experiences. By raising awareness, attorneys can recognize the signs of secondary trauma within themselves and others. Attorneys want to be strong advocates for their clients, but sometimes lines can get blurred, and our own expectations can become overwhelming. Attorneys may begin to feel the effects of trauma, stress, or burnout. Becoming aware of this and trauma’s presentation is helpful so attorneys can know what to look for and set forth a path of managing it in their practices. Being prepared is sometimes half the battle and is an important key in maintaining a balanced law practice and relationships with clients. Recognizing signs of trauma and burnout and having mechanisms to address them fosters a healthier legal profession.

Supportive Environments Are Key to Avoiding Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

Second, law firms need to be intentional about building supportive work environments. Risk mitigation in workplaces should be paid careful attention to, and protocols should be in place to provide the appropriate information, training, preparation, and support to attorneys. Establishing protocols that provide information, training, preparation, and support can significantly contribute to attorneys’ resilience. When attorneys are well supported by appropriate workplace protocols and practice good self-care strategies, the profession wins. Although research in this area is not as robust as it could be, studies have shown that implementing wellness and self-care strategies in the workplace can help attorneys cope with traumatic exposure and improve well-being and efficacy.

To Serve Clients, We Must Make Legal Work Compatible With Personal Life

We must recognize that as attorneys we are vulnerable to secondary or vicarious trauma. We are not immune to the suffering our clients experience. We are humans who also experience the ebb and flow of life. Providing training, support, and facilitating conditions that enable attorneys to be aware of and manage signs and symptoms of trauma is a practical way to help better protect attorneys and ultimately enable legal professionals to thrive in their practices.

Vicarious trauma and stress are an undeniable reality in our profession. While attorneys are well-versed in the intricacies of law, the emotional dimension of their work often goes unaddressed. Acknowledging the existence of vicarious trauma, fostering resilience through awareness and self-care, and cultivating a supportive work environment are crucial steps toward a balanced and fulfilling legal practice.

Karen Munoz is a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney at Dolan Law representing survivors of traumatic injuries and events. You can email her at


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