Vicarious Trauma is Real…and Really, Really Common with Lawyers

By Brandon Vogel

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Are you working through lunch? Checking your email immediately upon waking up? Pushing through even though your body is telling you to rest?

If so, you likely need a break and also should know that you and your fellow attorneys are not alone, even if you don’t talk about it.

Libby Coreno (The Law Offices of M. Elizabeth Coreno), co-chair of the Task Force on Attorney Well-Being, and Dr. Kerry O’Hara, Psy.D. (DBT Wellness & Psychological Services) discussed how to cultivate compassion as a practice of self-care, as well as compassion fatigue that can plague attorneys on a recent CLE webinar.

According to O’Hara, vicarious trauma, or compassion fatigue, is a trauma process that occurs over time when an individual is exposed indirectly to the suffering of others for whom they feel responsible. “It is real; it is widely researched, and it’s really, really common in the helping professions,” said O’Hara.

She added that witnessing the suffering of others can lead to existential struggles and changes in your world view. “The answer is not to create emotional barriers but to accept that our work changes us,” said O’Hara. “We need to develop the resiliency skills to manage this in a balanced way.”

Coreno said that many lawyers, especially those working in family court and the public sector, are exposed to situations that are “highly traumatic.  She clarified that, “not that all lawyering can’t be traumatic, because there’s times when it can be, but, by and large, we see the numbers of lawyers look like they are suffering from something akin to vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue in those areas.” She said the trauma can be mitigated.

A 2017 report from the ABA National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being concluded that to be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. The profession is falling short when it comes to well-being. Studies reveal that too many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance use. Research suggests that the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.

Ethics and public trust play an integral role, agreed Coreno.

“We have ethical guidelines that we have to abide by and sometimes those ethical guidelines put us in the crosshairs of what are sometimes vicarious or secondary trauma experiences. It is so very important that part of the framework of being a lawyer also will include the ability to understand that you are placed into that, to have the greater culture of law understand that we are placing lawyers into the fray much like we do with first responders, police officers, nurses, physicians, not the least of which is psychologists,” said Coreno. “You must be able to also train a profession that also finds itself in traumatic experiences because we are charged so heavily with the public trust. “

Does the role of the lawyer naturally affect well-being?

What is reflected in the culture of law? High burnout, negative coping and isolation (more pronounced during COVID), maladaptive perfectionism and mental health impacts.

“Remembering the humanity of people necessarily feeds psychological well-being,” said Coreno.

Larry Kreiger’s book “What Makes Lawyers Happy” found that happiness goes down with money, power and prestige while well-being goes up with autonomy, relatedness and competence.

Coreno said that there is a huge difference between excellence and perfection. O’Hara noted that, “perfectionism has gotten you pretty far and has driven you to excel and exceed expectations so it can be very threatening to think about breaking it down but we don’t want to break down what is adaptive and lifts you up and makes you more effective.”

She suggested that we need to recognize when perfectionism overshoots the mark. “If you are going to bed every night telling yourself you are a failure or if you did 20 things right during the day but your mind always turns to the one thing that wasn’t quite where you wanted it to be, these are the things that overshoot and take away from one being effective and starts to dwindle down your spirit, your self-perception, anything that moves into the realm of starting to deplete a human being is where we fall into the problematic zone,” said O’Hara.

Coreno noted that lawyers often experience anticipatory anxiety, which often starts in law school. She explained that lawyers are trained to worry and that relates to a high negative response to stressful situations, a negative perception of the future and pessimism. “We are not naturally pessimistic people,” said Coreno. “Part of the training in becoming an attorney is to anticipate problems. It is to look at the future and what can go wrong, run that 3-D maze like a mouse, think of all the pitfalls and then literally experience it so your client doesn’t have to. Over time, that creates a neural patterning for the human being, not the lawyer. So the human who is a lawyer has a pathway that says everything is a risk that I need to assess and in order to do that all the time, my psychology starts to take on aspects that are sometimes less than ideal.”

Setting boundaries

Teaching people how to create healthy emotional boundaries will allow them to also hold onto the passion and deep meaning that attracted them to law in the first place, said O’Hara.

“We don’t ever want to become habituated to what is extreme human experience but to really be able to sit and recognize it with resiliency skills. If something hits too close to home, really recognize that and take steps to protect yourself. Learn how to balance that.”

Coreno added, “Otherwise, we become desensitized and we stop recognizing the slings and arrows.”

O’Hara said, “First and foremost, when you are working in one of these areas of law where sometimes the stories are so heartbreaking and so stressful and there are high burnout rates, when you are feeling like ‘why am I doing this?’ take a step back and look at the big picture.  What got me into this in the first place? What’s the goal I am hoping to accomplish?”

“It’s a special type of lawyer and person who goes into this,” said O’Hara. “If you go big picture, that’s where you find meaning in your work.”

Finding an escape is essential for your mind, your body so that your psyche can reset, rejuvenate and recalibrate.

“There’s a lot in our work that we cannot change but let’s turn our minds and patterns into what we can,” said O’Hara.

She suggested attorneys “create a mantra” for when they find themselves being unkind or berating themselves.

O’Hara’s is: “I’m doing the best that I can with what I have right now. And that is all I can do. To expect any more of myself isn’t going to be productive so it may not be perfect, it may not be what I would’ve done a year ago, but  I’m doing the best that I can with what I have right now.”

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