Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Vicarious Trauma in the Legal Profession

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the phrase “vicarious trauma?”

Chances are, it isn’t “practicing law,” or “lawyers,” or “me.”

And yet, lawyers and legal professionals are at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma every day.

“One thing they don’t teach in law school is how to cope with the trauma associated with legal work,” writes Jeena Cho for the American Bar Association Journal. “One such unintended consequence is vicarious trauma. 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.”

Vicarious trauma – also called secondary traumatization, secondary trauma, secondhand trauma, and secondary traumatic stress – is defined as trauma that you haven’t personally experienced but are exposed to indirectly through a first-hand account or narrative. The term is most often applied to health-care workers and first responders. But anyone who is exposed to another’s trauma is susceptible.

In the legal profession, public defenders and criminal defense lawyers are at high risk, Cho says.

“These lawyers frequently see their clients lose their jobs, housing, and support when they are not able to post bond,” Cho writes. “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 under-resourced. They are juggling heavy caseloads while struggling to pay the bills.”

Read “How Lawyers Can Cope with Vicarious Trauma” from the American Bar Association.

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Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma

Here are some of the leading indicators of vicarious trauma, according to this study and Psych Central:

  • unwelcome thoughts of client-induced imagery
  • nightmares
  • missing work
  • social withdrawal
  • avoiding traumatic disclosures from clients, leading to subpar clinical services
  • negative coping skills, both personally and professionally
  • hyperarousal to your safety and the safety of loved ones
  • avoiding physical intimacy
  • increasingly pessimistic worldview
  • loss of work-related motivation
  • distancing from spiritual beliefs
  • reduced longevity in the field
  • stress-related medical conditions


Ways to Cope with Vicarious Trauma

  • Set boundaries. Keep your client relationships professional, not personal. Guard your personal life and family time jealously.
  • Make self-care a priority. Include well-being practices like meditation, exercise, yoga, prayer.
  • Watch for symptoms. Burnout, chronic procrastination, physical fatigue, and loss of interest in hobbies and personal interests could all be signs of vicarious trauma. 
  • Talk about it. “Vicarious trauma, along with other mental illnesses, needs to be discussed starting in law school, and seeking help for these issues should be normalized,” writes Cho. “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…. [S]truggling with vicarious trauma isn’t a personal failing. It’s simply a sign that you’re human.”


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About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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