Putting the “Care” in “Vicarious Trauma”

Those in need of a lawyer are often in one of the most stressful experiences of their lives. Divorce proceedings, criminal accusations, or personal injury claims turn entire lives upside-down, while something as routine as the purchase of a first home can still be overwhelming. What for the client may be a fulcrum holding their future in the balance, for their lawyer may be just a Tuesday—one of perhaps over a dozen files ongoing at any time.

Yet, it is easy for the lawyer to invest themselves in their clients’ causes and fortunes, taking their wins and losses to heart, making the clients’ pain their own, and vicariously experiencing the “most-stressful-experiences-of-their-lives” of perhaps a dozen clients simultaneously. Consequently, lawyers find themselves experiencing increased rates of depression, anxiety, addiction, and other mental health issues associated with vicarious trauma.

Vicarious trauma is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a state of tension and preoccupation with the trauma experienced by others. It is often discussed in relation to fields such as criminal and family law, where the mere facts associated with the file can be distributing. A study in the Pace Law Review titled “Vicarious Trauma in Attorneys” found that lawyers working on files involving domestic violence or criminal defendants demonstrated significantly higher levels of vicarious trauma than mental health providers and social workers dealing with the same matters.

However, traumatic experiences are not limited to those with facts out of a television crime procedural. Lawyers can easily become a reservoir for their clients’ stress and anxiety. It’s been found that the amount of stress felt by a client is correlated with the amount of time spent with their lawyer (J. Steven Picou, “Disaster, Litigation, and the Corrosive Community” 82 Soc F 1493). In fact, generally, “the most common documented impact from civil litigation is emotional and psychological harm” (“Anticipating and Managing the Psychological cost of civil litigation”, Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice, 2017).

Lawyers should take care, then, to maintain distance and objectivity from the clients and their files. While a lawyer must always strive to be a zealous advocate and represent their client to the best of their abilities, it can be dangerous to take the client’s problems to heart, so to speak. Becoming emotionally invested in a file can, perhaps counterintuitively, undermine the lawyer’s ability to help.

Taking steps, then, to address the symptoms of trauma or other mental health concerns when they arise can prevent more serious breakdowns and practice failures in the future. The Ontario Member Assistance Program (https://homeweb.ca/map) is a free service available to all lawyers, paralegals, judges, law students, and their families, providing counselling and resources to address various mental health concerns, including vicarious trauma.

Shawn Erker (@ShawnErker) is Legal Writer & Content Manager at LAWPRO.

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