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A criminal defense attorney jumps when she hears fireworks, remembering the graphic descriptions of gunfights from her last case. A personal injury attorney who used to connect empathetically with clients now sees gruesome accidents only in terms of settlement amounts. A divorce lawyer has a hard time feeling enthusiastic at his friends’ weddings, wondering how long it will really last.
Secondary traumatic stress, also known as vicarious trauma, can hit anyone who works with people in times of crisis. It was first diagnosed in social workers and therapists. But legal professionals can be particularly susceptible to it because of their heavy caseloads, unrelenting hours, and a culture that expects them to be perpetually calm and collected.
Secondary traumatic stress can be difficult to diagnose because it takes many forms. Here are 12 signs to watch for, both in yourself and your colleagues. Many of these are discussed at length in the book Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Connie Burk and Laura van Dernoot Lipsky.
Extended exposure to the trauma of others can leave you feeling jumpy or prone to read danger into any situation. This could look like refusing to sit with your back to the door, even in a completely safe space, or imagining that other lawyers at the firm are plotting against you.
2. Feelings of Helplessness
You might feel entirely at the mercy of a judge, a demanding client, or the managing partner who gives you an impossible workload. Often, those who become legal professionals are perfectionists, and any loss of a sense of control can feel particularly debilitating.
3. Diminished Creativity
Watch for the reluctance to explore new tools and techniques in the practice of law. If you experience secondary trauma, you might become too worried to take risks or try something new. Instead, you’ll try to stick to a ‘safe’ course, where each new case feels the same as the one before, and you operate according to the same procedure.
Diminished creativity can also show up as unhealthy patterns in your home life, where the days begin to blur together in a gray haze.
4. Inability to Embrace Complexity
The law is an incredibly complex field and requires a mind that can notice subtleties and nuance. But complexity can quickly exhaust those suffering from secondary trauma.
Another way this symptom shows up is in rigid dichotomies of good and bad. Are you starting to see opposing counsel not as fellow lawyers but as evil monsters who are personally vindictive and cruel? Failure to understand where others are coming from makes it much more difficult to negotiate a good outcome for your client. That thinking can also lead to rifts within the firm itself, as some individuals begin to see other lawyers or staff as their enemy because of minor disagreements.
5. Physical Ailments
Secondary trauma can also reveal itself as physical symptoms. Some common ones include:
- low energy
- chronic exhaustion
- difficulty sleeping
- reduced immune system strength leading to frequent illness
- sore back and neck
- stomach aches, irritable bowel or other digestive problems
- rashes and breakouts
- increased heart rate or palpitations
Did you or someone in your office suddenly begin leaving work early and coming in late? Are you missing meetings, ignoring questions, or avoiding certain clients? These kinds of changes in workplace behavior can be a sign of secondary trauma.
As attorney and therapist Hallie N. Love puts it, lawyers are particularly susceptible to secondary trauma because they “often feel a responsibility to fix their clients’ trauma, conceivably by winning, even when they have no control over the outcome.” When things don’t go well, they can feel overwhelming guilt and a sense that they should have tried harder.
When a Texas attorney heard that a judge had ok’d a pandemic stay-at-home order, he egged the judge’s car. But that kind of behavior seems harmless compared to attorneys who brandish guns at protestors or have racist meltdowns when they hear someone speaking Spanish.
Fortunately, most attorney anger doesn’t make the headlines. But aggression can still lead you to behave in irrational and damaging ways. Constant anger reduces your effectiveness, brings extra risk to your practice, and harms your relationships.
Cynicism is often the flip side of anger. Rather than getting worked up over life’s disappointments, you come to lose all expectations for anything better. You see beautiful moments through the lens of pessimism.
Cynics can’t fully believe in their clients—or themselves. And cynicism makes it nearly impossible to commit your time and resources to projects that could improve your community.
Cynicism also poisons personal relationships. If someone is kind to you, you assume they want something from you. Instead of speaking earnestly about your emotions, you hold people at a distance with sarcasm.
10. Numbing, Inability to Empathize
Numbing can be harder to diagnose as a symptom because from some perspectives it can actually look like strength. If you’re numb, you’re ‘able to handle’ the kind of crisis that frightens, overwhelms, or nauseates others. Look at any cop or detective show on TV, and you’ll see a bunch of numb ‘tough guys,’ returning week after week to shrug their shoulders at the latest catastrophe.
But numbing only functions as a short-term coping mechanism. When they don’t feel or process their emotions, legal professionals lose the ability to empathize with their clients or others. In extreme situations, they can experience disassociation, where they lose contact with their bodily sensations, the environment, their sense of time, and even their memory.
A study commissioned by the ABA found that nearly 21% of legal professionals were problem drinkers. When the survey asked participants more specific questions about their drinking behavior, the number showing signs of alcohol abuse jumped to over 36%.
Lawyers are also susceptible to addictions to illegal substances, especially those that help them numb pain or stay up late and remain focused on their work. Addictive behaviors can create a harmful spiral, as they lead to additional traumatic experiences, which leads to greater addiction, and so on.
12. An Inflated Sense of Self-Worth
Finally, secondary trauma can look like an outsized sense of self-importance. You can’t take a moment away from work because you’re the only one who can solve this problem. Nobody else can do it as well as you. Nobody else understands the full magnitude of what’s going on. Everyone else is just wasting your time.
If any of these symptom descriptions hit home, what can you do?
Many of these qualities used to be considered part of the job of caring for others in times of crisis. It was only in the 1990s that medical professionals named the problem and began serious research to determine how people could prevent and treat secondary traumatic stress.
Their research shows a number of self-care activities that can help individuals process secondary trauma, such as therapy, meditation, time off, and exercise. For a full list of prevention and treatment strategies, see this toolkit created by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
But for many legal professionals, the biggest missing piece is organizational support in the workplace.
Building Care into the Culture
While self-help is important, secondary trauma isn’t just a ‘personal issue.’ It is affecting wide swaths of the legal industry, and deserves attention at the highest levels. Without organizational support, the most empathetic and passionate legal professionals will continue burning out.
Here are some ways you can build trauma-care into the culture of your workplace:
- Talk about it. Discuss the signs of secondary trauma. Rather than building shame around these behaviors, explain that they can particularly affect those who feel deep empathy for their clients and are committed to building a better world.
- Foster greater collaboration. Build a greater sense of teamwork, so each person can trust that others have their back and can step in for them if they need to take time away. Centralize your workflows through a legal operating core to make collaboration easier.
- Allow a diversity of workloads. Instead of demanding outlandish amounts of billable hours, allow for more flexible schedules, time off, and reduced hours. Automate workflows to create greater efficiency, and reward and promote team members not for the amount of time they put in, but for the quality of their results.
Create space for post-traumatic growth. We often speak of trauma in terms of the debilitating effects it has in our lives. But working through both primary and secondary trauma can also lead to deeply meaningful positive psychological changes. As people engage with the difficult experiences of others, they can deepen their understanding of the world, their sense of purpose, and their relationships with others.