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Vicarious Trauma Within the Legal Profession

“Vicarious trauma” is a term that many within the legal profession may be learning for the first time but have experienced often throughout their career. Termed “compassion fatigue” or “the cost of caring” by some, it can be characterized as “an occupational challenge for people working and volunteering . . . [with] continuous exposure to victims of trauma and violence.” All too common amongst those working in medicine, emergency services, education, and law, this form of burnout stems from emotionally arduous work experiences and may have a lasting impact on one’s personal life and world view.

Trauma almost never solely impacts the individual who directly experiences it. In any occurrence of trauma (direct or vicarious), the pertinent individual or group feels a sense of helplessness or a lack of control over the circumstances at hand. Without proper support or mitigation, trauma may lead to a variety of psychosocial symptoms and alterations to brain chemistry.

In a recent issue of Bench & Bar of Minnesota, attorney and assistant professor of law Natalie Netzel detailed her own struggles with vicarious trauma. Her experiences grew from self-doubt and blame into panic attacks, paranoia, and an overall sense of powerlessness following frequent trauma exposure in her law practice.

While vicarious trauma may manifest uniquely within each individual, there are some common indications which can be used to recognize its influence. What are some frequent symptoms of vicarious trauma?

  • Difficulty managing and expressing emotions
  • Misplaced frustration or anger
  • Disrupted or unproductive sleep
  • “Racing” thoughts and increased anxiety or worry about potential dangers
  • Panic attacks
  • Loss of self-efficacy and perception of control
  • Disassociation and decreased concentration
  • Decreased satisfaction in activities once enjoyable
  • Physical aches and pains and digestive discomfort
  • Withdrawal or avoidance of social interactions
  • Feelings of pessimism, hopelessness, and unwarranted guilt

What are some personal strategies to employ to reduce the risk of vicarious trauma?

  • Increase self-reflection and observation
  • Seek social support from colleagues, friends, and family members
  • Meaningfully define and honor the boundaries of your downtime and personal life
  • Maintain interests and hobbies outside of work
  • Practice mindfulness techniques or breathwork
  • Engage in relaxing self-care activities
  • Maintain realistic expectations of yourself
  • Prioritize physical activity, healthy eating, and sleep hygiene
  • Seek professional assistance when needed

In addition to trauma exposure, workplace organizational factors may further exacerbate symptoms of vicarious trauma. What can employers do to support employees who may be experiencing or may be at risk of such symptoms?

  • Offer flexibility in work schedules and thoughtfully respect the boundaries of employees’ downtime and personal lives
  • Discuss vicarious trauma in causal one-on-one or small group sessions
  • Encourage physical activity, healthy eating, and sleep hygiene routines
  • Allow time and space for meditation or other mindful activities
  • Support healthy interpersonal relationships amongst employees
  • Ensure an appropriate workload, reevaluating regularly
  • Intentionally design variety in work tasks
  • Refer to professional assistance, including state and local lawyer assistance programs

In her Bench & Bar commentary, Netzel urges her fellow lawyers to extend themselves grace in the face of trauma exposure and to seek support without shame or guilt. With growing research on this phenomenon, there are numerous resources and outlets available to those at risk of vicarious trauma in the legal profession. Vulnerability and an openness to help, above all, are signs of strength ̶ not weakness ̶ both in law practice and personal growth.

Netzel asserts, “Ultimately, unexamined vicarious trauma serves no one well ̶ not us and certainly not the people we are hoping to help professionally.”

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