Authors:Joanna Fleck and Rachel Francis
Last updated:2023-11-01
Vicarious trauma: a call to action for the legal profession
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Vicarious Trauma in the Legal Profession cover
The success of Vicarious Trauma in the Legal Profession: a practical guide to trauma, burnout and collective care shows that the psychological impact on practitioners that working with traumatised people can have needs to be addressed urgently. Here, the authors, Joanna Fleck and Rachel Francis, present some further practical tips alongside excerpts from the book.
In early 2017 we started to discuss how we could work together to support the wellbeing of fellow junior lawyers. We knew that other organisations and individuals were already doing vital work but were both certain that there was more urgent work to do. What we did not know was how pervasive the issue might be or how willing people might be to talk about it. We had both experienced and seen in our peers and colleagues the damaging negative effects of working with trauma, even if we didn’t always have the vocabulary to describe it.
Since we created Claiming Space in 2017, there has been a slow and steady growth in interest and research into vicarious trauma in the legal profession and our understanding of the depth of the issue has grown. Over the last three years, we have learnt from academic study, personal research, from other professionals working with trauma and, most importantly, through talking to lawyers across the country.
This work, and this book, comes in the context of a boom in what might be called ‘mental health awareness’. In the legal profession more broadly, there is a growing focus on wellbeing and stress. Although this change is welcomed, those of us working in the social justice sector are often cynical about ‘progress’ that reinforces a neoliberal agenda, transferring the burden to the individual to become more ‘resilient’. Through our work together and with other organisations we know that there is a great appetite for resources and spaces that move beyond this limiting view of mental health and wellbeing.
At the same time, the rapid change in how news is circulated and consumed has increased our exposure to injustice and trauma outside of our caseloads. With the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement there has been a greater understanding of the impact on Black people being regularly exposed to racist policing not just directly but vicariously through traditional and social media.
The rise of nationalism across the globe and the climate emergency leave us in no doubt that the fight for the rights of the vulnerable and of migrants and racialised groups will be a long and a hard one. The added pressures from a global pandemic have exacerbated the systemic inequities affecting our clients and have in many cases worsened the experience of lawyers on the frontline, particularly at the junior end.
There can be no doubt that substantive practical support is needed for all of those working to protect and enforce the rights of the individual against the state.
Through our work over the last few years, we know that there is a great deal of effort and care being taken across the profession. Unfortunately, there remains a level of ignorance and scepticism about the severity or importance of the issue of vicarious trauma. This can be particularly pernicious when it exists at the senior end of the profession, with junior and senior staff alike made to feel that they do not really belong in the profession if they are experiencing the more difficult effects of vicarious trauma.
As this article is published, we find ourselves three months on from the release of Vicarious Trauma in the Legal Profession. The response to the book – which has already been reprinted three times – has been overwhelming. It is clearer to us now than it has ever been that the issues it covers are affecting practitioners now and to a very high degree.
What is also clear is that practitioners want – and need – freedom, opportunity and safe spaces to discuss the impact of working with traumatic material and traumatised clients. Conversations on these themes have gained renewed traction on social media, at the book events we have spoken at and, privately, through the many messages that we have been sent by practitioners – those who have struggled with vicarious trauma and burnout, sometimes for many years or even decades. We do not doubt that this cluster of conversations is the tip of the iceberg.
One of the difficulties of speaking or writing about these issues is the fact that each person, each firm, each chambers, each organisation and, indeed, each area of law has its own particular needs and constraints that need to be taken into account. While sharing personal experiences of what has worked well (or not) is hugely helpful, particularly in the context of a supportive peer group environment, there is no one-size-fits-all formula. It can be alienating to be told what to do to take care of yourself when the prescribed activities are either not possible (because of the structure of your workplace, your home life, finances, etc) or simply not effective for you personally. This can add to feelings of failure or hopelessness.
However, as we set out in the book, there are steps that practitioners can take in the here and now, individually and collectively, to develop procedures that take account of the impact of working with trauma. What we advocate for is a rewiring of our approach to traumatic caseloads. In doing so, the book covers the theory alongside real-life accounts from practitioners and support staff. We look into the research and set out how we can make practical changes in the profession, drawing from academic research, from our own experience working with Claiming Space ( and from best practice in our profession and others.
What we have set out below is a collection of tools for practitioners to consider and to begin (or continue) to employ from day to day. These tools build on the themes of the book and on our hopes for a profession that centralises the collective care of all of those practitioners working within it.
Common language
A useful starting point is to develop a common language across the profession that allows people to speak openly about their experiences and to be understood. Although terms such as ‘vicarious trauma’, ‘burnout’ and ‘compassion fatigue’ are experienced differently by each person, they do provide a useful frame of reference that allows practitioners to recognise that what is happening is not unusual. Beyond that, it helps us relate to others who may be feeling the same thing. In this way, we can develop clearer communication and solidarity within the profession.
Spaces to speak and reflect
Practitioners (and support staff exposed to the same casework) need spaces to be able to process the impact of the job. Being affected by traumatic stories, images or events is entirely natural, particularly when we have worked closely with a client – whether for short bursts or over a long time – gaining their trust and building rapport at a human level.
When we are burnt out, exhausted or overwhelmed with trauma responses in our body, often this is when it is hardest to do those things that we know will help (eg, taking time out to rest, reflect or distract ourselves). Having structures in place well in advance, that have the full support of those with authority (eg, partners in a firm or seniors leading juniors at the bar) are crucial. These spaces may be formal (regular facilitated peer support groups at a fixed time and place) or informal (space within the office to speak with colleagues, explicit permission to take short breaks outside of the lunch hour when needed to take a walk with a colleague to decompress).
Honest conversations
These first steps will create opportunities for honest conversation. This is not to say that we need to disclose every feeling we have about our work and how it affects us; rather, the profession as a whole must take responsibility to be honest about the simple fact that it does affect us.
Senior members of the profession – those with power to change organisations or systems – must be involved in this conversation. It is not enough for junior members of the profession to be told to ‘ask for help’ when they work in organisations that understand such requests as a sign that someone is ‘not coping’ or not suited to the profession.
The paradox of this work is that the core of what we do – working with the stories of our clients’ lives – can be the most rewarding part, as well as being the part that can most affect our mental health. Unfortunately, there is a tendency in some parts of the profession to minimise the second and over-emphasise the first. This can silence conversations and exacerbate feelings of guilt that many lawyers already have about taking time away from their jobs to take care of themselves (in a profession where there will always be more we could do).
Guilt and doing ‘enough’
Guilt can be one of the most insidious effects of vicarious trauma – as not only is it an inherently unpleasant feeling, but it can also silence the very real – and sometimes very harmful – impacts of working with trauma.
For many of us, activism, volunteering or campaigning may invigorate and sustain us, providing a way to stay connected to core values, a shift of gear from day-to-day work, which may be paperwork-heavy, repetitive, etc. It also may be a part of collective self-care.
However, it can sometimes be a way to try to answer the voice that says ‘you aren’t doing enough, you don’t deserve the nice home or the safety that you have’.
It is so hard to have a good work/life balance when you work in civil liberties/human rights areas. You almost feel like you have to be fighting every battle that is out there. You are trying to fight the battle with work, then you go on Twitter and there are 10 more things to be upset and enraged about and so you are trying to deal with all of those things too.
It is never ending, the number of issues you can engage with and try to contribute to … which is a very depressing way of dealing with things. You are trying to deal with things at work, but it is difficult if you try to switch off …
There seems to be an automatic assumption that if you are in the field you can handle it. So it’s kind of this perception of weakness, or not being as good in your job as others who don’t complain, so it then sometimes silences you because of that perception.
Guilt is thought to be one of the causal mechanisms in the development of post-traumatic stress1Konstantin Bub and Miriam JJ Lommen, ‘The role of guilt in posttraumatic stress disorder’, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, (2017) 8:1, 1407202, DOI: 10.1080/20008198.2017.1407202. and reducing feelings of guilt and fear can assist positive recovery and growth after trauma.2Wenchao Wang, Xinchun Wu and Xiaoyu Lan, ‘Rumination mediates the relationships of fear and guilt to posttraumatic stress disorder and posttraumatic growth among adolescents after the Ya’an earthquake’, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, (2020) 11:1, 1704993, DOI: 10.1080/20008198.2019.1704993.
At its worst, it is also a way for employers and colleagues to disempower staff or resist efforts to change the workplace culture. This can have a profound and pernicious effect.
To be clear: we readily accept that legal aid and social welfare law is an extraordinary and humbling field to work in. Often, we are working in service of clients whose strength can be deeply affecting. We may be working on strategic legal challenges that have the power to bring about change for multiple marginalised persons or groups at once.
However, the privilege of undertaking this work must not be used as a catch-all to smother practitioner experience of vicarious trauma, burnout, stress or otherwise. This work can be relentlessly tough and desperately upsetting; it can and does leave a mark. The freedom and permission to discuss the impact of our work is critical to our survival in the profession and to the proper and safe service of our clients’ best interests.
There are a whole host of issues at the starting end too: how poorly treated you are, the culture of superiority and combined with that, this culture of not allowing yourself to acknowledge that it’s really hard. You are treated as though you are seeing yourself as some kind of martyr if you moan about it. I remember saying to a colleague that I was finding it hard and they dismissed me, comparing my situation to what our clients were going through. But the two are not mutually exclusive. You should be allowed to say that things are difficult.
Content warnings
Content warnings present a simple and effective mechanism to alert practitioners to traumatic content that they are about to read or witness. This grants them a feeling of autonomy and control over whether to consider the material now or later and over their reactions to that material by affording them time to prepare for what is to come.
This step sounds deceptively simple, but its impact cannot be overstated. It is often in the moments where we are least prepared for traumatic material that it can affect us the most. More than that, it presents an opportunity to respect, maintain and support our own boundaries and those of the people with whom we work on cases. This can only strengthen our working relationships and our longevity as practitioners.
Balancing our work
Reviewing whether our work is biased towards particularly traumatic areas of law or difficult client groups, or is especially wearing because of our own circumstances or traumas (past or present, personal or systemic), can be a helpful way to achieve balance and comfort in our practices. Simple questions about whether we can vary our caseload, have a break from distressing fact patterns or simply take time out, can alleviate repeat stress and ward off burnout.
The same can be said for balancing our work with breaks. This could be taking micro-breaks across the working day, prioritising time for ourselves and our interests across the working day (start, middle, or end), or taking annual leave. This is a sign of strength, not a weakness: it recognises that our brains and cognitive capacities are subject to fatigue, and that we deserve to experience joy and happiness in our personal lives.
The transition back to in-person work
We would like to end on a note of hope and caution for the transition back to in-person working. The issues of burnout, isolation and lack of supervision will not disappear if we are able to ‘return to normal’. Indeed, from our conversations across the profession, there seems to be a desire not to do so. Instead, now might be an opportune moment to reflect on what aspects of working practice we would like to bring with us and what aspects of office, court or chambers life we might be able to reset as we return.
1     Konstantin Bub and Miriam JJ Lommen, ‘The role of guilt in posttraumatic stress disorder’, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, (2017) 8:1, 1407202, DOI: 10.1080/20008198.2017.1407202»
2     Wenchao Wang, Xinchun Wu and Xiaoyu Lan, ‘Rumination mediates the relationships of fear and guilt to posttraumatic stress disorder and posttraumatic growth among adolescents after the Ya’an earthquake’, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, (2020) 11:1, 1704993, DOI: 10.1080/20008198.2019.1704993»