Authors:Carol Storer
Last updated:2023-09-18
“It’s time to shift our thinking around stress and vicarious trauma in our workplace”
Marc Bloomfield
Since the turn of the century, successive governments have made it their business to reduce spending on legal aid. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 has meant that people who get help from legal aid lawyers are generally at absolute crisis point: their life, liberty or home is at stake. That has culminated in a situation where the majority of lawyers who do legal aid work (whether in private practice or the not-for-profit (NfP) sector): have had to increase their workload to remain in business; have to juggle a large amount of unpaid work; and only get to help people when they are at their most desperate and vulnerable.
Put simply, lawyers and workers in legal aid practices are faced relentlessly with serious crises, struggling public sector institutions and clients with highly complex psychosocial needs.
As LawCare CEO Elizabeth Rimmer says: ‘It can be hard for lawyers to talk to someone about stress or the pressures of work. At LawCare, we want to raise awareness about why mental health and well-being matters for lawyers and the help there is for anyone having a difficult time.’
And it is not just the stress of working for vulnerable clients, in organisations under huge financial pressure, it is also working long hours, being unable to relax on holiday, checking emails on holiday, in the evenings and at weekends because of the demands of litigation or practice management. Both managers and employees are under huge pressure and that can manifest itself in some behaviour that adds to the stress.
Dr Laura Janes of the Howard League for Penal Reform and Eleanor Fellowes, visiting lecturer at the Portman Clinic (Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust), are working on this subject and will be speaking at the LAPG Annual Conference in October. Here is what they say:
In the ‘caring’ professions – nursing, social work, psychotherapy, psychology – it is taken as given that working in such conditions has an impact on staff. There are structures in place, and there are approaches to the work that are designed to protect against burnout, team conflict and organisational dysfunction.
The levels of trauma that legal aid lawyers face day in day out are unsustainable, unless we start to make staff support a routine part of the work. There is an opportunity to learn from other disciplines, and to design and implement support strategies and structures that are bespoke to legal aid practice. Lawyers are increasingly aware of their need for pastoral support, mental health support, self-care and work-life balance. This awareness can be harnessed to ensure an approach to staff and organisational wellbeing that isn’t ad hoc, but is sustainable, meaningful and supports best practice. That doesn’t mean complicated or time-consuming.
It might be about creating spaces for reflection and supervision, team or individual. It might include active caseload management, thinking about the mix of clients that each worker has, setting aside time for administrative work that is protected time (protected from trauma), dual working on particularly stressful cases or finding ways to share particularly distressing information without creating streams of unremunerated work. Much of this is about thoughtfulness and planning that need not be excessively costly.
We have to adapt our work to factor in the expectation of trauma. It is not a solution to insulate ourselves from the trauma of our clients – some consider that feeling outraged is part of the lifeblood of a legal aid lawyer – why else would you do it? But burnt-out lawyers are no good to anyone.
Rachel Francis and Joanna Fleck met as legal aid lawyers and founded an organisation called Claiming Space, a community interest company that has grown from peer support groups to offering innovative and rigorous training for lawyers working with vulnerable populations, based on experience, MSc study and research. The training delivered by Claiming Space explores vicarious trauma, self-care and burnout, using mindfulness and yoga techniques to frame the training sessions. Rachel and Joanna run a monthly peer-to-peer support group to provide space for young practitioners to learn, share and reflect on their experiences of working in this field. They will be speaking at LAPG’s Annual Conference about the need to improve the understanding of senior lawyers, in particular, about the impact that vicarious trauma has on practitioners, and that firms, chambers and NGOs need to plan for that impact by providing space for reflection as well as trauma-specific supervision and training.
Stress is part and parcel of legal aid and NfP legal work, whether it stems from the difficulties clients face, the nature of cases themselves, pressure of work or the frustrating bureaucracy of running a practice. It is not surprising, then, that various organisations are working on these issues. But it is now time to shift our thinking around this, from innovative practices and methods to considering dealing with stress as an integral part of the job, while at the same time working together to fight for a properly funded legal aid service that does not take its toll on practitioners.
Elizabeth Rimmer, Dr Laura Janes, Eleanor Fellowes and Rachel Francis are all speaking at the LAPG Conference on 5 October at a plenary session about stress and vicarious trauma.