Secondary trauma and burnout are occupational risks for lawyers
and other legal personnel, including judges, interpreters, court
reporters and courtroom clerks. The professional's risk of
secondary trauma and burnout are frequently addressed in other
helping professions. Until recently, however, there was minimal
discussion, research or literature about these problems in the
Increased awareness and interdisciplinary collaboration have
yielded studies and articles on the effects of both maladies on
legal professionals, along with suggestions for coping with and
preventing them. Law schools and legal organizations are beginning
to provide education and training on recognizing and coping with
secondary trauma and burnout.
What is trauma and secondary trauma?
Psychological trauma refers to experiences where a person
suffers or witnesses death or serious physical, sexual or emotional
injury. Such an experience, or repeated experiences, can leave the
sufferer with feelings of fear, hopelessness, horror, anger and
rage. A trauma survivor might experience sleep disturbances,
changes in memory, difficulty concentrating, distrust,
hyper-arousal - a feeling of being in danger at any moment - and
detachment from others and from daily life.
Secondary trauma (also called "vicarious trauma" or "second-hand
shock") occurs when thoughts about a client's or litigant's
experiences begin to intrude on a professional's daily life.
Particularly at risk are professionals who are working with or
exposed to the stories of crime victims and survivors of torture,
domestic violence and abuse. Legal professionals exposed to others'
traumas might internalize and experience the trauma survivor's
feelings of fear, hopelessness, horror, anger or rage.
In one case study of law students working in a clinical
immigration program, one student described becoming a "sponge,"
soaking up her client's ordeal, and feeling "exhausted," "bitter"
Consciously or unconsciously internalizing clients' traumatic
experiences can change a lawyer's perception of the world,
including whether it is a safe place, and the ability to trust
others. Lawyers might begin to feel numb or experience
hyper-arousal. Exposure to clients' trauma narratives might induce
nightmares about clients' experiences or avoidance of things that
remind one of those experiences. Lawyers might find themselves
either over-identifying with clients or, conversely, shutting down
emotionally; both responses interfere with effective legal
representation. If a professional has experienced trauma in their
own life, exposure to others' trauma details might trigger or
re-trigger the professional's own trauma memories.
What is burnout?
While secondary trauma and burnout are different, repeatedly
experiencing others' trauma can contribute to feelings of burnout.
Burnout is a depletion of energy, motivation and enthusiasm that
tends to be caused by long hours; heavy workloads; workplace
conflict; repeated exposure to others' stress, anxiety and trauma;
and inadequate returns on one's work
In one study,2 judges experiencing burnout complained
of headaches, hypertension, depression, insomnia and
disillusionment. Another study3 cites fatigue,
irritability, hopelessness, aggression, cynicism and substance
abuse as additional responses to burnout in lawyers. Burnout can
negatively affect a person's sense of his or her own worth and
What can legal professionals do about secondary trauma
The first step is maintaining conscious awareness of the reality
and effects of secondary trauma and burnout.
The second step is the willingness to engage in self-care.
Margaret Drew, a lawyer and clinical law professor, aptly advises,
"Short term solutions are essential for getting through the day.
The longer term tools and techniques are essential for getting us
There are many easy-to-learn self-care practices to ease daily
stress. Some are visualization, breathing, relaxation and grounding
techniques that can be accomplished in one minute or 10. They can
be practiced separately or in combination, and can be customized to
reflect individual preference and situational practicality.
Debriefing with colleagues can help move the day's stress and
absorbed trauma out of one's mind-body. Leaving work and engaging
in enjoyable activities and time with loved ones and friends helps
put work challenges in
Longer term solutions involve taking time on a regular basis to
reflect on one's professional goals and choices, and how these fit
with one's values, temperament and non-work life. Creating healthy
balance involves exercising the courage to make suitable choices
about one's area of law, number of hours to work and work-setting
Self-care, both long- and short-term, allows legal professionals
to be more available, revitalized and able to assist those who rely
on them and their expertise. Finally, recognizing when one is
depleted, lost and in need of professional help, and seeking it
out, is the ultimate in self-care and in honoring one's life
Maxine Sushelsky is an attorney and a licensed mental
health counselor providing individual and group psychotherapy
services in Arlington, Mass. She works with people experiencing
grief and loss, as well as transitions in a relationship, career,
education or life stage. She offers workshops on life balance and
1Parker, L. (2006-2007). "Increasing Law Students'
Effectiveness When Representing Traumatized Clients: A Case Study
of the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center," Geo.
Immigr. L.J. 21, 163-199.
2Chamberlain, J. & Miller, M.K. (2009). Evidence of
Secondary Traumatic Stress, Safety Concerns, and Burnout Among a
Homogeneous Group of Judges in a Single Jurisdiction. J Am Acad
Psychiatry Law 37(2), 214-224.
3Levin, A.P. "Secondary Trauma and Burnout in
Attorneys: Effects of Work with Clients Who are Victims of Domestic
Violence and Abuse"
4Drew, M. (2008). "Healing Ourselves," American Bar
Association Commission on Domestic Violence eNewsletter 9.