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The Legal Burnout Solution: How Secondary Trauma Impacts the Mental Health of Legal Professionals

Updated: Jun 30

By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp


Perhaps those seeking a law degree should be provided with the warning, “Practicing law can be hazardous to your health!” before signing on the dotted line. In last month’s column (“Addressing Mental Health Issues in the Profession”), we explored how professional stressors and personal challenges can contribute to a decline in personal well-being. This month, we go a step further and discuss the adverse impact that secondary trauma can have on mental health.


Secondary Trauma as an Occupational Hazard


When attorney Russ Stewart accepted a position in the prosecutor’s office, his focus was on serving the public and seeking justice for victims. Never did he consider how the work would affect his emotional well-being. After two years on the job, he found out the hard way.

Almost every day, he was exposed to horrific stories of violence and murder through direct interaction with victims or their families. This constant exposure to violent trauma continued indirectly as he reviewed police and hospital records, as well as photographs of macabre crime scenes.


After a particularly intense trial involving the murder of a child, Russ felt like he was falling apart at the seams. Even when able to sleep, he was plagued by troubling dreams and often woke up agonizing over various cases.


His wife, Carrie, noticed that he was drinking too much and overeating and that he frequently “snapped” at her and the kids over petty incidents. She began to suspect that he might be suffering from “secondary trauma,” which she had learned about at a recent work seminar. Also referred to as vicarious trauma, indirect trauma, or compassion fatigue, secondary trauma strikes service professionals such as nurses, first responders, and even lawyers who are indirectly exposed to the trauma of another.


Carrie persuaded Russ to seek help. Over time, he was able to recover and develop coping mechanisms. Most are not so fortunate and become the “walking wounded,” suffering in silence. They are either unaware that they have a treatable problem or perhaps avoid seeking treatment out of fear of being stigmatized. In writing this article, our mission is to raise awareness about secondary trauma and to spread the message that resources are available.


Secondary Trauma in the Legal Field


Studies consistently confirm that legal practitioners are at exceptionally high risk of experiencing distress symptoms associated with secondary trauma. A concurrent study of attorneys, mental health providers, and social workers found that lawyers experienced the most frequent and severe symptoms of secondary trauma and burnout. Overall, the attorneys had diminished pleasure and interest in activities, as well as irritability and difficulties with sleep and concentration. Another study found that attorneys demonstrate significantly higher levels of PTSD, depression, secondary traumatic stress, burnout, and functional impairment compared with their administrative support staff. Lawyers are at higher risk given longer work hours, high client loads, and more direct contact with traumatized clients.

An additional study showed that judges are also at increased risk of secondary trauma and burnout, especially those in criminal or family court. During the trial process, judges and attorneys may be exposed to highly charged, emotional situations, as well as gruesome and disturbing evidence, which can lead to vicarious traumatization associated with changes in self-identity, spirituality, and one’s sense of safety and trust. The implications of the data are evident—unchecked secondary trauma can have far-reaching negative impacts on legal professionals, our clients, and society at large.


Coping with Secondary Trauma


It is essential that we and all participants in the legal process take meaningful action to protect ourselves—and by extension, our clients, victims of crime, and their families—from the potentially harmful effects of secondary trauma.

We’ve identified a few action steps that will help you effectively manage and avoid the ill effects of vicarious trauma:


1. Take a non-judgmental look at yourself. The first step to solving a problem is awareness and acceptance that there is a problem. Taking a self-assessment can be a key starting point to help you gauge whether you may be at risk or currently experiencing the adverse effects of vicarious trauma. For more, see the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale.


2. Arm yourself with knowledge. Deepen your understanding of the risk factors and negative effects of compassion fatigue and burnout, as well as ways to implement a trauma-informed legal practice. Seek out additional information on secondary trauma, especially attorney-specific resources and training.


3. Prioritize your health and well-being. Put your oxygen mask on first. We are living in a culture where taking time for ourselves may be perceived as selfish, a luxury, or even lazy—don’t fall into this trap. Prioritize you and practice extreme self-care. Build in guilt-free time to relax and recharge in the short and long-term—take scheduled walks during the workday, take mental health days when you need them, and plan vacations! You can’t pour from an empty cup.


4. Seek help and support. Remember, you are never alone. If you think you may be at risk or struggling with the effects of secondary trauma, please get the support you need and deserve. As a helpful starting point, the ABA provides a Directory of Lawyer Assistance Programs for each jurisdiction.


5. Build awareness through mindfulness. Developing our awareness via mindfulness meditation is a key step we can take not only to help us effectively manage our stressors but also to prevent the cognitive dysfunction associated with vicarious trauma. The neuroprotective effects of mindfulness are cumulative, so the more we practice, the easier it will become to train our bodies and minds to be in a state of relaxation, calm, and focus. Check out our many mindfulness resources for attorneys at legalburnout.com, including this short breathing exercise to instantly boost mental clarity and reduce stress.


Over the past few years, bar associations and law firms have begun to provide resources in the mental health arena. The availability of these resources, however, will benefit you and others only if you take advantage of them and reach out for support.


What is the next step that you will take toward your best life or to help someone else realize theirs?


Next month we will explore how mindfulness can improve the quality of online relationships—both personal and professional.


Rebecca Howlett, Esq., and Cynthia Sharp, Esq., are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution (legalburnout.com), a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers.


© 2021. Originally published in GP Solo eReport, June 2021 Issue (Vol. 10, No. 11) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

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