Issues,  Legal Practice,  Work Life Balance

Stressed Out: Managing Vicarious Trauma and Work-Related Stress

We’ve spoken about vicarious trauma before–it is essentially the mental impact we experience by being exposed to other people’s trauma. Generally, we may think this is something we see with EMTs or other first-responders, but this type of trauma seeps into legal work as well. It’s the prosecutor that has to stare at murder scene pictures, the guardian ad litem that has to work with abused children, the immigration attorney that hears about the atrocities their client experienced–all those instances, and many others, do a number on us and it’s not a question if we will be impacted by it, but when and how.

First, a disclaimer: nothing, not better sleep, or a face mask, or even time with family is a replacement for real therapy and medicine. This post is more about managing the stressors that come with work in healthy ways, especially for newish attorneys who have to learn new coping mechanisms as they start their career.

Ok having said that the first thing I recommend is reading Trauma Stewardship. It basically explains why you may feel or react to certain things at work in certain ways and allows you to identify tell-tale signs that you are responding negatively to the trauma. When I first started practicing, I was so lucky that there was a shift happening in the legal profession. Prior, the old school way was to stfu about anything that made you sad. You drank it away until you died from a heart attack. I’m slightly exaggerating but our profession still has high rates of alcoholism and depression due to this inability to confront that maybe, just maybe, being exposed to some of the worst human behaviors on a daily harms our mental health.

Thankfully, that shift started when I began practicing that called out this dysfunction and encouraged us to recognize signs of burnout and trauma-response within ourselves. I credit this ability to recognize those “acting out” behaviors in myself for being able to work nine years in a space where I heard/read/wrote about domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, and trafficking on a daily basis. But the first step really is admitting that there will be days we are not ok and game-planning how to manage those days.

And of course, let’s not forget the general high-level stress we experience as we work in competitive offices with high-stakes, adversarial cases.  In sum, the law is a lot.

Here are some discussions we’ve had to help manage that stress:

Ultimately aside from acknowledging that this work is stressful, we must take steps to recognize how that stress manifests with you. Knowing that will allow you to understand when you need to take a break or decompress or seek professional help if that is what feels right. This career can come with some amazing highs (your first big win, changing someone’s life, establishing wealth) but the lows can feel just as costly so take care of yourself so that you can continue to be the badass Lawtina you were meant to be!