Vicarious trauma in the legal profession

Note: this article was written by Carolynne Burkholder-James and was originally published in the CBA National on March 21, 2019

Myrna McCallum never learned about vicarious trauma in law school.

“It was only after I became a Crown prosecutor and even more after I became an adjudicator in residential school claims that I began to be introduced to the concept of trauma – not just how it shows up in clients or in witnesses, but how it was showing up in me. It really took going to a psychologist for me to become aware that I was experiencing vicarious trauma.”

McCallum, a British Columbia-based Cree-Metis lawyer, workplace investigator and workplace educator, is not alone in her experience of vicarious trauma. We know cigarette smoke can cause harm to those who inhale it second-hand, and the theory holds for traumatic experiences, which can do damage to those who are exposed to repeated accounts of it.

“As lawyers, we need to talk more about trauma and we need to have open conversations about how we are traumatized due to the work that we do,” says McCallum. We need to start advocating for support for lawyers who deal with traumatic incidents.”

Françoise Mathieu, a trauma expert with more than 20 years of experience as a mental health professional, says vicarious trauma, or secondary trauma, “refers to the stories that we are exposed to indirectly – in court or a client telling us a story, reading case notes, through the media or colleagues debriefing each other. “And all these indirect traumatic stories hitch a ride with us and sometimes they can really alter our sense of safety and our safety in the world,” she says.

The “big three warning signs” for vicarious trauma are physical, behavioural and emotional symptoms, says Mathieu.

“You will notice that there is a significant intrusion of difficult images or stories beyond what we would consider a normal amount of time,” she says.

Mathieu works as the co-executive director of TEND, an organization that provides resources and training to address the complex needs of high stress, trauma-exposed workplaces. She is one of the presenters at this year’s CBA Health and Wellness Conference, where she’ll lead a session titled Managing the Things We Can’t Unsee: Reducing the Impact of Secondary Trauma Exposure in the Legal Profession.

“Sometimes people will have nightmares … or they will start avoiding situations that remind them about the stories that they heard. When it leads to you having a lot of emotional distress around these stories or significant avoidance patterns or sleeplessness and anxiety, those are significant warning signs,” she says. “We recommend that people seek further help and act on that.”

McCallum says that in retrospect she believes that many of her fellow lawyers who were “self-medicating with alcohol, gambling, sex, drugs or other things” may have been experiencing vicarious trauma.

“I think when you’ve been working on a really tough case or a really sensitive matter then you may want to consider seeking out a mental health professional so they can determine if you are experiencing vicarious trauma or whether what you are dealing with is a trigger for old events from your own background,” she says.

How to protect yourself from vicarious trauma

Mathieu has some advice for lawyers about how to protect themselves from vicarious trauma.

“One of the top protective factors is social support in the workplace,” she says.

Mathieu recommends that lawyers seek out timely and effective debriefing after hearing an account of a traumatic experience or reviewing trauma-inducing documents.

“Some of those debriefing needs are quite immediate. You shouldn’t wait three weeks to deal with something that was fairly stressful. You need someone almost on call.”

Lawyers should also consider how taking a particular file is going to affect them, says McCallum, who is the founder of Miyo Pimatisiwin Legal Services, offering legal advice on administrative, human rights and criminal matters and workplace investigations and consultation services.

“You should do a self-assessment: Where am I in my life? Can I handle this? If you’re vulnerable because, say, you were sexually abused as a child or you experienced traumatic violence, you have to do a determination and think about what kind of supports that you need while you make your way through that case or do that work that you’re going to do,” McCallum says.

Education is also important, Mathieu and McCallum agree.

“I think law students should be taught about trauma and how to protect themselves when they’re dealing with traumatized clients,” says McCallum. “For family lawyers or criminal lawyers or people adjudicating very sensitive subjects, they also really need to have a solid understanding of where their boundaries are and how to reach out when they need support.”

Mathieu points out that “most lawyers do not have training on psychological trauma. We are not expecting them to be therapists. But having an understanding of why your most difficult clients behave the way they do can be very helpful. We call this becoming ‘trauma informed.’”

As an example, Mathieu says that evidence shows that domestic violence victims often return to their abusive partner seven to 12 times before leaving.

“If you know the statistics and the reasons why, you are not going to get as frustrated if your abused client returns home for the fourth time because you are going to have a framework and context to put that story in.”

Taking care of your physical and emotional health is also essential, says Mathieu.

“I am a big believer in wellness and balance, but I don’t think working 12 hours a day and then collapsing on your yoga mat for an hour is going to cut it,” she says. “What we really believe in is much more a moment-by-moment resetting. Being able to have moments when you are grounded — between appointments, during appointments.”

Mathieu recommends establishing a connection with your body and asking yourself: “How am I feeling? How is my breathing going? Am I well-rested?”

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