Vicarious Trauma is Real Among Lawyers

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Vicarious trauma is defined as occupational challenges that people working in victim services experience such as law enforcement, counseling services, medical services, and lawyering.

This occurs through listening to the victims recounting their experiences, looking at photos or watching videos of evidence, and viewing case files and this comes with several effects.

Vicarious trauma develops as a result of repeated exposure to traumatic situations or items.  My interest in this article is the lawyers and how vicarious trauma affects them which in turn compromises their mental health.

Lawyers working especially with victims of criminal offenses or civil matters such as handling a divorce matter can be affected due to prolonged exposure to the evidence through photographs or listening to victims share their stories. 

In my research in 2021, I remember vividly interviewing a prosecutor who shared with me his experience of how exposure to gruesome images affects him in his daily life.

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He told me this, and I will quote: “Patricia, how do you expect me to remain normal after viewing such files.”

This statement came after he showed me some of the files he was working on and indeed the photos were gruesome, I imagined how this prosecutor could have a peaceful sleep or rest after a long day of work.

In fact, in my interview when I asked him whether such cases affect him, this is what he told me, I quote:

We are dealing with cases and there is evidence of violence involved. We also suffer transferred trauma because we look at these files every day. And you are looking at pictures of dead bodies and people who are stabbed, women who are battered, people who have been chased away from their land among others, every week I look at these pictures. These cases wear me down.”

One of the outcomes, if a lawyer experiences vicarious trauma, is that he or she can become cynical, and fearful and others may appreciate their effort in achieving justice for their client.

The responses to vicarious trauma can be negative, positive, or neutral and this varies from one person to another especially those who have been exposed to vicarious trauma for a long time.

This is true, especially for lawyers who have been in practice for a long time. Some tend to ignore the effects of vicarious trauma and believe they are in control of their mental health, but the truth remains that this affects them in the course of their work.

I will focus on the negative outcomes of vicarious trauma.

Negatively, vicarious trauma can lead to compassionate fatigue and secondary traumatic stress. It is important to understand these terms.

Compassionate fatigue is defined as “a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for others who are in significant emotional pain and physical distress.” 

No lawyer can say he or she has never experienced this feeling.

Imagine dealing with a family matter involving domestic violence. Both physically and emotionally torture and where you are required to listen to the evidence and even represent your client, there is no way such occurrences will not affect your mental health.

One day, a lawyer shared with me his experience while handling a divorce case, he told me that the evidence that the man presented against his wife left him wondering whether his wife would not do the same one day too.

He told me he would be lost thinking about this case for months.

I agree that lawyers are trained to detach themselves from a client`s case but unless you are a machine with no feelings, you will be affected by some cases.

You cannot handle cases with traumatic incidences, and you remain okay. Your mental health will be affected in one way or another.

One of the lawyers I interviewed during my research in 2021 said that with experience a lawyer learns to detach from a client`s case and this is what he had to say:

Practicing law comes with experience. Once a lawyer has spent many years in practice, he or she learns to separate their feelings from the client’s feelings. You learn to separate work from your well-being”.

The question is, does this come so easily?  I believe not.

By the time a lawyer says he has learnt to detach there is already an effect on his or her mental health though most of the lawyers may not agree with me.  

 It is also true that lawyers experience secondary traumatic stress, and this is defined as “the natural consequent behaviors and emotions that often result from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by another and the stress resulting from helping, or wanting to help, a traumatized or suffering person.”

I believe most lawyers experience this to help their clients.

Once you get to know the experience of your client which is traumatic and you want to help them get justice, that whole experience can affect your mental health.  

It is time for lawyers to recognize that vicarious trauma is a reality and find ways how to cope or help colleagues who are experiencing vicarious trauma.

Below are a few suggestions on what to do;

Talk about your experience when handling a traumatic case

Lawyers tend sometimes not to want to speak up. Speaking out does not mean you are weak. Share your experiences with a colleague and do not die silently. Your mental health matters.

Take time to reflect on the experiences

This can be done by writing down your experiences and identifying what lessons you have learned through handling a specific case involving traumatic scenarios.

This will help you to understand the state of your mental health and decide whether to seek support or not.

Take time off work, relax, and engage in social and self-care activities such as doing some physical exercises, and engaging in prayer for those who believe in it as a way to cope with the trauma experienced.

Do something you enjoy. You could also ask yourself questions such as; Can I stop thinking about my client`s trauma outside work? Am I setting boundaries when I feel overwhelmed by the client`s needs? How do I move from my present state to feel much better?

Practice daily mindfulness

Because lawyers especially in criminal or family law practice listen to traumatic stories, mindfulness is needed.

This can include breathing and counting to relax the body and calm the mind after being exposed to trauma.

This is what is referred to as 4-7-8 breathing. Practically this is done by inhaling a breath for four seconds while holding the breath for seven seconds and exhaling for eight seconds. Try it dear lawyer and it will work.

Finally, do not shy away from seeking therapeutic professional help when needed.

It is better to be open and share your situation than dying slightly.

I know some lawyers may think seeking therapeutic help is a “European” concept but I believe it is time for us as African lawyers to embrace seeking help when you feel you are overwhelmed due to vicarious trauma. 

Lawyers let us accept that we are prone to experience mental health challenges within the course of our work.

Therefore, we need to rise to the occasion and be deliberate in caring for our mental health while we continue to provide our services to the public.


Bako Jane Patricia/Courtesy Photo
Bako Jane Patricia
Lawyer and Counselling Psychologist | +256-785138755 | bjtricia@gmail.com | Website

LLB, LLM ( University of Pretoria), MSc Counselling  Psychology

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