Vicarious Traumatization

This is another “ditto for paralegals” post, i.e., a post that riffs on a post from another blog originally intended for attorneys, but which I feel applies as well to paralegals. This one is another excellent post by Judge Larry Primeaux whose excellent blog as a Chancery Judge has been the basis for several posts here. Judge Primeaux writes about the phenomenon of vicarious  traumatization as experienced by attorneys who “see almost every conceivable form of mankind’s capacity to be inhuman … violence and its physical and emotional scars, financial coercion, verbal cruelty, sexual abuse, use of children and other family members as weapons, defamation, and on and on in a breathtaking, seemingly inexhaustible panorama of brutality that seems almost limitless in the scope of its imaginative cunning.” Of course it is not only attorneys who endure such experiences, but each member of the legal team. Indeed, in many instances the paralegal has the more direct experience, acting as a shield between the attorney and the client – taking the phone calls, doing the initial interviews, managing the client as the legal team prepares to ADR or litigation.

Because I am 99% certain he won’t mind I’m copying his entire post here, but encourage you to follow this link and troll through his many useful posts:

Lawyers who represent people see almost every conceivable form of mankind’s capacity to be inhuman. We see violence and its physical and emotional scars, financial coercion, verbal cruelty, sexual abuse, use of children and other family members as weapons, defamation, and on and on in a breathtaking, seemingly inexhaustible panorama of brutality that seems almost limitless in the scope of its imaginative cunning.

Over time the exposure takes its toll. Some lawyers develop a defensive cynicism that effectively shields them from their clients’ pain, but also prevents them from empathizing. Other lawyers experience burnout that makes them ineffective. Still others experience sleeplessness, irritability, sadness, loss of concentration, difficulty in intimacy, depression, and a panoply of other symptoms. Your clients’ problems too often intrude into your own life and can come perilously close to becoming your own problems.

All attorneys who represent people experience stress. Even extreme stress. Some deal with it in a healthy way. Too many others self-medicate with alcohol, drugs or toxic behavior.

There is research that dubs this phenomenon “Vicarious Traumatization.” It is the process by which a lawyer who comes into contact with the client’s traumatization can become traumatized himself or herself.

Here is a link to a paper published by the American Bar Association entitled Secondary Trauma and Burnout in Attorneys: Effects of Work with Clients Who are Victims of Domestic Violence and Abuse, by Andrew P. Levin, MD.

A lawyer is quoted in the article:

“It actually feels good to hear that I am not the only one who feels depressed and helpless and that these issues are worth studying. Fortunately, the stress has decreased with experience and time for me, but I still have vivid memories of quite traumatic experiences representing victims of domestic violence who were so betrayed that it was difficult to continue to have faith in humankind.”

Read the paper and see whether you recognize yourself there.

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One Comment

  • Dr. Mongue, thanks for sharing this information and the link. Over the past several decades, I’ve seen some horrific trauma experienced by our clients, and have been shocked to the core by some of the things I’ve heard, read, and seen. The silver lining as a legal professional is being able to help them through it, and seeing some incredibly courageous survivors turn awful experiences into a way to help others.

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