By Tom Jarvis

Frayed rope about to break on red background.

To say lawyering can be stressful is an understatement, especially in the post-pandemic world of staffing short­ages and overwhelming caseloads that legal professionals currently practice in.

But for some lawyers and judges, who are continuously exposed to trau­matic material, that stress can be com­pounded by a condition called vicarious trauma. This can have a significant neg­ative impact on their mental health, and without the right boundaries can lead to a higher risk of depression and anxiety.

Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma or secondary traumat­ic stress, affects people in the helping professions, like lawyers and judges. It can be described as mental anguish due to ongoing, indirect exposure to trau­matic events through firsthand account or narrative.

“Attorneys often represent people who have been traumatized as victims of abuse, crime, or other adversity,” attorneys Becky Howlett and Cynthia Sharp say of vicarious trauma in their American Bar Association CLE, How Secondary Trauma Affects Attorney Mental Health.

Continuously hearing disturbing re­counting of traumatic experiences from clients and witnesses can be overwhelm­ing and lead lawyers—and judges to a lesser extent—to experience the same feelings faced by the trauma survivors in their care. Vicarious trauma typically involves a shift in world view, resulting in beliefs about the world being altered and/or damaged by the repeated expo­sure.

“As the matter unfolds, lawyers, staff, and judges alike may be exposed to emotional stories, highly charged situations, as well as gruesome and dis­turbing evidence, which can lead to sec­ondary or vicarious trauma,” Howlett and Sharp say. “Symptoms include burnout, PTSD, irritability, difficulties with sleep and concentration, as well as diminished pleasure and interest in ac­tivities.”

While vicarious trauma exists in other fields—and other professions such as firefighting and policing—vicarious trauma is more prevalent in legal pro­fessionals who work in criminal, family, juvenile justice, and domestic violence cases, especially those involving harm to children. Those who have their own history of trauma are also more suscep­tible to vicarious trauma.

A precursor for vicarious trauma in the helping professions can be a condition called com­passion fatigue, which is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others. According to online mental health resource, GoodTherapy, while some of the symptoms are similar, “compassion fatigue differs from vicarious trauma in that it is not typically characterized by the presence of trauma-related symp­toms and does not necessarily involve a change in one’s world view.”

The term “vicarious trauma” was originally coined in 1996 by authors, Karen W. Saakvitne and Laurie Anne Pearlman, in their book entitled, Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization. In the book, they explore the contributing factors to vicari­ous trauma and compassion fatigue and how they affect each person, which includes the individual’s current life circumstances, history of trauma, coping style, and per­sonality type.

NH Lawyer Assistance Program Executive Director, Jill O’Neill, standing outside of her office in Concord. NH LAP provides free, 100 percent confidential assistance to NH lawyers, judges, and law students. Photo by Tom Jarvis

Jill O’Neill, Executive Director of the New Hamp­shire Lawyers Assistance Program (NHLAP), says that paying attention to your emotional wellbeing is key to reducing the risk of vicarious trauma. She cautions against dismissing some of these symptoms in favor of putting up a front.

“Paying attention, having self-awareness, and not being afraid to reach out are very important,” O’Neill says. “Oftentimes we see individuals who start to iso­late and retreat. Things have been stewing a while, and they will internalize it as a character deficit, rather than really understanding they may be experiencing one or all of the signs of burnout, compassion fatigue, or sec­ondary traumatic stress. Instead of recognizing it, they see it as a character flaw. But it’s important, if you’re feeling these things, to reach out and talk to a profes­sional.”

O’Neill says that NHLAP is available to help strug­gling attorneys. The organization has a collection of re­sources and self-tests on their website, lapnh.org, and they can refer lawyers to in-network providers.

“We can make it easy for busy professionals and do a lot of the legwork,” she says. “And under NH Su­preme Court Rule 58.8, any contact with NHLAP is 100 percent confidential.”

The American Bar Association says vicarious trau­ma and compassion fatigue can be mitigated by being aware of the conditions and periodically self-assessing for them. They also say it can be helpful to talk regular­ly with other practitioners about how traumatic material affects you. And of course, O’Neill stressed, seeking professional assistance specializing in trauma may be beneficial.

“There is still a fear and stigma that prevents peo­ple from reaching out and acknowledging that these types of vulnerabilities—whether it’s burnout, second­ary traumatic stress, or compassion fatigue—are real and are treatable conditions,” O’Neill says. “But we are starting to see a positive shift in the field where more individuals are calling in [to NHLAP] self-referred. It indicates more of the message is out there, that profes­sionals are not alone, and that it’s okay to not be okay.”