The MSBA recently hosted a livestream presentation, Bearing Witness to Our Clients’ Trauma: Doing Our Jobs AND Taking Care of Ourselves. The program used clips from the movie “Just Mercy”, and featured Michael Kahn, ReelTime CLE Co-Founder, “Recovering Attorney”, Licensed Professional Counselor and Coach; Cathleen Price, renowned civil rights attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University; and Sean O’Brien, Professor and clinical director at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. The panelists addressed the mental health risks associated with practicing law, and the role of self-care in mitigating risk factors, including the ethical considerations for prioritizing lawyer self-care.

The panelists began by discussing vicarious trauma, which is caused by indirect exposure to difficult and disturbing images and stories of the suffering of others. This repeated exposure to distressing content can have a negative impact on a person’s functioning and overall mental health, as “[t]he expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.” Kitchen Table Wisdom 1996, Rachel Naomi Remen, MD. 

The speakers noted that professionals experience a profound shift in world view when they work with individuals who have experienced trauma (e.g., a child abuse investigator may lose trust in anyone who approaches their child). The panelists reiterated the assertion from The Innocent Justice Foundation, that “[v]icarious trauma is not a sign of weakness. It is the cost of working with people who have experienced trauma and abuse – of bearing witness and of an empathic engagement with those affected.” In other words, vicarious trauma, it is a sign that you are human. While vicarious trauma is frightening, it need not be  harmful, and can be used as an inspiration to do something to help people. 



Secondary traumatic stress is similar to vicarious trauma, and is often caused by hearing about a traumatic event experienced by someone else without having been exposed directly. The negative effects of secondary exposure to traumatic events are the same as those of primary exposure. People suffering from secondary traumatic stress often experience observable reactions, like intrusive imagery, hyperarousal, distressing emotions, and functional impairment, and may actively avoid situations that might serve as reminders and cues. Severe instances of secondary traumatic stress may warrant a diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

Attorneys should become familiar with their individual warning signs of vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress, which may include physical signs, like insomnia, headaches, GI distress, heart palpitations, hypochondria, exhaustion, illness, teeth grinding; behavioral signs such as increased use of alcohol or drugs, anger and irritability, avoidance, indecisive, feeling helpless or hopeless, personal relationship problems, and imposter syndrome; and emotional signs, such as exhaustion, depression, anxiety, guilt, cynicism, hypersensitivity to emotional stimuli, numbing, reduced ability to feel empathy, and suicidal thoughts. 



Lawyers should also learn means of identifying and managing vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress, such as using a scale to determine the severity of their symptoms and implementing strategies to prevent them from becoming severe. Developing a self-care practice is also important. In physical terms, self-care can include monitoring your body for tension, and learning techniques to ease the tension, exercising regularly, and getting adequate sleep and nutrition. Self-care can also mean taking time to relax, connect with nature, and engage in creative activities.  It is also helpful for attorneys at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress to identify people they can rely on for support and help, make commitments to setting time boundaries at work, and to pay attention to the joys and achievements of their jobs. 

The program will be available on-demand in our MSBA CLE catalog