Compassion fatigue in the legal profession?

  • October 22, 2010
  • Janice Mucalov, LL.B.

How you can protect against and/or cope with vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma (VT) – also known as compassion fatigue, secondary trauma and secondary stress reaction – refers to the experience of a helping professional developing his or her own trauma symptoms as a result of continuously working with traumatized people.

Symptoms may include sleep disturbances, sadness, anxiety, a sense of isolation, losing faith in God or humanity, irritability, difficulty concentrating, lack of empathy, fatigue, intolerance of others and/or a negative attitude toward your job. Burnout can contribute to developing vicarious trauma, but it’s not as intense as VT.

Traditionally observed among doctors, social workers and therapists who work with trauma victims, VT is now being studied among judges and lawyers, particularly family and criminal lawyers.

VT rates among U.S. attorneys are almost five times higher than for other professions, some research estimates suggest. In a Canadian study, almost two-thirds of judges experienced short- or long-term VT symptoms, reports Peter Jaffe, a psychologist and academic director of the Centre for Research on Violence Against Women & Children at the University of Western Ontario, and a co-author of the study.

“Some lawyers are more at risk for developing vicarious trauma,” Jaffe says. “If you’re a criminal lawyer who reads victim statements, looks at crime scene photos and studies autopsy reports, you’re definitely more at risk.” Women are also significantly more likely than men to report VT, adds Jaffe.

What can you do to protect against and/or cope with VT?


Be aware of vicarious trauma, and recognize that it’s normal if you start experiencing symptoms, says Jaffe. “And if you feel you’re on the verge of burnout, then look at counselling. It’s not a sign of weakness.”


Self-care is critical. Take holidays, keep fit and eat properly. Make sure you enjoy hobbies and interests beyond the law too. Says Jaffe: “The nature of the law is that you can get a jaded view of society, so get involved in your community in other ways. Coach soccer or join a faith group.”


Book a weekly lunch or Friday walk with a mentor or colleagues to debrief, connect and talk about your week. “You need the support of your peers,” advises Jaffe. “More so than family or friends, they can understand what you’re going through.”

Filter out extra trauma

There’s plenty of extra trauma input outside of work that you don’t necessarily need to absorb or hear about, says Françoise Mathieu, a certified compassion fatigue specialist in Kingston, Ontario.

She recommends that you create a “trauma filter” to protect yourself from this extraneous material. Don’t watch violent TV shows, and avoid listening to depressing news on the radio when driving to work. For more on vicarious trauma, see:

Transforming compassion fatigue into compassion satisfaction - Tips from Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed., CCC, a specialist on compassion fatigue based in Kingston, Ontario. 

Special risks you face with emotionally distressed clients

Emotionally distressed clients pose greater risks than non-distressed clients. Because emotions may cloud their thinking, you may fail to appreciate the nature of the client’s problems, or they may fail to understand your advice.

You’re also at greater risk of being subjected to a professional complaint. John Wade, director of the Dispute Resolution Centre at Bond University’s faculty of law in Australia and a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia law school, observes: “The scars of experience also testify that a steady percentage of ‘emotional’ clients and their cheer squads will later turn on their lawyers with damaging gossip, non-payment of accounts, legal actions and reports to law societies.

On top of that, the constant exposure to distressed clients can take its toll on your own emotional health in the form of burnout, stress, alcohol/drug addiction and vicarious trauma.

Protecting yourself

Document everything

To protect against law society complaints and negligence claims, “paper your file and put everything in writing,” recommends Dana Schindelka, a partner at Davis LLP in Calgary. “Confirm by email and letter all instructions. Document all conversations. Explain matters in detail. And if a meeting is likely to be volatile, have a witness such as a colleague or your secretary present.”

Talk to other colleagues

Part of the training of social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists involves talking about their feelings. In contrast, the culture of the legal profession discourages lawyers from talking about their personal experiences, notes Jaffe. Yet, as with VT, sharing how your work affects you will help preserve your sanity. Solicitor/client privilege must be maintained, but you can talk freely with other lawyers in your firm about firm clients. Informal meetings with colleagues from other firms are also good places to share war stories; just don’t divulge client names when chatting with lawyers outside your firm.

Set boundaries and limits

Some distance between you and your clients is necessary for you to remain objective and effective, so set boundaries beyond which clients cannot cross. “I never give out my cell phone number, and I have an unlisted home number,” says John-Paul Boyd, a family lawyer with Aaron Gordon Daykin Nordlinger in Vancouver. Nor does he go out for coffee with his family law clients during a case (though he will once it’s concluded). Clients should also be encouraged to do as much for themselves as they can. Avoid jumping in too quickly to help a client with something they can handle, like retrieving old records.

Take a break

Finally, recognize when you may need to take a break from your practice area, says Schindelka, who is also a director of both the Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society and Saskatchewan’s Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. After 3½ years of sexual abuse litigation, he felt he was no longer in a healthy mindset and moved into general litigation, except for family and criminal law.