Compassion Fatigue in the Legal Profession?

  • Janice Mucalov

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, Ont.

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 (.pdf) - Tips from Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed., CCC, a specialist on compassion fatigue based in Kingston, Ont.