How to prepare for vicarious trauma as a young lawyer

By Naomi Neilson|15 June 2020
vicarious trauma

Working in law can mean the difference between a client’s suffering and justice, but while there are many highly rewarding moments, there are also just as many lows. For lawyers in training, the emotional scars might just hit that bit harder, so how should they cope?

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly on the vicarious trauma and emotional scars in law, Kylie Nomchong SC and Thomas Spohr broke down what it means to pursue criminal law – and how to cope when the scars creep into everyday life. In a follow-up to that piece, Ms Nomchong and Mr Spohr offered advice for young lawyers yet to experience it. 

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, there has been an increased understanding among law schools – and therefore young students – that there are aspects of the legal profession which [predispose] us to mental ill health,” said Mr Spohr, criminal lawyer and former prosecutor. “That’s good, but obviously knowing about it is not the whole battle.”

When it comes to acute and vicarious trauma – the kind that comes from exposure to sensitive material, like child abuse details or a difficult client – there is a certain extent to which young people should be aware of the consequences. According to Mr Spohr, there are a number of things that might be directly traumatic for a lawyer to deal with. 

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Ms Nomchong explained in the earlier piece: “Experiencing events in everyday life as a barrister can involve reading the most awful things, seeing most awful photographs, watching most dreadful videos and interviewing people day after day about the worst day of their lives – the day they got raped, the day that they found out their daughter had been murdered, the day that their arms were cut off, the day they lost their child.” 

For most young lawyers, the battle does not begin at these interviews. They start much earlier, at the office. One of the stereotypes of the law profession is that senior lawyers will perceive asking for advice as a weakness, halting mental health progression. 

“It’s important to have the courage to stand up and say something. It’s easy for me to say that, but the long-term health of a young lawyer depends on the ability to not only be able to grapple with all of the legal issues that they face in their lives but also have honest conversations about how they are doing,” Mr Spohr said. 

“That potentially means saying to an employer ‘can I get some help please?’. It doesn’t necessarily mean backing away from the matter, it may just mean saying ‘can I please get some advice’ or ‘can I take a bit of time off at the end of this matter’. Maybe it does mean reallocating the matter and developing strategies to deal with the next matter.”

Ms Nomchong said that those who do really well for themselves in the profession are those who have created a social network to share these concerns with. 

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“For example, a young barrister who is two years out rings me up and she says ‘I can’t make any connections and I feel I need to do something and have someone to talk to about particular things’. Because she came to me and asked the question, I was able to put her in touch with a whole host of people,” Ms Nomchong said. 

“A tip for young barristers, and particularly young lawyers – is that you have to take the first step because no one is going to come and knock on your door. I wish we could, but they have to make the first step to reach out and do something.”

For senior lawyers, partners and managers

Despite many advancements in the implementation of mental health initiatives across the profession, there are still senior lawyers and partners who will perceive a younger lawyer asking for help as a weakness. According to Mr Spohr, this attitude comes from a “I suffered through it, so other people should too” outlook.

“Lawyers who are in positions where they either supervise other lawyers or where they are generally more senior need to actively go out of their way to check in on [the] wellbeing of their people,” Mr Spohr said. “If the matter has challenging content or a challenging client or a challenging workload associated with it, [lawyers need] to actively go and check with young lawyers on how they are doing and if they are okay to do that matter.”

Mr Spohr said when it comes to his own matters that have disturbing content, he will go out of his way to specifically ask the solicitors that are assisting him whether they have any concerns about it and to encourage them to speak up if they do. 

“I would be far more upset if I find out subsequently that they are traumatised about it and don’t say anything. It would not trouble me at all if someone said, ‘I don’t think that I can deal with this content’ and I don’t need to know why. It’s not my business why a person doesn’t want to deal with a particular matter – but it is necessary for me to ask the question and allow someone to speak up,” Mr Spohr said. 

He added that at the very least, if young lawyers are building their social networks and building resilience, they can slowly start to have the confidence to seek support. 

“Sometimes we can’t avoid all the issues. We can’t always avoid a crunch for particular deadlines, we can’t always avoid that the material may be traumatic, we can’t always avoid that a client has a very difficult personality and is prone to yell, but we can limit the extent to which that has an impact on us and work together to minimise the fallout,” he said.

How to prepare for vicarious trauma as a young lawyer
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