The (secondary) stress of practicing law

January 28, 2022

President’s Message By Joseph R. Williams

For many of us, the decision to enter the legal profession was summarized in one very simple statement: “I want to help people.” And we do. We have the privilege of helping people every day. The rewards for our work is tremendous. Many lawyers enjoy a comfortable income, autonomy in their work arrangements, and a high level of respect from others in the community.

The practice of law is, however, not always easy. In fact, it is often quite stressful. The burdens of billable hours and filing deadlines keep many of us up at night, not to mention the obligation to attract clients, keep them happy and get them to pay their bill. But for many lawyers, the anxiety that we carry is deeper than just the readily apparent stressors of legal work. Clients come to us because they are in a difficult situation. Some are physically injured. Many are financially devastated. Others have lost their job. In my practice area of family law, clients have often been in an abusive relationship or experienced some other distress because of conflict within their family.

While everyone knows when they enter the legal profession about the demands of being a lawyer, very few people know about the indirect effects of working with clients in stressful situations. In fact, most people who have been practicing law for decades do not fully appreciate the trauma that we often carry as a result of our professional duties. Worse yet, nobody wants to talk about it.

Secondary traumatic stress is a condition that mirrors post-traumatic stress disorder. It is caused by being indirectly exposed to someone else’s trauma. As we process how our client became injured, why their marriage was so difficult, or how their own workplace was hostile, we often absorb the client’s feelings as our own. Similar to PTSD, secondary traumatic stress leaves us walking out of our office at night carrying the stress that our clients walked in carrying.

One challenge for lawyers who suffer from secondary trauma is that they have no prior training in how to identify it or how to address it. Mental health professionals learn about secondary trauma in their coursework, and some have regular trainings on secondary trauma once they start working. Conversely, most lawyers, judges and other legal professionals have no training whatsoever and are unaware that secondary trauma might be affecting them or their colleagues. That’s right, secondary trauma does not only affect the lawyer handling the matter; it can affect paraprofessionals and clerical staff as well. Not only can one develop secondary traumatic stress from listening to others describe traumatic events, one can also be impacted merely by working in an office where others are suffering from secondary trauma.

Research on secondary trauma has revealed that symptoms can be apparent both inside and outside of the workplace. Signs of someone suffering from secondary trauma in the office include avoidance (i.e., dodging clients or tasks, departing the office early, etc.); feeling on edge; becoming argumentative; and shutting down or numbing out. In one’s personal life, symptoms can include sleep disturbance and nightmares; headaches; stomach pain; fatigue; strained relationships with family and friends; and negative thinking.  

Common coping mechanisms for individuals struggling with secondary trauma are drugs and alcohol. These vices are obviously not an effective, or healthy, way to address the underlying issues. Indeed, the first step is to lead a healthy life in general – get plenty of sleep, eat nutritious meals, and get plenty of exercise. It is important to make time to enjoy family and friends and participate in hobbies. Finally, seeing a therapist can be helpful to help  juggle all of life’s responsibilities.

There are also things that lawyers can do within their practice to minimize the impact of stress and trauma. Schedule vacations well in advance and adjust your schedule so that you can enjoy them. Designate times away from emails and text messages each day to allow yourself to recharge. Know when a particular client or matter might not be worth taking when you are already spread too thin. Utilize others on your team to help you achieve a great result without burning yourself out.

We should also know how to take care of one another. In our respective organizations, we can work to build a supportive atmosphere. Identify for others how they can succeed while staying healthy and happy. Offer to help out someone who might be going through a particularly difficult time. But perhaps most importantly, we need to “normalize” the conversation around secondary traumatic stress. Organizations should spread the message that secondary trauma symptoms are not a sign of weakness or failure, but instead is a normal response to doing this kind of work. The more that we can take care of one another, the brighter that our collective future as a profession will be.

Finally, if you or someone you know is struggling with the challenges that come with life, including the practice of law, contact Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania at 1-888-999-1941. All services are confidential, voluntary and provided at no charge.