Law in Contemporary Society

Preparing my Practice for Working with Clients (Second Revision):

-- By IlanaDutton - 15 Feb 2023


Someone once told me that I was "empathic to a fault". They qualified the statement, explaining that while being empathetic is what makes me a great friend, it also means I take on other people's issues and problems as my own, even if my cup was already full of my own problems. Until I began working in public interest law, I had no idea how big of a toll that would have on my mental and physical well-being. As I look towards my future of being a practicing lawyer, I need to figure out how to build a practice that is sustainable, knowing I am someone who holds the weight of clients' problems.

In my junior year of college, as an intern with Northwest Immigrants’ Rights Project, I took every case home with me. I'm not referring to the physical case file, but instead to the emotional baggage that each case inevitably came with. It quickly started impacting every aspect of my life, including my relationships with the people around me. People in the office would talk about "self-care" but those felt like empty words to me, since going on walks, exercising, and making time for friends, which are my versions of self-care, didn't do anything. By the time I finished my internship in May of my senior year, I was feeling detached from the work I was doing, since it was the only way, I could protect myself, but it also made me worse at my job. I was putting in less effort and it was clear in my work, but I did not have the tools to handle the situation any other way.

I did not have the language to understand what I was experiencing until I began working as a legal assistant at Her Justice in New York City after graduating college. During my second week at the organization, our on-staff social worker did a training with me on "vicarious trauma", which was a term I had never heard before. As she was explaining the concept to me, which I hope to do for all of you in the next section, pieces started falling into place and the last two years began to make more sense.

What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma is "a trauma process that occurs over time when an individual is exposed indirectly to the suffering of others for whom they feel responsible. Vicarious trauma often occurs as a result of the empathetic engagement with a client's trauma experience and is different from compassion fatigue and burnout in that those experiencing vicarious trauma have often internalized the traumatic experiences of clients in a way that impacts how they view themselves and the world.

It is impossible to predict exactly how vicarious trauma will impact an individual, but research shows there can be impacts on the physical and mental well-being of attorneys. Mentally, long-term exposure to indirect trauma can impact our ability to regulate emotions, leading to increased anxiety, depression, or aggression. Physically, vicarious trauma can impact appetite, sleep, and the immune system.

Considering Vicarious Trauma in my Practice

Unfortunately, just learning the term "vicarious trauma" did not solve all of my problems. It gave me the language to understand what I was experiencing and that I was not alone in it, but I still struggled in balancing empathy, which is one of the things that made me good at my job, and maintaining healthy boundaries that would make the type of work I want to do sustainable. It led me to the key question: What would it look like to build a practice where lawyers continue to engage with trauma in order to do their job in a way that is not damaging to their own well-being?

The answer to this question has to be more nuanced than "go outside more" or "find creative expressions". While all of those sound "right" as coping mechanisms, they never seemed to fully solve the problem. So I've been working to look beyond the easy fixes to come up with a list of things that I want to see in my practice to support myself and other lawyers who interact with trauma every day:

1. Encourage open dialogue about secondhand trauma and how it impacts people in the workplace -- These conversations cannot just be about the existence of secondhand trauma. Instead, it needs to address the symptoms of secondhand trauma, even the ones that are hard to hear, like a perceived lack of empathy due to burnout.

2. Support people in building coping skills early on in their career -- This is important because it gives people time to build important coping skills before they are in the early phases of burnout, which makes it easier to build those skills

3. Build an environment where boundaries are encouraged and respected -- By encouraging a separation between people's work and home lives, it gives employees the chance to truly recharge at home. This can be difficult in many types of public interest law because emergencies do exist. My practice will need to take into account the existence of emergencies and build mechanisms to ensure those are adequately addressed while also protecting the boundaries of our attorneys.

4. Provide generous PTO, encourage people to take it, and make sure that they can truly do NO work on their vacation -- Rest is essential to people's well-being and needs to be supported.

5. Ensure that people are paid sufficiently so that they do not have to work about financial insecurity and have the resources to cover the mental health care that they need -- Therapy is expensive, even with health insurance, but it is also an essential tool in protecting people from burnout. Making sure that people do not have to worry about making ends meet on their salary and can afford the care they need is a crucial part of building a sustainable workplace.

Vicarious trauma is by no means a new concept, but in the past, it has been considered an anticipated part of the profession for many public interest lawyers. Building a practice that truly supports lawyers means undoing this ingrained mentality that asking for help means you're not cut out for this kind of work. While that won't be easy, it's something that I know I need to do to ensure that I am building a practice that is sustainable for me and the lawyers I will work it.

Ilana — as someone who also struggles with drawing firm boundaries with family and friends as to what I take on (and thus compromising my own mental wellbeing or ability to enjoy my own free time), I resonate so much with what you have written and appreciate the list of potential solutions that you have drawn up, as I think that these can be implemented generally in life outside of public interest or the legal industry itself. I was curious about what thoughts you have had on helping employees separate work and their personal lives beyond encouragement. As someone who had a work phone for two years, I often found myself constantly checking on my work phone out of paranoia that an emergency would arise or that I may have missed an email from an attorney. The law firm that I had worked at had tried to resolve this issue by telling us that the expectation was to be somewhat online and on your phone until 11 p.m., after which you could relax. I would love to read what your proposed plan for your practice might be and compare notes from my previous experiences. I agree wholeheartedly with points 4 and 5 on PTO and mental health, as those are great ways to encourage people to actively separate themselves from their work and begin processing (and learning how to process) any vicarious trauma that may have been repressed. - Gillian

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r9 - 22 May 2023 - 12:06:53 - IlanaDutton
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