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Secondary Trauma: Doing Good Can Feel Bad for Lawyers

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used in place of professional advice, treatment, or care in any way. Lawyers, law students, judges, and other legal professionals in Massachusetts can find more on scheduling a Free & Confidential appointment with a licensed clinician here.

Many lawyers went to law school hoping to make a contribution to justice by working on behalf of the unfortunate, oppressed, and vulnerable, inspired by figures like the fictional Atticus Finch or the real life Jan Schlichtmann. Some actually end up doing this kind of work, where the demands may be less about billable hours than about dealing continuously with human pain – cases, for example, of domestic violence, tragic events, tales of torture in those seeking asylum, child neglect, and more.

Like others who work with traumatized individuals (e.g., physicians, nurses, mental health professionals), these lawyers are subject to a particular kind of stress – hearing the details of traumatic experiences in the presence of the individual who has experienced them and is still reacting to them. Often compounding the situation is a degree of relative helplessness to fix the problem in the face of various entrenched systems, very limited resources, and having to repeatedly confront some very bad realities.

In response to a steady diet of that kind of stress, professionals often develop a cluster of reactive features that may include:
• Loss of sense of satisfaction/accomplishment
• Disconnection from people and from their original mission
• Feelings of depletion
• Loss of positive expectations or trust for people in general
• Numbing or muted experience of joy or optimism

Although there is no “official” diagnosis for this pattern, since it is not a pathology and is less severe than clinical depression, it is a deeper source of difficulty than simple burnout, and is often known as “Compassion Fatigue” (also sometimes as vicarious or secondary traumatization). Lawyers as a group tend to present a façade of having everything under control — but our services offer Free & Confidential settings to be more open and genuine – in one of our existing groups, a Compassion Fatigue Discussion Group, or in individual meetings with an LCL clinician.

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Written by Jeff Fortgang, PhD


CATEGORIES: Career & Practice Concerns | LCL Offerings | Uncategorized

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