While the conversation around wellbeing at work, and in particular in the legal sector, has progressed dramatically in recent years, extra consideration is required for those of us who regularly work with traumatic case materials and with clients who have experienced trauma.

Barristers working with traumatic caseloads are likely to have chosen this work because of the value and satisfaction that comes with it; the desire to achieve just outcomes, and to support marginalised groups through the grief and complexity of legal proceedings. However, the cost to us individually may be more than simply the financial sacrifice that can accompany work of this nature, it being predominantly legally aided.

The ‘cost of caring’ has been examined in many other helping professions, but is understudied and less understood in our sector.

More often termed, ‘compassion fatigue’, this phenomena can be defined as follows:

‘The emotional and physical fatigue experienced by professionals due to their chronic use of empathy in helping others in distress.’ (D Turgoose and L Maddox. ‘Predictors of compassion fatigue in mental health professionals: a narrative review’, Traumatology, (2017) 23(2), 172-185)

This can manifest as a loss of compassion towards your clients, your loved ones, or in relation to wider societal issues. It can also manifest as a loss of compassion towards ourselves, and a steady neglecting of our needs at a basic or emotional level. This may sound strikingly familiar to some barristers. It can have profoundly destabilising effects for those who were motivated to join the profession by compassion and empathy towards their clients and the adverse circumstances they face.

Since 2017, as co-directors of Claiming Space, a community interest company set up to provide peer support and training to lawyers working with vulnerable and traumatised clients, we have been working together to address issues of vicarious trauma, burnout and self-care across the legal profession. As a barrister practising family and immigration law and a non-practicing solicitor previously practising civil liberties and inquests, we have worked our fair share of traumatic caseloads and have our own direct experience of the ‘cost of caring’.

Our book, Vicarious Trauma in the Legal Profession: a practical guide to trauma, burnout and collective care, published this year by Legal Action Group, deals with these issues in detail. In the box (below) we have extracted the section examining the meaning of ‘vicarious trauma’ in the context of the work that we do.

It is important to emphasise that we will all experience the effects of exposure to trauma in different ways, and that this will be dynamic across our working lives. It is equally important to state that the effects are not solely or inevitably negative. Compassion satisfaction and vicarious resilience, from witnessing the strength and fortitude of our clients, are a very real and wonderful part of our work.

What is vital is to have the space to reflect and process the effects of this work, on a regular basis. This is work that we cannot do alone. Peer support both informal (such as a WhatsApp group chat with peers from within or outside of chambers) and formal (for example monthly meeting time set aside for purposeful reflection) is invaluable. Those members of the Bar who are planning to undertake work with a risk of vicarious trauma should be offered training on the impact of this work, so that as a profession the Bar can begin to have a common language to describe our experiences and those of our colleagues, and to recognise and understand that this work is impactful in ways that, as a profession, we are only beginning to acknowledge.

In doing so, we can spot our own early warning signs that we might be struggling, and seek support or make necessary changes.

The Bar

A particularly sharp impact of the ongoing pandemic has been the requirement to work on traumatic cases in our homes, around caring responsibilities, and often alone. While this shift has had the obvious and regrettable impact of literally pushing trauma into our home lives, it has also isolated practitioners from one another, by removing the collegiate environment of chambers, court robing rooms, and face to face meetings between advocates.

This move has pushed many barristers to their limit, particularly as the spacing out of court listings across the working day has increased the likelihood of doing multiple cases in a day, and email traffic has escalated significantly, whether that’s to organise remote listings and client conferences, or in the absence of the usual distractions and pleasures of our pre-pandemic liberty.

But why does this matter?

It matters because the added emotional and practical load of working in this period is significant and real. Much of this load is not new, in terms of working with trauma, but its impact has added weight in our current working conditions. It matters because there is a very real sense that, with increased work and limited holidays, many practitioners are struggling, and do not have the space (internal or external) to speak about their experiences. It matters most of all because we matter, our clients matter, and this work matters to us.

What can we do about it?

  • We can learn about vicarious trauma, burnout, compassion fatigue and what these terms mean, equipping us with the knowledge and tools to recognise these phenomena in our day to day work of those around us;
  • We can cultivate safe spaces to inquire into our experience of doing this work, whether that’s individually or part of a group;
  • We can create a culture that values open and honest conversations about wellbeing, mental health, and the impact of traumatic caseloads, to allow us to share early warning signs, practical tools, and experience, without fear of shame and stigma.

Each of these steps empowers us and our colleagues, to speak freely about how this work lands, and discuss the tools required for us to work safely and with longevity: for our current clients and those we have yet to meet.

The solicitor-counsel relationship

In the best case, the solicitor-counsel relationship can be a source of mutual support. At the very least, there are steps we can take to ensure that the relationship is not one that perpetuates the flow of trauma from person to person.

For example, solicitors could include content warnings in briefs and instructions. Even with late instructions, where there is not much choice about when or where counsel looks at the papers, a note to describe – in neutral terms – the sensitive aspects of the case contents can help prepare the mind and nervous system for what is to come.

Where there is a good working relationship, the end of a case could be an opportunity for counsel and their instructing solicitors to debrief beyond simply the legal or procedural elements of the case. Marking the close of a case in this way can help practitioners process and move on from the more harrowing cases, and provide opportunity for reflection and learning.

Nearly permanently ‘on call’

In our work across the profession one aspect of working life that largely separates the two sides is the way in which solicitors can often become nearly permanently ‘on call’ for clients. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic, by working from home and by having emails and work calls sent to personal mobile phones. The solicitor is often the final safety net or last lifeline for particularly vulnerable clients who are at the sharpest end of austerity or the immigration ‘hostile environment’. However, this increases the likelihood of working outside of normal hours and, in turn, the likelihood of contacting counsel at unsociable hours.

When working with traumatic cases, having a sense of separation between ourselves and the content of the cases is vital and needs extra care. Taking time to take care of our minds and bodies is a necessity, not a luxury extra. While neither part of the profession is exempt from this blurring of work-life boundaries, when working with trauma perhaps there is more that each side of the profession can do to reduce our complicity in maintaining a system in which a weekend is not a time to rest.

Being open to change

The impact of this work demands thought, consideration, and action on a collective scale. The Bar is often weighed down by a received view that it is ‘traditional’ and incapable of change. Hiding behind that view will not serve us, and it will not enable the progress so urgently needed.

What our work has shown us, is that a renewed focus on the human impact of our work, and the very real bearing it has on us as embodied, empathic human beings who are also barristers, is required. Many barristers are already doing this work, by speaking openly about the hardship of working with trauma through webinars, or the wealth of resources on Wellbeing at the Bar*. There is a place for everyone in this conversation. 

* Sources of help include: www.wellbeingatthebar.org.ukwww.lawcare.org.uk; and www.samaritans.org (tel: 116 123)


What is vicarious trauma?
Vicarious trauma, at its first level, is a mode of exposure. The term may be used to simply describe the process of being exposed to trauma (in its broadest sense), vicariously, ie not experiencing it directly, but instead:
  • witnessing the event in real time;
  • witnessing after the event – for example, listening to our clients, reading witness statements or watching CCTV (all commonplace activities in the life of a lawyer);
  • being a first responder witnessing the aftermath (possible for lawyers working in police stations or dealing with clients in acute crisis); or
  • being in the physical presence of someone who is experiencing post-traumatic stress.
In this meaning of the term, it is clear that vicarious trauma is a live topic for lawyers across a varied spectrum of practices, from criminal defence to family law, immigration, and any area involving vulnerable populations. It is part of lawyers’ work in law centres and debt advice clinics, in boutique law firms, personal injury and clinical negligence sets, and in the charity sector.
Of course, those lawyers acting on the other side of our cases (usually representing state agents or insurers) will also be exposed to much of this material. Whilst we acknowledge this fact, this book is not aimed at those lawyers – it is a book for claimant lawyers, those who find themselves working with traumatised persons and within traumatising systems. However, those working in criminal defence and family law in particular will have experience of acting for (alleged or proven) perpetrators of trauma.
In some areas of the law, exposure to trauma is merely a likely possibility, but in others it is inevitable. Lawyers make decisions on risk all of the time. We should be taking into account the risks associated with vicarious exposure to trauma in our individual and collective planning.
There is a small but growing evidence-base upon which to begin to assess this risk. It is not possible, yet, to statistically calculate the risk of serious negative trauma over the working life of a lawyer. However, the evidence that has been collated across the globe and in the UK sends a terrifying warning call that must be heeded. Lawyers are struggling and suffering right now.
The evidence is explored in more detail below. In summary, a number of studies have found that lawyers working with traumatic material are likely to express higher levels of trauma-related symptoms than lawyers working in other sectors, as well as when compared to other trauma-exposed professions (eg social workers).
However, not every person who is exposed to trauma develops traumatic stress symptoms, nor is the likelihood of developing such symptoms solely explained by levels of exposure to it (the volume of caseloads) or the severity of the traumatic material (indeed some research has found no significant link (R Ivicic and R Motta (2017) ‘Variables associated with secondary stress among mental health professional’, Traumatology, 23(2), 196-204). A number of environmental, organisational and personal factors are also relevant.
It is important to keep in mind that we will each respond in different ways to exposure to distressing and painful aspects of our cases. Some of these responses will negatively impact our quality of life, professionally and personally. We may well also be impacted positively. However, it is important to acknowledge that these responses are ultimately ‘normal’ reactions to ‘abnormal’ events.
A critical component of trauma-informed working is that firms and organisations recognise the multiplicity of responses to the everyday experience of traumatic caseloads and that it is highly likely, if not inevitable, that workers will be impacted.

Vicarious Trauma in the Legal Profession: a practical guide to trauma, burnout and collective care (Legal Action Group: 2021) is available to purchase online and from all good bookstores.