When practising as a family law barrister, I used to wonder why I could not manage to reduce my stress levels for any length of time. I would take short breaks, longer breaks and reduce my workload. Still the stress would build.

LawCare statistics tell us that burn-out rates are high and that the numbers of lawyers choosing to leave the profession are growing. There will be many reasons for this, but I strongly believe that our exposure to trauma, particularly in family and criminal law, lies at the heart.

It is now a widely held view among mental health practitioners that many mental health problems are secondary symptoms of an underlying and unprocessed trauma. If trauma is unprocessed, it accumulates. Trauma requires a specific form of recovery. It won’t resolve with a short holiday or a lighter workload.

Over the years, I have become increasingly aware of how unconscious we have been, as a profession, to the impact of trauma exposure. It was only when I left the Bar, and lost a dear friend very suddenly, that I began to enquire into what I was ‘holding’. Retraining as a coach, I worked with clinical psychologists specialising in the field of trauma to develop ways to help lawyers recognise and release trauma. The purpose of this article is to share some insight from what we have learned and observed.

What do we mean by trauma?

Trauma is an experience that is overwhelming, very difficult to process fully and can impact our core beliefs. Examples include accidents, serious illness, sudden death of a loved one, abuse and disasters.

Core beliefs develop throughout our lives but mostly during childhood. As the lens we look through, they govern our day-to-day vision of the world, the way we see and respond to relationships and our environment, and are bound up with our sense of self. Trauma can impact our core beliefs and therefore alter the way we experience almost everything in our lives. We may start to view the world as less safe/bleaker etc.

As an adult, if we process trauma successfully, we can return to our core beliefs – or a slightly adapted version which integrates the traumatic experience. For example, if a barrister is exposed to disturbing images of sexual abuse on a regular basis, the images and sensations can impact core beliefs. If the trauma exposure is repressed or pushed away, this can lead to a disconnect with the self and develop into depression, anxiety, exhaustion, insomnia etc. By processing the trauma, a return to the core beliefs can be facilitated – with an adaptation to allow the lens to accommodate the trauma exposure in a way that is healthy. This might be along the lines of: ‘This disturbing, sexual abuse can happen, but it is not common and doesn’t fundamentally alter the way I see the world.’

Vicarious trauma

Trauma exposure through work is referred to as vicarious or secondary trauma. There aren’t many of us who manage to live a trauma-free life. However, for barristers practising in particular areas, the level of exposure can be extreme and relentless. Those who regularly work long hours with few breaks can find it difficult to ‘come up for air’ to notice whether they have a more jaded world view after years of exposure.

When clients discuss traumatic experiences or share traumatic material in a conference or in evidence, they are likely to re-live the trauma. If the trauma is unprocessed, it continues to be present in their nervous system and will cause a physiological response – increased heart rate, tension in the muscles, rage etc.

Lawyers, sitting with their clients, can also experience a reaction because mirror neurons in the brain are activated. This may result in a similar physiological response – from a quickening of the breath to a reaction in the gut, tension etc. This can negatively impact on health. However, it is possible and important to learn how to lessen the impact.

What does a trauma response feel like?

Trauma is held in the limbic system and evokes a visceral reaction such as restlessness, overreaction, intense anger, disgust, shame, sleep disturbance, recurring thoughts and intrusive images.

If a traumatic event triggers a traumatic memory of an earlier life experience, the response can be complex. An example of this would be a person who has recently experienced a disproportionate reaction to a minor car crash. They feel extremely anxious, can’t sleep or relax. This person also had a very serious car accident 10 years earlier. They never really thought much about it and simply ‘moved on’. The trauma of the earlier accident is stuck in their limbic system and driving the response to the recent crash. In order to process the trauma, there needs to be a processing and release in relation to both crashes.

Barristers may find that certain cases have similarities to their own life experiences. These cases can trigger emotional reactions and the impact may be complex. Becoming conscious of individual triggers will enable barristers to take extra care in relation to that case/client and to factor that into the processing of the trauma.

Without release, trauma builds, accumulates, can impair a barrister’s capacity to perform, and to cope, and is further exacerbated by the following factors and particular characteristics of the Bar:

  • The pressure and performance element of the job: exposure to disturbing information and material (often without forewarning) with no space or time to process it before there is an expectation to perform.
  • In a conference or court environment many lawyers can be exposed to trauma at the same time and, if this is unprocessed trauma, the emotional temperature will increase yet further, leading to more reactivity and higher stress.
  • Prolonged and regular exposure to trauma, without awareness of the need to release it, will ultimately undermine function and competence via increased anxiety, insomnia, impact on digestion, substance abuse etc.
  • Exposure combined with little time for breaks during the workday or evening can heighten the potential for overwhelm and burn-out.
  • The optimum time to release trauma is directly after the exposure, so unless there is space and time provided for regular release, there will be a build-up in the system.

Where to start?

  • Recognising trauma is the crucial first step as it precipitates the process of awareness.
  • Putting safeguards in place follows on from awareness – for the client as well as the lawyer. The very act of taking instructions could cause re-traumatisation for some clients, so knowing how to build safeguards around this is essential.
  • Peer support is another important part of the learning and reflective process.
  • Regular exercises for release of trauma should be built into the day, however busy it is:
    • To release trauma, both the left and right sides of the brain need to be engaged as well as the body. It is unlikely that trauma can be released by talking alone. Movement, use of images, emotions and sensations – in combination with talking – can enable trauma release if mind and body are fully integrated in the experience.

We need to create a trauma-informed legal community. Lawyers often describe themselves as living 100% in their heads. Learning how to release trauma not only creates greater capacity to cope with stress but also enables a new healthier way of being, which involves connecting mind and body, and becoming more present in your life.