Secondary Trauma Stress: Sustaining Pro Bono Volunteers

Many pro bono attorneys volunteer in high stress matters, such as domestic violence, child abuse, immigration, and death penalty advocacy. While the mental health and trauma of the clients in these matters is paramount, these high-stakes, high-stress matters also impact the clients’ legal services providers. Just as doctors, nurses and other medical professionals can face psychological trauma in performing their jobs, many attorneys suffer from the mental health hazards of caring for others, such as burnout, vicarious trauma, and secondary trauma.

Secondary trauma stress, also referred to as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue, is a condition caused by exposure to another person’s trauma, with symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. In legal fields where clients experience trauma, studies show cause for concern for the attorneys exposed to their clients’ traumatic experiences. For example, a study of the Wisconsin State Public Defenders Office found that 34% of respondents met the criteria for secondary trauma and 75% met the criteria for functional impairment (disruption in personal life, family life). Similarly, a study of 23 Canadian prosecutors working with “sensitive cases” involving domestic violence and incest indicated the attorneys experienced demoralization, anxiety, helplessness, exhaustion, and social withdrawal.

While there is general awareness of the impact that client trauma can have on healthcare providers, law students and lawyers are less likely to learn about techniques to prepare them for this work. This lack of knowledge increases the risk of developing secondary trauma symptoms. One does not necessarily have to work directly with a client who has experienced trauma in order to develop secondary trauma stress; anyone who hears about client trauma indirectly can also be at risk.

Because of these concerns, it is important that all attorneys are aware of the symptoms of secondary stress so that they can identify when they or their colleagues need help. Lawyer burnout manifests as disengagement from work, family, and friends, with symptoms such as fatigue, cynicism, feelings of inefficacy, and lack of attention to work and other commitments. Some symptoms of secondary traumatic stress that are most typically seen in the workplace include:

  • avoidance (e.g., arriving late, leaving early, missing meetings, avoiding clients, skipping certain questions during interviews);
  • hypervigilance (e.g., feeling on edge, perceiving colleagues and clients as threatening, feeling like all clients are in danger);
  • seeing things as “black or white” rather than tolerating ambiguity;
  • becoming argumentative; and
  • shutting down, numbing out, using alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms.

Other symptoms of secondary traumatic stress that might not be visible in the workplace include:

  • sleep disturbance and nightmares;
  • physical pain, such as headaches or stomach pain;
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms like anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts;
  • extreme fatigue;
  • negative thinking; and
  • strained relationships with family and friends.

Luckily there are many tools that pro bono volunteers and others can use to prevent or cope with burnout or secondary trauma. Pro Bono Institute’s popular Annual Conference program, “When Helping Hurts,” has provided a forum for pro bono attorneys to discuss vicarious trauma and burnout, as well as healing and treatment strategies. For example, pro bono program leaders can encourage volunteers to discuss their concerns and feelings, to normalize the experience. Encouraging volunteers to celebrate their accomplishments can help volunteers to focus on small victories. Having a buddy to check in with can provide accountability and deter suppression of difficult emotions.

The ABA also suggests many wellness strategies to help attorneys and their colleagues cope with secondary trauma, such as:

  • Set healthy work-life boundaries;
  • Take care of general health and well-being, including good exercise, sleep, and eating habits;
  • Seek counseling or other therapy support to discuss and reflect on high stress work;
  • Speak openly about secondary trauma to normalize it and make it easier to recognize;
  • Train employees and colleagues about recognizing secondary trauma and addressing it in a positive and supportive manner; and
  • Create a supportive organizational culture.

It is important to step back and make sure that pro bono attorneys are healthy enough to continue doing the work. Pro bono volunteers are people first, attorneys second. The work can only be done if those performing the work are mentally, emotionally, and physically in a positive space to be able to do so.

To learn more about the mental health effects of high stress representation, as well as strategies for healing and treatment, please listen to PBI’s webinar, When Helping Hurts. Contact for registration information.

Hat tip to PBI intern Shivani Trivedi for her contribution to this blog.