Practicing family law is stressful, and we now have some validation that listening to our clients’ traumatic stories can and does affect family lawyers.

By Cindi Barela Graham, Family Lawyer, and Dr. Lynn Jennings, Professional Counselor

Secondary Stress and the Family LawyerSecondary Traumatic Stress (STS) is the indirect exposure to trauma through either a firsthand account or narrative of a traumatic event. For example, hearing a client recall, in vivid detail, the beatings by her husband which has left her face scarred and paralyzed can cause STS. Hearing that account coupled with seeing the physical evidence of the pictures of the client’s face immediately after the beatings causes yet even further stress for the family lawyer. Hearing accounts related to children is even more traumatic.

STS is an occupational hazard to a range of professionals including family lawyers, and there is a general consensus in the literature that it has negative associated effects. Some research argues that it is wrong or improper for a practitioner to have feelings of sympathy and sorrow for their clients’ suffering with the caveat that practitioners need to understand their limitations in helping alleviate the pain suffered by their clients. However, compassion is also necessary for the establishment of the lawyer-client relationship, so it can be a fine line that needs to be recognized and adhered to.

How STS Affects Family Lawyers

Dr. Charles Figley (1995) distinguished STS from other types of stress as that resulting from a deep involvement with a primarily traumatized individual. STS effects or symptoms are cumulative and permanent. The more accounts a professional hears of the abuse or trauma, the more it begins to affect them. The effect can be presented as a lack of sleep, poor eating habits, hypervigilance, abuse of alcohol or drugs, relationship issues, and detachment issues.

While boundaries are helpful for any professional to establish with their client, hearing about a traumatic event, coupled with the professional’s desire to assist their client, still impacts and exposes the practitioner to the effects of STS.

Symptoms of STS

The initial indicators are changes in sleep and eating habits. As it progresses, sufferers may experience hypervigilance or a heightened sensitivity to interactions with others or things going on around them. People with STS often have a harder time winding down and have a decreased ability for separating their professional work from their personal lives. STS can lead to paranoia and feelings of helplessness. Disassociation, withdrawing from society, and isolation are often common; increased drug and/or alcohol use as a coping mechanism is common as well.

Becoming increasingly argumentative with family members or needing time alone after coming home from work or after a trial are potential symptoms of STS. That said, any time we deal with psychologically trying events, time alone to process what we have experienced does facilitate the compartmentalizing of work-related stress from our personal lives.

Minimizing the Effects of STS

434_3009338Communication is key. Family members will likely notice the effects of STS in the lawyer before the lawyer notices them himself. Educating the family about STS can aid in minimizing the negative effects it causes.

By implementing daily self-care practices that allow them to process their feelings, family lawyers can minimize the negative effects of STS. Self-care practices include getting adequate sleep, exercising, healthy hobbies, eating a healthy diet, minimizing alcohol use, practicing healthy spiritual activities such as meditation or prayer, along with maintaining a balanced lifestyle between work and home life.

Family Lawyers Can Help Each Other Deal with STS

Many family lawyers have said: “My friends are lawyers, but my best friends are family lawyers.” Recognizing STS within themselves will help family lawyers recognize it in others. Collaboration and mentorship can be helpful, and discussing and debriefing with each other following particularly traumatizing events – such as a hotly-contested trial – can be very therapeutic for family lawyers. Having friends in related fields who are not lawyers can help to balance perspectives: for example, having good relationships with mental-health care professionals, accountants, or other experts you may use in the presentation of your case can help minimize the effects of STS as these professionals have insight to the cause of the stress. The different perspectives of these professionals can also help normalize the feelings caused by the trauma.

The Long-Term Effects of STS for Family Lawyers

STS is similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Normal PTSD symptoms, such as dissociative episodes (flashbacks, splitting of personalities), intrusive memories in dreams, abnormal eating and sleeping patterns, hypervigilance, and detachment can be indicators that STS is present.

STS becomes a part of a person’s life to the degree that they ignore how this type of long-term stress impacts them. It can be nearly impossible to treat without medical and psychological intervention, along with a good diet, exercise, and good stress-management techniques. STS can have potentially fatal effects such as a heart attack, stroke, suicide, and even violence, as well as other stressor-related issues if not treated.

We know that practicing family law is stressful, and now we have some validation that listening to our clients’ traumatic stories can and does affect us. No matter how hard we try to stay neutral or try to maintain a professional view of our cases, we cannot help but be affected by stories of physical or emotional brutality.

To help us be better practitioners to our clients and better partners in our personal relationships, we need to recognize the effects STS can have on us. We all need to maintain a healthy balance between work and our social lives. STS reminds us that we need to take care of ourselves – both physically and mentally – so that we can be the best we can – both in and out of the courtroom.


Cindi Barela Graham is Board Certified in Family Law and has been named a Texas Super Lawyer every year since 2008. She currently serves as a director to the Texas Academy of Family Law Specialists and is on the Board of the Texas State Bar’s Family Law Section.

Dr. Lynn Jennings has spoken throughout Texas and New Mexico on Secondary Traumatic Stress. She has been a counselor in private practice for thirteen years in Amarillo, Texas, and is adjunct professor at Texas Tech University, Eastern New Mexico University, and Prescott College.


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