Practicing family law is stressful, and we now have some validation that listening to our clients’ traumatic stories can and does affect family lawyers in the form of secondary traumatic stress.
By Cindi Barela Graham, Family Lawyer, and Dr. Lynn Jennings, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapist
Secondary 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 even more 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 Secondary Traumatic Stress 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 of Secondary Traumatic Stress 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
Communication 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 Secondary Traumatic Stress 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. Secondary Traumatic Stress reminds family lawyers 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. www.cynthiabarelagraham.com
Dr. Lynn Jennings (Ph.D., LPCS, LSOTP) has spoken throughout Texas and New Mexico on Secondary Traumatic Stress. A counselor in private practice in Amarillo, Texas, Lynn is certified in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (TFCBT) and as a Compassion Fatigue Therapist and Compassion Fatigue Educator. She is conducting ongoing research in the area of secondary trauma in first responders, attorneys, and counselors. www.jenningscounselingtx.com
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Richard J. Mockler
This is a wonderful article. I greatly appreciate anyone who brings awareness to this issue. A family attorney’s exposure to STS, however, is even greater than the article portrays. The stress, in my view, is not entirely “secondary.” Family law attorneys not only “listen” to the traumatic events. Attorneys are typically expected to do something (sometimes immediately) to fix the situation. And, this expectation makes the stress somewhat “primary” in nature. In certain cases, the stories leave the attorney questioning what more he or she could have done to prevent the violence, abuse, kidnapping, etc. I do not doubt for a moment that my health was significantly affected by the enormous stress from constant exposure to high conflict cases, including domestic violence, rape, parental alienation, attempted murder, parental kidnapping, and many others.
Elizabeth Wolt, Esq.
What a great article. Thank you! This is validation for my decision made several years ago to step down from my partner position at a large firm and go solo with a practice dedicated to cooperative resolution of Family law matters. I went through additional training and became a certified family mediator and took some additional conflict resolution classes. I now advise every client that interviews me for hire that I will work diligently to resolve their case, but I do not litigate, except in very rare cases. If the case cannot be settled, the case will be referred to a litigation attorney. This decision has resulted in my well-being and has served to parse out vindictive clients and clients that have high-conflict issues as well as parties simply not willing to work towards peaceful resolution.