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As lawyers, we are conditioned to be strong as we advocate for our clients, often putting our own needs to the side.

However, sometimes we need to be our own advocate, especially when it comes to the risk of developing vicarious trauma from our work.

Vicarious trauma describes the shift in your attitude and views after prolonged exposure to the trauma of your clients. However, it does not impact lawyers alone. It has the potential to affect support staff too, including paralegals and legal assistants.

Signs to watch out for

Whether you are a young lawyer or an experienced practitioner, you are not immune to the risk of vicarious trauma.

While the effects vary from person to person, common symptoms include disturbed sleep, intrusive thoughts and hypervigilance for your family’s safety.

Vicarious trauma does not mean burnout, although sometimes they go hand in hand. The significant difference is that vicarious trauma has the capacity to change your core beliefs.

For example, shortly after I set up my firm’s NSW abuse law practice, I remember being extremely anxious about my oldest child going away to school camp for the first time.

I delayed signing the permission form for weeks. Even after I decided he could go, I insisted on giving very specific instructions about the clothing he should wear to sleep.

When I raised this with a psychologist during our regular team supervision session, they told me it was a classic case of vicarious trauma.

Reducing the risk

While it is not possible to ‘bullet-proof’ yourself from vicarious trauma, there are steps you can take that can help minimise the risk.

Different strategies work for different people, but some ideas include:

Understand your role – Trying to ‘fix’ all your client’s problems increases the risk of vicarious trauma. Remember, you are their lawyer, not their social worker or counsellor.

Leave work at work – Don’t take work home with you. If you’re working from home, turn your computer off and close the door to your workspace. Find an immediate distraction from work, such as calling a friend, listening to a podcast, or playing with your kids.

Take care of yourself physically – Make sure you are eating well, exercising, and having sufficient sleep.

Seek personal connections – Ensure you have some strong, supportive people around you, both at work and in your personal life.

Have some personal time – Read a book, learn a new skill or be creative. At work, take your lunch break and book annual leave regularly so you can properly switch off.

Where to get help 

If you find yourself struggling with the content of your work, have an honest conversation with your supervisor and devise a plan to manage your wellbeing and work simultaneously.

It would be a rarity that your employer would choose to not support you. If they are not aware of your challenges, they are unable to help.

You can also seek professional help through your employer’s Employee Assistance Program, a referral from your GP or by contacting a counsellor or psychologist directly.

Danielle De Paoli is a Special Counsel at Maurice Blackburn where she heads the firm’s NSW abuse law practice.