Impact on lawyers of traumatic cases “worsened by pandemic”

Rachel Francis

Covid-19, coupled with the savage cuts in legal aid, have greatly added to the vicarious trauma suffered by social justice lawyers and other law workers from being immersed in clients’ day-to-day problems, the authors of a new book have argued.

Barrister Rachel Francis and solicitor-turned-psychology researcher Joanna Fleck found that they were having to deal with “the magnitude of the grief that [people in crisis] were bringing into their offices”.

Relating to clients had massively increased in difficulty during the pandemic, they said. Lawyers often had to find out details about people’s lives – even those they wouldn’t tell a therapist – and building a relationship of deep trust with clients at a distance was sometimes impossible.

While there had been a “sea change” in the way that wellbeing issues were dealt with by firms in general, lawyers in particular were often carrying huge stress in their lives as a result of being the “last person standing” between clients and a “really austere backdrop”.

This was testing their commitment to, and passion for, helping clients, Ms Francis said at the recent launch of the book by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group.

The book was built on experiences gained from the authors’ organisation, Claiming Space, a community interest company which offers resources and workplace training on the subject.

Holding sessions for social justice lawyers and campaigners, and carrying out training at law firms, gave the pair insights into how career burnout and vicarious trauma affected people in the working environment.

“Once people [become aware] that it is happening to other practitioners this validates their own experience and opens the door to more honest and meaningful discussion”, said Ms Francis.

Joanna Fleck

Ms Fleck said she felt the role of lawyers was especially sensitive. “You are the lawyer – that reliable source of support, a person who might be able to make that extra phone call.

“I think there’s something in this added pressure for lawyers who care so passionately. [They] know they can make a difference, but perhaps aren’t able to regulate it [and] know how far they can keep on working, because everybody has a limit to what we can do.”

Ms Francis agreed, saying: “You come into the profession because it is your vocation, your passion; you’re dedicated and committed to the client and feel responsible, so [stretch yourself too far].”

Ms Fleck added: “We are trained problem solvers and solution-driven and have the idea that there is something we can do even if we don’t necessarily have the capacity needed. You worry about [its impact on you] later.

“The focus is so closely on clients and the weight that you sometimes carry is not recognised as much as it might be.”

She went on: “As legal aid and social justice lawyers, we are exposed to trauma – some of us all day, every day. It is not happening to us but we are [nevertheless] absorbing it and it is surrounding us. Once we acknowledge that is the case, we can acknowledge it is going to have an effect on us.”

She observed the effect was not always negative. It was inspiring and gave “an incredible sense of satisfaction”, working with clients “who have lived through unimaginable horror and yet turn up ready to fight their case, sometimes for years.”

But trauma could also have negative effects, and lead to burnout or the related ‘compassion fatigue’.

Where vicarious trauma was extreme, the effects could be wide-ranging, Ms Fleck said. “Our body cells respond as if the trouble was happening to us, and may be similar to post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, sometimes known as ‘secondary trauma’.”

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