Attorneys work in the human service realm. As human service providers we are exposed on a weekly basis to the deep distress that clients’ trauma filled stories impart. Whether it is a client’s story of a physical injury or the harrowing details of a painful disintegration of a fortune, a business or a family, lawyers are usually “first responders” in times of crisis in our clients’ lives. I have long felt that the old adage “fact is stranger then fiction” is proven time after time when listening to clients’ tales of distress and woe. As “first responders” it is our sworn duty to help clients in times of loss and conflict. Ours is a helping profession and we are called upon hourly to help in a compassionate and resolution focused manner when disaster strikes. Over time exposure to our clients’ distress and trauma stories can lead to what is now being called “compassion fatigue.” This complaint is a direct result of what is now identified as “vicarious trauma.”
As a participant in the 9th Annual Forum of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals () in New Orleans last October, I had the honor of attending an educational workshop lead by Ellie Izzo, PhD and Vicki Carpel Miller, BSN, MS. LMFT. Each is a mental health specialist and a Collaborative Professional. Both are doing ground breaking work in the area of vicarious trauma and its adverse impact on the helping professions, including lawyers. Dr. Izzo and Ms. Miller are the founders of the Vicarious Trauma Institute ( ).
Vicarious Trauma, or as Izzo and Miller term it, “Second-Hand-Shock,”TM is the cumulative impact of the distress that clients’ trauma content stories have on the professionals helping them. Secondary traumatization of lawyers comes about as a result of indirect exposure to trauma through a client’s firsthand account or narrative of a stressful or stress-filled event. Izzo and Miller opine, and the research shows, that this experience over time results in a set of symptoms and reactions in the professional which parallel Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. P.T.S.S. is a condition most commonly experienced by those working or living in a war zone. No wonder some of the metaphors most frequently heard in the law business have to do with the war and warfare tactics.
In their workshop and through their Web site, Izzo and Miller, educate about the many signs and symptoms experienced by professionals and associated with “Second-Hand-Shock,”TM including: intrusive imagery, cynicism, poor memory, isolation, volatile moods, irrational fears, hyper-vigilance, lack of spiritedness and physical problems. Izzo and Miller decry the lack of institutional support within the organized bars and other organizations for healing professionals who suffer (mostly in silence) from the impact of vicarious trauma. Izzo and Miller opine that there is a need for education and an open dialogue about this issue within the legal profession. It is their collective experience that “professional helpers often get blamed in very shaming ways for their stress responses rather than being encouraged to see vicarious trauma as a natural response to difficult work.” Their research has shown that the welfare of the helping professional is an ever-increasing issue of ethical importance nationwide. Izzo and Miller call upon human service providers, including lawyers, to join together to create a social movement that acknowledges and compassionately addresses the occupational hazard of “Second-Hand-Shock.”TM
Here in Illinois we are lucky that conscious raising is already underway in this area. Assistance is available to those of us experiencing vicarious trauma through the Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) (). This program offers confidential assistance “for the problems lawyers face” (see LAP’s advertisement). LAP is funded by a portion of annual attorney registrations fees and has approximately 300 trained volunteers working with its staff throughout the State. In the coming year it is my hope that through this newsletter and through opening a dialogue within our association that we can continue to shed light on the personal trauma being experienced by attorneys working “in the trenches” with clients. Anyone interested in joining this dialogue is welcome to contact the author directly at