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Managing vicarious trauma in the legal profession – A comprehensive guide

The legal profession, often associated with high intellectual demands and intense workloads, faces unique challenges when it comes to managing psychosocial risks. Among these, vicarious trauma stands out as a significant concern, especially for those involved in emotionally loaded cases, including, but not limited to, family law, criminal defence, and human rights advocacy. Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary traumatic stress, occurs when legal professionals are exposed to the traumatic experiences of their clients, leading to emotional and psychological distress.  

It important to understand, before reading this article, that it is not a single exposure to traumatic content that impacts the well-being of legal professionals, but rather the cumulative effect of persistent and consistent exposures over time, with a lack of controls or protective measures in place, that contributes to the development of vicarious trauma. When legal practitioners repeatedly encounter distressing narratives and harrowing client testimonies, the emotional and psychological toll accumulates. This ongoing exposure can lead to a gradual erosion of their emotional resilience, resulting in stress and trauma. Over time, the unrelenting nature of these experiences can significantly impair their mental health, leading to symptoms such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and burnout. Therefore, it is the continuous and pervasive nature of these traumatic encounters that magnifies their impact, making sustained exposure a critical concern in the legal profession. 

Certain individuals may also be more vulnerable to vicarious trauma due to specific personal and professional factors. Legal professionals with a history of previous unresolved trauma or poor mental health are particularly at risk, as unresolved past traumas can exacerbate the effects of new traumatic exposures. High levels of empathy, while beneficial for client relationships, can also make individuals more susceptible to the experience of vicarious trauma, as they may over-identify with their clients’ pain and suffering. Additionally, those with limited social support systems or negative coping styles, such as avoidance or substance use, are more likely to experience severe symptoms. Personality traits such as high neuroticism can further increase vulnerability (due to a tendency toward more negative thinking styles), as these individuals may struggle more with emotional regulation. Recognizing and addressing these vulnerabilities is crucial in developing effective support mechanisms and interventions for legal professionals at risk of vicarious trauma. 

The Centre for Corporate Health (CFCH) has developed a model, based on the latest research, to address vicarious trauma in the legal profession, emphasising four key pillars: Control, Protect, Intervene, and Recover. This article explores how firms can effectively manage vicarious trauma by implementing strategies aligned with this model. 

CFCH Vicarious Trauma Model

1. Control: Preventing Vicarious Trauma

Identifying Hazards and Assessing Risks 

The first step in managing vicarious trauma is to identify potential hazards and assess the associated risks. This involves recognizing the types of cases and situations that are likely to expose legal professionals to traumatic content. Examples include cases involving child abuse, domestic violence, and severe personal injury. Firms should conduct regular risk assessments and gather information through consultations with employees and health and safety representatives. Additionally, it’s crucial to analyse current employee well-being metrics to identify the less obvious areas within a Firm where vicarious trauma is affecting employee wellbeing. Firms should also consider known individual vulnerabilities, such as past trauma or poor mental health, to provide additional support or supervision, thereby preventing increased risk of vicarious trauma. This comprehensive approach ensures that both the overt and subtle impacts of vicarious trauma are effectively managed. 

Implementing Preventive Measures 

To control the risks associated with vicarious trauma, Firms are recommended to implement preventive measures designed to minimize exposure to traumatic content. This can include: 

  • Case Rotation: Rotating assignments among legal professionals to prevent prolonged exposure to traumatic cases. 
  • Workload Management: Ensuring manageable caseloads to avoid excessive stress and burnout. 
  • Trauma Response and Support System: Implement a system that categorizes cases, matters, and materials by levels of traumatic content, and triggers a workflow of support services and resources for lawyers who have worked on a certain amount of highly traumatizing matters. 
  • Education and Training: Providing training on recognizing the signs of vicarious trauma and effective coping strategies. 

Organizational Policies and Procedures 

Developing and enforcing clear organizational policies is crucial for controlling vicarious trauma. Policies are recommended to outline the steps for reporting exposure to traumatic content, accessing support services, and ensuring confidentiality. Regular review and updates of these policies ensure they remain relevant and effective. 

2. Protect: Creating a Supportive Environment

Fostering a Supportive Culture 

A supportive workplace culture is essential in protecting legal professionals from vicarious trauma. However, the dynamics within Firms can be competitive and rooted in a long history of stoicism, often leading to reluctance among individuals to be vulnerable or seek support. Therefore, it is crucial that self and collegiate care is actively fostered. Firms are recommended to promote open communication, encourage the sharing of experiences, and foster a sense of community among employees. This can be achieved through: 

  • Regular Team Meetings: Providing opportunities for team members to discuss their cases and share their experiences in a supportive environment. 
  • Peer Support Programs: Establishing peer support networks where employees can offer mutual support, debriefing opportunities, and guidance. 
  • Access to Mental Health Resources: Ensuring that employees have access to mental health professionals and resources such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). 

By creating an environment that prioritizes self-care and collegiate support, Firms can help mitigate the effects of vicarious trauma and promote overall well-being among their employees. 

Training and Development 

Training programs focused on psychological strengthening and building coping skills can significantly protect legal professionals from the effects of vicarious trauma. These programs are recommended to be trauma-informed and cover: 

  • Controlled Empathy: Teaching legal professionals how to engage with clients empathetically without becoming emotionally overwhelmed. 
  • Stress Management Techniques: Training on relaxation techniques, mindfulness, and other stress-reduction methods. 
  • Self and Collegiate Care: Building self and other awareness on unique early warning signs and strategies for seeking support 

3. Intervene: Addressing Vicarious Trauma When It Occurs

Early Detection and Intervention 

Early detection and intervention are critical in managing vicarious trauma. Firms are recommended to establish systems for monitoring the well-being of their employees and identifying signs of distress. This can include: 

  • Regular Check-ins: Supervisors conduct regular check-ins with their team members to discuss their workload and emotional well-being. 
  • Anonymous Reporting: Implementing systems for anonymous reporting of concerns related to vicarious trauma. 
  • Well Checks: Offering regular mental health screenings to identify early signs of distress and provide timely early intervention. 

Providing Immediate Support 

When signs of vicarious trauma are detected, immediate support should be provided. This can involve: 

  • Counselling Services: Offering access to psychological support by senior psychologists for affected individuals. 
  • Temporary Work Adjustments: Adjusting workloads or temporarily reassigning employees to less stressful cases. 
  • Crisis Intervention: Providing crisis intervention services for employees experiencing acute distress. 

Developing a Response Plan 

Firms are recommended to have a clear response plan in place for managing vicarious trauma. This plan should outline the steps to be taken when an employee is identified as being at risk, including who to contact, what support services are available, and how to monitor the employee’s progress. 

4. Recover: Supporting Long-Term Well-Being

Recovery Support 

Supporting long-term well-being in the aftermath of vicarious trauma involves comprehensive recovery support for affected legal professionals. This can be achieved by partnering with psychological recovery partners to provide necessary psychological assessments, stay-at-work or return-to-work recovery plans, and case management. Psychological strengthening programs can also be implemented to help employees rebuild their resilience and mental health. By offering structured support, a Firm can ensure that their employees receive the necessary care and guidance to recover effectively from vicarious trauma. 

Promoting Sustainable Well-Being 

Recovery from vicarious trauma requires a focus on long-term sustainable well-being. A Firm can support this by promoting activities and practices that enhance overall mental health. Active recovery strategies, such as engaging in physical activities and pursuing hobbies, can help employees switch off from work-related stress. Encouraging a healthy work-life balance, mindfulness practices, and stress management techniques can further support employees in maintaining their mental health. By fostering an environment that prioritizes sustainable well-being, firms can help their staff recover more effectively and prevent future instances of vicarious trauma. 

Building a Psychosocially Safe Organization 

Creating a psychosocially safe organization is crucial for the long-term prevention and management of vicarious trauma. This involves a strong commitment from leadership to prioritize mental health and well-being. Leaders are recommended to actively promote a culture of openness and support, demonstrating their commitment to the psychological safety of their employees. Employee involvement is also essential, as it ensures that the workforce is engaged in the development and implementation of mental health initiatives. Continuous improvement is a key focus, with regular reviews of mental health programs and policies based on employee feedback and emerging best practices. By building a psychosocially safe organization, Firms can create a supportive environment that enhances the overall well-being of their employees. 



CFCH & Resilia IP Holdings Pty Ltd. (2023). Violent or Traumatic Events or Material. 

CFCH & Resilia IP Holdings Pty Ltd. (2023). Review of Assessment for Vicarious Trauma. 

Centre for Corporate Health. (n.d.). Solutions for Psychosocial Risks. Retrieved from CFCH Solutions. 

Maguire, G., & Byrne, M. K. (2017). The law is not as blind as it seems: Relative rates of vicarious trauma among lawyers and mental health professionals. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 24(2), 233-243. 

Rose, M., & Maylea, C. (2023). The case for implementing legal clinical supervision within legal practice, and recommendations for best practice. Griffith Law Review, 1-27. 

Leonard, M. J., Vasiliadis, H. M., Leclerc, M. È., & Brunet, A. (2021). Traumatic stress in Canadian lawyers: A longitudinal study. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. 

This article provides a comprehensive guide for legal firms to effectively manage vicarious trauma, ensuring the mental well-being of their professionals and enhancing the overall health of the workplace.