Zach Newman
July 10, 2018

Image description: Photo of Zach Newman, author of the post and LAAC’s Research Attorney

People often say there are too many attorneys, but, in fact, there aren’t enough doing public service work like legal aid: There are around 8,000 vulnerable Californians who qualify for legal aid to each legal aid lawyer. Because we need all the legal aid lawyers we can get, making sure that each individual lawyer has what they need to continue doing direct service work by fighting burnout is crucial, and often determinative of one’s ability to continue in direct service for the duration of one’s career.

Legal aid attorneys and staff come face-to-face with the diverse symptoms of poverty affecting underserved communities. People experiencing disability and dealing with SSI/SSDI denials, families being evicted from their homes, domestic violence survivors trying to obtain restraining orders, formerly-incarcerated folks reentering society, and defrauded elderly consumers are just some of the individuals that legal aid lawyers help. When someone seeks legal aid assistance, it is often for help with one of the most stressful, upsetting, and emotional events in their lives.

When an attorney comes into contact with emotionally intense stories, as told by the client themselves, this can lead to different forms of “vicarious trauma.” Vicarious trauma, or “secondary trauma,” is the process through which someone is indirectly exposed to a traumatic event by being told the narrative of that event. Whatever area of the law the matter concerns, whether domestic violence or immigration, whenever a lawyer interviews a client, there is always the possibility of the client’s trauma from the event spilling over to the attorney. 

Image description: A maroon silhouette of a head overlaid with a blue silhouette of a head.

Recognizing and addressing vicarious trauma is an essential part of ensuring that each legal aid attorney has everything they need to process the feelings surrounding hearing someone’s story, and being able to build a case with them. Not recognizing and addressing the ways that this impacts lawyers in direct service work can make people feel overwhelmed, depressed, or unmotivated, thereby getting in the way of serving ourselves and serving clients. Combining this with the pressure to work long hours and to always come in to work (even when sick), it becomes easy for a lack of work-life balance to increase the likelihood of burnout.

Self-care and addressing the possible presence of vicarious trauma is a key part of fighting burnout and building resilience. Whether personally or through one’s organization, building self-care into our daily lives is critical. Self-care doesn’t need to mean delving deeply into emotionally intense issues every day, right when they happen. Self-care means something different to everyone: It could be going on a hike, getting enough sleep every night, taking a mental health day, going to group lunches or happy hours, getting acupuncture, meditating, exercising, or anything else that provides a space to intentionally process everything that comes with legal aid work. It could also mean small things like drinking enough water, eating well (self-defined), or reading for fun.

Whether you already do this or not, taking time to reflect daily, weekly, and monthly about what you’ve done to care for yourself is important. It makes us better lawyers, able to respond from a base of compassion and care, not tension and stress. Taking care of and sustaining ourselves through meaningful self-care is an essential part of taking care of our clients.


Helpful links:

Vicarious Trauma and Self-Care for Legal Aid Lawyers