For Divorce Attorneys: Signs You or Someone on Your Team May be Suffering from Vicarious Trauma (and What You Can Do About It)

November 24, 2020

Vicarious trauma, a.k.a. secondary stress, compassion fatigue, or secondary victimization, is a change to a person’s emotional state caused by indirect exposure to someone else’s trauma. The condition mimics PTSD and can affect anyone who listens to, or is otherwise exposed to, details of a victim’s abuse. Family law attorneys, psychologists, nurses, and first responders are particularly susceptible, but it can also affect court reporters, jury participants, judges, and even people seated in the courtroom gallery. It can also affect paralegals and other legal professionals who frequently review detailed case-related documents, especially if they tend to show a great deal of empathy toward others. Vicarious trauma can be especially prevalent in people who have experienced a similar trauma firsthand.

Vicarious trauma can affect your ability to perform your job

According to the American Bar Association, the typical symptoms of vicarious trauma mimic poor job performance and can cause senior managers to address affected employees with correction or termination rather than with training and support.

According to the American Counseling Association, you or your “poor performing” employee may be displaying the following symptoms at work:

  • frequent job changes
  • tardiness
  • irritability
  • absenteeism
  • irresponsibility
  • staff conflict
  • blaming others
  • poor relationships
  • poor communication
  • impatience

It’s important to know that symptoms don’t stop at the office door. Vicarious trauma can, and often does, seep into caregivers’ personal lives, too. According to the ABA, some of the symptoms you or your team members may be facing silently at home are:

  • sleep disturbances and nightmares
  • headaches
  • stomach pain
  • intrusive thoughts and memories
  • extreme fatigue
  • a tendency to become upset over little things
  • strained relationships with family and friends
  • compromised parenting
  • doubts about whether the world is a safe place

And vicarious trauma can stack. If you or your team members work with abuse victims on a regular basis, the likelihood that someone on the team is suffering from some level of vicarious trauma is high. If you find yourself wanting to leave the room or avoid certain probing questions when consulting with your clients, you may already be experiencing vicarious trauma. You need to get help before you jeopardize your well-being and potentially put your job at risk.

Keys to treatment

Training is critical

When employees are trained to recognize the early signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma, they are better positioned to address the issues head-on before their work performance and quality of life begin to suffer.

The ABA provides some vicarious trauma training as part of its CLE program, and through your relationship with me, attorneys and their staff members can gain free access to the Ilumni Institute’s Raising the Bar monthly CLE opportunities, which includes a course on vicarious trauma that examines the attorney-client relationship. If you’d like to have free access to this and other CLE courses, please reach out to me at

Preemptive self-care

Eating well, taking regular vacations, getting enough sleep, and engaging in regular exercise are all important to every person’s general well-being. So is finding ways to mentally get away from it all, even when you can’t take a vacation. Reading, hobbies, trips to the theater or your favorite coffee shop, and getting together with friends and family are all great ways to bring joy and normalcy to your life and separate your reality from that of your clients.

Compassion satisfaction

Compassion satisfaction (CS) is what occurs when a caregiver successfully helps a victim through their trauma. Much research has been done on compassion satisfaction in nurses, and given CS’s ability to counteract—or at least reduce—the effects of vicarious trauma, some of that knowledge may be applied to the law profession as well.

For example, creating an environment in which leadership is engaged and your team feels appreciated—and learns to appreciate each other—can help offset the negative effects of spending your days working with trauma victims.

Seek counseling

Finding a well-qualified therapist who understands the demands placed on you through your career in family law can help stabilize your emotional state and make you a stronger and more effective client advocate.

Focus on the positive at work and at home

Being thankful for what you have, who you are, and why you dedicate yourself to working with people who may be victims of trauma can help you center yourself and work from a place of strength.

Perform self-assessments

The Center for Victims of Torture offers a professional quality-of-life self-assessment tool that can help you determine your emotional state and job effectiveness. The self-assessment is recommended by the ABA.

To learn more about vicarious trauma and how it can affect you and your team—and to access new CLEs throughout the year—please sign up to receive invitations and other relevant information from me via email.

Shannon Rose
DRE# 01422955
Los Gatos, CA


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DRE #01526679

16780 LARK AVE.

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