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  • Writer's pictureCardiff JLD

Vicarious Trauma: MHAW Discussion

Hannah Newberry and Beth Tapper, both Family Solicitors based in Cardiff, comment on a significant issue for practitioners that is vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma is 'exposure to someone else’s trauma. It can have a significant mental health impact and, if not mitigated against or treated effectively, can be a pathway to post-traumatic stress disorder' (MIND).

1.      How would you define vicarious trauma?

Hannah: To me, this refers to empathising with clients to a degree where you lose your sense of professionalism or appropriate boundaries with them. This wouldn’t necessarily mean revealing this to the client, but experiencing their hardships or difficulties to the degree where it begins to impact you as a practitioner, or carrying their problems with you when you are not just working on their case. It could reflect in you by becoming exceptionally stressed and overthinking out of office hours about how their case will be resolved and what outcome. It could also mean internalising their feelings of victimhood or hopelessness even though you aren’t experiencing their situation.

Beth: Within my role, I regularly speak with clients who have experienced significant trauma, pain or suffering. For me, vicarious trauma is the effect of being exposed to my clients’ trauma.

2.      What issues appear for you in your role, where this can arise?

Hannah: Family Law is an incredibly emotional area of law. Clients, by nature, need to reveal to you personal details about their lives which makes it far easier for them to overindulge your presence and considering you an emotional support post. Part of our role includes learning about their children, safeguarding issues, allegations of harm and risk. We also deal with financial issues with access to their full financial disclosure. We can also become involved in protective injunctions, dealing with difficult and urgent matters of harm that people can often mistake for criminal issues.

An issue that can arise, and has done on many occasions, would be encountering a client who does not have a support network (friends, family etc). Often it can be difficult when your client has reached out to you and not spoken to anybody about their problems beforehand. They can then find themselves ringing you and depending on you for any and all issues, whether or not this relates to their case. Once they have been emotionally relaxed around you and established that relationship, it can be difficult for them to manage what you need to know for their case, and what support would be better sought from therapists, friends or appropriate other professionals. Clients can for example, look for clarity and reassurance about their lives after a divorce. They can talk to you about their suffering mental health, or enter into discussions with you about criminal behaviours that they have never reported. Those without support are the most likely to rely on you as their solicitor, and blur the boundaries without knowing.

Beth: As a family lawyer, most of my clients are going through extremely difficult times in their lives. A number of my clients are engaged in Court cases where there have been allegations of significant harm and domestic abuse. My clients often have to re-live the trauma a number of times, such as by instructing me, having to review Police disclosure and ultimately, having to face their abuser at Court.

3.      Do you have an example of where you have struggled to manage the boundaries with a client?

Hannah: There have certainly been cases where on a human level, it is difficult to detach yourself and be dispassionate about a case. I have dealt with several cases where serious levels of abuse have taken place, and whether or not they factor into a Family Law related outcome is uncertain. On a moral level from speaking to your clients and witnessing first-hand how they have been impacted for the rest of their lives, it can be difficult not to become too attached to an eventual judgment or to feel morally wronged or alleviated by decisions being made on a neutral platform. I have certainly, especially during my training years, struggled with telling clients who are clear and blatant victims of abuse that this may not impact upon any of their cases, despite it having a significant impact on their behaviour, wellbeing and mental health.

It is also difficult to discuss allegations of risk with clients who want to know your personal opinion on their ‘guilt’. Our role is not to make judgments, but to put our clients’ case forward as best as possible. It is a huge relief to me that an outcome to this end, is not within my job description.

Beth: I would say that I often struggle to manage boundaries. I absolutely love my job and love being able to support and help someone through their darkest time.

4.      What measures do you put in place to safeguard yourself from vicarious traumas or boundary issues?

Hannah: It is relatively easy to assess which clients will require you in a more personal capacity, based on their support network, questions they ask, and how often they wish to speak with you. I am grateful for the flexibility to make necessary calls when a ‘red flag’ could arise. For example, clients who need reminding about setting their boundary with me as a solicitor, as opposed to friend, I will often delegate advocacy and representation. This is because it is useful to have a third party, and a second voice in the room, to assist. The significant benefit of Counsel here, is that they are able to provide your client with succinct and frank advice whilst maintaining your professional retainer and relationship, in the event of a client feeling that they can either argue with you as an individual or would be prone to impulsively disinstructing if they felt that your advice was wrong (because it was not the advice they wanted to hear).

A key example would be advising on financial conduct, and how high a bar this can be when running it in the Court – a client can often consider this advice and resort to the idea that you simply do not believe them. Consistency and sticking together in Family Law is key.

It is crucial that we remember not to be an echo chamber, even if it would make our lives easier with difficult clients.

Beth: I’m working on it!

5.      What are the potential problems that can arise from a practitioner dealing with a case while experiencing unresolved vicarious trauma?

Hannah: There is a huge risk in feeling deflated or incompetent, if there is a ‘loss’ or a difficult result for a client you feel deserved more. Similarly, it can place you in a difficult position if you feel there was an unjust benefit to a party who did not conduct themselves properly. It’s important to remember that we are all working under the same law and guidance, and it is not for us to guarantee any outcome. This is especially because Family Law can be so discretionary. Clients sometimes feel that the ‘loudest voice in the room’ will guarantee success and ironing out their expectations at the beginning can make life easier.

There can also be a feeling of guilt and unease about being unavailable, taking annual leave, or not having capacity for the turnaround expected. Clients are emotional, highly strung, and going through the most tumultuous period in their lives. Remembering that we only play one part in the resolution of their case is really helpful. It is useful to consider that clients are independent adults (usually) who will need to navigate their own way once they have legal certainty, and this is not something we are qualified to advise upon or manage.

Beth: Litigation is massively risky and there are no guarantees and I think for me, feeling personally responsible for the outcome of a case can be a potential problem. The inability to ‘switch off’ can also be an issue and could impact on my mood and wellbeing and ultimately, my work.

6.      Do you think that workplaces need to be more alive to these issues and if so, what could they implement to assist?

Hannah: Certainly an appreciation for these issues at a more junior level would help. I became too embroiled in a significant number of cases, and emotionally invested in several clients at paralegal and trainee stage. This was especially as I was running a significantly large caseload predominantly by myself, being the main port of call despite being very junior. As a fee earner, watching out for email exchanges and telephone calls to identify clients that may present a problem is crucial. Also, looking for clues such as colleagues persistently discussing or worrying over a case, or attempting to go far over and above where it may not be necessary to do so and the client has not instructed us to. Ultimately, it is our own call whether we want to work later or provide that additional call of support, but it has to be managed effectively with the client aware of why we are here.

Beth: Definitely, I think that it would be a good idea for issues such as vicarious trauma and the ways to cope with it to be discussed in the workplace more regularly.

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