When the Work Is Personal: How to Deal with Disturbing Cases

  • Learn to recognize the signs that your work is affecting you so you can take action if necessary
  • Self-care (which is important for all lawyers!) is imperative for those who work on disturbing cases
  • Never be afraid to seek help, whether through programs offered by your firm or with your own counselor or psychologist

According to the American Bar Association, lawyers who practice criminal, family, and juvenile law are most at risk for a condition called secondary traumatic stress.

Secondary traumatic stress can be the result of working with a trauma-exposed client or on a particularly disturbing case.

It can be a challenge to avoid having the difficult parts of your work affect you, both on the job and at home. However, for many in the legal world, speaking or hearing about the gruesome details of some of the worst acts imaginable is an unavoidable part of the job. Fortunately, there are strategies lawyers can employ to protect themselves from the mental anguish of arduous casework. It starts with knowing what to look for.

Learn to Identify the Signs

What the ABA refers to as secondary traumatic stress can go by other names—compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, secondary trauma. Whatever you choose to call it, if you work on distressing cases, it’s important to know the signs of your own stress getting out of hand. While symptoms differ from person to person, a lawyer experiencing secondary traumatic stress might feel withdrawn from their work and exhibit signs of avoidance (e.g.: missing deadlines, arriving at work late or leaving early, avoiding clients). They also might have trouble sleeping, self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, feel constantly on edge, or feel emotionally numb—all symptoms common to those suffering from PTSD.

Have you ever experienced symptoms of secondary traumatic stress? How do you protect your mental health when dealing with disturbing cases?

Prioritize Health and Wellbeing

Being aware of how you’re feeling is the first step to getting a handle on this type of work-induced stress. A lot of the oft-repeated advice for handling secondary traumatic stress would benefit any lawyer: Get enough sleep, eat healthfully, exercise when possible, take vacation. To summarize, when work causes stress and fatigue, don’t overlook the importance of self-care. Other experts suggest scheduling mandatory time away from work into your schedule, such as an hour or two every night when you won’t be available via phone or email. Sometimes, we just need some time away to let ourselves heal.

Prevention is the key—besides becoming aware of secondary traumatic stress and how it manifests, you need to put a conscious effort into staving it off. It is impossible for an empathetic human being to feel nothing about distressing cases involving the suffering of others, but it is not impossible to set boundaries, check in with yourself, and make your own mental health a priority. Keeping a journal, engaging in hobbies, being sure to spend restorative time with loved ones, and using healthy coping strategies such as meditation or exercise can help lawyers who deal with emotionally tough cases find a balance. You might find that your boundaries need to include an information diet to avoid upsetting news stories, or a ban on any work talk after 8pm. Whatever makes you feel like you’re able to disconnect from your job and be a person separate from the trauma you deal with most of the time is a good strategy.

Seek Mental Health Treatment

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of work-induced traumatic stress, remember that you’re not alone and there are widely available resources to help you cope. Some firms offer programs to help employees deal with secondary trauma, such as mentoring or counseling sessions. But if yours doesn’t, or if you reach the point where your work life and home life are significantly impacted, a licensed mental health professional can help. Remember: Anything discussed with a therapist is confidential, so there’s no risk of seeking professional help affecting your career in any way.

What's Next

If you don’t currently have one, make a plan to keep yourself mentally healthy while working on disturbing cases. Write down a plan for what you’ll do daily, weekly, and monthly to relieve stress and disconnect from work.