Thursday Thinkpiece: Tang on Trauma in Legal Practice

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Being Well in the Law: A Guide for Lawyers

© 2016 The Law Society of New South Wales | Authors: Tony Foley, Ian Hickie, Vivien Holmes, Colin James, Margie Rowe and Stephen Tang

Being Well in the Law is a new Australian guide on wellbeing and mental health for lawyers. It has been produced as a collaboration between the New South Wales Law Society, NSW Young Lawyers and the Australian National University’s Legal Workshop. The Guide provide a more optimistic and comprehensive approach to wellbeing and mental health beyond repeating the familiar statements about the high levels of distress and mental ill-health in the profession. The Guide addresses topics of importance for all lawyers and law students, such as the difference between positive stress and distress, ways in which lawyers can thrive and achieve their full potential, managing secondary trauma in practice, and the relationship between values, ethics and wellbeing.

Excerpt: Chapter 7: Trauma in Legal Practice, by Stephen Tang, Lecturer and Psychologist at Australian National University

Chapter 7: Trauma in Legal Practice

Lawyers regularly encounter people who have experienced trauma as victims or offenders

As a new legal professional, it is imperative that you understand and implement a trauma-informed approach in legal practice. This will improve your ability help your clients and take care of your own wellbeing. This chapter will outline some of the basic principles and strategies of trauma-informed practice.


Some areas of legal practice have a higher exposure to trauma than others. These include:

  • family law
  • criminal law
  • immigration law
  • child protection
  • law relating to Aboriginal Australians
  • personal injury law.

If you are working in one of these areas, it is important to be aware of trauma in your clients and how this can affect your wellbeing.


Understanding trauma is the first step towards taking a trauma-informed approach, which is beneficial to lawyers and clients.

What is trauma?
Trauma is a wound to the psyche that disrupts and destabilises an individual’s mental health, wellbeing and view of the world.

When does trauma occur?
Trauma most commonly follows a traumatic event. This can include witnessing an incident involving actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence. Trauma is more likely to be suffered when the traumatic event is experienced firsthand (including as an eyewitness), although learning that a traumatic event has happened to someone close to you can also be traumatic.

Trauma can also take the form of prolonged exposure to maltreatment, neglect or abuse – even without physical violence and injury. This is known as complex trauma. Complex trauma is particularly relevant for lawyers working on matters relating to child sexual abuse, domestic violence, refugees and victims of extended criminal activities.


As a lawyer, you should be aware of psychological signs of trauma, which can cause distress and impairment to a person long after the traumatic event is resolved. These include:

  • Intrusion: The repeated and unwanted re-experiencing of the traumatic event as if it is happening again. This often occurs through “flashback” memories or in nightmares. These intrusive experiences mimic the emotional and physical reaction the person had during the traumatic event (for example, a heightened state of fear and sense of danger, or a strong urge to flee or take self-protective actions).
  • Avoidance: Trying hard to avoid distressing thoughts, memories or feelings about a traumatic event. Not all avoidance is bad, but if “not thinking about it” and trying to stay numb becomes the primary way of coping, it can interfere with recovery and healing. Avoidance includes staying away from situations or things that remind a person of the traumatic event.
  • Changes in thinking and emotions: Significant changes can occur in response to the disruption of trauma. Self-blame or blaming others is common. This may resemble a depression-like state, with the person being unable to experience positive emotions. A person may experience grief and loss if the traumatic event involved death or injury to others.
  • Hyperarousal: Trauma can leave a person constantly on edge as intrusive thoughts may occur at any time. The person may therefore be more irritable, snappy or emotionally reactive. Hyperarousal may also be expressed as difficulties in concentration, being easily startled (for example, by loud noises) and insomnia.


Representing a client who is recovering from trauma can be challenging, but there are some strategies grounded in psychology that can assist:

  • Take care to not re-traumatise the client: If you need the client to tell you about the traumatic event in detail, tell the client in advance that you will need to do this and why this is important. Ask the client what might make them more comfortable (for example, having a friend or family member support them in the room) and promote a relationship of trust and safety.
  • Recognise that more time may be needed: You may not be able to obtain all the information you need in one sitting. Take frequent breaks if you are asking about traumatic information. If you sense that the person is zoning out or getting agitated or guarded, take a break as soon as possible before the distress becomes too intense.
  • Look out for inconsistencies: Memory processes are often affected after trauma. If you find inconsistencies in a client’s story, this is not necessarily a sign of deception or dishonesty. Clarify the details again on a different day, and seek out corroborating information from third parties where possible. Resist the inclination to cross-examine the client about discrepancies.
  • Be aware of cultural sensitivities.
  • Recognise self-destructive behaviour: If a client is presenting with what appears to be self-destructive behaviour (for example, substance abuse, risk-taking or aggression), look behind this immediate problem to see if there is a recent or complex experience of trauma. Problematic behaviours may be attempts to cope with the distress of trauma, or may be expressions of trauma itself. Refer the client to appropriate trauma-related services where possible.


As the law is interconnected with trauma, lawyers are at risk of experiencing secondary trauma.

What is secondary trauma?
Secondary trauma is the stress resulting from helping a traumatised or suffering person. It is also known as vicarious trauma.[1] A direct secondary trauma reaction is relatively uncommon. Cumulative secondary trauma is more common. Cumulative trauma builds over time, and it is difficult to detect. Having an awareness of trauma is a key preventive strategy that can help ensure overall wellbeing.

Signs of secondary trauma
The signs of secondary trauma can mirror those of primary trauma, such as:

  • having intrusive memories of what the client has told you, or the material you have seen
  • not being able to switch off from the matter
  • being irritable towards other people (including partners, friends and family members).

There are also other responses particularly relevant to lawyers:

  • a sense of hopelessness at not being able to help the client
  • questioning professional competence
  • vulnerability to ethical or boundary violations from wanting to do things to help the client beyond what is permissible and professionally appropriate as a lawyer
  • increased detachment, insensitivity and emotional callousness – sometimes described as ‘compassion fatigue’
  • existential confrontation: recognising how easily your own health and wellbeing are negatively affected by legal practice. It can be confronting to realise that you’re not as detached and impervious to emotion as your legal training may suggest.

Complex trauma is particularly relevant for lawyers working on matters relating to child sexual abuse, domestic violence, refugees and victims of extended criminal activities.

Preventing secondary trauma
As discussed in Chapter 3, implementing good habits is essential to preventing secondary trauma and thriving in practice.

  • Writing in a journal, practising mindfulness and engaging in healthy activities (for example, exercise) are beneficial to reconnecting with your own values and motivations. It is important to recognise that being a lawyer is only one part of who you are as a person.
  • It is important to connect with colleagues to build a supportive professional community. Trauma flourishes when a person is left alone. The supportive presence of other people can help prevent the distress and impairment of trauma, as well as transform traumatic distress into traumatic growth.
  • It is essential to engage other helping professionals (for example, counsellors and psychologists) for peer supervision. This involves intentionally meeting (usually weekly or fortnightly) as a small group to talk about traumatic work in a safe and confidential setting. The focus is not so much on the substantive or technical issues, but the personal and professional experience of being the helping professional.

[1] This discussion is primarily about clients, but lawyers often work with a number of other people in the legal system in ways that can give rise to secondary trauma (for example, witnesses, victims and family members).

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