When we first met, we could not have imagined that we would find ourselves where we are today: working together to help attorneys and legal professionals address trauma exposure and chronic stress in the workplace.
Friends since college, we stayed in touch over the years and followed each other’s careers. As a social worker, Cassie had first-hand experience with the cumulative toll working in the human service field, and witnessing the suffering of others, takes on professionals. As a trainer, coach, and consultant in the child protection field, Cassie also has experience in concrete interventions, skills, and practices used to support staff. As an attorney specializing in immigration law and removal defense, Anna has also witnessed her share of human suffering, however, her training had not equipped her with the skills to assess and respond to her exposure.
We realized that although we were both confronting burnout and trauma exposure, Anna’s education and experience as an attorney had not prepared her to recognize her and her firm’s exposure, let alone develop the skills needed to mitigate it.
Anna was aware of the trauma her clients faced. For years, she created and cultivated a trauma-informed lawyering practice, thanks in large part to assistance provided by her husband and mother-in-law, who were both trauma therapists. She recognized that in preparation for each of her cases she was required to have her clients retell their traumatic stories over and over again. The result was a re-traumatization of her clients. Anna listened and watched as clients articulated their graphic and horrific stories with flat affect, impaired memory, and dissociation. In response, Anna adopted an effective trauma-informed practice, which helped minimize the harm to the client, created safe connections, and improved the clients’ overall ability to testify. In so doing she began to see that the less traumatizing the experience for the client, the less impact it had on the staff. This model was effective, but it was a client-first approach. Her firm was doing little else to protect and support the staff as they encountered daily exposure.
So, when we began seeking resources to support attorneys who were experiencing vicarious or secondary trauma from their work, we were shocked to realize that there was very little peer-reviewed research, evidenced-based approaches, or even professional development opportunities for legal staff on this topic. What little research we could find pointed only to individualized self-care solutions and did not leverage the power of relationships, teams, or organizations. As a result, we decided to pilot our own trauma-informed team and organizational model at Anna’s firm, integrating strategies borrowed from Cassie’s social work practice with Anna’s legal experience.
Workplace trauma exposure is emerging as a major problem in many lines of work including social work and the legal field. We use the term trauma exposure response as opposed to vicarious or secondary trauma, when talking about workplace impact because it is clear and direct without any clinical posturing. There was trauma. You were exposed. Now there is a response.
For attorneys practicing immigration, criminal, human rights, and family law, among others, the client’s trauma is the case. For attorneys practicing in public policy, the constant fight for institutional change can also cause chronic stress when attorneys are unable to effect the desired change. As an attorney prepares and presents a case, they are steeping themselves in the suffering of others. This is workplace trauma exposure, and the transformation that takes place from exposure to the suffering of others is what we are referring to when we talk about trauma exposure response (See Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s book Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others for more detail on trauma exposure response including signs and symptoms. Or listen to Laura on Cassie’s podcast). Some symptoms of trauma exposure response exhibited by legal professionals include:
- Strained relationships
- Chronic exhaustion
- A sense of hopelessness
- Anger and cynicism
- Physical ailments and symptoms (headaches, trouble sleeping etc.), and of course,
- Numbing and addictions.
Constant exposure to chronic stress in the workplace can also be exceedingly impactful. We have found that many legal staff, ranging from administration support to managing attorneys, who are not witnessing the daily suffering of their clients may still be experiencing chronic stress in the workplace. While chronic stress exposure is different from trauma exposure, a person experiencing chronic stress may also exhibit debilitating symptoms; both physical and psychological.
In our work with legal professionals, we emphasize that addressing trauma exposure response and chronic stress is best executed through a structural or team-based approach. This is because no one individual typically has the scope of influence to address and mitigate all the circumstances contributing to their exposure. Furthermore, one employee’s impact usually has a ripple effect on their peers and offices. Employees who are impacted by workplace trauma are more likely to get sick, leave their jobs, or practice from a place of diminished personal resources and productivity. In short, impacted people do not make good workers, and impacted people are limited in what they can address on their own.
Yet many employers are reluctant to ask their employees about how they are doing. We work with many professionals and organizations (legal and social work alike) where leaders are worried that if they ask their employees about how they are really doing, they will learn that everyone is struggling, and no one is ok. One thing we often share in response to this, is that your staff is impacted whether you ask them or not. By asking your staff about the impact of their work, you are not only creating a meaningful connection with your staff, you are also learning about the specific stressors that your employees face. This begins a discussion that allows you to understand where resources should be employed to generate short- and long-term solutions.
Some leaders have shared that they are witnessing a noticeable value shift in the upcoming generation of legal professionals. This group of young professionals are passionate and more vocal about the importance of workplace inclusion, belonging, mental health and work life balance. This can leave some leaders feeling overwhelmed at the need to provide a positive workplace culture, particularly where those changes seem, at first glance, to be inapposite to the traditional legal values and work ethic. However, these concerns should be addressed to combat attrition and workplace burnout. In fact, a recent article emphasizes the extent to which young lawyers are driving cultural change and demanding better work/life balance.
A Pilot Program
When we began talking, half of the attorneys in Anna’s firm were quietly suffering from burnout. Attorneys, like support staff, suffered from heavy workloads and over exposure to secondary trauma and chronic stress. No one was communicating about their exposure and individual office members were struggling with health, mental health, and interpersonal issues.
We saw the need to do more and began rolling out strategies to effectively support Anna’s entire office. The first step was to open lines of communication through training workshops. Attorneys and staff were asked to analyze and share their core values and communication style in their professional lives. This created connection and understanding between coworkers and allowed communication to flow more effectively and limited interpersonal conflict. Very simply, it allowed individual office members to lower their guard and to feel comfortable discussing underlying work and relationship issues.
Next, we focused on impact. Attorneys and staff were surveyed and asked to identify the hardest parts of their job. Identifying these issues benefited the office in two ways. First, it conveyed an interest and an anonymous platform for the employees to be heard. Second, it allowed the firm to identify the most pressing issues. The data collected allowed the firm’s management team to institute a host of immediate changes by prioritizing energy and resources in the areas that would be most impactful.
They first focused on staffing and supervisory changes, which led to more cohesive and efficient working groups. By formally engaging in an organizational assessment of needs and resources they were able to better match attorneys and support staff, and capitalize on employee strengths.
They began covering the cost of individual therapy and/or sessions with a work consultant. They changed schedule offerings to include options to work four, ten-hour days or a traditional five days a week schedule.
The office encouraged mental health days after trials or stressful cases, in addition for time throughout the day for a walk or exercise. This idea grew directly from staff feedback about what was most depleting in their roles.
The office also now formally closes for lunch time and pays for monthly paralegal luncheons outside the office as a form of team building. Anna’s office now employs a “huddle” model. A huddle is an impromptu meeting used to strategize on difficult cases, discuss the mental health impact of a case, identify, and address unique or unexpected stressors. By naming and codifying the use of this resource it allows attorneys and staff to easily reach for co-workers in a challenging moment, problem-solve as a group, and limit isolation.
Finally, Anna’s criminal, family and immigration practice firm decided to narrow its focus. Through surveys, trainings, and huddles, it became clear that detained immigration cases and highly contentious divorces were consuming office resources and were the source of significant secondary trauma. Anna’s office decided to limit those cases and began to pivot resources to existing and new areas of income that didn’t have the same type of impact on firm employees.
The transformation in Anna’s office has been significant. Employees feel closer and more supported. Burnout is diminished. Attorneys and staff are more efficient and creating more income despite a transition to a leaner staff and narrowed practice areas.
Indeed, as word about our innovative approach got out, requests for speaking engagements and trainings began to flood in. It seemed many legal professionals intuitively understood that they were being impacted by their work, even if they did not have the academic frame or language to talk about it. Before long we began speaking and training attorneys, paralegals, interpreters, and support staff across the county about workplace trauma exposure and chronic stress. To be clear, we are not training attorneys to be social workers, rather we are borrowing social work approaches and bringing a trauma informed lens to legal work. In so many ways, legal work is trauma work. And as any good social worker will tell you, you cannot take care of others, if you are not taking care of yourself!
Self-Care Alone Won’t Fix It
In social work, problems that appear at first glance to be individual problems, like substance use or mental health, often turn out to be far more complicated and rooted in societal and structural challenges like poverty, lack of economic mobility, and generational trauma. Engaging with these challenges can be arduous and depleting work, but if we ignore the larger pieces and only look to the individual layer, we are missing the opportunity to effect real change. Similarly, it can be tempting to frame workplace trauma exposure response and chronic stress as an individual problem. Many organizations do this when they prescribe ‘self-care’ as the universal remedy for burnout.
We believe that self-care alone will not move the needle on burnout or trauma exposure response. While self-care is an essential component of wellness, most of us are not able to single-handedly effect the type of change needed to be well at work. This is because self-care draws our focus to ourselves and puts the onus of wellness squarely on the shoulders of the individual. That model falls short when that individual is forced to return to daily trauma exposure and workplace structures that fail to acknowledge and support the impact of the work. However, leveraging relationships and community offer far more effective strategies.
Healthy professional relationships are the best tools we have in our arsenal to heal from existing impact and safeguard against new impact. When we explore team-based strategies to increase psychological safety and workplace connectedness, like the strategies we piloted in Anna’s firm, we can re-create workplace culture, increase efficiency, and protect each other in the process. Additionally, leveraging the power of our communities, be they organizations or professional associations, can help all of us access the resources needed for skill building in trauma informed lawyering.
Workplace trauma exposure is vastly unrecognized and unmitigated. Remedies are available, practical, and ready to be deployed. And when they are effectively implemented, they benefit everyone.
About the Author
Anna Rivera Rodgers is a partner of the McKinley Law Group, LLC, where her practice includes detained and non-detained immigration removal defense and applications before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.
Cassie Gillespie is a licensed clinical social worker, trainer, coach, consultant, and podcaster who specializes in workforce development, trauma exposure, & chronic stress in the workplace. Find her at cassiegillespie.com or on the podcast- The Social Work Lens.