Examining the Risks to Attorneys Working with Traumatized People

Individuals who have experienced or witnessed traumatic events, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape, and murder often find themselves in legal proceedings. The attorneys who work with these victims and perpetrators spend months immersed in the intimate details of the traumatic events. Just as the victims can suffer with depression, anxiety, stress, fear, and posttraumatic stress (PTSD) as a result of the trauma, so can the attorneys who work with them. It has been well documented that first responders such as firefighters and police officers, who are exposed to multiple traumas over the course of their careers, are at increased risk for negative psychological outcomes, and it is believed that the same is true for attorneys and legal professionals whose job it is to help victims. But until recently, little research has been devoted to understanding this dynamic.

Andrew Levin of the Department of Psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University sought to explore this issue further. As a follow-up to a previous study, Levin and his colleagues examined the trajectory of PTSD, depression, and overall functionality of 107 public defense attorneys over the period of 10 months. The study looked at the volume of traumatic cases worked on by the attorneys, the number of hours worked, and the psychological symptoms as they changed from month 1 to month 10.

Levin found that all of the attorneys maintained their level of increased stress over the 10-month period. Additionally, the number of attorneys who met clinical levels of impairment for depression, PTSD, and functionality did not decrease. The findings did show that the attorneys decreased the hours they worked from time one to time two. This could be due to their increased awareness of the negative effects of trauma exposure or could be a result of the symptoms they experienced. Overall, this study demonstrates the significant psychological risk to legal professionals who work with trauma clients, whether they were victims or perpetrators of the trauma. The results highlight the need for addressing this issue that affects professionals working with this segment of the population. Levin added, “These findings underscore the central role of exposure to trauma-exposed clients in predicting mental health outcomes and emphasize the need to support attorneys by managing the intensity of exposure as well as addressing emerging symptoms.”

Levin, A., Besser, A., Albert, L., Smith, D., Neria, Y. (2012). The effect of attorneys’ work with trauma-exposed clients on PTSD symptoms, depression, and functional impairment: A cross-lagged longitudinal study. Law and Human Behavior. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/h0093993

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  • maisie

    April 16th, 2012 at 11:05 AM

    We rarely give much thought to how working with traumatized clients can affect those who are providing the care.

    I know that we give a lot of thought and attention to the client, obviously they are the ones who are having to deal first hand with the experience.

    But think about having to listen to the story and the problems all of the time. Listening to sad things like this all of the time are certainly going to take a toll on someone.

  • Harriett G

    April 16th, 2012 at 12:09 PM

    These victims have to have someone who is strong supporting them, so these lawyers have to make a concerted effort to take care of themselves! We know that the jobs that they are doing are all important, but they have to take a step back from time to time to see that they have to take care of themselves too. And I know that a lot of them are not used to feeling out of control, but they need to see that they are being dealt the same real world emotions that others are, and if they really wnat to make a difference for someone, that means taking care of their own needs as staying as in control of the health situation as they can.

  • Marc

    April 17th, 2012 at 4:43 AM

    I am sure that many times the cases are far more stressful and time consuming that the lawyers would have anticipated. But this is their job- if they take the case on then they have to do the job to the best of their ability to take care of the needs of their client. I know that there have to be times when it can feel overwhelming, but this is their job, they should pretty much be aware of the types of dangers and stresses that can come with a position like this.

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