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In my first 12 months of practising law, I had dealt with several parents going through the family law and child protection systems, one whom threatened to physically assault me. I would sit there, as a very young 25-year-old, listening to their stories of trauma, family violence, and abuse – either in their current circumstances, or as part of their narrative leading to their current presentation in my office, or sometimes both. I had two clients commit suicide. I had one teenage client sent to jail for eight months under minimum sentencing laws despite the restorative justice work they had been doing, and then in comparison, I had a middle-aged client who only received a fine for sexual assault. By the end of that twelve months, I was doubting my life choices to enter law. What had I gotten myself into? I had never even heard the term ‘vicarious trauma’ until about my third year of practice. I think part of what saved me from having any kind of serious breakdown, before I had this language of ‘vicarious trauma’, was being a Samoan PK (pastor’s kid). My evenings and weekends were filled with choir practice, bible studies, youth engagements, church, chores and the sporadic social calendar that comes with being a Samoan PK - funerals, weddings, baptisms, fundraising, outreach and so forth. In a sense, I was too busy to deal with any vicarious trauma I may have been experiencing. But even if my mind was ignorant to what I was experiencing, there were silent and dark moments in between all of the ‘churching’, socialising and working, that were very confronting.
Finding my way into the community legal sector has also been a saving grace because the sector is much more alert to issues like vicarious trauma. My time in the sector has allowed me the opportunity to be educated in cultural awareness, disability awareness, mental health first aid and accidental counsellor training, among other things. I also get to work in an integrated practice with social workers who generously let me debrief with them. All this has really informed how I practice law and my understanding of justice.
So, what is vicarious trauma? I have helpfully copy and pasted the definition from the Blue Knot website for you. Vicarious trauma is the ‘the negative transformation in the helper that results (across time) from empathic engagement with trauma survivors and their traumatic material, combined with a commitment or responsibility to help them’ (Pearlman and Caringi, 2009, 202-203).
If you work in ‘people law’, i.e. family law, criminal law, domestic violence, child protection, wills and estates, etc, which I did (and still do) in my first few years of practice, you have the privilege of helping people in some of the most desperate and desolate moments of their lives. But you are also at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma. The signs you might notice that you are experiencing vicarious trauma could be lingering feelings of anger, rage or sadness about your client’s issues, becoming overly involved emotionally with your client, feeling of shame or guilt or self-doubt, or being pre-occupied about your client’s situation outside of work time.
I recently attended an event held at the Queensland Law Society about vicarious trauma where retired Magistrate, David Heilpern, and Caxton Legal Centre CEO, Cybele Koning discussed and shared their experiences in dealing with vicarious trauma. For Cybele it presented in at least a couple of stressful and traumatic cases she dealt with in private practice, and for David, it was in his work as a Magistrate, particularly to do with child pornography cases and having to view that material that really affected him. I also encourage you to read this paper by David where he discusses his experience further and where he calls for further research in this area. The thing about trauma (vicarious or otherwise) is that it does not discriminate. I found it interesting that both David and Cybele are respectively married to allied health workers, David a social worker, and Cybele a psychologist. They both had access to resources (people and health) that allowed them to respond to their vicarious trauma. In their storytelling, they were able to eventually become vulnerable and be ready to acknowledge they needed help after they reached a certain breaking point. This vulnerability had to then be followed by self-care, which for them was doing things like taking extended time off, going on Buddhist retreats, or therapy to learn different techniques (e.g. EDMR therapy).
Cybele also discussed the power and science of our brains to heal or deal with vicarious trauma through its neuroplasticity. I learned after the session that David has left the bench and is practising law again as a solicitor in NSW, in part due to being tired of imposing mandatory sentencing sentences. During the session, David discussed that employing (too much) empathy as a lawyer could lead to burnout, which is a pitstop to vicarious trauma. Instead, he suggested that we should lean into compassion when lawyering as it allows us the space to care, but keeps our personal and professional boundaries in check.
Hearing their stories left me feeling slightly uneasy. I thought to myself, what hope does a young Pacific Island lawyer, or lawyer with intersectional barriers such as limited financial and/or social capital have to succeed against vicarious trauma. Particularly if you come from a culture that is catching up to understand mental health and where there is still stigma in admitting or even discussing it openly. Or in a world where being brown or black is also synonymous with being strong or having to work extra hard to feel seen or recognised. I thought of my own journey as a lawyer, some of it alluded to above, and I just think, thank goodness I had the audacity and ignorance to keep aimlessly and awkwardly working, and having faith, through it all. But I know many lawyers, Pacific Island and otherwise, who have left the profession as a result of vicarious trauma. I know many who, like me, may not have access to those options of going on a retreat, or taking extended leave; or, who unlike me, don't have access to social worker colleagues, or who work in trauma-informed workspaces (or ones trying to be). Leaning into your version of self-care is so important. For me it’s the small things in life like calling my family, caring for my niece, sharing meals with friends, thinking about exercise, riding the publicly available Lime scooters, listening to podcasts and hiding under my weighted blanket. My friends are a huge part of my self-care. I also enjoy watching the American sit-com Friends (which is on my brain because of the recent reunion special) so you may have caught that reference in the title to this Talanoa.
I am mostly a glass half-full person. I am grateful that the profession is raising its consciousness about vicarious trauma through people like Cybele and David discussing it openly. But I still feel that as much as we can meditate, holiday, pray, walk, climb, read, play, dance, roller-blade and self-care ourselves into better and healthy “work-life-balance”, there is no point unless the systemic structures that we work in don’t also change. Like GI Joe said, ‘knowing is only half the battle’.
My own perspective from all the above is that empowerment, whether with respect to vicarious trauma or otherwise, is a noble pursuit for the individual, but a moral and ethical imperative for us as members of a community. That is, that the internal self-care work must also include external work. The external work, if we choose to do it, takes us imagining or reimagining, and putting into action a healthier future for the profession, and that ultimately starts within our communities. It is not hard to recognise that the same systems that expect us to notice and deal with our own vicarious trauma, or to cause us to feel shame about seeking help, or to be vulnerable (usually for men) or perfect (usually for women), or to be in control (most of us), or for us as Pacific Islanders in the diaspora to be ‘model minorities’, are the same systems that can fail our communities to deal with health and mental health, violence, and economic disadvantage leading to the trauma we are exposed to in the first place. In our capacity as lawyers of Oceania living abroad, this work will likely also come with the extra cultural loading of thinking through how we challenge mental health stigmas and/or unawareness in our communities. As lawyers in Queensland, I also wonder if our ethical and statutory duty to the court and to the administration of justice, includes our active and collective responses to dealing with vicarious trauma and mental health issues in our profession. All this work is ongoing, inter-disciplinary, and inter-generational, so just do what and all that you can, not only what you think you should do. For me, writing this Talanoa article is one thing I decided I could do. If I could, I would email this article to my past self before I started my legal practice journey, but we all know from the Marvel Cinematic Universe that would cause a time paradox and we can’t have that.
If you are an ‘early career’ Pacific Island lawyer and you might recognise the signs of vicarious trauma or otherwise in your own practice, I want to encourage you to consider getting support. It’s okay, and you will be okay! You could get support from the fo
Your peers, or senior peers, or
through mentoring or just having a chat with your colleagues in the Pasifika Lawyers Association of Queensland; or
by reading resources available on Blue Knot; or
through Queensland Law Society Law Care program; or
your Employee Assistance Program.
By Tilé Imo