Friday, June 29, 2012

Our Duty to One Another

The last several posts have all been focusing on vicarious trauma, and today’s post sticks to that theme, and looks at why our social community is one of the ways to navigate out of vicarious trauma. I was reminded recently that we have an ethical duty to one another as lawyers. We have a duty to tell the State Bar when another lawyer has violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. As far as I know, that duty exists among many professions. That may not appear to be a duty to each other, but that is because it only becomes a duty when the situation has become unethical. What if we had a duty to help each other before we ever get to that point?

One of the reasons I think lawyers are so affected by vicarious trauma, perhaps more than other helping professions, is because being a lawyer is a lonely endeavor. Law school, unlike business school, is a place to be alone. There are no group projects. There is little collaboration. If anything, there is an intense sense of competition among classmates. After all, class rank defines our future, we are told. We are asked, nay required, to hide our emotions and think “rationally.” We have duties of confidentiality that prohibit us from debriefing our difficult situations, as do many other helping professions. Even if we could talk to someone, who has the time? 

Vicarious trauma rears its head when we pull away from our social net and turn inward. Humans are social animals, and we need one another for survival, but when trauma takes over, the pull is away from that safety. Rationally it makes no sense, but the outside world becomes too difficult when we are living in a state of vicarious trauma. So we do the one thing we absolutely should not do – we pull away, deeper into that loneliness.

Should we only look out for one another when the pull away is so strong someone commits malpractice? Part of the reason I wanted to create this blog was to bring people together to have discussions. As of today, that has not happened. I have met some very interesting people, but the discussions among other strangers do not appear to be happening. But there is another way to connect. We can reconnect with those we already know.

Look around at your coworkers. Look around at opposing counsel. Look around at the other people with whom you interact. Who is acting differently? Who is pulling away? Who yelled at you this week for no apparent reason? Who has not returned your calls? Who made a snarky comment as you walked out the door?

That person may not be so terrible. That person may need your help.

What if our Code of Professional Responsibility included a duty to reach out a helping hand? What if our Code included a duty to bring each other back before we become just another statistic about how awful the legal profession is? Would that not serve all of us, and our clients, better than waiting until the conduct becomes so reprehensible that we have to report it to the State Bar?

Vicarious trauma is made worse by the fact that we have to hear traumatic event after traumatic event without ever processing the trauma ourselves. Instead, we have to look at the person talking about their awful experience and try to rationally find a way to deal with it. We cannot react to the trauma. We simply have to listen, express no emotion, and move on. Or worse, we have to be the ones to tell people that it is not as bad as they think. Usually we move on to more trauma.

We need to be able to process it. We need to be able to talk about it. And this is where someone else comes in. This is where our duty to one another becomes so important. We need to debrief. And we need to do it together. And we need to do it before these experiences become true vicarious trauma.

So, look around you again. Imagine your interactions over the past week. Who may need your helping hand? To whom do you owe a duty of reaching out? And are you the one who needs the helping hand? Reach out to a friend. Ask for the support you know you need. Let us take on this duty to each other today rather than make the dreaded phone call to the Bar tomorrow.

Have you ever reached out with a helping hand? Have you ever asked a friend for help when you needed it?


"Our Duty to One Another" is part of the series, "Overcoming Crisis Mode," in which we discuss the second-hand trauma associated with being a lawyer and specific ways to overcome it.

© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.


  1. I notice that many people in our culture are reluctant to use therapy; one of my colleagues called her therapist her rent-a-friend. That would go a long way towards reducing the trauma build up; and confidentiality could be maintained.

    1. That is very true, but many people do not even realize it is what they need.