Monday, June 18, 2012

When Crises Leads to Trauma

The word lawyer has a lot of connotations in the non-legal community. Our reputation is created by daytime television ads, television drama, famous trials, and stand-up comedians. There is, however, on aspect of lawyering that seems to have evaded notice by the general populace. The legal profession, as a whole, is unhappy. This is not true of all lawyers, and it is not even necessarily true of the majority of lawyers. But there is something about lawyering that leads to a higher rate of depression and substance abuse than the general populace. 

But why?

I started thinking about this again because a friend of mine posted a really depressing article about lawyer depression on facebook. It is called, “Broken hearted idealists,” and it is written by a Kentucky Supreme Court Justice. It is absolutely worth reading, and here is the link. The article starts with a friend of the author’s committing suicide, the fourth of his friends in “recent years.”

His thesis is simple. Many lawyers go to law school to change the world, but it is not as easy as we had hoped. Instead, lawyers deal with crises, one after another. I have written about this before numerous times, but I think he explains it well.

Lawyers—most of them—are heroic. You go home at night with your problems. They go home with the problems of many. And then they deal with their own personal problems— sick children, an alcoholic spouse, or a parent who is deep in Alzheimer’s—layered over by the demands of clients and judges and other lawyers.

But worst of all for practicing lawyers is the sinking feeling which settles upon them that in all the struggles, in the thick of battle, it all amounts to nothing. The growing suspicion that all that they do makes no difference. . . . But they lose purpose. They lose hope.

The article is full of the statistics about depression and substance abuse in the lawyer population, but unfortunately, the author provides no solutions. This article ends dark and sad for those of us in this profession.

I will admit it; I went to law school to change a system I think is slowly changing for the better but needs to move at a much more rapid pace. I went to law school specifically to give children a voice. A real voice. And after six months, I often go home at night wondering whether I have done anything worthwhile. Nearly all my clients are in some form of acute crisis, or else they would not need a lawyer. 

What most people call burnout from dealing with clients in crisis day after day has another name – Second hand trauma or vicarious trauma. This concept has graced this blog before, but it needs some more discussion. It needs some more depth. Why here? Why in a blog?

Yoga is one of the best ways to overcome trauma, whether first hand or second hand. The universe has been sharing a lot of yoga blogs about trauma with me recently. Here is a link to a series on Trauma Sensitive Yoga, and here is another link to an interview by someone who teaches trauma yoga therapy (with links to other articles on teaching yoga to people with PTSD). In addition, a Tucsonan (I have to give Tucson a shout-out once in awhile) has written a book called, Yoga for Depression and teaches her techniques around the world. This is but the smallest introduction to a topic that is bursting at the seams.

Lying in savasana one night during my yoga teacher training, I was extremely relaxed and thought, “lawyers need this,” and this blog was born. But as it has grown over the past 2.5 years, something has changed. Yoga for lawyers is not just about learning to relax. It is not just about learning to sit at a desk. There is little that is easy about being a lawyer. We interact with people in crisis all day long. And we need an outlet.

Most of the lawyers I know really do want to be doing great work. They really do want to be helping people in crisis. They really do care about the people they serve. But it is difficult to face their crises every day without some balance, and unfortunately for many lawyers that means mind-altering substances. 

But it does not have to mean that. So with that, I am announcing a new series on this blog called, “Overcoming Crisis Mode.” Several older posts probably qualify, but going forward there will be new ideas from around the world of Vicarious Trauma experts and Yogis alike. I am tired of reading articles about the depressed legal profession and the suicides it is causing (the article here is not, by any means, the first I have read). Not all lawyers are depressed. Not all lawyers abuse substances. And most lawyers enjoy the work they do. 

Together, we can learn to give to our clients and take care of ourselves all at the same time.

How do you notice your clients’ crises becoming yours? Do you tend to get pulled into the darker areas of your being? Has yoga helped before?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

When Crisis Leads to Trauma 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. 


  1. Great post. Definitely something to think about and read over again, perhaps several times and then meditate on it.
    Thanks for sharing Rebecca.

    1. Thank you very much, jpbauer. I really appreciate it.