on Well-Being

Suffering can be the human consequence of lawyering

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Jeena Cho

Jeena Cho: “Secure your own oxygen mask before helping others.” Photograph courtesy of JC Law Group.

Many lawyers practice in the suffering business. Perhaps they should’ve taught us this in law school. Day One would’ve been a good place.

As a bankruptcy lawyer, I see a lot of human suffering. Needless to say, no one ever comes to see a bankruptcy lawyer with happy news. Often, people end up in my office because of a death, illness, divorce, loss of job or some other unexpected life event that overwhelmed them financially.

What they also should’ve taught us in law school is that being in the presence of someone suffering affects you. Often, attorneys mistake this effect as weakness, ineffective lawyering, or as a sign that they are somehow flawed as an attorney.


I wish I had known that none of these assumptions are true, and that the distress lawyers experience when faced with a client who is suffering simply makes us human. There’s a diagnosis for the distress one experiences when witnessing someone else’s suffering: vicarious trauma.

The symptoms of vicarious trauma are similar to direct trauma. Lawyers might experience sleep disturbances or vivid nightmares; feel numb when interacting with clients; or, on the flip side, may experience an unusual intensity of emotions, such as obsessive rumination about the traumatic events.

Also common is extreme anxiety or fears that the attorney herself will experience a similar trauma. Some also may experience a change in bodily functions, such as different eating habits, loss of sexual desire or even panic attacks.

Sarah Weinstein, a former lawyer and now psychotherapist based in Berkeley, California, says lawyers can recognize vicarious trauma when “instead of feeling separate from their clients and having compassion for their struggles, attorneys find themselves overwhelmed with emotion and unable to think constructively or sometimes at all. Emotion begins regularly to overtake cognition.”

It is important to recognize that vicarious trauma can be cumulative from prolonged exposure to the traumatic experiences of many clients or, with a very intense trauma, can arise from a single exposure.

Shannon Callahan, a Chicago-based senior counsel at Seyfarth Shaw, says she experienced vicarious trauma while handling an asylum case based on sexual violence. “I felt so sad and couldn’t stop crying. I avoided working on the same type of cases because I didn’t want to risk losing again and the impact on the client if I did,” Callahan says.

Often, the cases we work on as lawyers carry with them dire consequences, yet our ability to influence the outcome of any given case is limited. Perhaps one privilege we get as lawyers is we can advocate and change outcomes. But we must be mindful of the impact exercising this privilege has on our own well-being.

Callahan says, “I still think about my client and wonder how she has been since her deportation. I worry for her and wish the best—and feel responsible and sad for the outcome. My narrative, to help me cope, is that I knew it was a tough case and that I did my best.”

After many years of struggling with chronic insomnia, feeling sad yet at the same time feeling numb and working around the clock, I finally sought a therapist. It was liberating to learn that I am not the only one who struggles with these feelings, that it’s normal to think about your clients and to relive their trauma.

I learned that I can be more resilient through self-care and mindfulness practices. I learned tools for being with the clients experiencing distress without losing myself in their suffering, as well as techniques for leaving work at the office.

“One important goal for minimizing vicarious trauma is to be intentional about having compassion rather than strict empathy for clients,” Weinstein says.


Compassion is a concern for the suffering of others and taking some steps to alleviate the suffering. Empathy, on the other hand, is stepping into the shoes of another. It is important for attorneys to be able to do both. But for lawyers who regularly are working with traumatized clients, it’s very important to remind yourself that you care about your clients but you are not your clients.

Keeping a separate identity allows you to function at a higher level as an advocate and to avoid your own trauma. Also, as with diminishing stress generally, self-care is very important to minimizing vicarious trauma. Maintaining healthy habits of sleep, nutrition and exercise go a long way.

Lawyers can be tight-lipped. It’s easier to avoid talking about our feelings and distress. Often, we can be in denial about our own suffering, leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Weinstein suggests lawyers seek help when, for more than two or three months, they find themselves experiencing the symptoms of trauma, including numbing, obsessive rumination, change in bodily functions or intense fear, and worry that dangerous or very distressing events will occur in their own lives.

It may feel self-indulgent to focus on your own suffering in light of the tragedy your clients are experiencing. Yet we can only be an effective advocate if we are well. As the directive goes: Secure your own oxygen mask before helping others.

When a lawyer feels overwhelmed by the struggles of clients and is no longer able to take a reflective, compassionate stance about the client’s experience, help from a therapist is not only a good idea but absolutely necessary to continue functioning as an effective advocate.

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Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author of The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with her husband at the JC Law Group in San Francisco.

This article was published in the June 2018 issue of the
ABA Journal with the title "A Distressing Business: Suffering can be the human consequence of lawyering".

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