Family Lawyers Often Experience Secondary Trauma: What Are You Going To Do About It?

Family law attorneys may spend hours every day coping with people who are deeply unhappy and distraught. What can we do to cope? 

If you practice family law for any length of time, you are likely at some point to experience secondary trauma. The massive changes our society has undergone, and is still undergoing, have affected families—and therefore family law—more than any other legal practice area and will continue to do so. We already experience stress from the constant adjustment of our methods and practices to deal with new situations, some of which are not yet adequately covered by current law. Consider for a moment:

  1. The advent of same-sex marriage and same-sex divorce, as well as the continued challenges same-sex couples still face.
  2. New kinds of blended families that may include his, her and their children, as well as both biological and adopted children.
  3. Families from other countries that may have children and property here and abroad and have radically different marriage (and divorce) customs in their countries of origin.
  4. New kinds of methods of reproduction, including in vitro fertilization and the use of surrogate mothers, which are also being challenged by new legislation.
  5. The heightened friction and polarization in society, which is bleeding into families and the work of those who serve families.

Now, on top of all that, we are dealing with many clients who are going through one of the worst experiences of their lives. Our clients and their soon-to-be exes are naturally emotional and upset. We may spend hours every day coping with people who are deeply unhappy and distraught.

We also sometimes encounter stories that are really difficult to hear. Our clients may tell us about domestic manipulation and abuse, the mistreatment and abuse of children, and threats of violence or actual violence. About 10 years ago, one of my clients, a 44-year-old, much-beloved veterinarian, was murdered by her almost ex-husband over Memorial Day weekend. This man had been controlling but had never been violent before. A strict restraining order had been granted against him when he brought a gun to her office, but it did not save her. He violated the order, infiltrated his way into her backyard and then shot her and himself while their children were home.

I think you can imagine how painful that was for everyone who knew her. It was especially difficult for me to process because we were so close to the finish line with her divorce.

That is an extreme example of secondary trauma, of course, but I think every family lawyer who reads this article can immediately recall situations with clients that were very upsetting, even though the repetition of exposure to trauma may seem slight compared to a murder-suicide. How do we react? How does recurrent secondary or vicarious trauma affect our practice and our life outside of work?

According to a 2020 review of research on the subject by Colin James, “Towards trauma-informed legal practice: a review,” that appeared in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, lawyers can suffer the classic effects of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of secondary trauma. These may include:

  1. Intrusive thoughts, nightmares, insomnia.
  2. Anxiety, hypervigilance, irritability.
  3. Withdrawal, isolation.
  4. Depression.
  5. Substance abuse.
  6. Suicide ideation.
  7. Compassion fatigue.
  8. Job burnout.

It doesn’t help that lawyers often feel there is a stigma attached to admitting there is a problem and seeking help. High-achieving attorneys who have always worked hard and succeeded may find themselves at sea when they have to acknowledge their own vulnerability.

It is essential that family lawyers understand before they ever have difficulties themselves that secondary trauma can affect anyone and is not a sign of exceptional weakness or inability to cope. It is a common phenomenon. In fact, compassionate and empathetic lawyers, who exhibit the emotional intelligence that is so important in client relationships, may be the most affected. On the other hand, some researchers think there is evidence that more empathetic attorneys may be able to be more compassionate with themselves and will recover more quickly from secondary trauma.

What can be done to alleviate the suffering and enable attorneys to recover the balance between empathy and professional objectivity that enables them to serve their clients effectively? No one wants to be represented by a family lawyer who is just as upset as the client!

  1. Seek help within the profession by talking to colleagues, consulting with mentors and admitting that you are having difficulties. You may be surprised to learn how many of your colleagues have had similar experiences.
  2. Make time for your family and be honest with them about what is troubling you.
  3. Talk to a therapist. That’s what they’re for, and you may feel freer to be entirely open about your struggles.
  4. Carve out time for self-care in whatever way makes you happiest. That could be getting out in nature, taking a yoga class, going for a walk, baking a cake (and eating it, too!), scheduling spa days, taking a trip, immersing yourself in an engrossing book—or all of the above.
  5. In short, communicate and make time to care for you.

We are not supposed to be icy personalities who can shrug off the problems of our clients with easy indifference, but neither should we get so engrossed in their troubles and so take them to heart that we cannot be effective advisers and representatives. We are our best selves and best equipped to serve our clients when we feel we are in control of our personal world. If that equation is becoming unbalanced in your life, take steps to help yourself, and you will also help your clients.

Susan Myres is a Houston-based, board-certified family lawyer with more than 35 years of experience. She is also a recent past president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.


Reprinted with permission from the May 25, 2023 edition of Texas Lawyer© 2023 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. ALMReprints.com877-257-3382 -