Commentary: The reality of secondary trauma in family law practice

We are conduits of hope, not architects of destruction.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. June 6, 2019
  • Law
  • The Bar Bulletin
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By Sarah Sullivan, JBA Family Law Committee

Last week, I went to the pharmacy to pick up some prescriptions. I’m not trying to overshare, but prescriptions are just part of my reality.

While there, I got into a discussion with the pharmacist about one of the new, aggressively advertised antidepressants on the market. We discussed some of the older antidepressants and their side effects and then the pharmacist shared what he had been prescribed and the effects it had on his mental health. 

We both spoke candidly and in plain view of one another. No hushed tones and no embarrassment.

It was refreshing to have that conversation. I thought to myself as I walked out of the store how these conversations are healthy and necessary considering the heartache and turmoil we face on a daily basis.  

As lawyers and advocates, we must take better care of ourselves. We must feel comfortable sharing our brokenness with one another, and we must end the stigma of mental health disorders—as so many of us carry these burdens and suffer in silence.

Although this very open and public conversation took place spontaneously at my neighborhood pharmacy, it is starkly contrasted with the sadness of knowing one of our family law colleagues died not long ago. His loss is tragic because he was a family man, a friend to many, a talented and bright attorney and he had a generous heart. 

His passing was a reminder that we do not always know our neighbor’s burdens, especially in a professional context. We must not only feel more comfortable with sharing, but also with hearing and supporting our brothers and sisters in the law.  

Family lawyers bear the brunt of the ugliness of uncoupling. Some of us may experience it on a personal level, but all of us experience it through the eyes of litigants and children—day in and day out. 

That takes a huge toll, especially on attorneys who are expected to not only absorb all the vitriol, but process it, defuse it, package it and present it to a court in a way favorable to our client.

Family law attorneys are more often the brunt of lawyer jokes as if we are somehow “less than” other types of lawyers, but to be an effective family lawyer, you need to know procedure, laws about divorce, paternity, adoption, contracts, property/real estate, estate planning, taxation, child development and yes, awareness of mental health disorders.

We are the “counselor” in counselor-of-law one minute, and the “gator” in litigator the next.

By lunch on any given day, you may have heard the most bizarre and dysfunctional tale of human interaction in the history of interactions, and then your 1 p.m. appointment walks in the door.  

In law school, nobody educates you about the secondary traumatic stress you face as an attorney.

Secondary trauma is trauma-related stress reactions and symptoms resulting from exposure to another individual’s traumatic experiences, rather than from exposure directly to a traumatic event, according to “Treatment Improvement Protocol, 57” SAMHSA News, Spring 2014, Volume 22, Number 2.

Symptoms include hopelessness, anger, sleeplessness, chronic exhaustion, withdrawing or losing interest in routines and social activities, similar to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Family lawyers do not have a corner on the market of secondary trauma, but trying to navigate the maelstrom of emotional family litigation, while also trying to manage your own personal hurricane of life, can take its toll.

Not only do we carry our clients’ burdens, we have the added bonus of unrealistic client expectations to “solve” all of their life problems through legal action.

A firm I worked for years ago hired a consultant to boost productivity and map a vision for the future. The consultant asked me, “Why do you do family law? Doesn’t it get depressing breaking up families?”

I answered boldly, and maybe a little indignantly: “I do not see it as breaking up families, I see it as providing a pathway to a new beginning from a dysfunctional end. I am a conduit of hope, not the architect of destruction.”

If I only internalized that mantra for my inner self, that would be quite a self-actualizing accomplishment.  

What can family lawyers do to feel like “conduits of hope” rather than “architects of destruction?”

Collaboration, mentorship and discussing or debriefing with other attorneys or staff after particularly difficult events, such as a trial or client meeting can help.

Have non-attorney friends (if they’ll have you) to assist with balancing perspectives. Seek the help of a mental-health professional. Try regular exercise and meditation practice.

Our natural inclination as professional control freaks is to conceal when we are in trouble rather than expose the ugliness of the trauma for fear of showing weakness, receiving judgment or facing embarrassment. 

Communicating our authentic selves, no matter how unsightly, is the key to freeing us from our secondary traumatic stress.  

A colleague recently disclosed a fairly acute personal issue to me in a semi-public venue. I checked in with her a few days later, after she shared the issue with a wider audience on social media. I commended her for her bravery, for putting her struggle out there for all the world to see.

She responded by saying that it is time we talked openly and personally about mental health, self-care and our wars within.  I was impressed with her candor, her bravery and her willingness to be so openly fragile, similar to the impression made by the pharmacist disclosing his struggle with finding the right medication for his depression.

Success as a family lawyer necessitates addressing our own personal battles as well as the secondary trauma our chosen trade most certainly brings.

May we embrace one another and our brokenness (without exploiting that fragility for gain). May we destigmatize our personal demons and celebrate together our collective health and resiliency.    

Sarah Sullivan is pro bono director at Three Rivers Legal Services and president and CEO of Jericho Road Legal Service Ministry that provides low-cost family law legal services.