During my practice as a public interest lawyer, I have encountered quite a few problems. Personally, two types of traumas became huge obstacles to me.
The first one was the vicarious trauma that I encountered while listening to a client’s story. In general, I deal with housing or consumer issues, so it is rare to hear any horrible stories other than multiple housing code violation or unconscionable debt collection.
However, since the majority of my clients are victims of various personal traumas in the past, it naturally comes out when I try to empathize with them. I still vividly remember my first client, who was a 23-year old homeless woman. She came to Legal Aid for help with a security deposit issue, but while explaining how she ended up with that notorious landlord, she became very emotional and upset and started talking about her horrible childhood abuse experience. I could not stop her, as I did not want to upset her even more, so I had no choice but to listen to that horrible story. I can still remember the details of her story, which troubled me for a long time.
The second kind of trauma is more direct – the stress and trauma that public interest lawyers have to face when we deal with difficult clients. We all have our worst clients – people lie, yell, get angry, and every other thing that you can imagine.
For me, the most difficult clients were the ones who got angry and refused any help. Many of them had mental health issues. When I told them that I could not represent them for certain reasons, they became very upset and screamed at me even though I was still trying to give them some useful legal advice. I understood that it was not personal, but it was still hard to swallow.
I did not even recognize that I was struggling with these problems until I participated in a training by the Milwaukee Community Justice Council, “How Being Trauma-Informed Improves Criminal Justice System Responses.” It was intended for legal participants in the criminal justice system, but I learned about the very existence of vicarious trauma that public interest lawyers also have to struggle with. After I learned how this type of trauma can deeply trouble lawyers, I could acknowledge my feelings more naturally. Before that, I was forcing myself to get over my experiences. After the training, I could recognize and acknowledge my feelings more easily.
Everybody handles stress differently. However that may be, I strongly recommend that Public Interest Lawyers actively acknowledge and treat the stress and trauma that we have to encounter. You can talk to your colleagues about it and find hobbies that can relieve your stress. And if you need to, don’t hesitate to call the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP), which provides free, confidential assistance for the stress in our lives.
The important point is that stress and trauma do exist, and acknowledging that can be the very first step toward treating it.