Friday, September 5, 2014

Coping: Stress and Critical Incidents in the Legal Profession

Stress, and the effects that it can have on an individual’s health and well-being, are pressing issues in the modern, excessively fast-paced world. Every profession has its own set of stressors, whether they be the dangers that a fireman experiences saving someone from a burning building or the absolute need for precision that a surgeon faces while performing an operation; the legal profession is no different. Lawyers are crushed under immense workloads and many struggle with depression and other work-related difficulties; the legal field boasts the fourth highest suicide rate, falling behind only dentists, pharmacists, and physicians.

With such a high level of stress already engrained into the profession, it’s hard to imagine how attorneys in the criminal field, whether they be law enforcement lawyers or the inspector general, handle the added stress and trauma that comes with being present at crime scenes and other critical incidents. Most police departments and law enforcement agencies have built in Critical Incident Stress Management programs that assist officers and first responders with the after effects of seeing traumatic accidents and crimes first-hand. The U.S Department of Health and Services defines a critical incident as a traumatic event that an individual is unable to readily cope with, such as a worksite shooting or a co-worker suicide. However, these sorts of events are classified as separate from “catastrophic incidents,” which are occurrences like bomb explosions and hostage situations.

In the law enforcement field, employees constantly come in contact with critical incidents, as they handle everything from traffic accidents to mass murders. In considering the types of trauma that these individuals experience, it is also important to remember that lawyers are present at many of these scenes or at least have access to the horrific details. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, attorneys involved in police oversight, and law enforcement lawyers all at one time or another will come in contact with gruesome and harrowing situations, regardless of their client’s involvement. Crime scene photos, victim interviews, and the trauma of seeing a gory traffic accident first hand can all have a detrimental effect on any individual, even if that individual is not aware of those effects. This constant barrage is known as psychic battering and can include a wide range factors: a victim’s description of a rape; a vicious custody battle; crime scene photos from a triple murder. Although it may not be initially clear, a consistent exposure to such material, even if it is only vicarious, can have lasting damaging effects. It is often considered the job of the lawyer or attorney to remain detached and not invested in the details of each specific case; they are meant to strive for excellence on a professional level, but to not commit to any particular client on a personal level. Unfortunately, no one can predict the way a particular situation will affect them, and even the most seasoned attorneys can find themselves jarred by a particularly upsetting situation.
With the number of high-stress tragedies that are occurring on a day-to-day basis in the U.S. today, including the number of shootings that have happened recently, it is important for members of the legal profession to have resources available if the need for outreach arises. The American Bar Association includes the Commission on Lawyer Assistance, which services lawyers struggling with alcohol abuse, drug addiction, and depression. It also sponsors a National Mental Health Day, which focuses on ensuring that both licensed attorneys and law students understand that there are support systems available to help them cope with the pressures of the legal profession. Every state bar has its own form of support group; New York City has its own Lawyer Assistance Program with a confidential helpline, while the D.C. Bar program offers counseling and sessions with volunteers that have experienced the same problems. Many of these Lawyer Assistance Programs also offer continued monitoring to ensure that individuals are not benefitting from the help that they are receiving.  However, although these initiatives focus on generalized, work related stress, perhaps there should be more focus for lawyers that are present at crime scenes and handling disturbing material on a daily basis. Although the Department of Justice has a plan of action for critical incidents, the plan makes no mention of how to handle the psychological and emotional after-effects of such occurrences.  Considering the amount of discourse that has occurred about the mental health of lawyers in general, it is surprising that there has not been more discussion on how these individuals are dealing with the effects of critical incident stress. It would be disingenuous to imply that attorneys interact with such incidents on the same level as law enforcement officers; however, it cannot be denied that lawyers have to cope with these situations in some manner and that they should be afforded the resources to do so.  

Jacqueline Morley
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

Photo by Gates of Ale, via Wikimedia Commons


  1. I think that it is important that the system remain the same for everyone. I think that if our system changed that people would be very unhappy. Criminals deserve to have a defense just like everyone else.

  2. Productive article. I thought, by the title, that the article was going to deal with the stress that come from advocating on behalf of any injured party, civil or criminal, or defending and advocating on behalf of a defendant. There's terrific pressure in being the 'last line of defense' between liberty and incarceration (or worse). Even in civil litigation, a loss can affect a lawyer's emotional state, sometimes for lengthy periods of time. Law is not a profession for everyone and it would probably be a good idea for would-be law students to talk to as many lawyers as they can before going to law school.