Navigating Vicarious Trauma: The Importance of Planning, Teaching, and Delivering Vicarious Trauma Training to support law students and the legal profession

Curryer, Emma and Mawdsley, Gillian (2024). Navigating Vicarious Trauma: The Importance of Planning, Teaching, and Delivering Vicarious Trauma Training to support law students and the legal profession. International Journal of Clinical Legal Education (In press).

Abstract

The significant effects of Vicarious Trauma (VT) are now being recognised in various professions, including law where the requirement for trauma informed practice’” is now starting to be recognised. VT can be defined as: “a process of change resulting from empathetic engagement with trauma survivors. Anyone who engages empathetically with survivors of traumatic incidents, torture, and material relating to their trauma, is potentially affected” . Trauma- informed practice then focusses on how to work with those who have been impacted by their traumatic experience as a result of exposure to reading, writing, and hearing details of cases that they deal with. This may lead to a one-off feeling of despair or may be the result of the cumulative effect from working constantly with complicated, sensitive, and emotional materials and people. The legal professional may take on the emotions of a client and experience trauma that puts them in the place of the individual that they are trying to assist. Certain areas of the profession may be more prone to such experiences, for example criminal lawyers dealing with such cases as murder, manslaughter, and serious sexual offences. These feelings can be overwhelming, even for the most experienced practitioner. VT too, may also be experienced by students participating in Clinical Legal Education (CLE) undertaken in universities, again impacting on those involved in criminal case work where students have their first exposure to complicated and sensitive cases.

This article considers the experience of members of the Criminal Justice Clinic (CJC), within the Open University (OU) and looks at the scope and impact of the VT training that is being delivered and its importance in preserving students’ mental well-being. Added is the factor of this being an online only clinic where isolation can also be an issue. There is a need to provide VT training to support the mental welfare of students, and staff alike. This training is paramount to the success of the CJC and is pivotal to any CLE provision and should be expanded to the law curriculum and onto legal practice.

This article argues that the experience in the CJC demonstrates that there is a need for professional legal education to recognise and address the incidence of VT and to provide skills to those who may be affected. Consideration is given to measures that should be adopted in the delivery of CLE to support students participating in pro bono projects. This should carry on beyond university into their future careers. A brief mention will be made of the provisional results of a small-scale research project in this area. Another article is planned to discuss those results fully in the future.

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