Life experiences very clearly define attitude and behaviour, and let’s face it, there are times that it is very hard to switch off from work. Relationships are built with clients and as practitioners we strive to do the very best for their clients, emotions cannot just be turned on and off like a tap.

Our recent Costs and Litigation Conference was undoubtedly a great success and again we thank our very talented and distinguished speakers. Elizabeth Rimmer from the charity LawCare gave a highly informative presentation on mental health within the legal workplace and one of the most noteworthy headlines concerned Vicarious Trauma. Now I am not suggesting in any way that it’s a condition I suffer from personally, however during the Covid pandemic there has been a lot of self-reflection from within and I would respectfully challenge anyone who suggests they have not reflected on this or have not been affected in some way.

My own career in law started in 1994 spanning 27 years and working on literally tens of thousands of files in one way or another. I have worked predominantly in the Personal Injury and Clinical Negligence fields but I also boast dealings with many other disciplines, taking in all sorts of learnings and experiences along the way. Some things stand out prominently in many of the cases I have been involved with and they have affected me and who I am to this day.

As a young and eager trainee, one of the first cases I worked on was a criminal costs matter, which I always find interesting. The job comprised three boxes of documents and as I dived into the papers, eager to impress, I came across a folder of photographs with an attached attendance note.  Visuals, I thought, would give me a better understanding than just written text, and I quickly ascertained from the photos that this case was about an horrific murder and I was looking at the horrendous aftermath. I can still visualise these pictures to this day. To say they scarred me is probably a bit strong but I can certainly remember all the CPS evidence and either as a twenty year old trainee, as I was at the time, or as I grew older these images simply cannot be erased from the memory. I was at the very end of the chain in the lifecycle of this case and after the accused was rightfully committed, it prompts the question of who else this case would have affected in their professional capacity – the police and the CPS, the solicitors, the barristers, the jury, the trial judge……and the eager young trainee draftsman who forensically produced the bill of costs at the end of the chain.

Vicarious Trauma is arguably widespread but how much have we actually researched its impact? I would suggest that the impact has been overlooked and that it is a bigger problem than the industry would let on. Those who work in law will be dealing on a regular basis with traumatic cases which include, but not exhaustively, personal injury, clinical negligence, crime and Court of Protection. We must ask ourselves how working on such traumatic cases does not affect any right-minded human being? I know of several colleagues and acquaintances in the legal world who have changed their careers, one notable friend who had been dealing with abuse cases could no longer retain an appetite for law as it had affected and scarred him so much and so often. His remedy was to leave law.

I am often asked by my children why I can’t do that but my defence mechanism and, I must admit sometimes unreasonable response, is to deny my children’s request. They do call me “Mr Health and Safety” although I argue with them that this is my default mindset, which is also my defence. Whether it be hot (temperature) sauce on a burger – yes I did come across a file where the claimant’s lip was burned by hot sauce in a canteen, but his claim was unsuccessful – or the more serious and traumatic cases, our brains are continually processing and we are always learning through life’s experiences.

I, for one, most definitely recognise Vicarious Trauma and I know that Elizabeth Rimmer and her team at the LawCare charity have a vast wealth of experience on this subject. For my part, I urge you all to reflect and I would ask whether employers could do more to acknowledge the issues – I have always provided my staff with the option of whether they wish to deal with particularly traumatic cases or not, recognising that their wellbeing is of the utmost importance.

 

 

Having listened to Paul’s experiences we were sure that the rest of the team must have similar feelings or experiences; there was definitely a consensus across the company that we all, at some point or another, have struggled to digest and move on from the cases we deal with. We have maintained anonymity for some of the comments fed back, but below is just a snippet of what the rest of the team say…

 

“I have so so many cases I recall for their traumatic circumstances –without outlining the specific details some are truly horrific and they have affected me over for periods of time and consumed my thoughts for a while – it is hard to switch off.

 

I’ve had my own issues with ‘catastrophe thinking’ I call it because of the job which has also manifested itself in my parenting – my anxiety has been difficult to cope with when my children have injured themselves – in the main because I have seen first-hand the devastating effects of head injuries throughout the countless cases I’ve worked on.  That said, on a positive note I do also have an understanding of all the advice, literature and medical information I’ve been faced with in those situations.

 

Sometimes a tough career path we have chosen and definitely something that should be reported on, talked and written about to share experience and create an awareness!!”

“The final paragraph here resonated with me and made me think of a file I was allocated years back.  I recall the letter of instruction provided the detail to the traumatic nature of the claim involving a baby and advised that the photographic evidence had been clearly labelled in the file so it could be avoided.  Initially it was allocated to another fee earner to cost but they felt unable to due the nature of the injury so it was passed to me.  On allocation I was advised that if I didn’t feel I could work on the file to say and there would be no problem re-allocating it.  I remember just reading through the letter of instruction and that alone made me feel upset and I could feel myself starting to get tears in my eyes.  At that point I realised that if that was my reaction after just reading the letter of instruction then costing the file would probably not be a good idea for me and it was then passed to another fee earner who felt comfortable to prepare the Bill.   After reading others’ experiences around the office, I have no doubt if I had costed that file its memory would still be with me today.”

“I can definitely relate. I have a couple of those cases I can remember very vividly, both when I was fairly new to the job. I was convinced when I went into the hospital to give birth something would go wrong – directly related to the large volume of negligent birth bills I draft I’m sure! I even made it known I worked in the law, which I am slightly embarrassed about now, they must have thought I was a right diva! I think dealing with some of these cases makes for a bit of a negative outlook sometimes.”

Paul Reason – Managing Director & Costs Lawyer

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