Developing a trauma-informed practice

Michael Morgan
Gina Edwards

An article based on a New Barristers’ Committee CPD presented by psychiatrists Dr Gordon Parker AO (founder of the Black Dog Institute) and Dr Michael Williamson.1

Trauma and how it can arise

American divorce lawyer Dustin McCrary recounted how the trauma in his practice affected him:2

When I started Law School, I loved it. The hypercompetitive classroom, the demanding coursework, the adrenaline rush of solving complex cases drove me to pursue this career. Once I officially earned the job title ‘lawyer,’ I was drawn even more to the fast-paced work culture. I wanted to stand out, make a difference. My work was my passion and it empowered me….One afternoon, in the summer of 2020, I was sitting in my office when a feeling of intense fear gripped me. I slipped into a loop of troubling thoughts about my life, my loved ones, and my job. The more I tried to escape it, the deeper I drove. I was scared. Very, very scared. My heartbeat quickened and aftershocks of feeling shadowed me for days. Each time I entered my office, a familiar dread followed. My concentration dwindled. I turned to alcohol for refuge.

Dustin’s experience arose from repeatedly witnessing the breakdown of family units and cases involving complex trauma histories. Vicarious trauma for lawyers is not confined to those who work in family law. It can be experienced by barristers in a variety of ways, including:

• Viewing graphic depictions of extreme violence in the case they are briefed in

• Reading graphic details of severe physical and emotional trauma

• Having close ongoing contact with traumatised people

• Acting in matters concerning child sexual abuse and examining large amounts of related materials

• Dealing with criminality that evokes disgust, anxiety and anger

• Experiencing endemic workplace bullying or dealing with poor chambers culture

• Bullying or threats from clients or opponents

• Chronically mentally ill clients; and

• Chronicity of the above.

Trauma is ‘a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing’.3 Trauma is distinguishable from stress in that a traumatic event is ‘so overwhelming that it diminishes a person’s capacities to cope, as it elicits intense feelings of fear, terror, helplessness, hopelessness, and despair often subjectively experienced as a threat to the person’s survival’.4 While burnout and coping styles such as denial, dismissal and rationalisation increase vulnerability to trauma, secondary trauma is often experienced without prior burnout.5 Secondary or vicarious trauma includes a range of symptoms that may be similar to those associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, such as emotional numbing, avoidance, arousal and intrusion.6

Mitigating the effects of trauma

The established research confirms that the impacts of vicarious trauma can be wholly or partially mitigated by enacting healthy individual habits. This can often be easier said than done, but using holidays or quiet periods to implement a healthy routine containing a number of the following healthy habits provides a first line of defence to the effects of trauma:

• Have someone in chambers who you can talk to or debrief with about your cases and any stresses you are dealing with

• Exercise regularly (30 minutes of low intensity walking each day increases your cardiovascular fitness, strengthens bones, reduces excess body fat and reduces your risk of developing conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and some cancers)

• Maintain a healthy plant-based diet

• Get sufficient sleep (7-8 hours)

• Limit alcohol intake to 1-2 times a week and avoiding binge drinking

• Practise mindfulness meditation (which can be as simple as taking a minute to listen to your own breath)

• Take regular holidays, long weekends and breaks during your day

• Maintain a social life and circle of friends divorced from legal practice

• Carefully foster partner and family relationships.

Operating your practice at the bar in a trauma-informed manner will likely assist you in implementing the above habits. Encouraging your chambers to foster the above in its members, licensees and readers will also go a long way. This requires an ‘organisational change process that is structured around the presumption that everyone in the agency (from clients through agency management) may have been directly or indirectly exposed to trauma within their lifetime.’7

All chambers should review the Mental Health Guidelines for Chambers and seek to implement them.8 Trauma responsive programs for barristers and chambers are also available through organisations such as Blue Knot.9 Enabling change can be accomplished in a variety of ways including fostering individual mentoring and support between barristers; encouraging self disclosure and identifying early warning signs; processing rather than ignoring conflict; confronting and preventing bullying; fostering positive moods; providing ongoing training and support in relation to difficult clients, colleagues and judges.

Identifying the impacts of trauma

The neuroscience of trauma involves understanding the mind-body nexus because all forms of trauma result in organic disturbances and chronic brain and nervous system changes which can impact vital organs and muscle groups. This means that we may often notice changes in how our bodies feel (low energy, chronic joint pain, limb pain, back pain, gastrointestinal disturbances, sleep disturbance and changes in appetite) prior to realising (or being diagnosed with) any change in our psychological state. Other indicators can include:

• Invasive thoughts of a client’s situation or distress

• Frustration, fear, anxiety and irritability

• Problems managing personal boundaries

• Taking on too great a sense of responsibility or feeling you need to overstep the boundaries of your role

• Difficulty leaving work at the end of the day

• Increased time alone or a sense of needing to withdraw from others

• Loss of pleasure in daily activities

• Low job satisfaction

• Not taking breaks and eating on the run.

Being conscious and in touch with our physical wellbeing is an important part of a barrister’s trauma-informed toolkit for responding to the psychological effects that can arise from direct and vicarious trauma in practice. However, many of us do not realise, or ignore, that we or our colleagues may be suffering the effects of vicarious trauma. Accordingly, ensuring that we are regularly on the lookout for ourselves and our colleagues is essential to a safe and collegiate bar. If you do not feel comfortable asking a colleague if they are okay, then contact their clerk or someone who you know is close to them so that they can have that conversation. As Dr Williamson explained in the CPD, the old attitude of barristers saying that they will ‘get over it’ has been debunked and has no place in the modern workplace.

Addressing and treating the impacts of trauma

If left untreated, direct and vicarious trauma can lead to severe and long-lasting physical and psychological health problems. Dustin McCrary’s experience outlined at the start of this article is not only a common story, but it provides an insight into the common attitude and unquestioned conviction that because stimulating, motivating, effective hard work exhibits vitality, it cannot be a threat to mental health. This common misconception has an explanation in the psychiatric literature: while the rational, executive forebrain dominates, and suppresses emotional responses to traumatic scenes or experiences, the rest of the brain silently records the powerful emotional build-up of the long series of traumatic encounters, until it reaches a tipping-point. The result is that the previously closed traumatic memory-bank (the mid-brain limbic system) overwhelms the rational, executive forebrain. Healthy psychological function will be greatly impaired as PTSD-like features take over.

If you are concerned that you may be suffering the effects of direct or vicarious trauma, then you should seek treatment from a professional and, to the extent necessary, consider lowering your workload (speak to your clerk as they are there to assist you with managing your practice). No barrister is acting in the interests of their client if they are being inhibited by the effects of vicarious trauma.

Further resources to explore over the summer break

A range of invaluable resources are available to barristers and chambers to develop a trauma-informed practice and, if necessary, get help, including:

• BarCare – an independent professional counselling service designed to assist members to manage stress-related problems, such as marital breakdowns, drug or alcohol dependency and practice pressures (

• Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score – a ground-breaking 2014 book explaining how trauma interferes with the brain circuits that involve focussing, flexibility, and being able to stay in emotional control

• Cynthia Cochrane SC’s Vicarious Trauma article in the 2021 Winter edition of Bar News

• The Wellbeing portal on the NSW Bar Association website10

• A range of CPDs from the Bar Association addressing vicarious trauma11

• Reading through and following the Five Ways to Wellbeing ((1) Collegiality, (2) Eat, Sleep Move, (3) Mindfulness, (4) Keep learning and (5) Philanthropy) – an evidence-based approach to feeling good and functioning well.12 BN


1 The full CPD, presented on 14 June 2023, is available online in the NSW Bar Association CPD Dashboard.

2 Dustin S McCrary, ‘What I Wish I Had Known Before Becoming a Lawyer’, Harvard Business Review (6 January 2022) <>.

3 The Centre for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders, ‘What is Trauma?’ https://www.>cited in Colin James, ‘Towards trauma-informed legal practice: a review’ (2020) 27(2) Psychiatry, Psychology and Law 275, 276.

4 M Randall and L Haskell, ‘Trauma informed approaches to law: Why restorative justice must understand trauma and psychological coping’ [2013] (Fall) 33 The Dalhousie Law Journal 501, 507 cited in James (n ii) 276.

5 Burnout is a progressive syndrome due to work stress which is not properly managed and includes increasing fatigue, loss of motivation, negativity and cognitive deficits.

6 BE Molnar et al, ‘Advancing science and practice for vicarious traumatization/secondary traumatic stress: a research agenda’ (2017) 23(2) Traumatology 129, 130.

7 M R Wolf et al, ‘‘We’re civil servants’: the status of trauma-informed care in the community’ (2014) 40(1) Journal of Social Service Research 111, 111 cited in C Knight, ‘Trauma-informed supervision: Historical antecedents, current practice, and future directions’ (2018) 37(1) The Clinical Supervisor 7, 17.



10 wellbeing#:~:text=BarCare%20is%20an%20 independent%20professional,alcohol%20dependency%20and%20practice%20pressures.&text=Every%20year%20there%20are%20barristers%20who%20encounter%20personal%20misfortune%20and%20require%20assistance.



Michael Morgan

Edmund Barton Chambers

Gina Edwards

Ground Floor Wentworth Chambers