Trauma CLE: Joan Bibelhausen of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers

Joan Bibelhausen, from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, presents new research on trauma, attorney stress and what to do about it. She spoke to the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice (MSCJ) monthly CLE and meeting on Saturday, November 9, 2019.


When someone accuses you of a crime, that is a traumatic event. So every person facing a criminal charge suffers the effects of trauma. And this trauma reverberates through their lives, over time.

But it affects others too. Family members are traumatized.

And secondary trauma affects criminal defense lawyers.

This trauma can lead to larger mental health and chemical health problems. Ms. Bibelhausen discussed new research on trauma and its effects, for criminal defendants and their lawyers.

Effects of unrecognized trauma

The stress of being a criminal defendant can lead to poor problem-solving. Avoidance is a common response. If you ignore it, will it go away? If you have a drink, will it? Or will avoidance only exacerbate the problem?

Social isolation is a common behavioral response. If people give you frequent negative feedback, perhaps it would be more comfortable to avoid people?

How about feeling helpless to find a solution? If you can’t see a path to a better solution, why bother making any effort at all?

And it’s not just the client. It hurts criminal lawyers too. We suffer the same effects. We need to learn to recognize stress and trauma not only in our clients, but in ourselves.

Solutions after seeing trauma

Once we learn to recognize trauma and its effects, we can better manage it.

If we recognize avoidance behaviors – in ourselves or our clients – we can do something about it. Instead of avoiding the unpleasantness, we can break the big problem down into many small ones, for example. Then we can work on it one small step after another.

If we recognize social isolation, we can counter it. We can seek out supportive social contacts, to counter all those negative, hateful people we are in contact with. So family, friends, professional colleagues can help. And so can groups like Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

And if we feel helpless to improve the situation, that is signal to seek help. Other people can help in many different ways. And one small personal victory can spark the hope to light the way.

Help for Lawyers dealing with Trauma & Stress

Lawyers deal with lots of trauma and stress. So it’s no surprise that we suffer its effects. Denial, avoidance, isolation and self-medication with alcohol are not solutions. In fact, these strategies only make the problem worse.

We all suffer. So we all need to learn to recognize and manage our reaction to trauma and stress.

When we do, we achieve better chemical health and better mental health.

Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers is here to help us. LCL helps educate us on these issues. And any lawyer can access information on their website at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

More than that, any Minnesota lawyer can call LCL for immediate help.

The lawyers of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice thank Joan Bibelhausen of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, for helping us understand how to recognize trauma, reduce stress, and available resources for help.