Strategies for a Trauma-Informed Law Practice
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp
All too often, our law school experience doesn’t emphasize the “soft skills” necessary to be a successful attorney. We cannot downplay the importance of the human element of practicing law, including mindful communication, empathy, and connection. Indeed, lawyers are often serving clients at times that may be some of the darkest of our clients’ lives due to traumatic events.
Working with Traumatized Clients
As the son of Mexican immigrants, attorney Jesús Güereca chose to dedicate his legal career to serving others, especially immigrants and refugees. Jesús has been an immigration attorney for six years and currently works for the only full-service immigration legal aid clinic serving low-income immigrants and refugees in the southwestern United States.
Although personally familiar with what it’s like to immigrate to the United States in search of a better life, Jesús was ill-prepared for the heavy toll of immigration law in practice. Recently, Jesús took to social media to share his experience working with Afghan immigrants:
Things I wasn’t taught in law school:
1. How to explain to a sheep herder who has never been outside of their province why the United States government evacuated them from Afghanistan, put them in a tent camp, in the middle of the night took them from the camp, put them in jail in solitary confinement, and then started a process to send them back to Afghanistan.
2. How to figure out where Mecca is in relation to El Paso while inside a jail with no windows.
3. How to explain to my client that the government can do this without giving an explanation to anyone.
Jesús’s story is all too common as attorneys frequently express to us that they were not adequately prepared for the real-world implications of representing traumatized clients. Jesús shared that working on behalf of refugees has been dispiriting, yet is a typical experience for those in this part of the profession. “The border is brutal and deadly. If you’re not close to the border, it’s difficult to understand the effects on fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and children.” Indeed, the negative implications of secondary trauma in the legal profession are evident, and it is past time that we acknowledge these effects and implement strategies to protect ourselves and our clients.
Trauma as a Pervasive Issue
Trauma can spring from accidents, natural disasters, medical interventions, childhood abuse and neglect, witnessing or experiencing acts of violence such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, as well as war. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced trauma at least once during the course of their lives. Not only is trauma widespread, but it affects people of all ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses. In addition, marginalized community members may be victims of cultural, intergenerational, and historical trauma. Living through the experience of the pandemic has been traumatic for most of us.
It follows that many attorneys have represented victims of trauma throughout the years without even realizing it. It is important to keep in mind that clients may have been traumatized by events completely unrelated to the legal matter at hand. Yet, the impact of the trauma lives on and can ultimately affect the most fundamental aspects of the attorney-client relationship, especially communication.
Building Relationships Through Trauma-Informed Lawyering
Establishing a trauma-informed law practice helps ensure that our actions as legal representatives don’t cause inadvertent stress and re-traumatization of our clients. While focusing on the legal aspect of a matter, the attorney must simultaneously consider the clients’ emotional background and stay closely attuned to their current frame of mind. This will allow the attorney to shift the interaction in accordance with clients’ needs.
Providing trauma-informed legal services is a “win-win” for both attorneys and our clients. It is likely that clients of trauma-informed law firms will be more forthcoming with their attorneys because of the atmosphere of trust that can be created by implementing the tips outlined in this article. This open communication will allow attorneys to have a more complete account of the facts, which can result in better case outcomes. Besides, clients who feel comfortable with their legal team are more likely to make referrals in the future.
Attorneys who deepen their understanding of trauma are also in a better position to identify and handle the effects of trauma should they present themselves in their law practice. For example, an attorney who represents abused children will probably not be surprised if a young client acts out in some manner during a scheduled meeting. Creating a law practice that promotes the health of both attorneys and our clients takes diligence, but the payoff of better well-being for all is well worth the effort.
Trauma-Informed Practice Tips: A Two-Fold Approach
Trauma—whether experienced directly in your personal life or vicariously through your interactions with clients and others—can have far-reaching, negative consequences for all participants in the legal process. For example, childhood trauma increases our risk of chronic disease as an adult, being violent or a victim of violence, as well as mental health concerns such as depression and suicide. Establishing a trauma-informed law practice is a two-fold process: (1) taking steps that help prevent re-traumatization of our clients, and (2) taking steps that protect lawyers’ health and well-being from exposure to trauma.
1. Client-Focused Practice Tips
Implementing trauma-informed strategies into your law practice costs little to no money yet can help reduce re-traumatization of crime victims and trauma survivors. Use the following simple steps to help alleviate a client’s stress and anxiety as well as build trust and improve the attorney-client relationship.
Be open and transparent with your client about the legal process, your role, others’ roles in the process, and what can happen during the representation. Start out by explaining in depth the nature of a meeting or interview and be open about what you are doing, such as taking notes. For example, explain why you are taking notes and ask for your client’s permission beforehand; afterward, summarize your notes and ask if your client has any questions.
Check in with your clients often and give them opportunities to voice any needs or concerns. Verbally validate any feelings that they express to you. Feeling listened to and understood literally changes our physiology; conversely, so does being met with silence, incomprehension, or rejection when we acknowledge our traumas. Knowing that their feelings matter helps ensure that clients aren’t unduly retraumatized when they share their stories and trauma histories.
Be responsive to your client’s stated needs, but understand that even if clients feel anxious or uncomfortable, they may not voice these concerns aloud. Be aware and tune into your clients’ body language, tone, and general demeanor. Does this person seem closed off, uneasy, agitated, or frustrated? Openly acknowledge any perceived discomfort and ask clients if there is anything you can do to make them feel more comfortable and safe.
Make adjustments to the environment that help your clients feel more secure and at ease. For example, offer accommodating options, such as providing flexible seating arrangements and leaving doors opened or closed. Offer clients periodic breaks during meetings or interviews and let them know that it’s okay to ask for a break at any time if they need it.
Overall, understand that trauma affects everyone differently and treat every client as a unique individual. Also bear in mind that many clients’ prior experiences with the legal system may have been traumatic. Try not to take it personally if a client directs negativity at you. If clients are willing to participate, link them to trauma-focused therapy that can help them develop strategies for coping with stress and regulating emotions. Above all, be gentle and compassionate toward your client and yourself. We are all doing the best with what we have.
2. Attorney-Focused Practice Tips
To safeguard our health and well-being, it is imperative that legal professionals employ self-care to counterbalance the harmful effects of secondary trauma. The Trauma-Informed Legal Advocacy Project recommends the following best practices to help mitigate the harmful effects of vicarious trauma on practitioners:
● Create organizational change by promoting discussion and acknowledgment of compassion fatigue in the workplace;
● Encourage employees to take breaks from work as needed; and
● Use contemplative practices to reflect regularly, especially after big wins or losses (e.g., journaling, talk therapy, etc.).
Given the inherent risks of secondary trauma in the legal field, we strongly recommend further educating yourself on the impacts of unresolved trauma. If and when you are ready to examine your personal experiences with trauma, a good starting point is the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) test, which is a ten-question quiz that can help you identify your individual risk factors based on your trauma history.
Not surprisingly, successfully implementing a trauma-informed practice requires taking care of yourself! Make a commitment today to prioritize your holistic health and well-being. Be sure to check in at legalburnout.com as we continue to update our trauma and wellness resources for lawyers in the coming months.
By incorporating the above strategies into your practice toolbox, you can become a more effective advocate and advisor for those who have suffered trauma—including yourself. Besides being the right thing to do, taking these steps may even demonstrate to individuals and the community at large that lawyers actually do have hearts! We would all be better served to remember that we are each of us human beings dealing with untold stresses and challenges. Bottom line: Being compassionate toward our clients and ourselves lends to a healthier, happier state of play for us all.
In next month’s column, we will address implicit age bias in the legal arena.
Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, Oct. 2021 Issue (Vol. 11, No. 3) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.