We need to equip lawyers with better trauma-informed legal skills

By Aruba Mustafa August 27, 201827 August 2018

We need to equip lawyers with better trauma-informed legal skills


How clients react to emotional trauma is complex and difficult to predict. It is why representing clients who are experiencing trauma is always challenging at best. The danger, however, is that without proper training, it can be psychologically harmful to the client or lawyer, or both.

Fortunately, “trauma-informed lawyering” is an approach to providing legal services that involves recognizing, understanding and accommodating a client’s trauma, and the impact it can have on the lawyer. It’s an approach that individual lawyers can integrate into their practice.

Doing so within an organization that also adopts a trauma-informed approach produces even better results.

Typically, lawyers are trained to distil facts that are legally relevant from a client’s myriad of non-legally relevant human emotions, reactions, and realities. Even when a client’s physical or psychological injury is relevant from a strictly legal point of view, practitioners tend to regard the injury as psychologically abnormal or unhealthy. As a result, the lawyer will often underemphasize the client’s trauma and its impact. To save time, and often mindful of a clients’ difficult financial situation, a lawyer will favour efficiency over an empathic interaction.

In contrast, a trauma-informed lawyer asks, not “what is wrong with you?” but “what happened to you?” The lawyer understands that trauma has an impact on how a client relates to and interacts with the lawyer and the legal system. For example, a client may struggle to cooperate in providing relevant facts and documents, keep scheduled appointments or trust their lawyer. These may all be signs of trauma.

Unfortunately, traditional legal training leaves lawyers unequipped to process and respond to such situations, even though they are more likely than not to come across clients with trauma experience at some point in their practice. But if they genuinely want to provide a client-centered service and establish a relationship of trust, they must learn to identify trauma and understand its impact.

Being exposed to a client’s suffering can harm the lawyer as well. Legal professionals can develop their own symptoms as a result of continuous exposure to clients’ trauma – a phenomenon known as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue.

Vicarious traumatization is the harmful change that occurs in a lawyer’s self-perception, view of others and the world. It is distinct from burnout, and can manifest itself in different ways, such as extreme preoccupation with client’s story, an inability to set boundaries, or numbness towards the client’s trauma. According to Sarah Katz and Deeya Haldar, who have studied the matter, symptoms can include: denial of the existence of trauma; over-identification with clients; experiencing insignificant daily events as threatening; alienation; social withdrawal; loss of confidence and feeling of insecurity; generalized despair and hopelessness; disrupted frame of reference; diminished self-capacities; and alterations in sensory experiences, amongst others. Vicarious trauma is likely to interfere with a lawyer’s ability to understand and represent a client’s story.

Lawyers exhibit much higher levels of vicarious trauma than mental health service providers, Katz and Haldar identify two reasons for this: the lack of systemic education of lawyers regarding trauma in their clients and themselves; and overly burdensome caseloads.

The limited literature there is on trauma-informed lawyering tends to focus on areas of practice such as family law, immigration and refugee law, and legal aid clinics – where lawyers are more likely to encounter clients with trauma experience repeatedly.

Even so, trauma can result from common experiences such as car accidents, sudden job loss, discrimination, or any other set of deeply disappointing personal circumstances. Lawyers in private practice may be even more susceptible to vicarious trauma because they are less likely to have the requisite tools to recognize trauma and prevent vicarious trauma. Young lawyers are more likely to be affected by feelings of self-doubt, stress and anxiety that can exacerbate its impact. Lawyers at smaller firms or solo practices are more likely to be isolated, managing a heavy workload alone, and are more likely to have clients that have experienced trauma.

Katz and Haldar recommend teaching students how to integrate being lawyers with the rest of their lives. This would encourage them to think critically about the legal system and the experiences of litigants with experience of trauma as well as set the appropriate boundaries in the lawyer-client relationship. Starting early also ensures that lawyers do not have to unlearn later practices that are harmful to clients with trauma.

A large part of our jobs as lawyers is to give voice to our clients’ experiences. The inability to respond and accommodate their trauma affects our ability to do that well and get them the best possible legal result. Most legal curricula include skill-based courses or clinical courses that provide hands-on learning for students; adding trauma-informed legal skills to the mix would better prepare those students for a world not yet known.

Aruba Mustafa is an Ottawa based lawyer. After two years as a litigation lawyer in Ottawa, she now works in international law and development with a focus on human rights and comparative law. The author’s views are her own.

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Gillian Stevens 8/29/2018 4:18:54 PM

I agree! There is a need to be trauma informed in all professions, including lawyers.
I recently published a book that emphasizes not only the need to prioritize our personal well being so as to be proactive for burnout and compassion fatigue, there is a necessity to educate all professionals with relevant, current and appropriate information about trauma, mental health, addiction and grief.

For my book entitled Explore, Transform,Flourish- Support and Hope for Those Who Help Others: How Professionals Keep It Together, I interviewed 30 professionals and discovered consistency across my sample.

In post secondary education, the need to prioritize self care was not emphasized, nor was there adequate education about trauma, grief and death, addiction and mental health to meet the increasing demands of clients and also take care of self.

I also discovered individuals felt ill prepared for the responsibilities of the job, a stigma exists still, if one pursues mental health support, and professional development to address the challenging changing demands of jobs is lacking.

In the last chapter of my book I recommend changes that could occur in our school system, elementary, secondary and post secondary. I also suggest what we could do proactively as parents leading by example in taking care of our well being, and also preparing our children for life success.

I was a high school teacher who was employed the last 15 years of my career as the Head of Student Success and Guidance. I counselled and supported students to overcome barriers to graduation and to meet their complex needs I embarked on my own professional development to gain the knowledge and skills to better serve them.

In my personal life, I am divorced, from a lawyer, and solely raised our three children with limited support. I am personally aware of the toll the legal profession takes on lawyers, and the significant impact on families.

I am passionate about sharing the messages in my book and helping the "helpers". I hope to create a shift encouraging us to take care of ourselves first, so that me might take care of others, from a state of health. I also want to see professionals supported in their pursuit of health and provide them with the resources they need so they can also meet the demands of their jobs with more ease.

The video trailer of my book can be found on you tube, for your interest. I can also forward my media kit, a video endorsement and the press release for my book, for your convenience.

Thank you for your time.

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