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Five Questions to Ask in a Trauma-Informed Legal Intake

 “Are you comfortable talking about what happened right now?”

You should not assume that a client is prepared to share all the details of what they have experienced with you in your first conversation. We often ask clients a lot of questions in intake, and they may be exhausted by those questions and not feel up to sharing a whole narrative of their experiences. Before asking them to tell you a narrative of the domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, you should ask if they feel comfortable doing so or if they would like to schedule a follow up call. If you are conducting the intake over the phone, you should ask if they are in a safe and comfortable environment and if anyone is around them. As they share with you, you should also check in and ask if they need a break from time to time.

“How do you want me to refer to [person’s name]?”

Some people are more comfortable hearing their attorney call the person who perpetrated domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and/or stalking against them using legal terms like “respondent” or “defendant.” Others may find those terms too official or formal, and would rather hear the perpetrator’s name. Ask your client how they would like you to refer to the perpetrator so you know what makes your client most comfortable.

“How do you want me to refer to what happened?”

Similarly, survivors of violence can have strong feelings about whether or not certain terms apply to what they have experienced, or they may struggle to hear their experience referred to by certain terms. It can be hard for some clients to hear legal terms like “sexual assault,” “battery,” or “felony.” Clients may use terms like “the incident” or “the attack.” You should mirror your client’s language. If you don’t know how they refer to their experiences, you can ask them how they would like you to refer to them.

“What is the best way for me to reach you?”

You should make efforts to communicate with your clients in ways that are best for them. Some clients may prefer communicating over email or text. While, of course, some conversations need to happen over the phone or in person, to the extent that you can accommodate their preferences, you should do so. The attorney-client relationship should serve the client and meet their needs, rather than causing further disruption to their lives.

“What questions do you have for me?”

Always leave space for your clients to ask questions. You are there to educate them about the legal systems with which they are interacting. Many survivors have little to no experience interacting with any formal legal system, and the prospect of doing so can be daunting. They should know that you are there to be a resource for them. Creating space, frequently, for them to ask you questions will empower them to benefit from your knowledge. 

Contact the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence to help your organization create trauma-informed legal intakes! ABA CDSV can review your intake practices and train your staff on being trauma-informed and accessible.

You can request training and technical assistance here.