Introduction to Trauma
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines trauma as the “consequence of an event(s) or circumstance(s) that has lasting, adverse physical or emotional effects on an individual’s wellbeing.” Trauma is most notably reflected by feelings of powerlessness, disconnection, and loss of control.
Trauma in legal clients may relate to the reasons for seeking an attorney. Experiences such as victimization by domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking may be apparent from the first contact or the intake process. Family law clients may identify safety concerns in their homes, addiction concerns for themselves or their partners, or violence perpetrated toward or by their children. Estate planning attorneys commonly navigate trauma responses in their clients and the families of the decedents. Other times, trauma in clients may arise from a history of juvenile court cases or incarceration or become apparent in facts later disclosed or discovered.
Trauma is much broader, though, and traumatic events affect everyone at some point in their lives. Clients may not identify their traumatic experiences but can exhibit behaviors—like emotional reactivity to what seem to be minor inconveniences or memory lapses—common in navigating the psychological impacts of trauma. Other clients may not outwardly display any effects from trauma that you detect. Not all legal clients have experienced the same traumas or respond to traumatic events similarly, but trauma impacts the entire legal profession in some way.
Lawyers can address this head-on by taking universal precautions and adopting a client-centric, trauma-informed approach to representation for all clients. Beginning the client-attorney relationship by remembering that your clients are people—and being a person in today’s world can be hard—helps all clients. Using trauma-sensitive techniques, lawyers can communicate with and counsel their clients more effectively, achieve more authentically client-directed representation, and help clients move toward healthy developmental paths.
Pointers for the Legal Practitioner
The principles most relevant to the legal practice that are used in trauma-informed practices include:
- empowerment, and
Clients who have experienced trauma may not trust you and might push back, display explosive emotions, or test your loyalty to them. Repeatedly preview for the client what to expect, both in the attorney-client relationship and the broader legal process. For example, introduce upcoming case milestones, decisions the client will have to make, and events the client will need to attend to avoid surprises.
Clients with trauma sometimes have a skewed perception of how the legal process works. Survivors commonly report having experienced gaslighting to the point where they question their own perception of even basic daily experiences. Research shows transparency works to combat the survivor’s internal questioning of reality by making an unfamiliar process manageable through small, understandable statements and expectations.
These clients may have also experienced a failure from others to uphold promises in a way that has ended with pain or suffering. Trauma-informed lawyers should be reliable, always following through on responsibilities, commitments, and appointments. Never make a promise that you might break.
Many survivors have experienced manipulation and control, affecting their confidence to make decisions, form opinions, or discuss and analyze challenges. As a trauma-informed lawyer, you have the skill set to discuss and identify trauma responses such as avoidance and brainstorm ways you can assist if they begin shutting down. For example, clients may have trouble remembering the homework you give them for your next appointment after being triggered during your meeting. The client may benefit from having a support person in the room to take notes or from a follow-up email with a list of requests and deadlines. Some clients may want help putting important dates into their calendars at the end of appointments. When collaborating, actively empower the client to exercise self-determination by validating their strengths and helping them develop decision-making skills.
Survivors need to feel empowered in their own lives. You can begin simply by setting expectations. Explain the client’s role and which decisions are within their control. Anticipate issues in your representation that may be shocking, stressful, or otherwise destabilizing to your client and discuss the circumstances before they might happen. Clients may respond to trauma by being “yes” people with those they believe are authority figures. Emphasizing that they are the experts in their own lives and that they have options reshapes the narrative regarding who gets the final say.
Clients who have experienced trauma may have unrealistic or limiting beliefs about what the legal system can do. This can be upsetting or frustrating to a client, and they may see you as the problem rather than the solution. Acknowledge the limits of the justice system, your resources and representation, or the facts of the case. Communicating that your client may become frustrated and that you are okay with that helps clients know they can be transparent about their feelings. These conversations will also allow you to adjust accordingly. Your resiliency to face the things that the client fears most in a way that leads them to feel supported and advocated for builds trust and shows reliability.
Putting Clients First
We must constantly consider how to be client-centric in our representation. Whether stocking a fridge in the waiting room or offering an array of meeting options for clients, the client-centric approach is the gold standard in legal practice. Using trauma-informed principles is a natural extension of the care we already give to proactively meeting our client’s needs. These practices emphasize being respectful, avoiding negative behaviors, and modeling empathy. You can become trauma-informed lawyers by creating a calm environment, respecting boundaries, and avoiding triggering behaviors. You can also adjust behaviors and language to support and empower survivors to manage their trauma successfully.