Identifying, Adjusting, and Adapting: How Trauma-Informed Lawyering Helps Both Clients and Lawyers

Man on the far left is showing something to a couple on his laptop. The man is wearing a button up white shirt with a black tie. The couple is looking at the screen while cupping their white mugs. The man on the far right has his arm around his partner.

As a personal injury lawyer, I meet many people at one of the most difficult times in their life. The hurt they are feeling may be physical, emotional, psychological, or any combination of the three, but it is intense, stressful, exhausting and completely disruptive. They are, in a word, traumatized.

Fortunately, research into the effects of traumas and post-traumatic stress has grown in leaps and bounds over the past few decades. It provides great insight into what people experience when they are traumatized and what they and others can do to help manage and mitigate some of the debilitating symptoms of post-traumatic stress. But, to benefit from these advances, this insight must be properly implemented.

In this blog post, I describe the concept of trauma-informed lawyering. I explain why it is so important for lawyers interacting with traumatized people to understand how their approach to client care will be critical to prevent re-traumatizing them. Moreover, I also explore why using a trauma-informed approach can also protect lawyers from experiencing vicarious trauma while helping their clients.

Hurt and Healing: What Trauma Does to the Body and How the Body Can Heal.

The Centre for Addictions and Mental Health defines trauma as “the lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event.” Post-traumatic stress “can harm a person’s sense of safety, sense of self, and ability to regulate emotions and navigate relationships. Long after the traumatic event occurs, people with trauma can often feel shame, helplessness, powerlessness and intense fear.”

Bessel van der Kolk, a pioneer in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) research and author of the best-selling book The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, has noted that one of the frequent symptoms of PTSD is reliving the traumatic experience - whether consciously or from physiological changes that occur when trauma leaves an imprint on the brain and body.

“To people who are reliving a trauma, nothing makes sense,” he writes. “They are trapped in a life-or-death situation, a state of paralyzing fear or blind rage. Mind and body are constantly aroused, as if they are in imminent danger.”

Healing from trauma is certainly possible, but it is not something a person can do entirely on their own and in a vacuum. Humans are social creatures; our environment and social interactions have a great bearing on our mental health.

“Social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others,” writes van der Kolk. “The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety.”

Lawyers and Traumatized Clients.

When people who have experienced trauma find themselves in front of a lawyer, that trauma is often (but not always) the reason for their visit. They may be seeking compensation for harm they experienced at the hands of another person (negligent actions or inaction that caused or contributed to an injury, or an intentional act that hurt them).

They may be volunteering (or required) to testify about something they experienced for a civil or criminal case. Or, they may need assistance for some other stressful matter (such as managing an estate or a family law issue). Even if someone goes to a lawyer for a non- traumatic reason, if that person has experienced trauma in their lives, seeing a lawyer can be a triggering.

Whatever their reason for interacting with a lawyer, their discussions may trigger or aggravate post-traumatic stress symptoms. Clients dealing with post-traumatic stress may find themselves in a position where they are particularly vulnerable and emotional. Some lawyers may be unaware of how trauma is affecting their client. But others may not feel an obligation to do anything about it even if they are aware.

As lawyers, we tend to focus on the legal issue and not the person who has the legal issue. This can come across as being transactional and impersonal to clients, and it may even dissuade them from pursuing a matter. However, if we change our approach to be more sensitive to a client’s experience and remember that the client is an expert in their own experience, we demonstrate our respect for what they are going through.

Trauma-Informed Lawyering.

A trauma-informed lawyer will employ a particular lens into all aspects of their practice. They will assess the presence of trauma and symptoms of trauma when meeting with, interacting with, or otherwise assisting their clients. They will also ensure a client has access to trauma- focused interventions that treat the consequences of traumatic stress. In the words of one trauma-informed lawyer, it “is a critical strategy to humanize an otherwise dehumanizing process.”

This type of therapeutic practice has been gaining favour in many sectors that provide social services. Within the legal profession, some law schools now use a pedagogy (instructional guide) developed on the subject, while other trauma-informed lawyering toolkits have helped many practising lawyers in their drive to become more attentive and sensitive to their clients.

The hallmarks of a trauma-informed practice are:

  • identifying trauma (understanding that what a client is describing or how the client is behaving is indicative of a trauma);
  • adjusting the lawyer-client relationship (relying on a variety of strategies to assist the client in light of how their trauma affects their ability to participate or to develop trust with the lawyer;
  • adapting litigation strategy (recognizing aspects of the litigation process as potentially triggering and adopting techniques and strategies to better prepare a client or to be responsive to their need for additional support services); and
  • preventing vicarious trauma (building awareness of the symptoms of vicarious trauma and ensuring lawyers working with clients who have experienced trauma have support systems to ensure they don’t become overwhelmed, burned out, or experience compassion- fatigue).

Safety First.

A trauma-informed legal practice puts safety first - both the client’s safety and the lawyer’s safety.

For lawyers, acknowledging the role trauma can play in a client’s experience, taking steps to create an environment that feels more humane, and adapting their own approach to their client’s particular needs can provide validation for that client, offer evidence they are being heard and respected, and in time build trust and a sense of safety that is so important for healing from trauma.

Lawyers are not therapists, social workers or counsellors. We are not trained to help our clients work through their trauma. We would not only do them a great disservice if we attempted it, we could put our own mental health and well-being at risk.

But, by being sensitive to the role that trauma can play in our clients’ lives and, especially, their experience with the legal system, we can better serve them. By recognizing our own limits, we can ensure we are able to present our best selves to our clients and to be in a position to serve them to our full ability.

If you or a loved one has been injured or harmed in some way and is searching for a personal injury lawyer and you’d like to learn more about how Gluckstein Lawyers strives to provide a trauma-informed legal practice, please contact us today. We are here to help.


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