By Natalie Simpson, CLG Senior Counsel
Most clients who come to Calgary Legal Guidance for support have experienced trauma. Some are in the middle of a traumatic experience when they attend their clinic appointment, while many carry traumatic experiences from their past that still affect their daily lives. For some clients, dealing with the legal system is itself traumatic and can exacerbate the other traumas they are trying to process. The more we as lawyers can understand trauma and its effects on memory, cognition, communication, and relationships, the better equipped we will be to truly understand our clients’ complicated social and legal issues, and the more support we can give them in the short time we meet with them.
Trauma damages our sense of safety and trust. When a person carries trauma, any experience that reminds them of a traumatic experience (a “trigger”) can make them feel threatened enough that their sympathetic nervous system will respond as though the original traumatic experience is happening again. Our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the flight, fight, or freeze response that our bodies automatically engage in when we are threatened. When we are in this state, our higher brain functions become inaccessible, as all our bodies’ systems are focused on survival. So a client who lashes out with anger or withdraws or becomes less able to articulate their responses to what seem like innocuous questions from a lawyer may be in the middle of an automatic bodily response to a trigger that evokes their past trauma. As a lawyer trying to engage in a meeting with a triggered client, you may find it difficult to get the information you need from the client to assess their legal issues, and it will also be difficult for you to communicate your advice to the client.
We cannot know the extent of our clients’ trauma, and we cannot know what situations or topics of conversation any particular client may find triggering. That’s why it’s necessary to build as much safety and trust as we can into every meeting with every client.
You can build trust with your clients by being transparent about your role and your relationship. Make sure your client understands that everything they tell you is confidential. Explain that you may have information and insight that can help them, but that you are not the authority on the law. Try to balance asking questions to get the legally relevant details of their situation with allowing them the time to tell their own story in their own words. When they reveal painful details of their experience, you can validate their emotions by telling them “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
Pay attention to their responses and to their emotional state. This can be harder to do on a phone call compared to an in-person meeting, but you can still notice fluctuations in their tone of voice and how quickly they are speaking. Check in with your client to see how they feel. If they find the conversation triggering, you can ask them to stop and take a few deep breaths to engage their parasympathetic nervous system, which will take them out of their triggered state.
Most importantly, try to approach each client meeting with curiosity about the client’s experience: shift from asking yourself “What’s wrong with this person?” to “What happened to this person?”
If you want to learn more about trauma-informed lawyering and about trauma in general, there are many resources available. Here are a few places to start:
The Trauma-Informed Lawyer
This CBA-sponsored podcast hosted by BC lawyer Myrna McCallum covers many aspects of trauma in the justice system, from the lawyer-client relationship, to court processes, policing, and the effects of vicarious trauma on lawyers.
Trauma Informed Law
This website curated by Ontario lawyer Helgi Maki gathers many resources on trauma and its effects in the justice system.
Brain Story Certification
This free online course is well worth your time if you are interested in learning about the neurobiological effects of traumatic experiences on young brains, the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, and the lifelong ramifications of childhood trauma.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
This book explores the impacts of trauma on survivors and the treatments that can help survivors heal.
Thank you for the amazing work you do with CLG clients! Volunteers are at the heart of CLG’s mission and we are grateful for your dedication to helping vulnerable Albertans.
Senior Counsel, Practice Management