meeting between a worried-looking client and lawyer who is listening and leaning in, offering counsel

Enhancing Client Service and Lawyer Wellness through Trauma-Informed Lawyering

  • November 30, 2023
  • Jakob Wenzel

Understanding and addressing the impact of trauma on clients and practitioners is crucial for compassionate and effective representation. The Trauma-Informed Lawyering panel, co-hosted by Ontario Bar Association’s Elder Law Section and Family Law Section on November 3, 2023, offered valuable insights and strategies to enhancing legal services with a trauma-informed approach.

The panel was chaired by Alex Procope, an elder law and mental health law expert at Perez Bryan Procope LLP, and Maneesha Mehra, a certified family law specialist at Carson Chousky Lein LLP.

Understanding Trauma in Legal Practice

Dr. Anna Baranowsky, a psychologist and board-certified expert in traumatic stress, opened the panel with a fascinating discussion of the neuroscience of trauma. Dr. Baranowsky emphasized that trauma goes beyond sadness or feelings of stress – it produces structural brain changes. In a legal setting, trauma-induced biochemical and neurological processes can make it harder for clients to organize their thoughts or tell a clear story. Recounting traumatic events can produce a “flooding” of stress hormones that can send a client into a fight-or-flight response. In these moments, it’s important for lawyers to be able to recognize the signs of trauma and to practice strategies for managing it so that clients can feel supported and safe telling their stories.

Trauma can also erode an individual's sense of self-worth. For some clients, this can manifest as a feeling that they don’t deserve help – including from their lawyer. It is important to find ways to build trust with these vulnerable clients while maintaining healthy boundaries.

Dr. Baranowsky pointed out that legal practitioners can carry their own trauma too, and she emphasized the importance of “making it our business” to practice self-care. This involves learning to understand and recognize our trauma, as well as taking practical steps to adopt effective coping strategies. Ultimately, Dr. Baranowsky believes this reflection and self-care can elevate a practitioner’s ability to empathize with others, and that by taking care of ourselves we are also better positioned to serve our clients’ needs.

Building Trauma-Informed Systems

Professor Gemma Smyth, associate professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Windsor, expanded upon the concept of trauma-informed lawyering. Her research focuses on clinical legal education, dispute resolution, trauma- and violence-informed advocacy, and access to justice.

Professor Smyth began her presentation by discussing the key characteristics of a trauma- and violence-informed advocate. She stressed the importance of deep listening, especially at the very beginning of the lawyer-client relationship. Despite the time pressures of legal practice and the temptation to get straight to business, investing time up front to build a connection with your client can demonstrate that you are safe and trustworthy, and can make a major impact on your ability to form a collaborative relationship. Other key characteristics include maintaining a non-judgmental approach and maximizing the choices available to our clients.

Professor Smyth emphasized that trauma doesn’t solely affect individuals but extends to entire communities. Cultural competence is essential to serving marginalized groups who experience systemic violence and discrimination. Professor Smyth underscored that as legal practitioners, we ought to work towards undoing systemic discrimination by building trauma-informed legal systems. She illustrated her point with an example from her work with Indigenous clients who asked, “why aren’t we focusing on colonialism rather than the symptoms of colonialism?” Professor Smyth identified this type of inquiry into systemic change as an important area of future research. 

Trauma-Informed Client Intake Practices

Sonali Sharma, founder of Athena Law, discussed trauma-informed client intake practices, focusing on the crucial role of the initial client meeting. Sharma suggested that the intake process should prioritize safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness, and empowerment, and she shared some of the strategies that have helped her to most effectively achieve these goals. These strategies involve assessing both physical and psychological safety, including by asking questions about trigger words or experiences that the client might want to avoid. Sharma suggests that prioritizing choice should be understood not simply as providing choices to your client, but also seeking to understand what informs their choices. One of Sharma’s most effective strategies for building a collaborative relationship with clients is to continually check in to find out what they need from you, which can make clients feel more comfortable asking you for help. In thinking about trust, it can be helpful for practitioners to keep in mind that building trust with clients is of utmost importance, but it can also be important to find out whom clients already trust the most, especially if you have concerns of potential abuse or undue influence. Similarly, practitioners should seek ways to empower clients while also finding out where they already feel the most power in their lives. In this way, the client intake lays the groundwork for a safe, empowering, and empathetic relationship.

Sharma also emphasized the need for legal professionals to check in with themselves after the intake. She underscored the importance of setting boundaries and practicing ongoing self-care to prevent compassion fatigue.

Empowering Yourself and Others

Kavita Bhagat, a designated family law specialist, shared insightful examples from her practice, highlighting practical solutions to challenging client issues. In one example, Bhagat recalled that during a trial she noticed her client was showing physical signs of extreme stress. Recognizing that her client was in "flight" mode, she knew her client needed additional support. Bhagat realized that by simply walking into court together, she could help her client to feel safer, empowered, and more confident. Establishing trust with your client early on can enable you to find timely solutions in difficult circumstances.

While emphasizing the importance of empathetic practice, Bhagat also cautioned new practitioners to be mindful in avoiding vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Instead of succumbing to burnout, she emphasized learning to set boundaries and protect yourself.

The Trauma-Informed Lawyering panel delivered comprehensive insights into the role of a trauma-informed approach in legal practice. By recognizing and addressing the impact of trauma on clients and practitioners, legal professionals can build a more empowering and effective legal practice.

head-shot photo of author Jakob WenzelAbout the author

Jakob Wenzel is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School and a caseworker at the CLASP legal aid clinic.