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.