Nicola Lester provides practical tips for legal professionals on adopting a trauma-informed approach to help vulnerable clients negotiate the legal process without adding to their existing trauma.
A trauma-informed approach recognises the widespread impact of trauma through the development of trauma awareness. The approach encourages practice that reduces the potential for re-traumatisation and enhances the possibility that resilience and coping will be facilitated.
The concept of being trauma informed is being adopted by statutory and non-statutory organisations of all types and sizes. An increasing number of schools, businesses, local authorities, government departments and charities are among those which have declared themselves as trauma-informed in recent years.
The benefits of a trauma-informed approach within the legal profession
A trauma-informed approach should be integral to a legal professional’s role. The vast majority of people encounter the legal profession as a result of a significant, if not traumatic, experience. The very nature of the legal professional’s involvement requires that this experience is analysed and reviewed.
Across many areas of the law there, is the potential that engagement in the legal system may be re-traumatising for victims and their families. As such, reducing this possibility and enhancing the opportunity for legal processes to be therapeutic should be an essential consideration for all legal professionals, regardless of the context in which they work. While adopting a trauma-informed approach is becoming increasingly recognised as best practice by the profession, there is an urgent need to understand how the concepts of this approach should be integrated into the actual practice of legal professionals.
Although legal professionals are not intended to be psychotherapists, they frequently establish strong and enduring relationships with their clients, often bearing witness to a level of distress and vulnerability that is rarely seen by other professionals. Such positioning means that the way in which they engage with the client can have a profound effect on the client’s psychological well-being. Certainly, my experiences working with legal professionals and bereaved families during the course of an inquest have highlighted the positive impact of a compassionate and supportive legal team, influencing both the families’ experiences of the process itself and, perhaps more importantly, contributing to the way in which they come to create a sense of meaning from their loss. Furthermore, effective engagement with clients can have a positive impact on the quality of information that they provide and consequently on the overall proceedings.
Application and integration of a trauma-informed approach
Given the importance of integrating a trauma-informed approach into practice, it is crucial to provide legal professionals with a comprehensive framework for application and integration. A trauma-informed approach is not intended to dramatically alter the practice of the legal professional or change their remit. In fact, when delivering training to legal teams, it is evident that these concepts are already visible and considered as ‘best practice’ within the profession. However, adhering to the six key principles of a trauma-informed approach can present a useful structure for legal professionals to map and develop their practice. While this article is not a substitute for completing specific training programmes in trauma awareness and trauma-informed practice, it is intended to offer some immediate suggestions to enhance understanding of the impact of trauma on engagement with both legal professionals and the legal process itself.
Six key principles of being trauma informed
Being ‘trauma informed’ is underpinned by six key principles: establishing emotional safety; restoring choice and control; supporting coping; facilitating connections; responding to identity and context; and building strengths.1Lisa Goodman et al (2016): ‘Development and validation of the Trauma-Informed Practice Scales’, Journal of Community Psychology 44(6): 747–764.
To support legal professionals to situate these principles in practice, each one is considered in turn below, using examples and suggestions.
Establishing emotional safety
Given the vulnerability and potential trauma experienced by the client, promoting a sense of emotional safety is essential. This is achieved by drawing on the key components of effective communication skills: being kind. compassionate and patient; listening actively; working to understanding their viewpoint; and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to bear witness to their distress. Often when I deliver training to legal professionals, attendees disclose a sense of helplessness, and when struggling to know how to respond to a client’s distress, it is important not to underestimate the power of simply remaining present in these moments, listening and providing the space for them to share their experiences without ‘rescuing’ or trying to problem solve.
Establishing emotional safety is also about understanding and accounting for the impact of trauma on a client’s engagement, and indeed their ability to remain engaged, with the legal process. When someone has experienced trauma, they are often easily overwhelmed and struggle to retain and process the information that is given to them, leading to confusion and difficulties with understanding. As such, it can be incredibly useful to present information in a way that accounts for this and promotes engagement. For example, following up telephone calls or meetings with an email or a letter to summarise what was discussed and any actions.
Restoring choice and control
Experiences of any type of trauma are often accompanied by a loss of control. A trauma-informed approach seeks to provide choices to clients wherever possible to help them regain a sense of control over their lives. Given the nature of the legal system, it can sometimes be difficult to offer choices (recognising that some aspects of this lie outside our own control) and so I would encourage legal professionals to think about what other choices they can offer in their own practices. For example, a choice about how the client wishes to be communicated with (ie, telephone, letter, email), what times work best for them, is there anyone else they want involved? Introducing even the smallest of choices can contribute to the client feeling more in control over the process and as though they are working in collaboration with the legal professional rather than being a passive recipient. The effectiveness of this approach was particularly evident when I worked with bereaved families during the inquest, ensuring that they felt empowered to ask the questions and seek the information that they needed.
While the legal professional is not a therapist, their approach can be therapeutic and support clients to cope with both their distress and their engagement in the legal process. It is important to remember that everyone copes differently and there is no right or wrong way of coping. There may be times when you think that a client might benefit from a referral to mental health services or counselling, but if this is not what they feel they need, it is important to respect their wishes and focus on how they are coping rather than suggesting that they are not. Supporting coping can often be as simple as asking a client, ‘what do you need at the moment?’, ‘what would be most helpful?’, again supporting them to take control and working in partnership with them.
Although your primary relationship is with your client, it is also important to recognise that they are likely to be part of a wider social network that could also support them to cope. Asking questions about access to social support and who else is in their lives, and encouraging them to engage with other family members or sources of support during the legal process, will be beneficial both to the client and for information-gathering as part of the legal proceedings. Remember that you are joining the client on just one part of a much longer journey and so mobilising social support can be particularly helpful to ensure that this support is sustained and available over the longer term, even after your involvement has concluded.
Responding to identity and context
No two cases or clients will be the same, each will have varying needs and priorities. It is important not to make judgements and to take the time to understand the client’s perspective. Don’t assume that you know or understand what someone needs or what their concerns might be – always check your understanding, seek feedback about your approach and give the client permission to correct your interpretation if it doesn’t quite fit.
In your work, you are in a privileged position to witness the courage and resilience of your clients. Recognising and building on these strengths is an important starting point for any engagement. This links back to the earlier principle, supporting coping. It can be helpful to remind the client of their ability to cope with and recover from adversity.
Although these six principles provide a useful framework to structure engagement with clients, it is worth noting that being trauma informed is an ongoing process, and it will take time and a continued commitment to adopt this approach in practice, particularly as legal professionals are required to navigate a broader legal system over which they have limited influence and control. During training sessions, attendees often express frustration about the behaviour of other professionals or agencies working with their clients when they observe that they are not trauma informed. While you are limited in what you can do to change this, it is important not to underestimate the effect of modelling trauma-informed practice – this in itself may create change and influence behaviour over time.
Limitations and benefits
Legal professionals play a crucial part in supporting clients, but there are of course limitations to your role and it is essential to recognise these, particularly if you think that a client would benefit from access to more formal psychiatric or psychological support. In such circumstances, the strength of the relationship that you have with the client may be influential in encouraging them to access more specialist support, allowing you to plan for the time beyond your involvement to ensure that your client has access to sustainable and long-term support.
Finally, a trauma-informed approach recognises the impact on the professional of working with trauma and emphasises the importance of self-care for legal professionals. Initiatives such as reflective practice sessions and access to individual supervision delivered by mental health professionals are now recommended as best practice to reduce the potential for compassion fatigue, burnout and vicarious trauma.2See Joanna Fleck and Rachel Francis, Vicarious trauma in the legal profession: a practical guide to trauma, burnout and collective care, LAG, February 2021.
A trauma-informed approach begins with looking after you.
Adopting a trauma-informed approach to practice is not without its challenges and requires ongoing reflection, development and commitment. However, I have seen first-hand how relationships established with legal professionals can benefit the client, providing them with support and comfort, often at the worst moment in their lives and as they navigate a complicated legal process. While the risks to your own well-being of working with clients who have experienced trauma are plentiful and need to be considered and mitigated, seeing the impact of your approach and feeling confident in the difference that you have made serves as a protective factor to sustain your practice.