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Engaging in a trauma-informed approach to lawyering

Lawyers engage in a number of interpersonal relationships when they relate to people with trauma, be they clients or third parties, writes Florence Thum.

user iconFlorence Thum 22 March 2024 Big Law
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Lawyers have to manage complex legal issues on a daily basis, but there is less recognition of the complex interpersonal relationships and experiences we are also required to negotiate.

We will encounter trauma

The Australian Institute of Stress and Trauma (2024) estimated that “75 per cent of Australian adults have experienced a traumatic event at some point in their life.”


It is reasonable therefore to expect that we will encounter trauma in legal practice. We are akin to frontline workers in some contexts. Acting in our clients’ best interests necessitates a trauma-informed approach.

How can lawyers engage in trauma-informed lawyering and hold space for people with trauma?

Despite “trauma” being somewhat of a catchword now, its meaning varies subject to the lens through which it is perceived. A nuanced understanding of what trauma is assists with our approach.

What is trauma?

Trauma is the wound – the unresolved consequences of event(s), which threaten our safety, control, or stability and cause physical, emotional, and/or psychological stress. Trauma is not the distressing event(s) itself. As Gabor Maté (2022) stated: “[It] is a psychic injury, lodged in our nervous system, mind and body, lasting long past the originating incident(s), triggerable at any moment.”

In simple terms, trauma can result from a single incident, sometimes referred to as acute trauma, or chronic trauma when the distressing incidents are repeated and prolonged such as family violence or abuse or complex trauma when a person is exposed to varied and multiple incidents, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature. No matter the labels, trauma is a personal and subjective experience. We cannot compare trauma or the incidents giving rise to trauma.

When we encounter another’s trauma, the wound may still be raw or perhaps there is scar tissue over the wound. A raw wound would be an ongoing source of pain and sensitive to the slightest stimulus. So, one should be extra vigilant. Scar tissue, while protective, is also tight, inflexible, and resistant to change. Understand that those who hold trauma often have developed coping behaviours.

Emotional, mental, physical, and behavioural impacts of trauma can include significant anger; fear; sadness; shame; excessive guilt; dissociation; chronic pain; sleep disturbances; illnesses such as autoimmune, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, and dermatological disorders; substance misuse; and self-harm. They have implications to one’s daily life and how one interacts with people and their environments. These examples are intended to inform, not to typecast.

Trauma-informed approach

As trauma is a nebulous phenomenon, so too is trauma-informed lawyering. In this act of relating then, adaptability is key. As the Australian Human Rights Commission (2021) provides: “[S]afety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment” are foundational to trauma-informed practice.

So, we begin with the objective to ensure a safe space that allows for sufficient trust and connection in the relationship to engender effective communication and collaboration.

A trauma-informed approach means we come to the work from a place of not knowing and respect. They have lived experience and we listen. We invite (not compel) information on what may be triggering and we believe them. We do not ask questions that are blaming or shaming, for example: “Why didn’t you ask for help?” or “How can that be…?” or use limiting words that undermine traumatic experiences or minimise the impacts of trauma.

We allow and accept physical, mental, and emotional presentations that do not accord with our expectations or “norms”. We withhold judgement and seek to understand. This also necessitates being responsive to racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender needs.

Be mindful that particular words or circumstances, physical spaces, sights, sounds, and smells can be triggering, that is to activate a present reaction to memories of past distressing events. Therefore, we stay present and pay attention to what could be happening to and in the person. Asking for details can cause one to relive a distressing event and re-traumatise. We move at their pace.

A trauma response means one is emotionally reactive and operating from a primal place of fight, flight, freeze, or appease. And reason is often left behind. What we may then encounter is what seems contextually irrational behaviours or incongruent responses such as aggression; refusal to engage; excessive sharing or explaining; excessive intellectualisation; hypervigilance; overly agreeable or disinterested; or physical presentations such as a flat affect, fixed, or “glazed” eyes; long periods of silence; or monotonous voice.

When we encounter a trauma response, we exercise compassion. Only when one feels and believes they are seen and heard and feel safe will they be open to relating with us. Give space for them to decide on possible options and solutions, noting we are not the expert in their lives.

Appropriate boundaries

Trauma-informed lawyering ought not negatively impact our own wellbeing. True compassion does not deny our personal boundaries – to leave work at work, to step away physically or emotionally to care for ourselves, to accept the limitations of our role as lawyers and refer on, and to be grateful for the opportunity to have assisted. Concomitant responses at organisational and professional levels are also necessary but not addressed here.

When we see trauma as someone’s wound and bring our humanness into our relating, the subject of trauma-informed lawyering becomes less daunting and not as confronting; it is no longer alien or alienating.

A learned skill

Trauma-informed lawyering is a learned skill and we are all capable of it. Take courage and integrate this into our daily work, as we often do not know who carries trauma.

Organisations such as the Mental Health Coordinating Council (MHCC), Workplace Mental Health Institute (WMHI), and Blue Knot provide individual and organisational training on trauma-informed care or practice. The Australian Childhood Foundation provides valuable training for those who work with children. The College of Law CPD module “Trauma-informed practice in family law” can provide guidance for those working in family law.

The author has no personal or financial interests in these recommendations.

Florence Thum is a certified trauma practitioner and a psychotherapist and coach. A former litigation and dispute resolution lawyer, she is also the assistant director at NSW PLT and lecturer at The College of Law, teaching postgraduate practical legal training and dispute resolution. She holds postgraduate qualifications in law, psychotherapy, and education.

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