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The importance of lawyers being trauma-informed

As trauma-informed lawyering becomes increasingly integrated into the Australian legal landscape, it is crucial for lawyers to recognise the profound benefits this training offers, not only in enhancing their capacity to provide effective legal services but also in addressing their clients’ personal needs.

user iconGrace Robbie 07 March 2024 Politics
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Jennifer Chen is a Legal Aid NSW manager who oversees the “With You” training project, and Rachel Thomas is a lived experience advocate. Speaking on a recent episode of The Lawyers Weekly Show, they shared their perspectives on the importance of lawyers being trauma-informed and the potential repercussions for those who perceive this training as beyond their professional scope.

Chen emphasised that being trauma-informed entails lawyers “understanding what a trauma response looks like and understanding that people’s trauma manifests in different ways”. She highlighted how trauma varies and affects individuals differently, underscoring the importance of delivering legal services that effectively recognise and respond to their clients’ trauma.

Thomas shared her firsthand experience of the positive impact that having a trauma-informed lawyer had during her legal journey.

 
 

“I felt safe. I could think more clearly and think of words easier. I trusted my lawyer’s decisions. I was happy to follow her lead, even though it wasn’t at all what I expected.

“Sometimes, I worked hard for her when she needed information about my case. I was able to get information for her swiftly because I wasn’t dealing with triggers around my trauma,” she commented.

Thomas also reflected on the calming presence her trauma-informed lawyer brought to her while being in court, contrasting this experience with her previous encounter with another lawyer.

“I was calm at court with her. I could find my way around court, which was quite the opposite when I had a lawyer who wasn’t trauma-informed; I was completely lost at court,” she stated.

Reflecting on the significant positive impact it has on her, Thomas advocated for the necessity of lawyers being trauma-informed to better serve clients navigating their own trauma during legal proceedings.

“People will be more highly stressed about a case without a trauma-informed approach. They’re less likely to trust their lawyer’s decisions, they’re more likely to be slower getting paperwork back to their lawyer, they’re more likely to drag their feet about everything,” she said.

“People not experiencing a trauma-informed approach are more likely to be highly anxious at court. It’s likely to experience their mental health issues like dissociation or anxiety, which then they’d have trouble hearing, processing and remembering things that are said.”

Despite the evident benefits this knowledge brings, Chen revealed that not all lawyers are embracing the concept of being trauma-informed, as she stated: “We came across a sceptic or two who might say something along the lines of, ‘Well, I’m trained to be a lawyer, not a psychologist or not a social worker. That’s outside of the scope of my profession.’”

Chen passionately expressed her views on lawyers who hold this mindset by commenting: “I would like to say to that sceptic that if your client is highly elevated and anxious because of the environment and the way that you are speaking to them, so that they can’t absorb any information that you’re giving them, if they don’t trust you, because they don’t feel like you’re truly listening to them, or they might even sense that you hold discriminatory views about mental health, then they’re not going to give you the instructions that you need.”

Due to the demanding schedules lawyers often face, many believe they lack the time to address and support their client’s trauma needs. However, Chen offered realistic recommendations that lawyers can implement to significantly benefit these clients.

“I know that many lawyers are, of course, working under incredible time pressures and have significant workloads. And sometimes, people might feel like they can’t afford the time to slow down at the beginning of [building] the rapport to make that client feel comfortable. But even taking a few minutes at the beginning of a short interaction, making someone feel seen and respected and heard, that goes such a long way,” she said.

Thomas offered advice to lawyers seeking to better recognise and respond to their clients’ trauma in a more effective manner.

“Educate yourself. If you’re a lawyer, learn to recognise, understand and reduce the impacts of trauma. And you do this with the trauma-informed toolbox that’s already being used. It’s actually being used worldwide.

“Learn to utilise communication and processes [that] are trauma-informed. That’s safe, responsive, collaborative, empowering, trustworthy and which gives choices to the person you’re interacting with,” she commented.

Chen also provided her own words of wisdom by commenting: “I think it’s really important for lawyers to be authentic and true to their own voice when being trauma-informed. So, if you’re a crime lawyer out in regional New South Wales, you might have a very different way of interacting with your clients compared to an inner city civil lawyer working with a lot of culturally and linguistically diverse clients.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full episode with Jennifer Chen and Rachel Thomas, click below: