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Unpacking Australia’s response to trauma-informed lawyering

In recognition of the increasing demand for lawyers to be trauma-informed, the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department and Legal Aid NSW have collaborated to develop a free toolkit aimed at enhancing lawyers’ skills and abilities to support their client’s trauma needs.

user iconGrace Robbie 12 March 2024 Politics
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Jennifer Chen is a Legal Aid NSW manager who oversees the With You training project. Speaking on a recent episode of The Lawyers Weekly Show, she discussed the concept of trauma-informed lawyering and the initiative she has been involved in establishing to address this topic effectively in Australia.

Trauma-informed lawyering, according to Chen, involves “understanding what a trauma response looks like and understanding that people’s trauma manifests in different ways”.

Despite the prevalence of mental health issues, trauma, and distress among clients seeking legal services, there has been a notable absence of initiatives or organisation tools to ensure lawyers are trained and equipped to provide the best possible legal assistance tailored to their clients’ individual needs.


In response, “With You” was created, with the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department funding the project and Legal Aid NSW leading the project on behalf of National Legal Aid.

With National Legal Aid outlining that this toolkit “is the first national co-design project in the legal assistance sector”, Chen revealed the extensive research and analysis they conducted to ensure that it would provide efficient and effective guidance for lawyers on all aspects of trauma.

Chen revealed that over 534 individuals were consulted where they “heard from clients with lived experience of trauma, family, civil crime lawyers, allied professionals like social workers. We spoke to judges and mental health tribunal members, as well as people who’d been to jail.”

Chen commented: “They all told us that it’s critical that you train frontline workers, but on top of that, the whole service needs to change. Legal services need to be trauma-informed in every way that they’re designed.”

Hence, the trauma-informed organisational toolkit was created.

Chen outlined the ideas and recommendations contained within the toolkit, which aim to enable and educate lawyers on how to better promote safety, security and acceptance for their clients experiencing trauma or mental health issues.

“The toolkit provides a range of ideas on all aspects of service design, including in having trauma-informed practice as a core staff competency,” she stated.

“What’s included are ideas such as making sure that all of our communications with clients, from the very first time they contact us to the very end, that whole interaction for the client should be trauma-informed and meeting them where they are. Making people feel seen, safe, believed.

“I think that for a legal service to be trauma-informed, it has to be trauma-informed from the very first moment that a client makes contact with us to the last email or letter that we send. So that means the tone of our language and the language that we use has to make people feel seen and heard and believed.”

However, this toolkit is not solely focused on ensuring that lawyers provide effective legal services to individuals dealing with trauma. It also advocates for the idea of lawyers receiving trauma-informed supervision, ensuring they have an environment where they can feel comfortable discussing the impact of being exposed to trauma.

“So at the moment, most, if not all, lawyers, of course, get supervision in relation to the accuracy of their legal advice. But what’s less commonly available is someone to chat to you about the accumulated impact of being exposed to trauma day in and day out,” Chen said.

“It is completely natural for vicarious trauma to have an impact on you as the lawyer over a period of time. And how is it impacting your personal life? How is it impacting your ability to interact with other clients going forward? And is the way that you’re responding to vicarious trauma sustainable for you and your career?

“So these are all questions that trauma-informed supervision can help a lawyer to work through when managing their workload that has inherent vicarious trauma risk.”

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