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Check out our recent blog posts to stay up to date with our work, latest research and articles curated by the Blue Knot Foundation Marketing & Communications team. Should you have any suggestions or contributions please contact us via email: marketing@blueknot.org.au.



Lawyer Client Relationship

This article is an abridged version of “Establishing a Trauma-Informed Lawyer-Client Relationship” written by Talia Kraemer and Eliza Patten. (Full details at end)

Whilst the content in this article refers to traumatized youth the same principles apply to working with adults in the legal context.

Many legal clients have experienced trauma. Trauma can affect the most fundamental aspects of the lawyer-client relationship. Building stronger, more trauma-informed relationships requires an understanding of trauma, including its origins, nature, dynamics and impacts. This insight can help us anticipate and respond more compassionately as the effects of trauma surface in our client work.

This article presents strategies for building stronger, more trauma-informed lawyer-client relationships with youth.

Consider the client’s trauma history and how it may be impacting the relationship.

Client trust and engagement.
A client’s trauma history can make it difficult to build trust and actively involve the client in their legal case.

Lawyer-client interactions.
Childhood trauma can affect a person’s cognitive and psychosocial development, including how one thinks, processes information, and communicates with others. It can impact basic interactions, such as interviewing, explaining case developments, and advising clients on case-related decisions.

Modelling positive relationships.
Clients who have experienced trauma, particularly in interpersonal relationships, often anticipate negative interactions. One of the optimal paths to healing for can be positive, safe relationships. A trauma-informed approach to all client relationships seeks, at minimum, to “do no harm.” When lawyers can communicate with and counsel their clients more effectively, achieve more authentically client-directed representation, it helps clients, move beyond their trauma towards healing.

Challenges of Trauma-Informed Lawyering
Childhood trauma affects how a young person perceives and interacts with the world around them. Trauma’s impact is not only psychological, but also physiological: children’s brains, not fully developed at birth, are impacted by the traumatic stress.

This can affect a young person’s responses, in the legal process, and make them may think and behave in ways that make it more challenging for the lawyer to build trust, communicate effectively, and engage the client in decision-making.

Trauma’s impact on a young person varies, depending on the type of trauma experienced, whether the trauma was isolated or repeated, the age at which the trauma was experienced, the young person’s gender and cultural identity, and the caregiving and social supports available to the young person before and after the traumatic events.

Blue Knot Foundation has a number of resources https://www.blueknot.org.au/legal
As well as training specifically developed for the legal and justice sector https://www.blueknot.org.au/Training-Services/In-House-Training#LiveContent[Legal] to help support you in your work with clients affected by diverse traumas.

Building Relationships
Impaired sense of safety.
Traumatized youth often have an impaired sense of safety. Having been exposed to acute or chronic threat—such as maltreatment, neglect, or community or domestic violence—they may perceive even neutral environments as threatening, and their brains are primed to go into “survival” mode. Although youths’ survival-oriented behaviours are natural and healthy in the face of real danger, they become maladaptive in nonthreatening social contexts.

These behaviours might be how the youth functions day in and day out (i.e., their baseline level of functioning), or youth might exhibit them when something, consciously or unconsciously, reminds them of a past trauma. This latter phenomenon is known as triggering, and the thing that prompted the survival response is often referred to as a trauma “trigger.”

Survival behaviours vary. Youth may become “hyper-aroused,” a state of heightened energy and alertness to threat. Clients who are hyper-aroused might appear jumpy, have frequent outbursts, or become confrontational or aggressive.

Shutting Down To Survive
Another common response is “dissociation”—mentally shutting down, becoming numb, or having “gone elsewhere.”

Dissociation can be harder to recognize than hyperarousal but can still create challenges when building relationships. For example, a dissociated client may seem indifferent to the legal proceedings or to the lawyer’s efforts at counselling.

Controlling emotions.
Children exposed to trauma can have trouble controlling their emotions. The parts of their brains that remain alert to threat have been constantly turned on, while they may have had less opportunity to develop self-regulation skills. They often feel overwhelmed by their emotions and simultaneously lack tools for calming themselves down. To others, they can appear out of control or overly impulsive.

Lack of trust.
Building trust is a formidable task, particularly with youth who have been exposed to violence or trauma in the context of intimate relationships.

Such youth have learned that adults don’t keep them safe or attend to their needs, and may harm them. They are more likely to be hyper-alert in social interactions and to misread facial or verbal cues as negative.

Adopting a Trauma-Informed “Stance”

Trauma-informed lawyering is not a step-by-step formula. In part, it rests upon characteristics intrinsic to all positive human relationships: empathy, responsive listening, restraint from judgment, demonstration of authentic care and concern. At the same time, lawyers should incorporate changes into their practice that respond to the vulnerabilities common among traumatized youth.

Drawing on a framework recommended by Dr. John Sprinson, we suggest lawyers begin by adopting a trauma-informed “stance”: a set of principles that inform your interactions with your client at all times. These principles seek to avoid exacerbating the client’s impaired sense of safety, difficulty with trust, and negative beliefs about herself and her relationships with others.

The Basic Elements Of A Trauma-Informed Stance Are:

1. Transparency – Be fully transparent with the client about their legal case, in age-appropriate terms. Transparency promotes trust and minimizes the youth’s feelings of powerlessness—a common trauma “trigger”—in the face of what is likely a bewildering or overwhelming process.

2. Predictability – Repeatedly preview for the client what is to come, both in the lawyer-client relationship and in the broader legal process. Because of their heightened alertness to threat, youth who have experienced trauma often have difficulty with the unfamiliar or unexpected, whereas predictability and routine can help them feel safe.

3. Client Control – Give clients a voice in decisions that affect them, in a way that is purposeful and exceeds baseline ethical requirements. These efforts counteract feelings of powerlessness caused by past traumas and can also provide a sense of mastery, which research shows is critical for healthy development post trauma.

4. Reliability – Be reliable, always following through on responsibilities, commitments, and appointments. Never make a promise that you might break. A youth who has experienced trauma, particularly in the context of relationships, often expects betrayal and disappointment from others.

5. Proactive Support – Anticipate issues that may arise during your representation and in the legal case that may be distressing or destabilizing for your client. Consult with mental health professionals and other adults in the client’s life to identify situations that may be stressful or even “triggering,” as well as supports that will be available to your client when needed.

6. Patience – Building connections takes time. Despite your best intentions, missteps with the client are certain. Remain patient, present, and available to the client. This shows that you will not desert your client despite inevitable bumps in the relationship.

To create a solid foundation for working effectively with traumatized youth, lawyers should focus on building strong trauma-informed lawyer-client relationships.

To read the full article:

Eliza Patten, JD, CWLS, Legal Services for Children, San Francisco, CA.
Talia Kraemer, JD, Legal Services for Children, San Francisco, CA.

To attend trauma-informed training for the legal and justice sector and/or training to safeguard yourself against the risks of vicarious trauma see https://www.blueknot.org.au/Training-Services/In-House-Training#LiveContent[Legal]


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