The Trauma-Informed Lawyer

Becoming Trauma-Informed Begins With You

Episode Summary

Self-awareness, ego and recognizing the needs of your client or witness are fundamental to trauma-informed lawyering. This episode invites you to reflect on how you show up, what triggers you possess and how you build or break relationships with your client.

Episode Notes

This episode provides you with relationship building strategies and explores why you need to look within before you endeavour to help others. 

Episode Transcription

Season 1 Episode 3:  “Becoming Trauma-Informed Begins with You.”
Published:       June 7, 2020

Episode Summary

Self-awareness, ego and recognizing the needs of your client or witness are fundamental to trauma-informed lawyering. This episode invites you to reflect on how you show up, what triggers you possess and how you build or break relationships with your client.

Myrna McCallum:   I’m Myrna McCallum, Métis-Cree lawyer and passionate promoter of trauma-informed lawyering. Welcome to my new podcast, The Trauma-Informed Lawyer, brought to you in partnership with the Canadian Bar Association.

I believe that law schools and bar courses are missing a critical competency requirement in their curriculum: trauma-informed lawyering. Becoming a trauma-informed lawyer will, among other things, challenge you to critically reflect on your personal behaviors, beliefs, and biases; call on you to positively transform the way you approach advocacy; guide your practice to avoid doing further harm to others; and ask that you commit remaining open to learn new and old knowledge you didn't know you needed before beginning your career. Your education starts right here, right now. This podcast comes to you from the traditional, unceded territories of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh [Squamish], səl̓ilwətaɁɬ [Tsleil-Waututh], and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm [Musqueam] people.

Myrna McCallum: Welcome back everyone, I hope you enjoyed my previous conversation with Gabor Maté where we discussed, among other things, compassionate inquiry, what trauma looks like in the courtroom and his practical advice to us as lawyers on where we can do better and more importantly, why we should. I know that I had a lot of takeaways from that conversation and I hope you did too. 

So, this episode we are going to talk little bit about what you need to know to become a trauma-informed lawyer. I just come to recognize some really valuable strategies that have helped me become a lot more sensitive, compassionate, and effective I would say as a communicator and as a listener. First, we are going to start off talking about an area that I often begin with when I train folks on trauma-informed advocacy: it really is about you, it's not about the other, it's about you.

How do you respond to strong emotions?

How flexible are you with time and control over space and process?

How do you adapt your tone in your body language?

Are you willing to take up less space?

Those are critical questions you should ask yourself before you ever meet with a client or witness or anyone who might even be feeling or experiencing even the tiniest amount of distress. It is critical that you are mindful about how you show up and it's not, you know, what time you show up, what you're wearing when you show up, but, how you show up. There are so many messages that we communicate in the way that we hold our body, the tone that we use when we speak. The way we look at someone, or don't look at someone. You know, I think we all know that body language communicates a hell of a lot more than our words. And so, you need to think about that. But first, begin with asking yourself: “how do you respond to strong emotions”? As I said to you in, I think Episode 1, I don't like strong emotions. My personal life: GOD NO!, if you were to start crying in my presence and in my personal life, my immediate inclination would be to quietly stand up, back away and leave the room. Maybe slide your phone your way and, suggest you call your mom; totally uncomfortable with people who begin to cry and even more uncomfortable with people who are angry. I admit it. But at least I know what makes me feel uncomfortable: conflict, conflict seeking behaviors, aggressive types, weepy types; that makes me so uncomfortable. Now that I know that I feel really uncomfortable in the presence of those types of emotions, I know that in my professional life I can't back away from those types of emotions. I have to respond to it! I mean, some people will take the path where they prefer to just ignore it, like it’s not happening, like completely ignore that somebody is totally, utterly breaking down in front of them, or when someone is screaming angry, just continuing to talk without even acknowledging feelings, or worse, elevate your own voice and come at them the same way they're coming at you. Which helps no one. So, once you know how you respond to strong emotions, then you need to prepare for how it is you're going to respond when you're uncomfortable. 

I often say to the folks that I train that one of the fundamentals to a trauma-informed approach is to create an environment of safety. You want the person you're sitting with to feel safe in your company. Hard to feel safe if you're staring at someone with judgey eyes (no offense to my judge listeners, you know what I mean) or if you are standing there with your arms crossed and a stern look across your face. If you know you're uncomfortable with silence, if you know you’re uncomfortable with pain, like grief or sorrow and the expression of that, if you know you're uncomfortable with anger and rage you need to come up with a strategy about how it is that you're going to sit uncomfortably in the presence of those emotions. Because that is fundamental to building a relationship with your client, with your witness. You don’t walk out when they express themselves because you are uncomfortable, you don't force a different conversation because you want to move away from whatever emotional expression is presenting. All of these little things really, I would say, amount to betrayal. If you have betrayal, well, what kind of relationship do you have? I'd say a pretty shitty one. And so, what you want to do is be present and willing to witness what is going on. In those moments of being present and uncomfortable in the witnessing, what you're saying is “I'm here for you.” “I'm not leaving, and you can trust me” and “This is a safe space.”

I know for some lawyers you’re probably like “ugggh, that just sounds too touchy-feely.” That might be, but, we really need to bring some kind of human centered approach to the work that we do because for too long, we have not done that, and as a result our criminal justice system has zero credibility for many many victims of crime. It's the last place they want to show up. Why? Because of the way the courts have treated them. And the courts are not just judges; its lawyers, it’s police, it's a lot of people. So, you know, don't betray your client. Be still with them, be silent with them and don't walk away. That’s a strategy that you need to get comfortable with.

If you can't get comfortable with that strategy, then get comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

Now, how flexible are you with time and control over space and process? I don't know how many lawyers I've seen; they take up a lot of space. And really, what they're doing is sending two messages:

  1. I'm the important one.
  2. You need to acknowledge that I am the authority in the room.

That’s all you’re saying. 

And with every object you put on a table to take up space: phone, another phone, your laptop, your bag; what you're saying is: “I have zero self-awareness about where I am, why I'm here, and who it is I'm here to serve.” 

You’re also saying: “I'm not really interested in connecting with you or building a relationship with you or building trust with you.”

So, think about how flexible you are with control over space.

Do you always have to sit at the head of the table?

Do you always have to wear a shiny suit, even to some low-key informal meeting?

Do you have to carry so much crap into a room and put it on the table?

Do you really need to do those things?

For a lot of us lawyers, I mean ego is operating on overdrive and we all need to do something to get it back in check.

So, time. Also, how flexible are you with time?

Do you always have to stack your meetings back to back to back, so you don't get any breathing room and your client has to show up and deliver information to you on your schedule?

Why is it that way?

Why do you build it that way?

Do you have flexibility?

If you do, then create some flexibility. This allows people to show up and tell you what they have to tell you in their own time. If you're examining (note: Examination for Discovery process) someone, or you're doing an intake and you're asking them to give you information that is quite personal, or intimate, or humiliating the least you can do is give them some time to give you the information you need. 

So if you ask a question: “okay what happened next?” and the next thing that happened for them was something quite significant and humiliating don’t just pause for 30 seconds and when they don't deliver it say: “okay you know what, we'll just circle back around we'll come back to that…you know what let’s move on to…ahhhh…ummm…where did you go from blah blah blah.”

Don’t do the: “we will circle back around.” bit.

Don’t do the whole: “okay maybe it will help if you tell me that you remember was in the room?”

I'm sure the person you're talking to knows exactly what was in the room. Their hesitation, their silence, is because they may be having a traumatic moment.

They may be feeling triggered.

They may be feeling emotionally overwhelmed.

They may be experiencing a ton of shame or humiliation.

And it's going to take more than a hot minute for them to deliver the information that you're demanding.

So, try this: before you even meet with a client for a witness and you know it's going to be a heavy subject why don't you just sit by yourself for like five (5) minutes, complete silence. Put your phone away, see how you feel in those five minutes. 

Does it make you feel really uncomfortable to just sit still? 

Not doing anything, not looking at something and not working on something? 

Not responding to someone?

Get used to five (5) minutes of silence.

Because often times, for these folks, in these situations all they need is five (5) minutes. Occasionally, some of them might need ten (10). But five (5) minutes tends to be enough.

So, get comfortable with five (5) minutes of silence.

So, how do you adapt your tone in your body language? 

I really think that there’s a lot of folks out there who really never think about how folks perceive their tone or perceive their body language. If you are meeting with someone and you know the potential is there for them to feel intimidated, for example: maybe your meeting with a young lady and you're a senior male lawyer, or you’re meeting with a person of colour and you're white, or you’re a cop meeting with an Indigenous person? 

Take a moment and think about historical context.

Think about inequality and their vulnerability.

Think about the tense and potentially harmful relationships that have existed between folks like you and folks like them.

Think about how you might approach them in a way that's completely disarming.

For me, for example: I always joke that I was likely born with my arms crossed. It's a position that I like to keep my arms in. Crossed. And maybe looking a little judgey (sorry judge listeners, you know what I’m saying). It’s something I like to do. 

However, if I'm going into a meeting and I want to build a relationship of trust and safety, the last position my arms should be in, is crossed. 

Because what does that position convey?

What does it communicate?

A couple things: I don't want to know you (and I know it conveys that message, because people have told me this time and time again), it also says: I'm not interested in listening. So, even though the position of my arms don't normally feel comfortable down and at my sides, with my forearms on the table and my palms facing upward, I will sit in that position for as long as it takes to build a relationship.

Be disarming. Think about what that means in the way you carry your body and in your tone. 

If you know that you have a loud boisterous voice, maybe you want to dial it down.

If you come off sounding stern when you talk, find a tone that comes across as a little softer.

I'm not saying you need to sound like a little child, I'm just saying just dial it down, take it a little slower, take it a little softer. I'm telling you, you will build the relationship that you need with your client or your witness. 

Trauma, triggers and intentions. It’s all about you and the piece that I really didn't get into is: 

What are your weak spots?

Have you been traumatized?

Have you been abused as a child?

Did your parents get a divorce and really messed you up?

Where you involved in a motor vehicle accident that really shook you up

and you never got past it?

There are so many different kinds of traumas that we experience as human beings that sometimes never completely deal with and as a result, we carry those things forward. We carry them in all of our relationships, including our professional relationship. 

So, say for example, you're doing a Child Protection hearing. You’re a family law practitioner. Maybe you were in foster care? Maybe someone threatened to take you from your mom and you never dealt with that? That stuff is going to come up and it's going to affect you as you do the work that you do because you have a close personal connection to the subject matter. So, where you have a close personal caption to the subject matter, you need to really have an honest conversation with yourself about whether it makes you feel somethingIf it makes you feel something, whether it's angry or anxious or sad, then you haven't dealt with something. And you need to deal with it, otherwise it's going to mess you up at a later point in time. And I'm going to talk about being messed up at a later point in time.

Vicarious trauma. Like I said folks, in Episode 1: we all need to hear about it, we need to know about it. 

So before you meet with your client or witness, a couple good ways to prepare, especially with someone who might be quite agitated in some way shape or form, and want something from you or from the system that might be quite unreasonable or unrealistic, try to identify for yourself: What does this individual want? What do they need? What outcome are they seeking? Be prepared to have that conversation with them, because what they want, what they need or the outcome they're seeking, might not be something that the legal process they're about to embark on provides. And if you can have that real, open, honest conversation on the outset, well, you might have just saved them a lot of time, money and grief; and the courts a lot of time, money, and grief. 

Acknowledge the potential need for support and that this individual might need some kind of emotional care. Know who is available, know what is out there. In the context of sexual violence victims, before you ever meet with someone who has experienced sexual violence, there is so many things you need to know before you ever set foot in a room with a victim of sexual violence. I won't get into it right now, another episode, not today, but what you should at the very least know, is what local supports are available for victims of sexual violence. 

If your client or witness shows up and you could see there is all kinds of red flags or risk factors or emotions going on, you should never leave that meeting without handing over a list of places that they can call. Never in a, you know, dictatorial sort of way; more like: “you know, if you feel like you need someone to talk to, here are some folks who are available, here is a crisis line etc.” If you know that you're dealing with someone who is highly agitated, come up with some kind of refocus phrase, which validates what they're going through: “yes, I see that you're going through this. Absolutely I could see how that would have been incredibly distressing for you; however…” (that's when you come up with your refocus phrase “…however” and then you could say whatever your refocus phrase is going to be. It’s this thing that gets them back on track, this thing that gets them to focus: “however…”) “…we've only got 45 minutes and this is what I'm qualified to do…” or …”this is what my job requires me to do”… or “…this is what I'm here for, this is how I want to help you, so you tell me: do you want to work on this thing that I can help you with? or are you so focused on this other stuff, that you can't actually work on this today? If you can't work on this today then we'll come back another time.”

Most people they’ll take it, they need a few minutes: “I'm going to go for a smoke and I'll come back and we can do this…” or “I'm going to take a walk, I want some water or I'm going to bathroom”, whatever it is. But think of a refocus phrase before they take you down that road because you know, like with anything and anyone if you give an inch, some will take a mile. And what I find for folks who are highly activated and just amped right up, they don't even notice that they are so amped up and amping themselves up so much more, that they actually need you to step in and say: “…hold on a second, hold on, I hear you saying this… and I totally get that is distressing; however, you only have 45 minutes…” or “…however I'm only equipped to do this…” Have a refocus phrase ready to go. Be really clear about your role and its limitations and you need to repeat it if necessary. 

I don't know how many folks I've met over the years who just because I'm a lawyer, they think I'm a lawyer for everything. They want to talk to me about a tax issue, and maybe a family issue, and maybe immigration; I'm like: “woah woah woah woah woah… this is all I know right here.” So be very, very clear about your role and its limitations and repeat if necessary. Provide a little transparency; you know, earlier I said what I want to do is create a safe environment, you want to create a relationship with your client or your witness where they feel safe with you, and they're willing to open up to you.  Well, one of the elements that is critical beyond staying present, being a witness to their pain or their shame, is to be transparent. Be prepared to answer questions, be open about your process. 

If you're taking notes, explain why; if you can, share your notes and let them review your notes before you leave, let them know what's going to happen to their information, fill them in on as much information of the process as possible. Why? Because transparency is critical to building relationships, critical to building trust, and the more information you give an individual, the more they're going to feel somewhat in control and somewhat less powerless. You and I both know that our legal systems are processes, they’re quite rigid, they're quite controlled; witness have almost no control over what's happening or what's about to happen or how it's going to happen because we have procedures that we have to follow. So, it really helps if you could let go of the reigns a little so that they could feel like they're driving the bus, so to speak. It's really important that you give a little so that your client and your witness never walks out of your office feeling afraid, disrespected, demoralized, helpless, hopeless or just traumatized. So some of the strategies that I just outlined for you is really just like the tip of the iceberg of things that you could do to help ensure that your client, your witness never leaves you that way. 

Bringing a trauma-informed approach to the practice of law really begins with you looking at yourself, being honest with yourself, being real about your own tension, your own traumas, your own triggers before you ever walk into a room with the idea that you're about to help someone.

What I'd like to hear from you is: how do you bring a trauma-informed approach to advocacy or adjudication? What steps do you take to ensure that your witness or your client don’t leave you feeling more broken than when they walked in the door? That's what I'd like to know.

That's my show for this week folks. I hope you come back next week; I hope you like today’s show. I hope it inspires creativity and some ideas. 

You can find me on Twitter @LegalTrauma, or on Instagram @TheTraumaInformedLawyer, of course you can always find me on LinkedIn. And let me know what you thought, let me know what questions came up for you or what ideas you had or any aha moments, or new insights. 

Next week I am coming back with an interview with a friend of mine: Helgi Maki, from Toronto. She and I had a really wonderful conversation that I think will inspire you to think about how you can build a sustainable practice.

I hope y’all come back, thanks so much for listening. Until next time, take care of yourselves.