Client Trauma | How Can Lawyers Recognize and Respond

Last updated: 12-31-2020

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Client Trauma | How Can Lawyers Recognize and Respond

Family lawyers are uniquely positioned to encounter — and are often “first responders” to — victims of family conflict.Knowing how to recognize client trauma and understanding what to do for traumatized clients is the first step toward developing a successful legal strategy.

What you see and what you hear are critical if your goal is to recognize and address trauma caused by family conflict. However, these guidelines apply to most practice areas.

What you see and what you hear are critical if your goal is to recognize and address trauma caused by family conflict.

Your ability to recognize visual cues of trauma in high-conflict cases is an important bridge to a successful legal strategy. Take notes that include your initial visual impressions of your client. You may want to consult with non-disclosed experts for assistance to identify problems that may derail your legal strategy. Provide a list of helpful resources to clients who may need them — psychologists, neuropsychologists, family therapists, psychiatrists, substance abuse counselors. A client who cannot testify cannot help their case.

The initial challenge when working with traumatized clients is to “listen more and talk a lot less.” Listening to a traumatized client is perhaps the most important thing you can do to help them. You cannot listen with your cell phone on the table, so put your phone away.

Many resources are available to practitioners that describe how to listen successfully. The discipline of “active listening” is well represented in literature today, and many authors have written extensively on the topic.

Some content can indicate your client is experiencing extreme stress.

Irrational paranoia is one such sign. Did your client disclose the need for multiple phones or the need to wrap a phone in tin foil? Has a spouse hacked into every device the person has … phone, computer, iPad, television? Irrational fear and paranoia can be a sign of extreme stress and, in more severe cases, a sign of psychiatric problems that should be immediately addressed by professionals.

And don’t forget about financial stress. It is often one of the key factors giving rise to family conflict. Being cut off from access to marital assets can cause extreme emotional stress. Take steps to restore access to financial resources as soon as possible, either by agreement or court order to relieve stress.

What a client will not say may speak more loudly than what a client will say. Does your client have difficulty answering when asked about domestic violence? Victims of family violence sometimes will not discuss the abuse. Once you become aware that a client is a victim of abuse, take steps to stop it as quickly and as safely as possible. Relief may come in the form of targeted injunctive orders and, in more serious cases, a request for a protective order.

When it comes to traumatized clients, my greatest measure of success is what my client says to me when I’m done listening. What I want to hear from my client is, “I feel better…I feel a lot better than when I got here.” When I hear that, I know that I am on the right path: My client has experienced some immediate relief from the trauma, and I have begun to build the path to a successful legal outcome for my client.

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