By: Victoria Roden
The global pandemic brought the world as we know it to a screeching halt and uncertainty loomed over everything. Many of us had to adjust quickly to working remotely. It was tough. All of the sudden students, attorneys, and clients alike had to figure out how to navigate this “new normal” we found ourselves in.
I had the incredible luck of being chosen to be the Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic(“FVWRC”) 2020 Summer Fellow at the University at Buffalo School of Law. This meant that I was going to be working this summer as a student attorney on all the current Clinic cases. I had to quickly get up to speed and ready to work on several existing cases. Yet, the hardest part was not taking over another student attorney’s work but taking over the relationships that were already established with the clients.
The FVWRC fills a very important gap in legal services for survivors of domestic violence. The Clinic provides clients with civil legal representation when they do not qualify for assistance from a free legal resource, but do not have the means to retain a private attorney. Given the nature of the FVWRC, many of our clients have experienced some form of trauma. A trauma-informed approach is important and necessary when dealing with clients who are survivors of violence.
The University at Buffalo School of Social Work is home to The Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care, and to borrow their language, “Trauma-Informed Care (TIC) is an approach in the human service field that assumes that an individual is more likely than not to have a history of trauma. Trauma-Informed Care recognizes the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledges the role trauma may play in an individual’s life- including service staff.” It is the shift from asking “What is wrong with this person?” to “What happened to this person?”
If like me you are studying law, you’re probably thinking, “But, I’m a law student, not a social worker – what does this have to do with me?” The answer is everything.
We are a human profession, and we are a helping profession. Therefore, these principles are useful not just within Family Law and Domestic Violence, but across the board. People come to lawyers when they need help, and usually in circumstances where they have experienced immense hardships. Understanding the relationship between what your client has gone through and how it currently affects them now can help your client learn to trust you, create better communication, and lead to more effective zealous representation of your client overall.
The five principles of TIC are safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness and empowerment. How do you provide a trauma-informed approach remotely? What might these principles look like in a remote setting? While I am by no means an expert in trauma-informed care, I have had the opportunity to learn about trauma-informed care when I pursued my social work education at UB. Below, I provide a few examples of what I found worked best for me during “The Summer of COVID-19” using the five trauma-informed principles.
Safety, Choice, Collaboration, Trustworthiness & Empowerment
Safety can seem pretty self-explanatory but what do you do when your client is trapped in the home with their abuser? While working with the Family Justice Center, which has seen a tremendous uptick in domestic violence since the beginning of the pandemic, I learned that advocates had to get creative. They would have to pretend to be beauty sales representatives or ask only questions that could be answered with a yes or no. Safety also means making sure that the contact information you do obtain for the client is safe to call, text, or email, and no one else has access to the method of communication.
Safety does not always mean just physical safety but encompasses emotional safety and well-being too. Emotional safety is created through being open, compassionate, consistent and respectful while maintaining interpersonal boundaries. Boundaries and consistency are discussed in little more detail below as many of these principles intersect. Emotional safety can be holding a client accountable for their actions (for example, not taking your phone calls for a week when you’re trying to meet a deadline) while not creating guilt or adding more trauma because you understand the role trauma plays in their actions. Emotional safety for yourself as counsel to a person who has lived through a trauma can be knowing when to disengage for the day (as long as there is not a pressing deadline!) and practice some self-care. The work will be there tomorrow and you will be refreshed and a more effective counselor to your client.
Choice and Collaboration can go hand-in-hand. These largely come down to allowing the client to exercise their own self-determination. Choice allows you to work with your client instead of just for them. It provides the space to be seen and heard and it means providing the client with all the information to be able to make an informed decision. This holds true even if the options are not ideal, are not what the client wants, or are not what you as their advocate believe is best for them. However, that is not to say that you stand idly by and allow your client to make choices that are not within their best interest.
This is where collaboration comes into play. Collaboration means making decisions with your client and sharing power. It means that you have to take the time to work with them, provide the good, bad, and ugly information, and give the space for them to process what you are saying so they can truly make their own decision (think back to emotional safety). Trauma affects a person’s ability to regulate and process their emotions. It affects their memory, focus and ability to learn new information. Therefore, trauma-informed lawyering remotely – or otherwise – may mean creating the conditions to make an informed choice. You create those conditions by recognizing that clients may need breaks to help their focus, clients may need time to process, or the information explained again. It means getting comfortable with silence while a client finds the words to answer your questions and building in time for longer client interviews and intakes into your schedule. With a trauma-informed approach, you recognize the client had enough for one day and you should pick it up again later.
Trustworthiness means transparency, consistency, and honesty with your client. It also means setting boundaries and sticking to them. Consistency in a remote setting looks like calling clients back when you say you will and not leaving them to sit anxiously waiting for their student attorney to call them back. It also means having the humility to admit when you don’t know something (but doing it in a way that doesn’t cause your client to question your competency or ability).
Over this summer, there have been plenty of instances where my clients asked me questions I did not know the answer to. It is not easy to admit you do not know something especially when you are in a role where you are the person the client has turned to for help. In those instances, I would exercise my own honesty and transparency and say: “I have to be honest with you, I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m a student so I am still learning but we can get this question answered together. I will find out and get back to you.”
Trauma impacts a person’s ability to trust, cope and form healthy relationships. Part of being a trustworthy, trauma-informed lawyer includes modeling healthy relationships and boundary setting with clients and also with yourself! Most of us have had the unique experience of “working from home” during this summer. I have to wonder though, for how many of us did that experience turn into “living at work” rather than “working from home?”
Setting boundaries for you and your client while working from home means letting them know that you are only available between these certain times of day during these days of the week. It can mean having an uncomfortable conversation where you reinforce a boundary with a client. It can mean taking an extra ten or fifteen minutes for yourself at the end of the day to listen to music, or go for a walk, take a hot shower, or whatever works for you to transition from “being at work” to “being at home.”
Empowerment in a remote setting means providing a space where the client feels valued and validated. Empowerment by definition means: “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.” In working with domestic violence survivors, this understanding of empowerment is crucial.
As a former social worker, I like to tackle empowerment from a strengths-based approach … and you do not need to be working remotely to achieve this! You can do this every day. A strengths-based approach highlights the strengths, skills, and capacities of what a client does well, and then leverages their existing abilities as a means to help them resolve problems and deliver their own solutions. This does not mean that you ignore negative aspects, problems or perceived short-comings but this approach recognizes that we all have inherent strengths that we bring to the table.
As I said before, clients come to lawyers for help during some of the most difficult parts of their life. We can empower clients through taking the time to point out things they do well and skills they already possess. We can empower clients through taking the time to remind them of the existing supports they already have. The American Bar Association’s article “Establishing a Trauma Informed Lawyer-Client Relationship” states:
“Actively empower the client to exercise her agency by validating the client’s strengths and helping her develop decision-making and related life skills. 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.”
Thankfully, the topic of trauma-informed lawyering is becoming more and more prevalent throughout the legal profession. If you find yourself interested in learning more about trauma-informed approaches (and not just during the “Summer of COVID”) check out some of the resources listed below.
Be well, readers!
Name: Victoria Roden, MSW, ’21
Name of Fellowship: Family Violence Clinic Summer Fellowship Award
Placement: University at Buffalo Family Violence & Women’s Rights Clinic
Location: Buffalo, NY
One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “You learn and develop more confidence from diving into the work and learning from your mistakes than you do from holding yourself back trying to be perfect all the time.”
Additional Resources on Trauma-Informed Lawyering: