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Trauma-Informed Legal Approaches For Pro Bono Attorneys

By Katherine Cronin and Katharine Manning · 2024-05-30 14:25:03 -0400 ·

Katherine Cronin
Katherine Cronin
Katharine Manning
Katharine Manning
We know there is a vast chasm between the legal needs of low-income clients and the legal resources available to respond.

Legal services organizations lack the funding and staff to assist every client seeking representation, so the American Bar Association's Model Rule 6.1 on voluntary pro bono public service is clear in its assertion that every attorney has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.

To close out May, which is designated as National Trauma Awareness Month, we encourage attorneys to think about the ways in which we may encounter trauma in our work, particularly when working with pro bono clients who are in crisis or who are survivors of crimes.

Understanding trauma's impact on clients allows us to better represent them, minimize adding stress and distress to an already difficult experience, as well as protect ourselves from compassion fatigue and burnout so we can continue to engage in meaningful pro bono work over the course of our careers.

Understanding Trauma and the Brain

When we experience trauma, a part of our brain — the amygdala — releases stress hormones.

We get a flood of adrenaline aimed at helping us to protect ourselves, and the parts of the brain that are less helpful for immediate physical protection get suppressed, most importantly the parts associated with complex thought and rational decision making. This can make it difficult for us to focus and think clearly.

This response works automatically and almost instantaneously. Sometimes this is called the amygdala hijack. This means that we don't get to decide how the amygdala will respond, as it makes its own decisions about how to protect us.

The amygdala also isn't great at telling the difference between physical and other kinds of threats. That's why so many attorneys get sweaty palms whenever they have to appear in court or negotiate a complex deal.

The stress response can also be conditioned based on our life experiences. When we are reminded of previous traumatic situations, the stress response can be triggered, even if we are sitting in a safe and calm office.

It is important to keep this in mind when working with clients who have experienced trauma. Amygdala hijack means they may have trouble telling their story linearly or remembering details important to their case.

This does not make them unreliable narrators. They are simply real people processing their trauma to the best of their ability.

It's also important to remember that human beings are hardwired for empathy. Trauma can have a contagion effect. When we interact with someone experiencing a trauma response, we may begin to react similarly.

Imagine that a colleague rushes into your office right now, with eyes wide and rapid breathing. It's likely that your heart rate would increase before your colleague opens their mouth.

When we're interacting with someone who is in the midst of a stress response, we can experience their reaction — a flood of adrenaline and a suppression of complex thinking. This can make it difficult to focus and respond with compassion.

Trauma-Informed Interviewing

Trauma-informed interviewing practices can help in these situations.

The greater the sense of calm and safety you instill in your client, the more effective they'll be at communicating, recalling information and listening to your words. This is what's known as trauma-informed interviewing.

At its core, it's recognizing that trauma exists and has a negative impact on people. Trauma-informed interviewing can mitigate the effects of trauma and avoid retraumatizing survivors. Key principles are laid out below.

Build trust.

Many pro bono clients have been repeatedly let down by the system and are used to having negative interactions with administrative authorities. In all likelihood, they will view you as another administrative authority, and they may not initially trust you.

Take time to explain who you are and what your role is in their case. Be reliable; follow through on your promises and do what you've said you'll do.

With time, trust will make it easier for your clients to share information because they feel safe in your presence.

Be clear.

Some legal relief requires clients to recount past traumatic events in detail.

For example, the Form I-914 "Application for T Nonimmigrant Status" — which can help provide immigration benefits for survivors of certain types of trafficking — requires the applicant to prepare a personal statement describing the trafficking to which they were subjected.

Before interviewing your client about past traumatic experiences, explain what will be discussed and what you will need from them. Set these expectations in very clear terms, so the client can mentally prepare for the interview. Ask if they would like an advocate, friend or family member to drive them to and pick them up from the appointment.

During the interview, avoid legalese and long-winded explanations of what you can or cannot do for your client. This tends to be overwhelming for someone who is already in an elevated state as they recount their trauma.

Speak in concise, clear sentences and repeat yourself often, as trauma makes it difficult to access and process information. You may want to practice with a colleague before meeting with your client.

Give choices.

When we give people autonomy, we show that we are not another authority figure to whom they must defer.

Empowering your client with the opportunity to make choices, however small, shows you're not going to make decisions for them and that they have autonomy in a situation where they likely already feel out of control.

This could be as simple as asking what time they'd like to meet, whether they'd like something to drink or allowing them to choose where they'd like to sit, and whether they'd prefer the office door open or closed.

Listen and acknowledge.

Practice active listening skills.

As your client shares their story, be mindful of your body language. Aim for an open and neutral posture and facial expression.

Make eye contact, and nod to show you are listening. During the appointment, give the client your undivided attention and avoid checking your phone.

After your client has opened up about something difficult in their past, let them know that you heard them by acknowledging what they've shared. Thank them for sharing their story with you.

End the meeting.

Allow adequate time for the meeting, but recognize that discussing past trauma can be draining.

Split the work over multiple appointments if needed. Give the person a heads-up when time is almost up.

Leave time at the end of the meeting to come back to the present and to address any questions. Discuss the next steps or more logistical matters rather than ending on discussion of past trauma.

Manage your response.

During an upsetting interview with a client, you may find yourself needing to manage your own response.

It's natural to feel an emotional response to what you're hearing, but we don't want our emotions to get in the way of achieving a successful outcome.

There are many strategies you can use to manage your own emotions. Start by checking in with yourself and naming how you are feeling. Are you scared, worried or angry?

Simply naming our emotions helps us to feel more in control of them. This can be remembered as "name it to tame it."

Another strategy is to engage one of your five senses. The smell of coffee or the physical sensation of touching your desk can help ground you in the present moment and calm your nervous system.

It's also fine to take a short break to gather yourself. If you are working as part of a pro bono legal team, take time to debrief with colleagues after client interviews to discuss what went well and any challenges.

Compassion Fatigue

Supporting others through difficult life circumstances can take a toll on us. It's important that we take care of our own mental health and well-being to avoid compassion fatigue.

As is often the case, the best defense is a strong offense. Taking steps daily to protect our mental health and well-being can help us to avoid compassion fatigue.

Incorporating a self-care routine and practicing self-compassion, such as meditation, exercise and mindfulness exercises can help us to manage our own mental health and well-being during emotionally challenging cases.

There are also best practices and strategies law firms can use to support attorneys experiencing compassion fatigue. Firms can advise upfront about challenging issues that may arise while working on the matter.

For instance, family law cases and immigration petitions may include detailed allegations of domestic and sexual violence. Innocence and post-conviction relief work often requires attorneys to review detailed court documents describing alleged crimes.

Cases can be staffed with two or more timekeepers, allowing multiple attorneys to share responsibilities. Attorneys should be encouraged to reach out if they are experiencing compassion fatigue or any other issues that could impede the representation of a pro bono client so that matters can be restaffed or staffing can be increased as needed.

Firms should likewise encourage attorneys to make use of the firm's well-being resources. After taking a challenging case involving trauma, attorneys can take a break or choose a different type of pro bono matter that may not involve trauma.

The legal profession can be stressful. Working with clients who have experienced trauma, and dealing with trauma of our own, can compound that stress.

It helps to remember why we do this work, particularly pro bono work. As attorneys, we won't always be satisfied with the outcome. But with a trauma-informed approach, we can show how much we care — and that can make the greatest difference of all.

Katherine J. Cronin is pro bono counsel at Stinson LLP.

Katharine Manning is president at Blackbird DC.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employer, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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