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Traumatized Clients: How to Recognize and Respond to Client Trauma

By Laura Dale

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.

Ways to Recognize Client Trauma

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 to Look For

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

  • How does your client present? Are they appropriately clothed? Have they bathed recently?
  • Do you see signs of depression – does your client resemble “Eeyore” or “Tigger” from the famed Hundred Acre Wood? Traumatized individuals often exhibit signs of depression, and an “Eeyore” type presentation may be noteworthy.
  • Does the client appear to have visible neurological abnormalities — ticks, tremors, slurred speech — or anything that may cause you to think that there are problems to be addressed by a psychiatrist before litigation or a court appearance?

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.

How to Prepare to Listen

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.

  • Pick a meeting location in your office that is conducive to listening. I listen at a round table. I sit close to my client when possible. And I make sure there is a tissue box nearby and water to drink for when things become emotional.
  • I have helpful books on my table that I recommend to traumatized clients.
  • I take notes the old-fashioned way, with a pen and pad. I circle important words said and make sure my client sees me doing that.
  • When I’ve heard something important, I validate what I’ve heard. If my client says, “I came home and my spouse and the children were gone,” I respond, “I can understand why you would feel very upset about that.” Validating feelings is perhaps one of the most important benefits of listening.

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.

What to Listen For

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.

How to Measure Success

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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Laura Dale

Laura Dale of Dale Family Law is Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. She has a Doctoral Degree in Neuroscience and applies that additional knowledge with clients around the world in languages including French and Spanish, among others. As one of the most experienced attorneys handling international child abduction cases, she also serves as Co-Chair of the USA Chapter Hague Committee, and as Chair of Hague Subcommittee on the International Protection of Children. Follow her @DaleFamilyLaw and on Facebook.

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