"Society needs to stop looking at what's wrong with us and instead to what happened to us." This quote, taken from Dr Gabor Maté's 'The Wisdom of Trauma' encapsulates, for me, the essence of what I have learned during the Law Society of Scotland's Certification Course in trauma-informed law. The result is a deeper knowledge and understanding as to the impact of trauma on why people behave, and think, as they do.
Having spent the past 15 years working closely with clients across Scotland, I have become acutely aware of the impact relationship breakdown can have, and how past trauma (even from their own childhoods) can radically impact upon how clients deal with such relationship difficulties. I chose to participate in this course to educate myself on the topic of trauma and how my colleagues and I can use that understanding to assist our clients.
The five principles of a trauma-informed response
It is always important to remember what clients are looking for when instructing a family lawyer. The five principles of a trauma-informed response apply not only to those who may have experienced past trauma, but to every client who is presently going through a potentially traumatic experience in the form of a relationship difficulty:-
• Safety - those dealing with us should feel safe during our interactions, both in terms of practical matters such as the timing and location of meetings and in terms of the advice they are receiving. Clients should feel that we can recognise past or present trauma and respond to it in an appropriate manner. Most importantly, we must resist doing or saying anything which could re-traumatise a client.
• Empowerment - in my experience, those for whom we act often change, in a very positive way, over the course of our working together. Often the lawyer-client relationship can last for months or years and it is the greatest pleasure of our role as lawyers to witness clients grow in confidence and strength as they adapt to changes in their lives.
• Collaboration - clients should feel that our relationship is a collaborative one and not combative or difficult. This does not mean that lawyers should always tell clients what they want to hear, rather that we are able to provide them with options and tender advice as to what may be best for them, whilst carefully considering the wider picture.
• Choice - we should continue to offer choices to clients in a manner which is bespoke to them and provides an opportunity to explore those choices in more detail. In this context, choice doesn’t only relate to the legal options available but also to more subtle points such as which lawyer to instruct or when and how to meet and the means of regular communications.
• Trust - this is, in my view, the most important principle as the absence of trust will cause the entire relationship to break down. Mutual trust and respect is a defining principle of the lawyer's relationship with every client but for clients who have experienced trauma, that trust may take time to develop.
Everyone has a history, and many people have experienced trauma which influences the future in profound and sometimes unexpected ways. The impact of relationship breakdown can be the source of a new trauma and/or trigger the feelings associated with past trauma. I have found the trauma-informed law course to be hugely rewarding in terms of my understanding of this and believe it should form a fundamental part of the training process of all solicitors who deal with legal issues for individuals on a regular basis. My colleagues and I will continue striving to always demonstrate warmth, acceptance and empathy in every aspect of our professional lives.
Sarah Lilley is one of only a few family law solicitors in Scotland who holds triple-accreditation from the Law Society of Scotland (family law, child law & family law mediation) and the certification in trauma-informed law.