Representing the Traumatized Client: the Case, the Client, and You

Attorneys “often see people when they’re at their worst. Once they’re OK, you don’t see them anymore.”1 Interacting with some clients may be exceptionally difficult or frustrating because of the client’s behavior. Although you are just helping them with a specific legal matter, some clients are unable to manage their actions or emotions. One of the most difficult and draining parts of legal work is “the experience of having to deal on a day-to-day basis with the expectations and demands of clients who are highly emotional and, much of the time, really out of line because they don’t know how not to be.”2 For example, the client who calls your office every hour to see if there is any “news” on their case, but then doesn’t show up for court dates and other appointments to assist with the case, may be reacting to trauma in their current situation or past. The client with a substance abuse problem who stays clean in treatment, and then immediately relapses after and gets revoked on probation, may have unaddressed trauma that needs to be dealt with in order to heal long term. Client behavior can lead to feelings of frustration and powerlessness for even the most well-intentioned attorneys.

In addition to dealing with interpersonal relationships with challenging clients, lawyers also experience personal and institutional pressure to produce results that many times are outside of their control. “For lawyers, there is the additional and profoundly debilitating expectation of the ‘perfectionist dragon’: It’s as if the entire legal world is haunted by two dragons. One breathes fire and warns ‘Hurry up! There’s always more to do.’ While the other has an icy, paralyzing breath that whispers snidely, ‘Be careful. Everything you do could be wrong.’”3 Attorneys are caught in the paradox of practicing a socially prominent profession in which they have very little direct control over the outcome of their work.

The success and well-being of attorneys, clients, and their cases depends in part on the attorneys’ ability to skillfully negotiate the pressures on themselves and their clients. Trauma can be so damaging to clients that it negatively impacts their relationship with the attorney. In turn, the attorney can feel worn down by the pressures of working with clients with challenging life situations and behaviors. Actively addressing the negative influence of trauma creates a space for healthy and constructive legal practice.

Things Are Not as They Seem: Trauma

“Earth-shattering,” “life-changing,” “crushing.” Traumatic experiences are frequent. Trauma is the lasting effect from experiences that alter an individual’s schematic understanding of the way the world is organized. “Trauma is the harm produced by a traumatic experience. Traumatic experiences shake the foundations of our beliefs about safety, and shatter our assumptions of trust.”4 The lasting effect of these changes varies by person and situation. One of the key components of trauma is a persistent feeling of powerlessness, which can be manifested in a myriad of ways.5 This powerlessness stems from the experience of having factors change outside of your control.

There is a high likelihood that many of your clients are experiencing trauma that predates your legal interactions with them, or is the result of it. “As long as attorneys practice criminal and family law, they will serve clients with PTSD. Common issues within these two practice areas can aggravate the client’s symptoms, trigger anxious responses, or produce other obstacles in client representation.”6 For attorneys who are unaware of what is happening psychologically with their clients, this can be extremely frustrating and confusing. In addition, it may be difficult to immediately label your clients as suffering from trauma because the source of the trauma is not obvious, or “common sense.” For example, litigation itself can produce trauma, and both victims and perpetrators of crime can suffer from the same level of trauma.7 In the meantime, your client is engaging in behavior that may seem bizarre or frustrating.

The difficulty in identifying trauma is exacerbated by how differently it manifests from one person to the next. “Some clients can be very emotional, while others may relate horrific experiences with no emotion whatsoever. Many traumatized clients avoid discussing traumatic events at all costs . . . Clients who have experienced trauma also have difficulty during trial preparation, exhibiting patterns of forgetfulness and avoidance. For example, the client may have difficulty remembering specific facts or incidents—either because he has blocked the events or because discussing the events forces him to relive the traumatic experiences, which the client wants to avoid.”8 Working with clients whose behavior is difficult is made that much harder if their underlying trauma is not recognized. You may feel that their behavior is personally directed at you, or that they have personality problems or flaws.

You may not know at first that your client suffered from a traumatic experience. Developing an attorney-client relationship with traumatized clients may begin even before you know their background and personality. Approaching new clients with the expectation that they are a potentially traumatized person may reduce your frustration when a client acts in unpredictable and upsetting ways. While it is not possible to change clients’ past, the way in which you interact with them can help them reclaim a positive sense of agency and self.

Empathetic Engagement

Once you know that clients suffer from trauma, there are a number of things you can do to work effectively with them. It is important that the client feel emotionally secure when interacting with you. That may involve engaging with the client’s feelings in an empathetic manner. “To ignore fear, anxiety, sadness, denial, or any other psychological states of mind is to leave the client in a condition that makes rational informed decision-making difficult, if not impossible.”9 This engagement with the client’s feelings is not focused on in-depth analysis and processing, as in a therapeutic relationship with a mental health care provider. Rather, the role of the attorney in this case is to acknowledge the existence and validity of the client’s feelings.

Avoid Re-Traumatization

There are a number of strategies to avoid re-traumatizing your client. Be aware that retelling the events of a crime may be equally traumatizing for offenders as for victims.10 Having to relive traumatic events through multiple narrative accounts can re-traumatize clients. “To avoid or reduce retrauma, try to reverse the dynamics of the trauma in your work with your client . . . It may be as simple as giving the client power to make some decisions in the representation. Tell her you are going to talk about this matter and you know how difficult it is. Ask her when she would like to talk about it. Or, when she decides she is ready to talk about it, offer breaks to give her the opportunity to decide how she tells you about it, and how long the sessions are . . . [L]isten deeply, use her own words back, try to authentically understand her story.”11 The goal of this strategy is to allow clients to recount the traumatic event under circumstances in which they have personal agency.

Impact of Client Trauma on the Attorney/Counselor at Law

Until the legal profession becomes automated, attorneys will be as human as the clients they represent. The traumatic events that are experienced by clients affect the attorneys that they interact with. It is not a matter of whether traumatized clients affect the attorneys they work with but how. The parameters of this interaction are largely governed by the level of the lawyer’s awareness of trauma and its effects.

Legal professionals are affected by their clients’ trauma at higher rates than other service providers. “Lawyers are trained to assume that the only things relevant to their relationships with their clients are how well they know the law and how well they can read and apply it.”12 As a result, attorneys are less equipped to deal with the results of interacting with traumatized clients. In one study, attorneys who were recruited from domestic violence and family law and legal aid criminal services experienced more symptoms of secondary trauma and burnout compared with comparison groups of mental health providers and social workers.13 Though the content of the work that attorneys do with traumatized clients may be different than that of mental health providers, its effects are the same or worse on their psychological well-being.

The ways in which working with traumatized clients affects professionals is alternatively named “vicarious trauma,” “secondary trauma symptoms,” compassion fatigue, and empathetic strain.14 It is also defined as counter-transference in the psychological sphere.15 “In short, vicarious traumatization refers to the experience of a professional developing and reporting personal symptoms of trauma as a result of responding to traumatized clients. For some, simply learning about a traumatic event carries potential for vicarious traumatization.”16 Symptoms of vicarious trauma are generally emotional in nature, and range from “a decreased sense of energy, no time for one’s self, increased disconnection from loved ones, social withdrawal, and an increased sensitivity to violence, threat, or fear. The opposite symptoms may also appear, manifested as decreased sensitivity, cynicism, and a generalized sense of despair and hopelessness.”17 Just as the effects of trauma vary by individual, vicarious trauma has myriad manifestations.

A number of intersecting factors make attorneys susceptible to vicarious trauma, including personality, level of training, work environment, and supervision. Empathy, crucial to effectively working with clients, correlates to higher susceptibility for vicarious trauma. “‘It has been recognized that workers [including attorneys] who have the greatest capacity for feeling and expressing empathy are at the greatest risk from experiencing secondary traumatization’ (Figley, 1995).”18 Preventive factors such as professional awareness and support are often missing from legal workplaces. “Levin noted the lawyers encountered more traumatized clients than other professionals did, and they often lacked knowledge about trauma and its effects on both clients and themselves. Lawyers said that their supervisors weren’t knowledgeable about trauma, and that they had no regular forums to talk about their feelings. These factors contributed to secondary trauma.”19

The effects of working in the legal profession take a disproportionate toll on those who practice law. “Lawyers experience alcoholism, depression, and other forms of psychological distress and dissatisfaction at a rate of about twenty percent, about twice the amount found in the general population.”20 Part of this may be the result of working with traumatized clients without necessary awareness and prevention. The frustration and feelings of powerlessness felt by many attorneys may in fact be vicarious trauma that mirrors their clients’ own mental and emotional state.

Strategies in Addressing Trauma in Work

Emotional, interpersonal interactions are the cornerstone of much of legal work. Working to stay emotionally healthy is one of the most important ways to ensure a successful outcome for yourself and your client. There are a number of techniques used in different fields that are targeted specifically for the enhancement of practitioner well being.

Many of the techniques advocated in preventing and treating vicarious trauma overlap with stress management techniques. “For lawyers who are regularly through their client work exposed to trauma, there are overlaps between vicarious trauma management and stress management. Many of the things that people recovering from or trying to manage vicarious trauma are asked to do is to start with the very basic parts of your daily life: food, sleep, exercise, water, breathing. These are things that many helping professionals don’t attend to in themselves, as sensitive as they are to those needs in their clients.”21

Leading a full and satisfying life is the most effective approach legal practitioners can take to effectively serve clients. “To protect themselves from secondary trauma, carers [including attorneys] should aim to have a balanced life in which their own needs are taken into account alongside the needs of work, home, family, and friends (Stamm, 1995). Carers [including attorneys] have found that discussing cases with colleagues, attending training workshops, spending time with family or friends, having holidays, socializing, exercising, limiting workload, developing spiritual life, and supervision were most helpful (Pearlman, 1999).”22 Though it may seem counterintuitive, prioritizing your emotional and mental health benefits not just yourself but also the clients that you interact with.

Spiritual Practice

A spiritual life in general, and mindfulness meditation in particular, are methods for enhancing clarity and increasing general relaxation for practitioners. “Specifically, commentators have found that spirituality is important for preparing a lawyer’s mental state for legal work, maintaining a lawyer’s mental health, facilitating a lawyer’s professional choices, and influencing the way a lawyer interacts with clients.”23

Balanced Caseload

Striving for a balanced caseload is another strategy to prevent vicarious trauma, burnout, and other occupational hazards. “One of the most important recommendations for preventing vicarious trauma is balance: managing one’s caseload to include a diversity of clients (e.g., non-traumatized clients).”24 Working with a range of clients ensures that attorneys are exposed to a broader range of healthier behavior.

Professional Boundaries

Professional boundaries set by the legal professional prevent practitioners from vicariously taking on the experience of their clients. “From structural boundaries of space and time (not giving out home phone numbers, considering carefully where one will meet clients, etc.) to the more permeable boundary of emotional distance and connection, attorneys… must strive to protect themselves from making their client’s problem their own.”25 This is even more important in cases where the attorney has shared a similar type of personal traumatic experience.

Institutional Environment

Supervision, support, and institutional acceptance of an attorney’s needs are crucial in preventing burnout and vicarious trauma, and addressing it when it does occur. “The incidence of secondary trauma can be reduced when the carer [including the attorney] has access to professional support (Salston & Figley, 2003). The importance of regular professional supervision has been identified as essential (Cerney, 1995; McCann & Pearlman, 1990).”26

Without addressing the way in which trauma affects legal work, both clients and attorneys suffer. “At worst professionals may become perpetrators of psychological or economic violence upon clients who may be too ignorant, confused, impoverished, or exhausted to protect themselves. In turn, professionals themselves may suffer a range of physical, psychological, or legal assaults, whose scope is limited mostly by the creativity, scruples, and resources of the individuals launching the attack.”27 “Success” in legal terms can extend beyond court decisions and settlement to the well-being of clients and attorneys.


In the context of the legal profession, trauma is a code word for the emotional life of the client. Though not a formalized part of the legal process, the personal experiences of those most directly affected by the legal system infuse the entire system. Without real people with a huge range of emotional and psychic interests, the legal system would not exist. Ignoring the emotional aspect of legal practice is not only a disservice to clients and attorneys but may be dangerous to both.

A constructive approach to dealing with traumatized clients must simultaneously take into account the needs of clients and attorneys. Surprisingly, the type of relationship that is beneficial to the client is the same type that is beneficial to the attorney as well. “Law as a healing profession has great transformational potential. It could begin to address the ‘tripartite crisis’ in the legal profession of deprofessionalism, low public opinion of lawyers, and lawyer distress. It could make the legal system a more inspiring, humane, and hospitable place for clients, lawyers, judges, and indeed society as a whole.”28

Traumatic experience is a terrifying reality for many people. The resulting trauma and powerlessness can make it very difficult to function, relate to other people, and feel whole. Many times clients’ experience in the legal system compounds those feelings of powerlessness, leading to difficult behavior that negatively affects their relationship with their attorneys. With awareness, attorneys can become more effective at protecting themselves and their clients from the negative effects of trauma. The legal relationship can even encourage growth and healing for clients. “There is an emerging body of evidence to show that where an individual has been able to understand and make sense of the traumatic exposure, post-trauma growth is possible (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995).”29 The transformative potential of trauma means that instead of being daily witnesses to crushing powerlessness, attorneys can be inspired by their clients’ growth.


1. Greenwood, Arin. “Ripple Effects: Education and Self-Care Can Help Lawyers Avoid Internalizing Client Trauma.” ABA Journal, January 2006, p. 20, quoting Dr. Andrew Levin.

2. Fines, Barbara Glesner & Madsen, Cathy. “Caring Too Little, Caring Too Much: Competence and the Family Law Attorney.” UMKC Law Review. Summer, 2007, p. 11.

3. Art of Lawyering, p. 188.

4. Parker, Lynette M. “Increasing Law Students’ Effectiveness When Representing Traumatized Clients: A Case Study of the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center.” Georgetown Immigration Law Journal. Winter, 2007, p. 3.

5. Debra Jenkins. “Reducing Trauma for Children Involved in Dependency and Criminal Court.” Child Law Practice. Mar. 2008, Vol. 27 Issue 1, p 1–10, p. 1.

6. Seamore, Captain Evan R. “Attorneys as First Responders: Recognizing the Destructive Nature of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder on the Combat Veteran’s Legal Decision-Making Process.” Military Law Review, Winter 2009, p. 5.

7. Id.

8. Parker, p. 3.

9. Fines et al., p. 7.

10. Seamore, p. 163.

11. Panel Discussion. “Stress, Burnout, Vicarious Trauma, and Other Emotional Realities in the Lawyer/Client Relationship.” Touro Law Review 2004. 19 Touro L. Rev. 847, quoting Professor Jean Koh Peters, pp. 4–5.

12. Id., p. 1.

13. Greenwood, p. 1.

14. Fines et al., p. 9.

15. Teherani, Noreen. “The cost of caring—the impact of secondary trauma on assumptions, values and beliefs.” Counselling Psychology Quarterly, December 2007; 20 (4); 325–339. p. 327.

16. Fines et al., p. 9.

17. Id., p. 10.

18. Teherani, p. 328.

19. Greenwood, p. 1.

20. Daicoff, Susan. “Law as a Healing Profession: The “Comprehensive Law Movement.” Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal. 2006. 6 Pepp.Disp.Resol.L.J.1, p. 23.

21. Panel Discussion. “Stress, Burnout, Vicarious Trauma, and other Emotional Realities in the Lawyer/Client Relationship.” Touro Law Review 2004. 19 Touro L. Rev. 847, quoting Professor Jean Koh Peters, pp. 4–5. Quoting Professor Peters, p. 3.

22. Teherani, p. 329.

23. Daicoff, p. 21.

24. Fines et al., p. 12

25. Id., p. 13.

26. Teherani, p. 329.

27. Fines et al., p. 1.

28. Daicoff, p. 1.

29. Tehrani, p. 326.

Abby Anna Batko-Taylor
Abby Anna Batko-Taylor
Abby Anna Batko-Taylor has worked with traumatized individuals for over a decade, including incarcerated women, Guatemalan refugees, and visually impaired students, and is currently a law and social work graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.
Melissa L. Shearer
Melissa L. Shearer
Melissa L. Shearer has been an attorney with the Travis County Mental Health Public Defender (MHPD) since its inception in 2007. Prior to her work with the MHPD, Melissa served as an attorney with the Legal Services Division of the State Bar of Texas and the Colorado State Public Defender in Denver. Melissa received her bachelor’s degree in Social Work with honors from the University of Texas at Austin in 1997 and her JD from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2002.

Abby Anna Batko-Taylor has worked with traumatized individuals for over a decade, including incarcerated women, Guatemalan refugees, and visually impaired students, and is currently a law and social work graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Melissa L. Shearer has been an attorney with the Travis County Mental Health Public Defender (MHPD) since its inception in 2007. Prior to her work with the MHPD, Melissa served as an attorney with the Legal Services Division of the State Bar of Texas and the Colorado State Public Defender in Denver. Melissa received her bachelor’s degree in Social Work with honors from the University of Texas at Austin in 1997 and her JD from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2002.

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