Laura van Dernoot Lipsky is a trauma exposure expert who worked with homeless people, victims of domestic violence and others who have experienced severe hardship and suffering. In a 2015 TED Talk she talks about her experience ”’ and about the moment ten years into her career when she realized the cumulative toll that witnessing so much suffering had taken on her own life.

The Ted Talk was one of several resources recommended to NYLAG staff members at the conclusion of a training session held in January on building a trauma-informed legal practice. The program was the brainchild of NYLAG’s Diversity Task Force, which works to promote inclusion and diversity at NYLAG and brings staff members together across units and practice areas.

Kimberly Schertz

Staff Attorney Kimberly Schertz

“We all encounter difficult cases and legal issues, but are not often diligent about recognizing the effects of long term stress or exposure to trauma can have on us,” said Kimberly Schertz, Staff Attorney with the Matrimonial & Family Law Unit and a member of the Diversity Taskforce. “These issues can affect the quality of our work, ability to meaningfully connect with clients, and even our personal lives.”

69 NYLAG staff members attended the training, which was presented by Miriam Goodman, Assistant Director of Anti-Trafficking and Trauma Initiatives, and Kate Wurmfeld, Senior Attorney of Domestic Violence Programs, with the Center for Court Innovation (CCI). Wurmfeld was for a number of years a Supervising Attorney in NYLAG’s Matrimonial and Family Law Unit. CCI is a partnership between the New York State Unified Court System and the Fund for the City of New York. CCI performs original research evaluating innovative programs and assists judges, attorneys, justice officials, and community organizations interested in introducing new and proven tools to reform the justice system.

At the outset, attendees were asked to think about their most challenging clients, and explore how trauma – whether interpersonal, such as physical or sexual abuse, or systemic, such as racism or poverty – can result in negative or self-defeating behavior. For example, a client who was abused as a child has had her power and control taken away repeatedly, often throughout her life. Her encounter with a lawyer may trigger a reenactment of that power and control struggle.

Lawyers who recognize the signs of trauma will understand that a client who appears to be uncooperative or manipulative is in fact traumatized. This requires establishing a human relationship with the client, who needs to trust her lawyer and feel safe to talk about her trauma. Accounting for client needs based on their traumatic experiences can improve communications and litigation strategy. Lawyers will be better able to prepare their clients for hearings and have better information to explain their clients’ decisions and actions to the court.

Developing a trauma-informed approach improves client support, but doing so does come with a risk. Bearing witness to human suffering can lead over time to symptoms that can impact health and well-being. Vicarious trauma takes many forms, from feeling burned out to creating inflated expectations for what success looks like for a client. It is also insidious, building silently over years of exposure to client suffering. Symptoms can include feelings of sadness, anger, guilt and helplessness as well as difficulty in concentrating or a preoccupation with work issues. This can lead to social withdrawal, or distancing oneself from loved ones because of a feeling that there is nothing left to give.

The trainers recommended a number of strategies for healing. Small changes in the work day, such as taking a walk a lunch time or leaving early once a week to take a class can be forms of self-care and bring a fresh dose of reality to the work routine. Organizations can also play a role by building awareness for the problem, making sure that supervisors are educated and able to recognize the symptoms of trauma, and fostering a culture that promotes work/life balance and celebrates the rewards of doing important work.

“Vicarious trauma is a pressing issue. NYLAG staff work every day with clients who have experienced severe trauma and pain: victims of domestic violence; people losing their homes through eviction, foreclosure or a natural disaster; immigrants threatened with deportation and the break up pf their families; victims of racism, sexism, and more,” said Schertz. “We need to be physically and mentally healthy if we are to provide the best possible services to our clients, sustain our work, and continue to learn and grow professionally.”