Five Tips for Interviewing Traumatized Clients

October 3, 2019

Attorneys in certain areas of practice see many clients who have endured traumatic events, which can make client interviews a delicate operation. Learning how to get the information you need to build a case while respecting boundaries and being mindful of potential triggers is fundamental to effective advocacy. Check out these five practice tips, straight from Best Practices for Interviewing Traumatized Clients (Update):

Understand How Trauma Manifests. Trauma can cause significant changes to the brain. From altering memories to causing someone to relive a traumatic event, trauma causes the brain to rewire itself.

Believe Your Clients. Members of marginalized groups (such as non-citizens and LGBTQ individuals) have frequently been mistreated by state institutions and are rightfully afraid - not just paranoid. Remember that trauma is a subjective experience - a single sexual assault may be just as traumatic as serial abuse. This is about the client’s personal experience - not an attorney’s opinion.

Make Your Client Comfortable. This is key to a successful interview. A few tips: Let the client know about any security check procedures in the building beforehand. Create a space that feels safe - ensure that there is a visible exit in the room. Provide gum or mints and water. For LGTBQ clients, let them know if there will be gender neutral bathrooms available.

Prepare Your Interview Questions with Trauma in Mind. Acknowledge that some of the questions you ask will be “stupid.” Don’t apologize more than twice - this can make clients feel like they have to make you feel better. Find ways to ask about trauma indirectly (for example, don’t ask “Are you a victim of domestic abuse?” but instead “How was your life growing up? Were there any windows in your room? Were you allowed to use the bathroom when you wanted?”). Don’t ask for specific dates - these are hard to remember - but about the season or holiday. Educate yourself on what being transgender means before you interview a transgender client. Make small talk. Say thank you.

Take Care of Yourself. Many attorneys will suffer from vicarious trauma - constant exposure to clients’ trauma can cause attorneys to experience similar symptoms. To combat this, count your wins. Send dog videos and memes to your friends. Remember how vital this kind of work is. 

*This article was prepared with assistance from Tamanna Saidi, a pre-law sophomore at Baruch College in New York City.

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Author Bio

Written by Sarah Mills

Sarah graduated from Simon's Rock College in 2005 with a BA in Linguistics, then worked in events production for several years before she graduated from New York Law School in 2012. Before joining Lawline, she worked in litigation management as a legal auditor. She loves working as a program attorney as it combines her legal knowledge and production background. She has two kids, two cats, and loves public transit and rainy days.

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