Trauma-informed lawyering for Asian communities

Many Asian communities carry the burdens of historical and racism-related trauma. When legal professionals interact with members of these communities, a trauma-informed approach becomes necessary.

Have you ever seen a psychologist or counsellor? I’ve seen a few over the past several years, and one of the first things they ask is whether I’d like tea or water.

They tell me to make myself comfortable on one of their office’s chairs, or maybe they have a couch. Often, they’ll ask me what my preferred name is.

If I start to cry, they offer me tissues and we sit in silence for however long I need. If they take notes, they let me know why, and that everything we discuss is confidential with a few exceptions. They ask if I have questions.

Person holding a journal with pen in an office.
Photo Credit: Polina Zimmerman on Unsplash

Good service will make you feel seen and heard, whether it is in a counselling context or not. Did you have a teacher that did that for you? Do you choose which grocery store to shop at because one caters to your cultural needs?

On the other hand, have you felt ignored or dismissed about an issue in your workplace? Or a health issue with a medical professional? Has an advisor or counsellor glossed over your culturally-specific issues and needs?

What is trauma-informed lawyering?

As I think of these counselling practices, I am struck by the number of parallels between them and trauma-informed lawyering. A trauma-informed approach to legal practice is simple — recognize symptoms of trauma and use this knowledge in interactions with others, in order to avoid inflicting further trauma.

Last month, I attended the event “Trauma-Informed Lawyering with Myrna McCallum: Working with Asian Communities”, hosted by the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (British Columbia) Society (FACL BC). Myrna is a Métis-Cree lawyer from Treaty Six territory, host of The Trauma-Informed Lawyer podcast, and an educator and advocate for trauma-informed lawyering.

A stand on a table at a gala
Photo Credit: FACL BC

During the event, Myrna spoke about how trauma-informed lawyering requires building trust and starting with humility. It centers client needs and de-centers lawyers’ egos as experts.

Trauma-informed lawyering is a call to treat clients as people with diverse and complex lives beyond the issues that bring them to a lawyer’s office. It is an active choice to combat the stereotype of lawyers as cold and unfeeling.

People with legal issues, whether in criminal, family, immigration, business, or labour law, are more than the legal question their circumstances pose.

The trauma-informed process

The question then, is when to be trauma-informed. Given the reality of trauma, a trauma-informed approach should be taken in all cases, with all clients.

Trauma can be difficult to recognize, as it can manifest in people in many ways — whether distrust, anger, or silence. As Myrna advises, people who have experienced trauma may also not display any identifiable signs. There is no dictating what someone might find traumatic, and likewise no right way to react to trauma.

Like some counsellors have done, integrating trauma into practice includes addressing clients with their preferred name, title, and pronouns.

When a client explains the circumstances that have brought them to a lawyer’s office, a trauma-informed lawyer signals through words and body language that they are listening, and that they care.

Two women at a table
Photo credit: mentatgt on Pexels

In avoiding further harm, client needs are the focus. For example, although a client may come to a law office for help with a legal issue, a trauma-informed approach considers whether a client might prefer alternative resolutions outside of the legal system.

This approach also goes beyond simply considering the best interests of one’s client, but also involves being aware of the trauma that lawyers can often inflict upon opposing parties.

A trauma informed approach, for example, would require a lawyer to be aware of the trauma or re-traumatization that they could inflict on a plaintiff or a witness through cross-examination.

Addressing trauma within Asian communities

Different kinds of trauma can manifest from several sources — whether as the result of multiple microaggressions or major life events. Clients in any field of law may bring trauma with them that will impact how a lawyer will service them. Additionally, trauma may visibly manifest in many different ways, or not at all.

For this reason, recognizing trauma can be difficult in Asian clients. Within many Asian communities, trauma may be unspoken as a result of shame, but it exists.

A notepad sitting on a table
Photo credit: Alex Green on Pexels

Trauma runs through our migration histories. It remains present in our experiences of family separation, disconnection from cultures of our ancestry, and intergenerational trauma. It continues to manifest as a result of racism.

More on Asian mental health: Mental health support for the Asian Canadian community and beyond

With reported anti-Asian hate crimes having increased by 878% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no question that our communities continue to experience trauma today. It is also clear that our communities would benefit from being served by trauma-informed lawyers.

When communicating with Asian clients and communities, integrating a trauma-informed approach may look different. Where in some cultures it is appropriate to make eye contact to communicate active listening, it may be more appropriate in others to avoid it.

Where silence and long pauses are uncomfortable for some, an Asian client carrying trauma may need more space and time to communicate the details of their issue and answer questions.

A trauma-informed approach also considers these often-subtle, culturally-specific needs.

Taking trauma-informed approaches beyond law 

If you are an Asian lawyer, or serve Asian clients, a trauma-informed approach should be the standard for high-quality service. Just as currents of trauma continue to inform the Asian experience, Asian clients deserve trauma-informed service.

But beyond the legal profession, we should be collectively asking how to be trauma-informed in all of our work. How can government services, policy, and grassroots organizing be trauma-informed?

How would your work be different if you did it in a way that centered trust and humility? If you were aware of the types of trauma Asian communities have and continue to face?

Learning about these histories and contexts can help us be trauma-informed. Resources such as Project 1907 work to chronicle ongoing incidents of anti-Asian racism, while providing historical context for the traumas that affect these communities today.

Beyond that, we can diversify our sources of information to learn directly from members of marginalized communities about their lived experiences and needs. In addition, Myrna’s podcast and FACL BC’s podcast provide opportunities to learn more about trauma-informed lawyering.

I encourage you, in whatever field you work, to learn about the communities you serve, the traumas they may carry with them, and to implement a trauma-informed approach for your interactions with others.

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