Dr. Laura McGuire On Trauma Training For Legal Professionals

By Sarah Martinson | December 20, 2020, 8:02 PM EST

As a survivor of domestic violence and sexual harassment, Dr. Laura McGuire has firsthand knowledge of how frustrating it can be navigating the legal system while dealing with trauma.

Survivors of trauma try their best to provide their attorneys with all the information that they need to litigate their cases, but when dealing with trauma, survivors may be emotional and forgetful, according to McGuire, who is the CEO of the National Center for Equity and Agency. The organization has created a first-of-its-kind trauma-informed care certification program for legal professionals.

Dr. Laura McGuire is CEO of National Center of Equity and Agency, an organization that provides law firms with trauma-informed care training.

McGuire is a trauma-informed care specialist who offers training to educators, health care workers and law firms for how to best communicate with individuals who have experienced trauma such as sexual assault.

When attorneys don't have trauma-informed care training, it can hurt survivors' ability to access justice in their cases, McGuire said.

"We see that time and time again," she said. "Attorneys say, 'I tried to help them, but they wouldn't work with me. They were emotional. They were forgetful. They didn't turn in the things I requested from them on time.' Where the survivor would say, 'My attorney made me feel overwhelmed and frustrated.'"

McGuire spoke with Law360 about NCEA's trauma-informed care certification program for legal professionals and how she hopes that the program will fill a gap in current legal training.

Why did your company decide to create a trauma-informed care certification program for legal professionals?

It came about because one person contacted me about a year and a half ago on LinkedIn and said, "I want to know more about trauma-informed care. I am an attorney who works mostly in family law. We see a lot of trauma. I want to understand it so I can serve my clients better." I found some resources for her, but I told her that there is not a ton out there that is really customized for legal professionals. So as I was sharing this information with her, she was saying I wish there was training and information.

Now there are conferences, sessions and CLEs that give an overview on trauma-informed care, but the training is not specific to legal professionals.

So I continued to talk to her, and I started to formulate what this training would look like across the board, in a number of different legal fields. I really thought the next step would be a certification program versus just another general session on the basic tenets of trauma-informed care. A certification for law firms to say that this is going to be a cornerstone of our practice. Then, survivors or anyone who just wants a more sensitive approach, or more empathetic approach from the attorney that they are hiring, can seek this out.

Why do you think a certification program like this didn't already exist?

That's a good question. I think trauma care experts don't think about lawyers as being in a profession that has a real need in investing in this kind of training at that level like teachers and therapists.

Having my own experiences navigating the legal system as a survivor, a lot of the compound trauma that I experienced was just not having legal representation that was communicating with me, or with the other victims that I have worked with. Attorneys weren't explaining things and helping us process what we are going through. The legal system is very confusing if you don't have a legal background. "What is going on? What are my options?" And that is exactly where that trauma-informed care approach is so vital and makes such a huge difference.

I think there has been a gap in understanding in the legal field about why would this benefit legal professionals. "What does it do for my bottom line? Is it going to increase my client load? Is it going to increase positive referrals?" So I had to make that connection for the professional field on the legal side, and then I had to say how do I bridge this gap where a lot of people in the social sciences were thinking this is something that didn't necessarily needed to be developed for that profession.

Why is getting this certification valuable for attorneys?

This provides that true differentiating stamp of approval that here is either an individual or firm that is invested in having these kinds of practices, and working with these kinds of clients, and having that unique approach. Then, it does usually greatly increase client satisfaction and referrals. It also makes the attorney's job easier because you understand why people might be reacting a certain way, why it might be difficult for them to tell their story, what things you can do in your practice that will make working with those clients that much easier to do. That takes a lot of stress off the attorney and their team.

The other piece is helping lawyers deal with secondary trauma. Attorneys have higher stress rates in their own practices because what they are doing is just saying, "Well, let's just look at this from a very pragmatic, practical perspective and not have emotional reactions." Well, they are people. They are going to have emotional reactions, and they are going to be taking on that trauma in a very similar way if they had survived that.

What do you hope the certification program achieves?

Above all, to fill a need for clients and attorneys who care about these things, but haven't had the really specific resources for it in the past. Because, again, I see the need, and I see the desire for it from all parties involved.

How does attorneys being trauma care-informed affect survivors' access to justice in our legal system?

On many levels. Again, survivors might hire someone, or be assigned someone, and they are trying their best to understand what evidence is admissible, what do different terms mean, what part of their story is important to their case versus what may be emotionally important to them, and that's where this has been really challenging.

The attorneys are trying their best to give them what they need, and the survivors are trying to remember and gather information. But if the person working with them doesn't have the trauma-informed care approach, everybody is going to feel frustrated.

How does the certification program work?

The training builds foundational knowledge on how trauma-informed principles apply to legal cases, such as how a survivor is going to process information. For example, if survivors are dealing with new information in a case, how attorneys can navigate reactions from survivors that might come up from seeing the information.

Every survivor reacts differently, but there are some commonalities like taking things personally and being easily upset, whether that means crying over too many options or getting easily offended or angry. The training helps attorneys understand that those reactions are not something they need to take personally, but they are also not something to ignore.

Ultimately, trauma-informed care, especially in the legal field, is really about increasing emotional intelligence, and how to better communicate with people in a way that supports their emotional well-being.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the trauma Dr. McGuire has personally experienced. That error has been corrected.

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