Just two years ago, if someone suggested that I could use my experience as a survivor of domestic violence and with sexual assault survivors in the military to become an overall better legal practitioner, I probably would have laughed at them.
These are not easy topics to discuss, so I have decided to address my experience, and the benefits of a trauma-informed practice in this article. Trauma-informed practice rests on traits intrinsic to all positive human relationships: empathy without judgment, active listening, and demonstration of genuine concern.
Life Experiences Guide and Shape Work
My work in criminal justice predates my personal experience with a trauma-informed practice. In law school, I chose to intern with the Wisconsin Innocence Project instead of a traditional summer-associate position out of sheer interest in true crime, which eventually led to a criminal law concentration. After graduation, I worked as a prosecutor and as an assistant attorney general with the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ), where I became well versed in the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Working on a case for the DOJ is the first time I recall being kept up at night, haunted by a victim’s vivid description of an assault.
Crystal A. Banse, U.W. 2010, operates Banse Law Group, Madison. Her practice focuses on resolving small business disputes, ensuring smooth real estate transactions, and defending consumers against creditor lawsuits.
At the time, I was also serving in the Wisconsin Army National Guard. In 2013, Chuck Hagel, then the U.S. Secretary of Defense, ordered all branches of the armed services to establish legal assistance programs for victims of sexual assault, and I attended one of the early certification courses. Soon I was in Virginia getting a crash course in representing survivors of sexual assault and trauma-informed lawyering.
It was exciting to be part of a completely new legal program, and the idea behind it – to give the victim a represented voice in the process – was innovative and well intentioned. So when my army mentor mentioned an opportunity to support the mission full time, I jumped at the chance. Joining several other judge advocates from across the country, I was selected to develop the Special Victims’ Counsel Program for the National Guard Bureau.
Once the program launched, I traveled to meet clients located throughout the United States. Clients were of every rank and branch, male and female, young and old. Reports of sexual assault ranged from inappropriate touching to forcible assaults, including recent incidents to allegations decades old. I was even trained and certified to represent children, though thankfully, I never had to.
The nature of military service encompasses more than a nine-to-five job, so I often felt as though I was more counselor than legal counsel. Most days were not spent in the courtroom; instead, I was attempting to help my clients access benefits, correct records, and file claims of retaliation for reporting. Behind the scenes, I helped survivors decide whether to officially report, shielded those who did not want to participate, and supported victims through failed investigations. Litigation skills only took me so far.
Because cases would routinely take years to resolve, my clients had time to establish trust and build a rapport with me. They would often call just to vent, even though they had access to multiple counselors trained in sexual assault response. In addition to PTSD, many of my clients struggled with drug and alcohol use disorders, other untreated mental health conditions, and other health problems. This meant I also bore the brunt of my clients’ anger, desperation, and frustration at the system.
Trauma’s Effects on Me
The constant traveling and intense client work took its toll after a while. I found myself getting burned out. Compassion fatigue – and real fatigue – were setting in. In 2015, I met my now ex-husband. In 2016, my tour of duty with the National Guard Bureau ended, and I went into private practice. In 2017, my ex-husband violently attacked me and was arrested for felony assault. We divorced shortly after that.
Never in a million years would I have thought I would be participating in the criminal justice system as a victim and experiencing PTSD firsthand. Until it happened, I never fully understood how a traumatic event could affect a person’s life in areas having nothing to do with the initial trauma. Now I do.
One of the most significant impacts for me was my interest in the pursuit of criminal justice and victims’ rights. Although initially, I thought my experience would make me a courtroom champion for these issues, I soon found myself feeling sick at the thought of having to appear in criminal or family court again. The years of taking on the stress of my clients and my own PTSD finally caught up to me, and I made a conscious choice to change my career trajectory.
Applying a Trauma-informed Approach to Any Law Practice
My personal experience has shaped my law practice significantly and changed its course forever. Over the last several years, I have made deliberate changes to improve my professional quality of life and overall satisfaction with law practice. Ensuring my mental health remains top priority allows me to be a more effective advocate for my clients and better attorney overall.
This meant transitioning into new practice areas where I can leverage the skills I learned previously. For me, that meant pivoting to business law, real estate, debt defense, and bankruptcy. The cases I take are less newsworthy, and the practice tends not to be as fast-paced or contentious as litigation, but the rewards are still high.
Naturally, trauma-informed lawyering still plays a significant part in my practice. Chances are it could help you, too. After all, people don’t typically consult lawyers when everything is going well for them. One-third of all adults experience significant trauma in their lifetime, so I employ a trauma-informed approach with all clients. Solving legal problems with kindness and empathy is paramount to a successful practice.
Implementing a trauma-informed approach offers immeasurable benefits. It will help you build trust, improve relationships with your clients, and ultimately improve your overall effectiveness as an attorney. Best of all, using a trauma-informed approach in your practice is relatively easy and does not require extensive training or costly implementation measures.
All Lawyers Can Use a Trauma-informed Approach
To be a competent trauma-informed practitioner, you need to be informed. Trauma affects everyone differently, and PTSD can manifest itself in many different ways. By familiarizing yourself with the wide-ranging effects of trauma, you will be able to anticipate and adapt to stressful situations before they arise and tailor your responses accordingly. Simple adaptations like these will improve client satisfaction and outcomes.
You don’t need to become a mental health expert to be successful in a trauma-based approach, but you should know where to refer someone should the need arise. Familiarize yourself with reputable nonprofit resources in your community and understand what each organization can and cannot do. Maintain an updated resource list at all times. Speak openly of support and offer assistance to break down the stigmas of trauma and PTSD.
Employing a trauma-informed approach also challenges stereotypes about trauma and PTSD. Consider this: If you’re in a meeting with five other people, one of the people has likely experienced intimate partner violence, regardless of the gender, age, education, income level, or family history of the meeting participants. And that’s just one type of trauma. By bringing the topics to light, you are encouraging dialogue, bringing these issues to light, and thus breaking down the stigma associated with talking about trauma and PTSD.
Don’t forget to take your own advice. Lawyers are helpers and get into this profession to effectuate real change. But you can only help other people if you are taking care of yourself. Compassion fatigue and secondary trauma are also very real. If you feel your mental health is being negatively affected, regardless of whether due to professional obligations or your personal situation, use the resources available for yourself. Know when to take a break or walk away altogether.
For me, changing my career direction was a necessary part of the plan, but I am very happy continuing to use my legal experience for good. While high-stakes litigation might be a thing of the past, I still use the skills honed in the military to help people solve different types of legal problems every day. Pivoting practice areas has been my best move.
WisLAP Can Help
The Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) offers confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, law students, and their families who are suffering from alcoholism, substance abuse, anxiety, and other issues that affect their well-being and law practice.
WisLAP 24-hour Helpline: (800) 543-2625
My personal and professional experience with trauma has shaped me into the person and lawyer I am today, and I encourage you to draw on your own experiences to develop a trauma-informed practice. It will improve your law practice and your interpersonal connections. It’s a win-win.
Meet Our Contributors
Complete the sentence: I never leave home without ___, because ___.
I never leave home without my iPhone because it’s a Swiss Army Knife for lawyers. It allows me to run my firm on the go and have all my essential information at my fingertips.
Because I’m 100 percent cloud-based and using all Apple products, I can easily access my business systems within seconds and make case updates in real-time with synchronicity to my computer, iPad, and Watch. It has improved my productivity and response time: I scan documents, listen to an audiobook, order groceries, view firm financials, schedule appointments, track mileage, conduct research, and network, all with a few taps.
I can use my business number while keeping my cell number private, and I even have a few features enabled to minimize unnecessary disruptions and screen time. I honestly can’t live without it.
Crystal A. Banse, Banse Law Group, Madison.
Become a contributor! Are you working on an interesting case? Have a practice tip to share? There are several ways to contribute to Wisconsin Lawyer. To discuss a topic idea, contact Managing Editor Karlé Lester at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6127, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out our writing and submission guidelines.