New Research on Trauma in the Law & Practical Steps to Trauma-Informed Lawyering

Based on research and insights from the November 18th CLE A Culturally Competent Lens: What New Research Tells Us About Trauma in the Law, featuring Jerome M. Organ, Bakken Law Professor and Co-director of Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions, Jennifer A. Waltman, Psy.D., MBA, LP, Adjunct Professor, Natalie Netzel, Co-Director of Clinical Education Program; Assistant Professor of Law, Casey Matthiesen, MAIBA President, and moderated by Joan Bibelhausen, Executive Director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

In a 2021 Survey of Law Student Well-being (SLSWB), students from 39 law schools were asked about their prior experiences with trauma. With around 5,000 respondents from schools across many demographics, this was the most thorough survey of law student well-being that has been conducted by SLSWB. Newer lawyers entering the profession report high rates of trauma, and research about trauma and its impacts has demonstrated that there is a link between trauma and decreased wellbeing, including substance abuse and other mental health issues. Furthermore, many traumatic experiences are a direct result of social inequities perpetuated by the legal system.

The findings of the study

Overall, 84% of law students had experienced some form of trauma. 70% of students had experienced two or more of the traumas listed, and 44% had experienced three or more traumas. Trauma was more common in historically marginalized students: female students  —88% of female law students surveyed had experienced trauma of some kind, compared to 75% of male students; 89% of Black respondents reported experiencing trauma, and White and Asian students reported lower rates of trauma, hovering around 81%.

Students who reported one or more experiences of trauma were asked to take a PTSD screening test. 29% of the female students who reported one or more traumas, and 22% of male students reporting one or more traumas were identified as presenting significant symptoms of PTSD.

When asked about their experiences in law school, students with trauma reported increased feelings of imposter syndrome, overwhelm, anxiety, and/or depression. They were more likely to struggle finding a quiet place to study and perceived themselves as struggling with time management. 

Why does this matter?

The population surveyed represents newer lawyers who are entering the profession. It also reveals the prevalence of trauma in the legal profession as a whole. As a profession, lawyers report rates of substance abuse, mental illness, burnout, and suicide that are significantly higher than the general population.  Studying trauma—itself linked to high rates of mental illness and substance abuse—in the legal profession could provide an explanation for the high incidence rate of many mental health issues. Awareness of the links between trauma and the well-being crisis in the legal profession could provide some insight in what interventions and changes would be effective at lowering these rates. 

The data also demonstrates starkly the consequences of system inequities in the legal profession: women were more likely than men to report experiences of trauma, and Black individuals reported instance rates of trauma that were significantly higher than other racial groups.

If the legal profession wants to address major issues of well-being, attorney retention, and systemic inequality, it is essential to understand how trauma might be contributing. A trauma-informed approach may be an important intervention for employers, law school professors, and lawyers themselves to implement.

What does a trauma-informed approach look like?

First, lawyers and others in the legal profession must be aware that traumatic experiences are prevalent in their field and should understand what a traumatic experience is. (there is a graphic I am going to include that explains traumatic experiences) 

Understanding the ways trauma manifests in individuals can provide more insight into a colleague or a client’s behavior. Additionally, an understanding of vicarious trauma  can give those in the legal profession insight into how they or their colleagues might be affected by the traumatic experiences of those they serve. Being mindful of others’ experiences is a big part of approaching lawyering from a trauma-informed place.

Being intentional can mean:

• Safety—being someone your colleague can be honest with. Honoring their privacy, being trustworthy, being a listening ear.
• Recognizing cultural and historical realities—being aware of the historical context of the American legal system, particularly in the way it has failed and continues to fail to protect Black and Indigenous people of color, and/or being aware of the sexual harassment and discrimination that women have faced. 

• Empowerment—being knowledgeable about treatments and approaches to healing from trauma and being able to share these with someone who is struggling. You don’t need to be a mental health professional, but knowledge of how to find a mental health professional could make a big difference to someone around you.

Having an awareness of the prevalence of trauma and a knowledge of how trauma might manifest in others is a crucial understanding for anyone in the legal profession to have. SLSWB data demonstrates that rates of trauma among law students is high, and that the impact of these traumas can have far-reaching impacts that follow these students well into their careers. A trauma-informed approach to lawyering can make a world of difference to lawyer well-being and equity and inclusivity, in law school and beyond.