Five Tips for Attorneys Working with Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse
As a lawyer who represents victims of childhood sexual abuse, I often say that I put the “counselor” in “Attorney and Counselor at Law.” Glib comment aside, the sentiment is true—the subject matter we deal with on a daily basis requires skills more often aligned with mental health professions, not what we were taught in law school. Although we may focus on the best strategy for discovery or how to maximize recovery for our client, it is important for us to remember the humanity and vulnerability that underlie each case we bring involving sexual abuse.
Early in my career, I was told by a fellow advocate (notably, not an attorney and herself a survivor) that every victim needs three things: validation, a voice, and to regain a sense of power. This stuck with me, and I attempt to approach each case with these principles in mind. The following is a list of tips I find helpful in working with survivors:
It takes incredible courage to come forward about abuse, particularly for those who were abused in a different generation. I find it valuable to affirmatively tell the client that you know it takes courage to talk about the abuse, and that you are aware of how difficult it is to talk about. This validation not only helps put them at ease during your initial conversation, but also provides a foundation on which you can build a long-term relationship of trust.
It is important to help the client understand they are not alone, even if it is only generally reminding the client that you know of others who have endured similar abuse. Staying connected and avoiding isolation are crucial components of healing trauma wounds, particularly when many people have suffered in silence for many years. There are many groups such as SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, www.snapnetwork.org) and 1in6 (www.1in6.org) that provide resources and community for those who have been abused. I like to confirm the client has some type of support system in place, and I encourage them to do something nice for themselves after a deposition, interview, or other stressful situation.
Counseling can be tremendously beneficial to both the client personally and also to the client’s case. Having a solid treating therapist can bolster arguments regarding damages as well as provide particular insight to inform case strategy. However, beginning counseling for the first time can be nerve-wracking, and can sometimes even cause additional harm if the client does not feel ready. I encourage clients to think deeply about this issue and possibly begin to look for or get referrals for local therapists, consistently reminding them that I, myself, am not a mental health professional.
Because of the intensely personal subject matter involved in these cases, clients can sometimes become attached to and overly-involved in the process. It’s important to set reasonable expectations for the client as to what to expect in the litigation or claims process, and also set boundaries as to what your role is as an attorney. (In other words, you are not their therapist.) Setting boundaries also applies to yourself, as the lawyer. If we over-identify with our cases, role, or even our work in general, our ability to be an effective advocate can suffer. Maintaining proper self-care, particularly when dealing with such heavy subject matter, is crucial to remaining objective and sane.
Sometimes as lawyers we can get so bogged down in the technicalities and the minutia of litigation—discovering that elusive notice, finding that important witness, asking that perfect question in a deposition—that we forget that we have the privilege of dealing with individuals who have survived unbelievably traumatic situations. They are coming to us for help because we are in a unique position to not only effect change, but assist in providing a voice for those who have felt voiceless for too long. Coming forward about childhood abuse can be very empowering for clients, and many recognize that the litigation or claims process plays an important role in helping them find closure and that any recovery is often symbolic. As attorneys it does us well to remember this, especially when we get caught up in thinking too much “like a lawyer” that we forget to think “like a human being.”