How Trauma Education Benefits Clients and Advocates

By Shelby Fuchs, J.D. Class of 2022

Discussions of trauma and trauma responses are becoming more and more ordinary and more and more understood by lawyers and the legal profession. This is a fantastic step forward in empathy and understanding, both in the interpersonal and the professional contexts. Undeniably, many people have experienced events that cause trauma responses. In the Immigration Clinic, many of our clients are part of this group. Having a baseline understanding of the psychology of trauma has been enormously beneficial as a student in the Immigration Clinic because it has provided structure to my work while also centering the client’s experiences.

As someone with a psychology background, I was immensely excited for the presentation by Dr. Craig Cashwell from the William & Mary School of Education during a Clinic class session. Dr. Cashwell introduced the class to theories of trauma and how the body and brain respond to trauma, with the theme that trauma responses are a normal human response to a difficult event. One particularly helpful lesson was the concept of a window of tolerance. When someone has experienced trauma, their window of tolerance may narrow. This means that when something reminds them of the traumatic event—such as seeing someone who looks like their persecutor, being asked about the violence they suffered, or even smelling a cologne their abusive partner wore—this reminder will send them outside of their window of tolerance. And most importantly, individuals who have experienced trauma can often be stuck outside of their window of tolerance. When someone is outside of their window of tolerance, they can be “above” the window – stuck in “on-mode” – or “below” the window – stuck in “off-mode.” As Dr. Cashwell explained, those above the window are in a state of hyperarousal – they may feel anxious, hypervigilant, in a state of chronic pain, or restless, among other things. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those below their window are in a state of hypo-arousal. People may feel disoriented, disconnected, or chronically fatigued, among other things.

What excited me the most about Dr. Cashwell’s discussion was the notion of applying these concepts to legal practice. Awareness and knowledge are a crucial first step, but it is the application that makes the difference. And it is clear that the Clinic truly strives to be trauma-informed.

These concepts are most crucial in the interview context. Nothing is more jarring to a client than starting an interview with the worst thing that happened to them. Instead, it is more beneficial for the client – and the student conducting the interview – to start slowly, set the scene, and build-up to the incident that is the center of the case. But just as it is jarring to start with the traumatic event, ending with the event is equally disconcerting. Easing out of the event is just as important as easing in to the event from an interviewing perspective.

From a practical perspective, these concepts provide necessary structure to a wide-ranging interview. But they also facilitate the conversation. Asking questions about a difficult event my client experienced was something I was nervous about when preparing for my interview; but, it was much easier to ask those questions after my client and I had established some rapport and gone through other topics together.

Being trauma-informed is not something that you are – trauma is not static and neither are our clients – instead, being trauma-informed is a process and something to constantly strive towards. To me, trauma informed advocacy is an ongoing effort and something that changes with each client. As someone who entered the legal field because it is a helping profession having this knowledge is indispensable. Applying these concepts in a supportive environment has been an incredible learning experience and something I will carry with me into my career.