• Seeking and using legal professionals as a sexual assault survivor can be re-traumatizing. 
  • One trauma specialist and survivor is training lawyers how to deliver trauma-informed services. 
  • Survivors should look for lawyers with certain credentials and communication styles. 

When Laura McGuire first sought legal aid as a domestic violence survivor, the lawyers said all the right things. But when she started working with them, she felt like a number. 

"I can't tell you how many times I have left a meeting with an attorney, left a mediation session — much less a hearing or anything else — and felt completely retraumatized by the experience," McGuire, a sexologist in Florida and founder of the National Center for Equity and Agency, told Insider. 

Even what's just a simple phone call or an email to a lawyer can feel like a matter of life and death for a victim of trauma. Legal professionals "don't understand that every single day you are opening that email holding your breath, clenching your muscles, preparing for possibly seeing their name in the 'from' line,'" McGuire said, referring to the abuser. 

Her personal experience, along with her work with trauma victims, inspired her to create a certification program that trains legal professionals in trauma-informed care. Enrollees learn practical tips like phrasing communications sensitively, as well as some of the science behind trauma, which affects victims' memories and shapes how they tell their story. 

For example, survivors can have fuzzy or even nonexistent memories, may prefer to share in bits and pieces, and may slip into the third person if talking about an experience becomes too painful, attorney Kevin Biniazan has found in his work representing sexual assault victims.

"For somebody who may not know enough about the effects of trauma, they may think that it must not have been that a big of deal for them, there's really no emotion there," he said. "Where in fact, it's just the opposite." 

Here's how he and McGuire recommend survivors find a sensitive lawyer.

Look for the right credentials and mission

Survivors can reach out to McGuire's organization to request her training in their area.

"My hope," said Biniazan, who's bringing the training to his firm, "is that undergoing this type of training that Laura's providing us becomes more prevalent to the point where clients or new clients could simply ask the question, 'Hey, have you ever undergo any trauma-informed care training?" 

Meantime, Biniazan recommends using a lawyer who's a member of the National Crime Victim Bar Association. He found the group ahead of his first sexual assault case, representing boys assaulted at a church.  

The goal is to help victims "pursue civil actions against folks who are responsible — not just the murderer or the perpetrator of sexual abuse, but the organizations and institutions that were part of making that happen." 

Working with a lawyer who has that broader lens is important for sexual assault survivors, who aren't in it for the money, McGuire said. More than seeking an attorney who promises the biggest settlement, they want someone "who's fully committed to working with you in a compassionate, sensitively trauma-informed way." 

And more than necessarily seeing their abuser behind bars, survivors want to see "bottom-up transformation of the systems that allowed this harm to happen."  

Ask and observe how they communicate

McGuire recommends asking about the specifics of communication, like, "If I email you and I don't understand anything, can you walk me through it? How much will that cost?"

You can also ask how they'll involve consent in every step of the process, since survivors can often feel so overwhelmed they sign papers before truly understanding what they're committing to, McGuire said. 

Biniazan communicates with trauma survivors differently than, say, victims of a car crash. He won't cc other partners on emails at first, and tells potential clients they don't have to answer any of his questions if they're triggering. 

"I can't just jump straight into it with a potential client who is a survivor of sexual abuse on their first phone call and say, 'Hey, how are you? My name's Kevin, why don't you tell me what happened?'" he said. "It's a more delicate situation, it's like peeling back layers of an onion." 

In-person meetings can operate differently too. If Biniazan's working with a woman who's been assaulted by a man, he'll make sure to seat them in a glass-paned room facing the door so they don't feel trapped. 

Binizian says he also doesn't pressure potential clients to make a quick decision about hiring him, and gives them his cellphone number to text as questions come up. "If you feel like you're getting a lot of insistence to 'sign now' or 'hire us now,' maybe that's a red flag," he said. 

At the same time, he makes sure to answer any calls or emails from these potential clients quickly. "Ruminating on those concerns, especially going through what they're going through, just makes matters worse," he said. 

Feel free to shop around   

McGuire is now working with a lawyer who gets it.

"Don't be afraid to interview a lot of people until you find someone who really makes you feel safe and heard, and don't be afraid to change," she said. "If they sound great at first and then you get through the process and you're seeing the opposite, it's OK to say, 'I think I need to look elsewhere.'" 

"I think a lot of times we feel like we should just be grateful for anyone who's willing to work with us," McGuire added, "but we deserve so much more than that." 

Read the original article on Insider