Trauma-informed approach necessary in every legal practice area, says Myrna McCallum

McCallum hosts The Trauma-Informed Lawyer podcast, in partnership with the Canadian Bar Association

Trauma-informed approach necessary in every legal practice area, says Myrna McCallum
Myrna McCallum

Some legal-practice areas stand out as more likely to involve trauma – criminal law, for example. But Myrna McCallum, the host of the podcast, The Trauma-Informed Lawyer, says there is no area of law for which a trauma-informed approach is unnecessary.

“The application of this approach applies to everyone within the legal profession, regardless of their practice area,” she says. “If you are working with people, this practice applies to you.”

McCallum is now producing her podcast in partnership with the Canadian Bar Association. The expert and educator in trauma-informed lawyering launched when the pandemic erupted and cancelled all her scheduled in-person speaking engagements. A year later, 21 episodes have covered how to build a trauma-informed law practice, understanding Indigenous intergenerational trauma, wellness and trauma for law students and trauma-informed police training, among other topics. Guests have included best-selling author and trauma and addiction expert Gabor Maté, retired Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Harry LaForme, as well as legal academics from Canada, the U.S. and the UK, to name a few.

In year two, McCallum hopes to “continue to draw inspiring, motivational and powerful guests” and that the podcast “continues to thrive and grow and contribute to the ultimate transformation of our legal profession and for our judiciary.”

“Because we need it,” she says. “The way we've been practicing law and the way that we've been operating in the courts has not been healthy and has not been positive and it is not sustainable… I believe that trauma-informed layering and trauma-informed judicial practice really is the future for our legal systems.”

McCallum became familiar with trauma both personally and professionally. As a child, she attended Residential School. When she began practising law in Northern Saskatchewan, where she grew up, she worked as a criminal defence lawyer and Crown prosecutor. Later, she became an adjudicator for the Indian Residential School Assessment Process, where she examined survivors and determined the compensation to which they were entitled.

“It's really that experience, both in criminal law and adjudication, that I began to learn about trauma,” she says.

Trauma-informed lawyering involves recognizing the different ways trauma presents itself in clients, colleagues and oneself, says McCallum. Once recognized, the lawyer learns to engage in ways which avoid retraumatizing or triggering. Understanding how trauma impacts clients, the lawyer can adequately accommodate, so the client feels safe and empowered through the legal process. This may include making applications to the court asking to testify outside of the courtroom or introducing evidence in different ways, for example, she says.

“I would come into a room and I would prioritize the safety of others by asking the questions: Where would you like to sit? Where would you like me to sit? Is there anything that you need, that I ought to be aware of? I would give people the time and the space to say what they have to say without rushing them along.”

“I abandon the idea of following a script as I'm asking questions, and just allow the conversation to be led by the person I was talking to, recognizing that if somebody has to revisit a horrific memory, that might take them some time. And if it's going to take some time, then I'm there for that… These processes are not for us as lawyers, they're for the people who need justice, who need closure who need protection. I allowed that truth to guide a lot of my interactions with folks.”

Trauma-informed practising may help clients, but it also sustains lawyers, says McCallum. Studies show lawyers experience higher levels of mental illness and addiction than other professionals. In her work as an educator, McCallum says her audience has embraced the practice and its mental-health-focused underpinning.

“While doing all of this work, the lawyer is prioritizing their own mental health and wellbeing. Because if you're practicing immigration, refugee law, criminal law or family law – particularly those three areas tend to put you on the front lines of human suffering, on a regular basis,” she says.

“In order to do that work effectively, you need to be maintaining certain boundaries, and a certain level of self-care practice, collective-care practice or debriefing practice, to ensure that the traumas of others don't follow you home and, ultimately, adversely impact your life, personally and professionally.”

While those three practice areas are trauma-heavy, McCallum has worked with corporate lawyers doing mergers and acquisitions who run into trauma. She has worked with employment lawyers doing workplace investigations involving people who have experienced sexual harassment at work. Human rights lawyers, adjudicators, mediators and, especially, judges must also learn how to contend with trauma, she says.

“I do believe that there is a collective consciousness rising where lawyers and judges alike are thinking about getting through their careers in a way that allows them to be more in touch with their own humanity,” says McCallum. “So that they are mentally and psychologically and spiritually and emotionally intact by the time they reach retirement.”

“I think this outdated practice of looking at people solely as legal issues, as opposed to human beings, and running yourself ragged until you're sick, or you are unwell, is not the way that people want to practice anymore.”

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