The Trauma Informed Family Attorney
By Eddie Stephens, BCS and Vice-Chair of Center for Child Counseling, Inc. Board of Directors
“Eddie’s article is intimate, thoughtful, and serves as a compelling reminder of the need to maintain perspective amidst our busy lives.”
When a client’s ability to make decisions in connection with the representation is impaired, or whether because of minority, mental disability, or for some other reason, rule 4-1.14 of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar requires a lawyer to maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship with a client. This rule also allows (“may”) the attorney to seek the appointment of a guardian or take other protective actions with respect to a client, only when the lawyer reasonably believes that the client cannot adequately act in the client’s own interest.
The Preamble to Chapter 4 anticipates that within the framework of these rules, many difficult issues of professional discretion will arise. In family law, emotions run high. Often times, attorneys represent clients that have some sort of mental affliction or struggle, whether it is formally diagnosed or not. These issues often prevent the client from acting in their own best interest, and other times, they do not. When these issues arise, it serves as breeding grounds for complex ethical dilemmas.
From my perspective, the most common occurrence of an attorney employing the protections of Rule 4-1.14 is preventing a client from agreeing to something and entering into a binding agreement while in mental distress. The conundrum of having to stop mediation when you think your client is so upset that they are not thinking reasonably, versus knowing the offer being made might disappear forever if not accepted at that moment is all too common.
While the client may not be under a permanent mental disability, the situational stress and impact of that stress on the client may still require the attorney to terminate the mediation. It is even more common that clients face the “mediation blues” after settling the case by second-guessing their decision to settle or questioning the terms of their agreement. Knowing the voluntariness of the client’s agreement during mediation, and the motivation to question the terms of the agreement after could exemplify the normal emotional arc of a person closer to ending an intimate personal relationship, or could also exemplify someone under emotional fragility or duress.
Early in my career I represented a very successful businessman. Imagine my surprise when he confided in me that he was addicted to crack cocaine. I was so young and naïve, and I thought how can this be? This is a successful businessperson, who I viewed as highly functioning. I have certainly learned a lot since that moment. The more people I have represented over the course of my career, the more often these issues would present themselves. It is inevitable.
Due to the high level of mental lability that occurs in family cases, I would argue an attorney who practices in this field should be “Trauma Informed” to meet the requirements of Rule 4-1.14.
Attorneys, for the most part, are not licensed mental health professionals. It is not up to us to provide mental health care or treatment to our clients. But as attorneys, we should understand the impact of mental health concerns on our clients and make referrals for appropriate services.
Trauma is common.  in 4 children experiences some sort of maltreatment (physical, sexual, or emotional abuse). 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence, and 1 in 5 have been raped at some point in their lives.
Trauma Informed Care is an approach that assumes an individual is more likely than not to have a history of trauma. Trauma Informed Care recognizes the presence of trauma symptoms in a person and acknowledges the role trauma may play in an individual’s life.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events that occur before a child reaches the age of 18. In the absence of healthy relationships, these experiences can interfere with a person’s health, opportunities and stability throughout his or her lifetime— and can even affect future generations (intergenerational trauma) until the cycle is disrupted. Adverse Community Environments, such as housing instability and community violence, add an additional burden of trauma for many families.
The impact of ACEs was first realized in the mid-1990’s when a study conducted on 17,000 participants sought to determine how traumatic childhood events may negatively affect adult health.
The participants were asked about their experiences with childhood mistreatment, family dysfunction, current health status, and behaviors. The ACEs study found a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, employment challenges and incarceration. The higher number of ACEs, the greater the incident of negative outcomes in a person.
ACEs are just one form of trauma. Someone’s life and mental wellness can be impacted by witnessing a single traumatic event.
Dealing with trauma is traumatic. We deal with a high level of toxicity in our field. Vicarious Trauma or Compassion Fatigue is caused by being indirectly exposed to someone else’s trauma. Just listening to others recount a traumatic event could trigger an emotional reaction from deep within. It is important to recognize this and counterbalance these effects with appropriate self-care.
Sadly, our society has created a stigma about seeking out and receiving mental health care. Great progress has been made towards normalizing the term “self care” and “mental health” but the personal vulnerability it takes to admit the need for help, and then seeking and receiving the help is still stigmatized. To become a more functional community, we must eliminate this stigma. The fastest way to eliminate this stigma and to truly comply with Rule 4-1.14 is to create a trauma informed community. To reach that aspiration, it is important for us to:
• Understand the prevalence of trauma and adversity, and the impact of these on health and behavior;
• Recognize the effects of trauma and adversity on health and behavior;
• Receive Training on ACEs, Trauma, and Trauma Informed Care;
• Integrate knowledge about trauma and adversity into our laws, policies, procedures, and practices; and
• Avoiding re-traumatization by approaching clients who have experienced adversities with non-judgmental support.
You can better respond to trauma survivors in a trauma-informed manner when you recognize and acknowledge the impact of childhood trauma and subsequent adult trauma. Being Trauma Informed requires us to make a paradigm shift from asking, “What is wrong with this person?” to “What has happened to this person?”
A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system, and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice. Another lawyer title is “counselor of law” yet many lawyers don’t fully realize how this role of “counselor of law” is not only embodied in professional rules, but necessary for identifying then adequately addressing how a client’s past trauma may affect their legal matter.
A trauma informed legal practice not only reduces re-traumatization, it also makes better lawyers. To properly comply with Rule 4-1,14, a lawyer must be able to recognize the role trauma plays in the lawyer-client relationship, including how one’s own trauma history impacts interactions and behaviors.
1 World Health Organization, Child Maltreatment, child-maltreatment.
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Injury Prevention and Control, Preventing Sexual Violence
3 Vincent J. Felitti, MD, The Relation Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Health: Turning Gold into Lead, PERM J. 2002 Winter; 6(1) 44-47.
4 What is vicarious Trauma?
Eddie Stephens is a Board Certified Marital and Family Attorney at Stephens & Stevens, PLLC. With 25 years of litigation experience, Eddie specializes in high-conflict matrimonial law. He has earned the AV Preeminent Peer Review Rating by Martindale-Hubbell, a professional rating indicating the highest ethical standards and professional ability, and has been selected for inclusion in Best Lawyers in America, a peer-review publication recognizing the top 4% of attorneys in the country.
In addition to practicing family law, Eddie serves as Vice-Chair and Director of Legal Education for the Center for Child Counseling, inc., a charitable organization whose visions is to create healthy, resilient children and families through ACEs-aware and trauma-informed communities. Eddie is an author, lecturer, and community leader who supports a number of local civic and charitable organizations including Leadership Palm Beach County, Inns of Court, Kelsey Cares, Delta Sigma Pi, and the Boy Scouts of America.
Eddie has developed a successful family law practice focused on highly disputed divorces. He is a popular and engaging motivational speaker. His personal motto is “Do Something that Matters,” and in that spirit, he brings a passion for inspiring others along with his own personal childhood experiences overcoming adversity. His hobbies include cooking, yoga, Jiu Jitsu and spending time with his family.
Eddie is happily married to Jacquie and has two children, Christopher and Matthew, and they all call Palm Beach, Florida home.