Faculty Commentary

Case Selection and Secondary Trauma

Students in the classroom

I don’t relish my student’s traumatic experiences. I am happy, however, that they are happening with me there to support them.

Perhaps I should be a little less overtly honest about it with my students. As they came in over the last few weeks to relay some of their traumatic experiences to me, maybe I should not have moved so quickly to tell my students how much I thought they were learning from it and instead commiserated more on how bad it must be to experience clients’ trauma for the first time. One student, on meeting his SSI client for the first time, had her tell him it wasn’t worth living once she was denied benefits and that she had considered killing herself over the case. Another student went before an ALJ quite convinced that her severely mentally ill client should win only to have the ALJ badger her and the client about drug use that seemed truly irrelevant. Like many clinicians, I have sent students to see dying clients, had clients insult and run out on my students, and had students visit clients in squalid neighborhoods that made clear to students for the first time the horrors of poverty. It’s hard for them, and I should honor that.

I began thinking more about this after being fortunate enough to be assigned to a group with Ron Tyler from Stanford at the Clinical Law Review Workshop at NYU this fall. I got to learn about his current scholarship, which describes what seems like an amazing trauma curriculum that is part of his clinic and the empirical study he is doing to look at whether his teaching is helping his students deal with secondary trauma in their clinic work. I was struck by the thoroughness of the project but also the assumption that secondary trauma was a large risk for his students in his criminal clinic, even without picking cases to elicit traumatic responses. I know it happens with my students, but does it happen enough that I should be worrying about and planning for it?

“Clinical classes are a great place to deal with problematic practice issues of all types. Won’t a student benefit from facing this in a clinic?”

Pushing back a little, I asked Ron whether students experiencing secondary trauma is good for them as law students learning to practice and if so, whether he should select cases for his students that he hoped would elicit traumatic responses for his students’ benefit. Kinder than me or at least my than my first inclinations on learning of his work, Ron noted he would never do that, but he knows the responses will happen to his students, and they will be as prepared as they can be.

He made me think three things. First, I am lucky to be able to participate in the CLR workshops (try it if you haven’t!), and get to learn from people like him. Second, I need to learn more about secondary trauma. Along with his draft article, I have now gotten to see a draft and hear about another article my colleague at Temple, Sarah Katz, is writing with Deeya Haldar from Drexel on secondary trauma in the family law context (an article which was also workshopped at a CLR workshop and which is forthcoming n CLR soon! Did I say try it if you haven’t?). I am doing my best to notice potential secondary trauma with my students in their cases. I am working on appropriate responses.

But third, I wonder whether maybe I should be more careful in my case selection and either select in or select out cases in which I think secondary trauma might occur. Clinical classes are a great place to deal with problematic practice issues of all types. Won’t a student benefit from facing this in a clinic? On the other hand, is this what a clinic student is signing up for? Is it right to put them in a situation where I know they will be traumatized?

As December for me is case selection time for the Spring semester, the question of what characteristics I want for our clients and cases is front and center. It is hard. Without knowing much about the new students that will take the clinic in the Spring, I need to come up with cases that I try to tailor to help them learn. Now I wonder if I should be shielding them from trauma or at least considering it in the calculation.

In the end, I have decided I need to be as kind as Ron and not seek out traumatic experiences for my students. I have to recognize that although the cases I give them may elicit secondary trauma, I cannot and should not force students to experience it. I must confess, however, that I am not all that unhappy when my students come to me and have to talk about the feelings representation is provoking in them. I want to help them learn to handle how their feeling affects their lawyering, and that if it is a response to trauma, that is not so bad. As my wife says about treating kids with liver disease, she wishes no children had liver disease but if they do, she wants to take care of them. Similarly, I want to help my students when they experience trauma, too!

This blog post originally appeared on the Clinical Law Prof Blog


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