BAEC Bulletin - May/June 2023

28 | May/June 2023 | BAEC Bulletin In the Public Service Serving the Whole Client Late on an autumn afternoon sometime after the worst of the VOLUNTEER LAWYERS PROJECT

commercial matters; discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations; name changes; and more. If we cannot handle it in-house, we often can find a volunteer attorney to assist. My program even has a social work component. None of this is unique to our DOH grant. The legal services model is a model of serving the whole client. I have gone through clients’ mail with them, helped them navigate government bureaucracy, helped them set up online accounts for government services, sat with them to obtain credit reports, helped make police reports and identity theft reports, and assisted with finding community services. If I think the client will struggle, I do not just give them a phone number, website, or pamphlet and send them on their way. I sit with them; we work through it together. Some of my client’s issues that fall evening were legal matters. Some required non-legal assistance, but still benefited from the practical problem solving at which lawyers excel. My role is to serve the whole client as best I can. No one can solve everything for another person, but giving my time and focus to my client’s needs allows me to identify where I can make a difference. It is not “going the extra mile.” Rather, it is walking with the client, taking each person on their own terms when they are ready. A trauma-informed approach teaches practitioners of all professions not to ask, “what’s wrong with this person?” but “what happened to this person?” The only way to answer that question is to listen and learn to ask the right questions myself at the right time. This approach builds trust, cements the attorney-client relationship, and facilitates the gathering of information needed in legal representation. Most importantly, however, an empathetic, trauma- informed approach of serving the whole person gives clients the respect they deserve. For more information on building a trauma-informed practice, reach out to Maria Valerie at VLP at If you know of anyone who has HIV or AIDS and may benefit from our legal services, please contact me at • “When a trauma survivor relays their stories, it is not unusual for police, lawyers, and judges to doubt their truthfulness because of missing details, unclear timelines, and backfilled information.”

COVID-19 pandemic, I did something I have done on literally dozens of occasions during my law career: I waited for a client to arrive at my office to sign paperwork. Like most of my colleagues in the office at that time, I was wrapping up and preparing to go home. I had big plans that night to make sure my daughters’ homework was done, heat the dinner I had made the previous night after the kids (finally) went to bed, and start my shift as one half the family chauffer team. The client was right on time, and so, we sat across from each other at a conference room table where I explained what he was signing and why he was signing it. I had the entire process running on schedule, the papers tabbed and organized, and had prepared for a quick meeting. But then he asked some questions that were not routine, questions that raised red flags, questions I answered with my own questions. After an hour, I called our after-school babysitter and asked her to start dinner. A while later, I texted my wife to let her know I could not drive the kids to soccer, swimming, and girl scouts. Later still, I called to explain I would not be able to help pick them up, either. Under the circumstances, I did not mind those sacrifices. My client, with whom I had been dealing for over a month, had what I thought was a relatively straightforward legal problem. But that evening he opened up and talked in detail about a lifetime of hardship and abuse, and how so many events had circled back throughout his life as they often do, with things that had happened in his childhood getting repeated in his adulthood. Before that day, I had held several long conversations with this individual but had never before drilled down this deep. He had not been withholding critical information. He had trauma, and for the uninitiated, trauma impacts memory in unique and unpredictable ways. When a trauma survivor relays their stories, it is not unusual for police, lawyers, and judges to doubt their truthfulness because of missing details, unclear timelines, and backfilled information. These things breed ambiguity and while lawyers are very good at dealing with ambiguity – indeed, it is a critical part of the profession – a client leading with it presents special challenges. The brain stores traumatic memories different than other memories. For that and other reasons, trauma can interfere with short and long-term memory, impair working memory, and increase anxiety. My client’s stories were fully credible, but the timeline meandered, which is common with trauma survivors. By taking detailed notes, asking open-ended questions, giving him plenty of breaks, allowing him to take the lead, and being patient, I crafted the timeline. Using those notes, and reengaging with the client over the coming weeks, I developed plans to help him. I am a staff attorney at Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project. I work under a program called Legal Services for Positive Families and Individuals, which serves individuals and their families affected by HIV and AIDS. The New York State Department of Health funds the grant, and under it I can pretty much handle anything in my wheelhouse: family court matters such as custody, visitation, and support; divorces; end-of-life and estate planning; housing and landlord-tenant matters; creditor-debtor law; small


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