“There has to be better way.”

How one lawyer hopes to address trauma in the legal profession with a new toolkit

April 2021

By Cherise Seucharan

In her almost fifteen years as a lawyer working with clients from all walks of life, Myrna McCallum has come to realize that there was an important piece missing from her legal education. One of those key experiences came early in her days as a Crown Prosecutor, when she had to prepare a child for the trial process in a case involving sexual assault. “I had to think, how am I going to do this in a way that does no further harm to this little person who’s already been seriously harmed. And I really had nowhere to look for that information,” she said.

McCallum, a Métis-Cree mother and grandmother from Treaty Six territory (Green Lake & Waterhen Lake First Nation), found that using her great grandmother’s traditional teachings, and her own intuition, helped her understand that she had to first build a relationship of trust with the young victim and his parents, before she could guide them through the trial process in an open and transparent way.

“I didn’t learn about trauma in law school,” she said, an issue considered in the first episode of her podcast, The Trauma-Informed Lawyer. “I was not prepared for having to deal with the human suffering that I was confronted with every day in the courtroom. And I really wish somebody had given me a heads up on that piece.”

Her own experiences taught McCallum the importance of teaching others about trauma-informed lawyering, for the mental health of both clients and lawyers. “Learning about how trauma presents in clients and witnesses and even in ourselves, is a critical competency that we have all missed in our legal education.”

McCallum also saw a strong connection between trauma-informed lawyering practices and avoiding causing further harm to Indigenous communities, which had experienced significant and ongoing trauma from the colonial legal system.

At Golden Eagle Rising Society, an organization with a mission to protect Indigenous lives — and where McCallum serves as in-house counsel — she helped to create the Trauma-Informed Legal Practice toolkit. The 35-page resource has contributions from a diverse list of legal professionals, and includes chapters on the impact of trauma on the brain, building trauma-informed lawyer-client relationships, and trauma informed practices in the courtroom. It also contains an extensive list of mental health resources to help lawyers manage vicarious trauma.

With the launch of the toolkit, as well as the growing popularity of her podcast, McCallum has begun to attract interest from law schools seeking to educate their students on trauma-informed lawyering.

McCallum said, “I really think that becoming trauma informed is going to transform, not just the way we practice but the way we treat ourselves and the way we treat each other. I’m so passionate about it and I honestly feel like this is going to change the profession.”