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Hannah Gannagé-Stewart

Deputy Editor, Solicitors Journal

Brain injuries teach us what it is to be human

Brain injuries teach us what it is to be human


Clients with brain injuries are the best teachers and we must listen carefully to make sure we hear what's truly going on, as Suzanne Trask explains

We are in the business of helping very vulnerable people. I work exclusively with adult clients who have suffered a brain injury, and lead a specialist team in this area. It is technically challenging but very rewarding and enjoyable work.

Our firm works with people who have been terribly hurt in different ways, whether that is a baby who has been injured during birth (forever changing their life and that of their family), an adult who suffered sexual abuse as a child, or someone who was hurt at a very vulnerable moment – perhaps by their doctor during a medical procedure.

Trust is often a big issue for those who come to us. This is because they’ve been badly let down, either at the time of their injury or subsequently, by a professional.

They are often very vulnerable and likely to need a lot of careful support and therapy before this will change. When these individuals first get in touch with us, they often don’t know what to do; they just know they have been wronged and are searching for help.

What differentiates us from more commercial areas of practice is that, while we try our hardest to empathise, we can’t truly understand what it means to be in their shoes.

It is hard to teach the appropriate balance between emotional engagement and professional distance in order to best help an injured client. Usually, it is simply learned through experience (I say ‘simply’, though it isn’t).

Our clients have suffered and it’s hard not to find this upsetting. We are human too. However, we are in the privileged position of being able to help meet some of their needs in ways a friend or family member usually cannot.

We use our training to bring a significant change to their lives, whether that means sourcing the top private treatment, new therapies or new housing, or a level of financial stability that provides breathing space. This can be life changing and it’s why our job is so rewarding.

Clients are our teachers

There are many ways in which a brain injury can change someone which may not be readily apparent. We didn’t know them before it happened, so we have to learn who they were and who they are now. We have to learn to be creative and work with the person and their loved ones to understand this.

Clients and members of their family are usually badly traumatised and suffering from the psychiatric effects of what has happened. This really does make you think very carefully about how you communicate with everyone involved, in a way that will be most effective – for them and for you.

A common consequence of a brain injury is that people lose their ‘filter’. For instance, where you or I would consider whether a comment would be socially appropriate before we speak, this ability no longer exists. It can mean people say exactly what is on their mind. It can be a real gift – an insight into their thinking.

However, if you didn’t know a brain injury was the reason behind it, it may be received as rude, blunt or even downright offensive. This can cause real problems for them in their day to-day life.

I find it refreshing to work with clients who speak this way. I think it’s fair to say you need a fairly thick skin in this type of work, though it does make understanding our clients’ feelings more straightforward.

Often, our natural human tendency is to express ourselves through layers of concern for others and fear of what they may think. This can make it a bigger challenge to translate someone’s true wishes and understand what will be most helpful.

When a client or member of their family is being unclear about what they are saying and feeling because of the injury and the distress this is causing, we must listen carefully to make sure we hear what is truly going on.

We can’t make assumptions and we must keep an open mind. Every client and family is different. We must also consider their needs in each interaction.

Travelling isn’t straightforward and using public transport can be very challenging for someone with a brain injury, so we need to think about the location of each meeting and medical appointment with care.

Debilitating fatigue is a common consequence of a brain injury and clients are often tired simply because of travel. Meetings with a client need to be kept short with as many breaks as needed to allow the client to be in the best position to engage and understand the advice they are given.

Clients are our teachers. They are telling us everything we need to know – if we tailor our approach in every single case, and listen. The more we learn about them as a person, the better a job we can do.

Meeting clients’ need

This is something we think about regularly. I know that clients really appreciate the way we communicate and our flexibility. To us, flexibility means asking the client what works for them rather than telling them what we can do.

If they find that speaking at a particular time or in a particular way suits them, we find a way to do it. Technology often helps us. We all use our mobile devices to work around our clients’ needs in time and place.

We also work in teams. In our brain injury and other complex cases there are always three or four people (including at a senior level) dedicated to working with each client and their family.

They know the client and their needs; and they have met them. This means even when someone is on holiday or unwell, there are always other people available to talk to with whom the client is familiar.

People who’ve suffered a brain injury (as well as other types of injury) say they value an environment of acceptance and respect for who they are now. This is what can make a real difference to how they feel about us and how we work.

If we get something wrong, we want to hear about it so we can make it right. Thankfully, I find that our clients don’t hold back – and we hear straightaway if we’ve not got something quite right.

Supporting lawyers

We often work with clients over a number of years at what may be the most difficult time of their lives. Being closely involved in their day-to-day challenges through that time can also be tough for the legal team.

Situations happen when feelings run very high and we must work through this, supporting the client, their family and the lawyers involved. This is where teamwork really comes into its own.

To help ourselves when this happens, we have to think about a person’s motivation. They may be angry and immoveable or inconsistent; and this often causes a wider problem affecting others.

However, there is no benefit in us becoming frustrated with someone who is expressing themselves from a place of hurt and suffering – it won’t move the situation forward.

It helps us to understand that the individual is not directing their feelings at us, even when they seem to be, so we should not take it personally. They are voicing their own pain. When we can empathise in this way it protects our own wellbeing in otherwise challenging situations.

As we work in teams, there is always someone to talk to who will understand the particular client and their needs and will be able to share the situation. We all work solely with people with significant injuries and with their families who are often in extreme emotional states.

They are grieving the loss of the person they knew before. We must, however, take care to make sure we are healthy and able to be our best for our clients. Nobody deals with a challenge alone.

I’m constantly learning how to be better, and to be the best lawyer I can be – though working with our clients teaches us so much more than this; it helps us in our wider lives too. The work we do is so important and while it has its challenges, it really is an absolute joy.

Suzanne Trask is head of the adult brain injury team at Bolton Burdon Kemp