How Trauma-Informed Lawyering Can Help Clients Heal

By Daniel Connolly | December 1, 2023, 9:34 PM EST ·

woman leaving conference room

Olympic gymnast-turned-corporate attorney Tasha Schwikert Moser departs an October 2018 news conference to announce she was suing USA Gymnastics over sexual abuse by team physician Larry Nassar. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

When Houston-based attorney Tasha Schwikert Moser talks to her colleagues about the importance of exercising patience and empathy when working with clients who have experienced severe trauma, she speaks from a place of personal experience.

That's because years before she became a corporate attorney with Munck Wilson Mandala LLP, Schwikert Moser experienced sexual abuse as an Olympic-level gymnast and later took part in years of litigation against USA Gymnastics.

During a panel on trauma-informed lawyering during the Federal Bar Association's annual conference in September, Schwikert Moser and other participants stressed the need for lawyers in sexual abuse cases to invest time to communicate with their clients, to listen to them and to give them the space needed to process their experiences.

For Schwikert Moser, the process of coming to terms with her abuse has involved speaking about it publicly.

"The more I spoke about it, the more I was able to cope with my own trauma," Schwikert Moser said during the panel.

Some panelists, meanwhile, criticized what they described as an impersonal, one-size-fits-all approach they've seen some attorneys adopt in representing sexual abuse clients in mass tort litigation. And they also encouraged attorneys to consider seeking not only money for their clients, but "noneconomic" remedies, especially reforms that can make an organization better and prevent abuse from happening again.

Schwikert Moser's case illustrates this last point in particular: Advocates pushed for USA Gymnastics to add a survivors' representative to their board of directors, and Schwikert Moser now serves in that role.

Her story also helps illustrate the emotional and psychological challenges that trauma survivors can face, how these challenges can play out in litigation, and how people who have experienced trauma can bounce back.

The panel, held at a conference in Memphis, Tennessee, was part of a larger movement within the legal profession in recent decades to teach attorneys techniques to help clients who've been through sexual abuse, extreme violence or other trauma.

"In practice areas such as family law, immigration, child welfare, criminal law and others, by necessity, clients must share some of the most intimate and painful details of their lives," Sarah Katz of Temple University's Beasley School of Law and Deeya Haldar, then of Drexel University's Thomas R. Kline School of Law, now with Villanova University's Charles Widger School of Law, wrote in a widely cited 2015 paper.

"A trauma-informed perspective asks clients not, 'What is wrong with you?' but instead, 'What happened to you?'" the professors wrote, citing prior work by prior researchers.

They argued that law schools should teach students to recognize the effects that domestic violence, sexual abuse and other traumatic experiences can have on their clients' actions and behaviors.

For instance, a person who has experienced trauma might be withdrawn, or suspicious and angry, or highly emotional, flooding the lawyer with unnecessary information. An understanding of trauma and its effects helps attorneys recognize what's happening, build relationships, refer clients to mental health professionals when needed and develop legal strategies, they wrote.

The professors also argued that students should learn to protect themselves from vicarious trauma — becoming distressed or impaired after intense engagement with a client's trauma. For example, attorneys may want to limit their exposure to these cases and include other types of cases in their caseload, they wrote.

An Abuse of Trust

Schwikert Moser began participating in gymnastics as a young girl growing up in Las Vegas, and quickly rose to the elite level. By 2000, she had made it to the Olympics, where she was part of the group that won the bronze medal for team competition that year.

"My gymnastics career really is a highlight of my life," she told Law360. "But it all happens at such a young age, right? So it's like your childhood."

She said she came to think of the leaders of USA Gymnastics, the sport's governing body, as "guardians."

"And felt like I could trust them, and almost like in a pseudo-parental role in that sense. So the trauma of abuse is very, very personal," she said.

One person who was a central part of the USA Gymnastics experience was team physician Larry Nassar, who would go on to face sexual abuse allegations from hundreds of gymnasts and plead guilty to state charges in Michigan over his conduct in 2017. He also pled guilty to federal child pornography charges.

Gymnasts have said Nassar frequently carried out sexual abuse during medical procedures, which he falsely presented as legitimate treatment. 

Schwikert Moser said in her case, the abuse began when she was 15 when Nassar began treating her for a hamstring injury at her groin.

"And so that was for him just like easy, basically easy access, right? Because I needed treatment. Right where [the hamstring] attaches. And so that was pretty seamless for him."

She told Law360 that at the time, she didn't understand what was happening.

"I don't want to speak for every survivor, but I think a lot of our stories are the same," she said. "Larry was really creepy and what he did was confusing to us and ... I didn't really know what it was. But it was just weird."

"We were all children [and] couldn't fully comprehend. He was, like, telling us it was medical treatment. So we just kind of believed it because he was the doctor," she added.

Schwikert Moser said that, in the years after leaving the USA Gymnastics team at 19 and going on to college gymnastics and later law school, professional life, marriage and motherhood, she didn't want to think about what Nassar had done.

"There was no room for it in my life. Because I know once you go there, then there's no there's no stopping it, right? You can't just put it back and pretend like you didn't just go down that rabbit hole," she said.

She said this experience is common, and that many people keep silent for decades. But eventually, she began to change her mind about speaking out.

In September 2016, the Indianapolis Star published an interview with Rachael Denhollander, who described being sexually abused by Nassar beginning when she was a 15-year-old club-level gymnast.

As more and more women came forward with similar stories and investigators began to take a hard look at what USA Gymnastics officials knew about Nassar's behavior and when, Schwikert Moser said she eventually decided to do the same.

Already working as a corporate lawyer, she would go on to file her own lawsuit in 2018.

Helping Clients Heal

Schwikert Moser said she quickly built a trusting relationship with her attorney, Michelle Simpson Tuegel, whose small Dallas-based firm specializes in sexual abuse and assault cases.

"So I think my first piece of advice is, find something relatable between you and the client," Schwikert Moser said.

She noted that clients in these cases often want a lot of communication and regular updates on the case, even if not much is happening.

"It's not like a transactional case," she said. "It's very, very personal to the client and the survivor." 

During the FBA panel in September, panelist Megan Bonanni, a partner with Michigan-based civil rights firms Pitt McGehee Palmer Bonanni & Rivers PC, said she gives her cellphone number to clients.

"And very rarely do they abuse that privilege," she said.

But Bonanni added that it was an important part of giving clients the space to revisit past abuse and to share it on their own terms.

"Things come out," she said, "like an onion — layers and layers and layers."

Bonanni said that an attorney's ethical obligation in sensitive matters like sex abuse claims isn't just to prove the client's case, "but to help them heal."

Schwikert Moser said that while it's important for attorneys to provide empathy to clients, attorneys should also encourage their clients to seek outside treatment from a mental health professional. She said that proved vital in her own case, when she experienced periods of severe depression and anxiety and met with a therapist three times a week.

"I just feel like without my therapist, I don't think I would be OK like I am today," she said. "I don't feel like I'd be over the trauma like I am now."

Bonanni described something else she asks her clients early on in her representation: What does justice mean?

"That is one of the first questions, if the client's willing to talk to me, that I ask them," Bonnani said. "And in my experience, justice is not about money. ... So, as a lawyer, I think we should always be looking for opportunity for nonmonetary reform."

In December 2021, USA Gymnastics announced a $380 million settlement to address survivors' legal claims. But demands for reforms led to changes. Among them: USA Gymnastics created a board seat for a survivors' representative.

Schwikert Moser began a term as that representative in 2022. Her term runs through 2026.

She said she hopes to facilitate better communication and trust between sexual abuse survivors and USA Gymnastics.

"A lot of survivors are just really looking for an apology. And just communication with USA Gymnastics, and so I'm hoping that we can get something going to where we can get that process in place," she said.

Though Nassar preyed on girls and women, other sexual abusers target boys and men.

Panelist Victor G. Petreca, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Boston College, has written a soon-to-be-published academic paper based on interviews with 47 men who were sexually abused by a doctor at another university. He said men who've experienced trauma from sexual abuse often exhibit a particular set of effects.

Many of the men reported difficulty with professional and personal relationships after the abuse, as well as problems with sexual intimacy, including erectile dysfunction, Petreca said.

"So, long story short, what we observed is that there was a lot of silent suffering, a lot of issues in terms of interpersonal dynamics that these men were having and not disclosing, not seeking help, not seeking treatment," Petreca told Law360.

Lawyers working with men who have experienced sexual abuse should take into account the high level of shame and embarrassment about what they've been through and work extra hard to build rapport, Petreca said.

It's easy for lawyers to get caught up in the "business aspect" of legal proceedings, Petreca noted. But he said lawyers should acknowledge "that there is someone who's probably either hurting a lot underneath it all, or someone who has numbed themselves out so much to just get through it."

Like other panelists, he said the legal process can become part of the healing process.

What Not to Do

While Schwikert Moser gives her attorney enormous credit for her trauma-informed approach, not every sexual abuse claimant whose case ends up in court is represented by a sensitive, empathetic lawyer, noted panelist Robert Riley, a partner with Michigan-based Riley & Hurley PC who has acted as a mediator in major sexual abuse lawsuits.

"Clients are largely part of an assembly line in the mass tort cases," he said. "I'm shocked at how many plaintiffs attorneys don't really know their client." 

Riley pointed to a recent example where he met with 16 claimants who had appeared for interviews as part of the settlement allocation process in their case.

"And the clients were meeting their attorneys for the first time after a nine-year saga," he said. "They really had no clue. The comments they were bringing up and asking reflected fear, reflected loss, reflected anger. And the failure of the plaintiffs attorneys to treat their clients individually and thoughtfully bring them through their trauma was appalling to me."

He said that plaintiffs attorneys can do better in helping their clients understand the legal process, particularly the defendant's point of view — that the defendant's lawyers are trying to get the best economic agreement that will settle the case, and the kinds of defenses they're likely to raise.

"If that is done correctly, it is my belief that it enhances the process, gives perspective and helps individuals through what is regularly a slow, long, tedious negotiation process to bring about resolutions," Riley said.

Riley added that defense lawyers should also strive to show sensitivity to sexual abuse claimants and to understand that just because a person took a long time to come forward with claims does not mean they are faking.

"And just asserting [fraud] from the start is not the way to garner an effective settlement," Riley said.

Looking Ahead

Larry Nassar is now serving an effective life sentence on the state and federal charges.

For her part, Schwikert Moser said she's doing well. Today, much of her practice focuses on mergers and acquisitions.

She said she still has occasional flashbacks, but she's moved ahead in her life as a corporate attorney. She's married and has three young children.

In addition to work with her therapist, she said, speaking publicly about her experience has helped her move on.

"I speak about it because we need to change the culture and move forward, and just protect the children that are doing [gymnastics] now and the children that will come in the future."

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify where Deeya Haldar currently works.

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