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Loneliness: Five Signs a Client Is Suffering

Chronic loneliness could be undermining their health and well-being.

By J.W. Freiberg

Chronic loneliness is a problem not only for lawyers but also for clients. Here are five ways to identify and better assist a lonely client.

The breadth of legal advice we offer clients varies enormously among the many subfields of law. If we’re retained to represent a family in its purchase of a house, whatever we might see or intuit about the family’s dynamics is beside the point. We are present to advise on the real estate transaction, period.

But what about when we serve as general counsel to a family, handling the entirety of its legal matters, often for decades, and sometimes over several generations? Here we serve more as counselors rather than attorneys. The same distinction is true for those of us who provide legal services to entities, such as corporations, foundations or charitable organizations; we may serve in a more general and long-term capacity.

Given my training as a social psychologist and lawyer, I have been consulted over the years by numerous colleagues who served in a general counsel capacity, either to an individual or an entity. The question they often asked was how to best approach clients for the purpose of advising them to seek counseling for nonlegal issues that were threatening the clients’ well-being or corporate functioning. Many of these issues were classical malfunctions: encroaching alcoholism, inappropriate use of funds to support gambling or substance abuse habits, serial infidelity that threatened marriages or corporate harmony, and so on.

My response to them was straightforward: I would share a list of mental health professionals and clinical programs that specialized in providing counseling to individuals exhibiting these troubling behaviors.

Chronic Loneliness: The Five Modes of Misconnection

Beginning just over a decade ago, however, counsel began to ask about how to address a new social pathology that was appearing more and more often among their clients: a devastating and depressing loneliness that was interfering with the clients’ judgment and performance at home or in the office. At the same time, the topic of chronic loneliness (as opposed to the common loneliness we all feel from time to time as those we once cared deeply about disappear from our lives) was being raised with increasing frequency by the clinical professionals who called me for legal help.

Related: “Loneliness: Taking Care to Stay Connected.”

To better respond to these inquiries, I set out to study chronic loneliness and what could be done about it. (In the process of delving into this subject, I have become considerably more knowledgeable, organizing a symposium and publishing three books on the topic.)

There are two types of chronic loneliness:

  • The obvious one is objective loneliness — the pain of disconnection felt by those who are truly isolated from others and who find themselves without significant bonds with people in their lives.
  • The less obvious type is subjective loneliness — the pain of misconnection felt by those who are surrounded by others, but who experience no nurturing, warmth or emotional support from their relationships.

This latter type of chronic loneliness derives from what I call “five modes of misconnection.” If you are concerned about a client and it seems an appropriate part of your representation, watch for these principal signs of chronic loneliness:

  1. Obstructed connections: Clients who are too busy or too distracted to attend to the relationships they need to stay mentally healthy and socially effective.
  2. One-way connections: Clients who are delusional about the health of their connections — they feel all is well at home or at work, but you know that is not the case.
  3. Fraudulent connections: Clients who openly misrepresent how well they are doing, or how well the corporation or entity in which they work is faring.
  4. Tenuous connections: Clients whose connections to others or to the entity in which they work are dubious. They live in fear that their links are uncertain, threatened or provisional and are not likely to perform appropriately or effectively.
  5. Dangerous connections: Clients who have risky connections, either in their corporate lives (#MeToo violators, for example) or their private lives (spousal abusers or those engaged in borderline illegal or criminal activities).

Should You Step In?

If you suspect clients are chronically lonely, it could be undermining their health and well-being. Consider suggesting they seek professional help. There are therapists specifically trained to work with individuals on improving their relational skills, making new connections, and consciously invigorating their existing bonds with important others.

Would this kind of guidance be overstepping boundaries? Never mind. The risk you take comes with the territory: You are their counselor, not merely their attorney.

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J.W. Freiberg J.W. Freiberg

J.W. Freiberg (Terry), social psychologist-turned-lawyer, has for 30 years served as general counsel to five of Boston’s largest private social service agencies. He became known as “the psych lawyer” by colleagues who, over the years, referred hundreds of cases to him involving clients with psychological “issues.” Terry is the author of the award-winning, “Four Seasons of Loneliness: A Lawyer’s Case Stories”  and the editor of “Growing Up Lonely.” His latest book is “Surrounded by Others and Yet So Alone: A Lawyer’s Case Stories of Love, Loneliness, and Litigation” (Summer 2020).

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