So far in our series on survival skills for lawyers, we’ve touched on building up emotional resilience and learning strategies for beating long-term stress. Today we look at staying grounded in emotionally charged situations: While empathy is important for lawyers, we must develop tools to support our well-being when dealing with difficult, emotional cases.
Lawyers Are at Tremendous Risk of Secondary Trauma
Lawyers often see people at what might be the worst moment of their lives. Whether it’s a civil case about business, a child custody case or a criminal case, those involved have a lot riding on the outcome — personally, financially and emotionally. If the case is lost, the client suffers the consequences. It may mean they go to jail, their 100-year-old family business will go under, they will be bankrupt, they won’t see their children. Clients often feel they’ve been wronged and treated unfairly. They’re scared and angry. They’re cynical and distrustful. They can be bitter, confused and overwhelmed.
It is difficult to avoid being pulled into this maelstrom of emotion. After all, a strong attorney-client relationship requires some level of empathy, where the client feels heard and understood. Without empathy, it’s hard to build a trusted relationship. The key to protecting yourself emotionally is to be empathetic, reassuring the client that you are competent and confident, yet remaining detached by focusing on the facts and staying calm. You are helping your client have the best chance at winning the case.
The key to protecting yourself emotionally is to be empathetic, reassuring the client that you are competent and confident, yet remaining detached by focusing on the facts and staying calm.
But lawyers are only human. Eventually, we all run into situations where we risk being emotionally challenged. Perhaps it’s a child abuse case, and the circumstances parallel an emotional experience from your own childhood. Or, as a member of the sex crimes division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, you’re confronted with graphic details of child pornography or human trafficking. Or in defending a case, you must undermine the credibility of a rape victim. “Everybody deserves their day in court” is a lofty-sounding ideal. The hard truth, though, is that a defense attorney’s job requires asking questions that not only cause victims to relive their trauma but may further traumatize them. This exposure to trauma can cause lawyers to experience secondary trauma.
Dealing With Difficult Emotions and Secondary Trauma
We know first responders are vulnerable to secondary trauma, but lawyers can experience a similar phenomenon. There’s the old stereotype of “ambulance-chasers,” but the reality is that lawyers are often intimately involved in the aftermath of traumatic events — a car accident, a domestic dispute, a rape or even a school shooting. As a lawyer, your first obligation is to remain competent under the rules of professional responsibility. And that means you are 100 percent competent and not physically or emotionally compromised by the nature of the case.
If you are compromised, you cannot move forward. Therefore, it’s critical to recognize when you’re emotionally compromised. If you find yourself in this mindset, I encourage the following steps:
1. Identify the issue. If you develop a stomach ache every night or you’re not sleeping well, take stock of where you are emotionally. Perhaps it’s your body telling you that you’re dealing with an unusual amount of stress that is causing physical, mental or emotional distress.
2. Don’t ignore the problem. If you have a case that is triggering a strong emotional reaction, don’t try to tough it out. Keeping it bottled up is harmful. Letting an emotional problem fester is a recipe for major difficulties down the road.
3. Get to a therapist right away. If your job is overwhelming you emotionally, to the point where you can’t function in a healthy way, you need to seek help. Talking to a therapist or a counselor can help put things in perspective and provide tangible actions to address the trauma. (In fact, I strongly recommend that everyone transitioning from law school to a law firm see a therapist regularly for those first few years. It can be a stressful time and having regular consultations with a therapist can help manage the mental and emotional toll that the practice of law demands.)
4. Take a break. Take an afternoon off. Do some stress-busting exercises. Meditate, or try cleansing breaths before or after a difficult meeting. One simple trick that can work wonders is to picture putting that difficult case into a box. Pack up that imaginary box and leave it at your office, so the stress and emotional drama gets left behind when you go home.
5. Talk to your supervisors. If you are unable to perform, it affects both you and your client, and it affects your organization. You have a responsibility to them. Your supervisors may also have perspective that can help. For example, the head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office will likely understand the challenge of working in the sex crimes division. There may be ways the organization can support you. It might mean short-term adjustments in workloads or, if the problem is severe, moving to a different practice area.
6. Take your emotion and turn it into action outside of work. If you are a matrimonial lawyer, for example, who has difficult custody cases dealing with domestic violence, join an organization that advocates for victim’s rights.
7. Be honest with yourself. Step back and take inventory of the situation. Do not remain in a professional situation that compromises you emotionally: You won’t best serve your clients, and it will damage you physically and mentally in the long run. Talk to your therapist, colleagues and supervisors to seek a setting that is a better fit.
In all this, we must remember that a lawyer’s first obligation is to the client; our professional license and the rules of professional responsibility require it. To successfully meet this obligation, lawyers need to maintain mental and emotional health.
Catch up with the series and share it with your colleagues:
“Survival Skill No. 1 for Lawyers: Emotional Resilience”
“Survival Skill No. 2 for Lawyers: Dealing With Chronic Stress and Burnout”
Disclosure: Caron Treatment Centers offers recovery programs for legal professionals that address the unique pressures and demands lawyers and their families face.