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NCLAP: There’s Always Someone To Talk To

Two lawyers who were very respected members of the Bar were both patients seeing the same counselor. Each had come because of loneliness, depression, and burnout. Neither was aware that the other was also seeking help. As the sessions progressed both men talked about their deep caring about many of their clients and their love of the law. Sometimes when they lost a case they would share their feelings about how such a loss felt. Like us all, their law school training of learning to look at the client’s case objectively made them believe that taking the time to consider their feelings about their loss and their client’s loss was unprofessional, even unmanly. They felt alone with their emotions and isolated from other lawyers because of them.

In the safety of their counselor’s office they begin to wonder aloud about their feelings, about their work and its impact on the lives of their clients. They often shared stories with their counselor about their clients’ cases with great animation. The two men had been professional partners for more than 20 years. They shared a receptionist, a staff of para-professionals, an office, but they didn’t know each other. They shared a counselor too, who was ethically bound not to tell either about the other’s visits or even that they were both patients. The counselor encouraged each of them to talk to his partner about these things, but the counselor got the same response each time: “Him? Heavens, he would just laugh.”

This story was originally told by Dr. Rachel Remen about physicians in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom. I think lawyers are no different. Lawyers often feel isolated from others by the nature of their work experiences. The attorney-client privilege prevents us from talking with those outside our firms about client matters and within it is just as difficult to talk to each other about the feeling quality of our experiences as lawyers. To borrow a little more from Dr. Remen adapted to lawyers.

People who are lawyers have been trained to believe that it is scientific objectivity that makes them most effective in their efforts to understand and resolve their client’s problems and that a mental distance is necessary to protect them from becoming wounded by their work. Law school is demanding training. Yet objectivity makes us far more vulnerable emotionally than compassion or a simple humanity. Objectivity separates us from the life around us and within us. We are wounded by life just the same; it is only the healing that cannot reach us.

Objectivity is not whole. In the objective stance no one can draw on their own human strengths, no one can cry, or accept comfort, or find meaning, or pray. No one who is untouched by it can really understand the life around them either. Lawyers are trained fact finders. Despite the great wonder in the simple pleasures of life, it is possible for us to see only despair and experience only frustration in the practice of law.

The ability to be fully present, and not just objectively there with a client, is more a matter of cultivating a sense of perspective and meaning about life. It is more a spiritual quality than a mental one. One can start to cultivate presence by becoming more present to oneself and others. A first step is to take time to experience your own feelings and find someone you can express them to who will be a good listener without judgment. Many lawyers need some structure to be able to get the hang of what probably came natural as a child. A structure is provided by finding a good counselor you can talk to or going to a self-help group that addresses a major issue in your life. Normal depression (as opposed to clinical depression where the assistance of a psychiatrist is needed) can be the natural healing way the psyche has of pushing us inward to face an emotional rigidity that has taken the joy and enthusiasm out of life.

Dr. Remen believes that an impulse toward wholeness is natural and exists in everyone, though each of us heals in our own way. Some people heal because they have work to do. Others heal because they have been released from their work and the pressures and expectations that others place on them. Some people need music, others need humor. But universally people need to be freed from their own emotional isolation to find healing and joy in their lives. We need to be able to share our experiences over the kitchen table. It is not the content of this sharing but the process of this sharing that brings wisdom. If you need help in finding a way to make your life more open to being fully experienced, or if you just know that something is wrong but you can’t put your finger on it, there is help. Call the FRIENDS program. The toll-free number is 1-877-627-3743.

-By Don Carroll

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