Attorney wellness is a frequent topic of conversation at Vermont bar events. Awareness around attorney mental health has steadily gained over the last eleven years since I was first admitted to practice. I received a call earlier this week from a Boston University student who was contemplating going to law school. We spoke for about half an hour. She said that no other attorneys she spoke with recommended going into the profession. I wasn’t surprised, but I was saddened.
Is the legal profession so undesirable that we feel a duty to warn those contemplating it that a life of misery awaits if they choose it?
This hasn’t been my experience practicing law, but it could have been. There are aspects of it that I love. I have found meaning in helping people navigate difficult times in their lives and am proud of the ethos and culture of the firm I have built. But I wondered, why is it that so many attorneys dispense cautionary tales about how being a lawyer ruins lives?
We need to acknowledge this is incredibly hard work.
It is difficult, it is taxing, it consumes you at night and invades your dreams. It sounds terrifying. I know. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. The passion and inherent tension in litigation challenges us to engage deeply with the facts of a case. The application of the law to those facts is a real life analytical puzzle. Solving the puzzle may change the course of a client’s life. Failure to do so may also change the direction of a client’s life in a catastrophic way. This fast-paced engagement and intellectual entanglement with a case is what makes legal dramas some of the most popular television. It also makes the day to day practice of law exciting and dynamic. I learn constantly and evolve my defense strategies to adapt to what I learn. It’s fantastically interesting work. It’s also the hardest thing I have ever done. You wake up with anxiety in the middle of the night wondering if you covered every angle of case. You second guess yourself about whether you sent an important email. You can’t sleep. But, I wouldn’t tell you not to do it.
If we acknowledge how taxing and stressful this work is, we can address how to handle that in a meaningful way. When I began practicing in Virginia in in 2009, there was still a professional culture that exalted those who were “tough” and appeared to be “unmarred” by the work. I often found myself meeting these titans of the bar and thinking, “he doesn’t seem well.” I didn’t have to dig too deep to find coping behaviors existing in response to the significant stress and strain of the job. One chain smoked. One was morbidly obese. One was a serious alcoholic. One was a chronic over exerciser. All of these people, these wonderful and diligent practitioners of the law, were coping in varying ways to respond to the heavy, wet wool blanket of stress that accompanies high level legal practice. They were strong, they were successful, and, so, we didn’t talk about it. They were still standing. That was an accomplishment.
I like to think that I am entering a a phase of my career where I engage in a high level legal practice on a daily basis. I like to think I am strong and successful. I also like to think I am well. I believe that I am able to be well, because, first, I acknowledge how challenging the work is and I recognize that I need help understanding the residue that the work leaves on my brain and my life after I leave the office. I am affected by this work, deeply. And I should be. To engage consistently and genuinely with a criminal defendant’s emotional experience while confronting the legal system is a crucial job requirement. I need to empathize with a client’s situation and be able to see experience through her lens. This helps us create a defense that feels rooted in a client’s true experience of the event. High level legal practice does not mean mechanically applying the law to a set of facts on paper. It means navigating and interpreting how the facts could have looked, felt and been experienced by my client at the time they occurred. It’s understanding the motivations and particular life circumstances of a client, and then explaining to a jury why a client made the choices she did. It’s about telling a story from the prospective of person who lived it. If I fail to do that, the defense comes off as brittle and fake. A rote explanation for complex behaviors is not going to serve to further a criminal defense client’s goals.
Going on an emotional journey into a client’s perception of events and what influenced their outcome is also a deep, dark rabbit hole to dive down. You find yourself understanding why someone made the choice to do a very bad thing. You feel for your client and the victim. You wish that the confluence of factors that precipitated the event could have been understood and dealt with differently. You can’t change it. And you need some help to absorb and process all of this information. You can, with proper support, not let practicing law ruin your life.
I was sitting a few years ago at the conference table in my office. A a young, indigent woman from another country was accused of some particularly serious sex felonies. Her life sounded hard and her resources limited. I agreed to take the case low-bono, but I found my mind unable to focus on her tears. It was a shift, a subtle internal expression of a mind overwhelmed. I felt a wall growing between myself and my clients. All I could think about was what I would have for dinner. This felt odd. This felt unwell.
I spoke to my significant other about the experience. I explained the numb feeling. We both have histories of anxiety and are long time advocates for counseling. I felt something was wrong, something a daily yoga and meditation practice paired with once a month counseling couldn’t fix. I researched mental health professionals taking on new clients in my area. I read books about stress and burnout. Ultimately, I entered twice weekly psychoanalytic therapy. Years later, I can see it was the best decision I have ever made for myself.
A few months after starting therapy, I was driving across the bridge between Winooski and Burlington. I found myself gazing out at the river and seeing the falls. It dawned on me that I had made that drive twice a day for the preceding six years and, at some point, I can’t exactly say when, I’d stopped seeing the falls. It was like I was looking at them for the first time. I realized then, I never wanted to get to a place where my mind was so overloaded that it failed to process and appreciate everyday beauty. Because, if I can’t do work I love and also lead a present life filled with happiness and beauty, something has to change.
It felt so indulgent at first. Two whole hours a week devoted to what was going on inside my head? During work hours?!? It felt sacrilegious. No one better find out. They’d think I’m a real nut job. Who takes two hours a week to have someone else help you process your thoughts? It turns out, well people do. To have a space where I can safely explain and explore my conflicted thoughts and emotions without judgement is key part of being able to leave work at work. It’s hard. And I need help unpacking all of these conflicting emotions. I’m not ashamed anymore. I am on a journey to be and stay well while practicing law at a high level. Therapy is a necessary tool to help me do that.
Therapy may not be the answer for everyone, but it has helped me. I can go on vacation and actually relax. I can put my phone down for days. I can read a book in a hammock for a whole Saturday afternoon. I can walk to work everyday and experience the wind, the rustle in the trees, and a slobbery dog kiss. I couldn’t do that before. If I hadn’t acknowledged that the work was hard, that it was impacting me, and then taken steps to address those difficult truths, I think I would be far from well by now. Instead, I’ve made a commitment to stay well. It doesn’t require giving up everything you like. You can still go to happy hour. It’s a couple of hours a week of dealing with all the thoughts and feelings you want to shove down. It’s hard at first, but it’s no harder than actually being a lawyer. It gets easier. I did it. You can too.