The Care and Feeding of Lawyers

It is no secret that lawyers, as a profession, are in need of a mental health makeover. The American Bar Association (ABA) has recognized that its members need big changes, and smaller organizations aimed at attorney well-being have sprung up across the country. It is now common knowledge that diseases like depression, addiction, and PTSD run rampant within the law. But how can the client have his advocacy needs met and ensure he is getting the most out of his lawyer without falling victim to industry failings—and without causing harm to his advocate?

Why Your Lawyer Cries in the Shower

On a very basic level, a lot of the same triggers you experience in daily life are present for the esquire. (Most lawyers are actual human beings, after all.) They experience grief and loss, failures and setbacks, hurt feelings and broken dreams. But unlike most people, lawyers are often forced to bear the weight of the related emotions without any outward expression.

In part to comply with model rules of the profession, and in part to prevent harm to clients (or to lawyer reputation) that could result, a lawyer (not played by Tom Cruise) must refrain from emotional outbursts. But most in the profession will take this to extremes out of an abundance of caution. We are taught to control our faces, control our tempers, and keep our personal feelings out of courtrooms and conference rooms. Lawyers who overreact are seen as problematic—in fact, when the lawyer is a woman, lawyers who react at all can be seen as “difficult” by other lawyers and judges. Even lawyers outside the Midwest—where we are all taught from infancy to “squoosh it down”—are forced to hide away and repress their feelings to an unhealthy degree.

Should you feel sorry for a lawyer when “that’s why they get the big bucks”? Well, that's the thing: in reality and despite the size of your bill (which may feel like a lot of money essentially for writing or talking), most lawyers are not living high on the hog. On the contrary, today’s lawyers often face financial pressures that resemble those of medical doctors, but without a system of financial security to support payment. A partner in a law firm, for example, may be responsible for paying a staff and supplying them with benefits, keeping necessary equipment up to date, paying down a mortgage or rent on an office space, and preparing for the day when she is no longer able to practice. A new associate, on the other hand, may be facing a hefty student loan, required to bring in a certain amount of business to the firm, paying for health insurance out of pocket, and giving away a huge chunk of his income to the partners. And a solo practitioner (like me) may go without luxuries (like health insurance) along with all the above, while not knowing whether a single client will darken her door before the next rent payment comes due. And—this may shock you—not everyone pays his bill.

The pressure to supply clients with the best advice, make the best arguments, and refrain from committing unintended ethics violations is real, and it is crushing for many attorneys. It is especially heavy on those who work in high-risk areas of law. When a mistake could cost a client years in prison or result in a serious bar complaint (or both), the lawyer is right to develop some anxiety. And how is he to deal with that fear when most of his (valid) concerns are subject to rules of confidentiality and have certain duties attached? (Hint: the answer often involves alcohol.)

Getting the Most Out of Your Advocate

Below are some suggestions for ways you can get the best performance out of your lawyer while respecting that ze is human.

Recognize Boundaries on Time. Perhaps your attorney does not answer phone calls after a certain time or maintains office visits only on particular days. Maybe your attorney charges more for after-hours or weekend work. Often, office hours are constructed to accommodate a family life, keep from requiring staff to work overtime, or to enable an overworked attorney to leave work at the office. (Most often, those “after” hours are still spent working in quiet.) If you can wait for assistance,* it may benefit you in the long run by giving you a more refreshed attorney who appreciates your thoughtfulness. At the least, it may help them not to have negative feelings about you right before bedtime.

Recognize Boundaries on Matters. While many attorneys are “general practice” attorneys, even those may limit their representation to certain types of cases. Often, there are business-related reasons for this, such as a requirement to invest in additional infrastructure (e.g. an estate-planning software package for trusts), insurance considerations (such as a policy limit restricting practice areas), or lack of support staff (as in no paralegal for heavy drafting).

But as lawyers become more self-aware and mental health takes center stage in the profession, some lawyers may limit case types in recognition of their own biases or triggers. For example, if a lawyer says no to divorce cases, perhaps he does not want to keep reliving his own contentious divorce. If a lawyer does not want to defend an accused domestic abuser, perhaps she cannot separate the facts from her own experiences with abuse. Maybe a lawyer who says no to an estate planning gig just can’t face talking to one more person about death while he is grieving his own loss. The bottom line is, don’t take it personally, and don’t ask for reasons. Ask for a suggestion of another attorney.

Recognize Boundaries on Money. Some attorneys work on a sliding fee scale, but many do not. Some attorneys work at a flat rate, but many do not. Some attorneys can soak up some pro bono or reduced rate work, but many cannot. The reality is, when you first tell an attorney—even a young attorney—about your legal need, her lawyer-training is displaying a hundred different scenarios in her imagination in anticipation of the time, effort, and possible outcomes for you. And yes, some of those scenarios involve her level of trust in you to pay the bill.

When your immediate reaction to a retainer or fee quote is to suggest a lower amount (absent a genuine financial hardship), this sends a message that you do not respect her calculation of the time, effort, and possible outcomes of your matter. And truthfully, she may take your case anyway . . . and spend months filled with regret at undertaking the obligation. Make no mistake, your lawyer is obligated to you. Do not also obligate her to feeling undervalued.

While I am in no way advocating that you pity the profession—we chose this line of work, wisely or not—I do suggest that you take a moment to recognize the humanity in the person you’ve chosen as your adviser. Sometimes the most important compliment you can give your lawyer is a hug.**

*This lawyer recognizes that emergencies happen. Do NOT hesitate to reach out to your lawyer in an actual emergency.

**Please do not give anyone unsolicited hugs. If you do hug a professional, consider observing the Keanu Reeves no-hands rule.

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