The general advice you receive when you transition into law practice is to be aware of your work-life balance, get enough sleep, don’t drink too much, exercise, etc. But nothing you are told prepares you for the moment when the tissue-thin paper and sterile ink of a textbook transmutes into a living, breathing person, likely crying, in your office. As you scramble to find tissues and your tongue trips over itself trying to find the right words to comfort without confusing, provide solace without false hope, you will yearn for the tidiness of determining whether Abe had adverse possession of Bob’s land.
Easily the largest challenge of my young career has been learning how to sympathize with my clients without internalizing their emotional trauma. When your client comes to you they will have been injured, lied to, screamed at, degraded, tricked, and have made their own mistakes which may have made the situation worse. They will lay these problems at your door, not as impediments to your clinical analysis of a legal situation, but as part and parcel of counseling an individual facing what might be the most difficult situation in their life. At these times you must strive to understand and engage their emotions without being overwhelmed by them. This is not a process that will come automatically, and it is not a journey with an end point, but it is a necessary aspect of ensuring your own emotional wellbeing.
I wish there was easy advice I could give for how to create this tenuous, yet necessary, understanding in your professional life. I hope that some foresight alone will be enough to prepare you to deal with your own struggle when it inescapably arrives. With that in mind, I encourage you to consider the following ideas as you begin your career:
- Almost all of your clients will be going through the worst experience of their life, this is not your fault and sometimes the best you can do is help them deal with their emotional crisis.
- There can be good reasons to make “bad” decisions, just because you disagree doesn’t mean it isn’t the right decision for your client, work to accept it and advocate to the best of your abilities.
- At the end of the day, put away the case. It is tempting to devote every waking minute to brainstorming and analysis but that will only burn you out in the long run, you need time without the case in your head.
- When you fail, begin again. You will have situations where your client’s problems begin to reverberate into your personal life, try to be vigilant for those situations and acknowledge their importance while simultaneously trying to maintain an emotional boundary.
- When in doubt, ask for help. Be it from your coworkers, friends, significant other, or a professional, if your work is hurting you, ask for help and don’t stop until you get the help you need.