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Bar News - February 22, 2008

New Lawyers Column:
How To Be Both an Effective and Sane Lawyer


Dawn E. Worsley


I still remember my torts professor from law school. It’s not because she was less than appreciative of all my “creative answers” on both my mid-term and my final exams, but because of the surprising advice she gave us the last day of our first year.  “When you go out [to practice],” she said “remember one thing.  They’re not cases, they’re people.” 


I remembered her words because that was the first time she had actually talked about the law and people.  All year long we had discussed things like negligence, strict liability, and damages.  People rarely came into the discussion.


In my previous lives, I had dealt with people in a variety of contexts.  As a waitress, I dealt with people who were out celebrating good times.  As a sales clerk, I dealt with people who had money and could buy things.  As a teacher, I was allowed to spend time with young people who looked forward to their futures.  When I was a free lance writer, I interviewed people with interesting lives.


When I began practicing law, there was no getting around the fact that I was surrounded by people.    But these people were different.  I soon realized that as a lawyer, I would spend most of my time around people who were often going through the worst times of their lives. People didn’t usually walk into my office because they had something to celebrate.  They walked into my office because they were going through a tragedy. 


Some of them had lost their children.  Some of them, their spouses.  Others were about to lose their freedom…or their sanity.


As a new lawyer, I took my cases personally.  A lawyer holds her client’s life in her hands.  She is responsible for her client’s fate.  It was a daunting feeling.  Aside from caring for a newborn, I had never had so much responsibility before.  It was sad and it filled me with many emotions.  I saw clients crying because they had lost their children.  I saw family members cry when someone was handcuffed and led out of the court. 


When I went to see clients in jail, the loud locking noise behind me made me shudder and the smell made me lose my appetite.  But the worst feeling of all was their loneliness.  I could just feel how lonely and scared my clients were. At first, my clients’ grief and loss totally encompassed me….


Sensing that I was near burn-out, a seasoned lawyer gave me some advice.  “Remember,” he said.  “No matter what happens to your client, you are walking out that door at the end of the day.  Whether your client is handcuffed and goes to jail or not, you’re walking out that door and you get to go home.”  At the time I thought the advice was a bit callous.


But being a lawyer is stressful. Statistics show a high percentage of lawyers have substance abuse problems.  There is a high burn-out rate, high divorce rate, and high suicide rate among lawyers. 


So how does a new lawyer survive?  How can you be effective and caring and still remain sane?  I think both “Remember they’re people, not cases” and “Remember at the end of the day you walk out the door” are both important.  You need to be compassionate and empathetic.  Your clients need to know you care and that you’re on their side.  But you also have to practice some self-preservation.


Through the years, I’ve gained some insight into other ways to remain effective and sane at the same time.  Look for the small “wins.”  Some days every single court order and every single phone call contains a tragedy.  This can be demoralizing.  But the small wins get you through the week.  Maybe you are able to convince a judge to give someone a much-needed break.  Maybe two people who hate each other are actually able to mediate a piece of their divorce.


Learn to recognize and savor appreciation.  Although they’re going through a horrible time in their lives, some clients actually appreciate the fact that you were “there” for them.  Sometimes a client shakes your hand, or says “thank you.”  Or, the client might refer someone else to you.  Chances are, you’ve made a difference in that person’s life.


Laugh.  Laugh whenever you can.  Laugh with your clients.  Laugh with other lawyers.  Laugh with your family.  Laughter eases the stress.


Do something physical. Doing something physical (aerobics, walking, or even cleaning the house) will relieve emotional and mental exhaustion.  Sometimes it will even give you the opportunity to hang out with people outside of the legal profession.


Still--hang out with other lawyers occasionally.  Lawyers understand how other lawyers feel.  Sometimes you just need to talk to someone who feels as much stress as you do.


Spend time with non-lawyers.  Instead of sending my paralegal to the bank to make deposits, I take a walk and make my own deposits.  I bank at a small bank with a small staff.  When I walk in the door, everyone greets me by my first name.  It makes me feel like “Norm” in Cheers (except that I’m not a guy, don’t sit at a bar, and am a lot more productive!)


Go home and do nothing. Sometimes you just have to escape.  It could be by watching TV, reading e-mail jokes, or shopping on e-bay.


Practicing law is stressful and it can sometimes be excruciating.  But it can also be rewarding.  The real trick is in striking a balance.  You need to “be there” for your clients; but you also need to “be there” for yourself, for your own mental health. 


As a friend from law school said to me once, “Just remember to put your own oxygen mask on first.”


Dawn Worsley has her own law practice in Nashua.  She is a member of the New Lawyers’ Committee and joined the NH Bar in 1997.

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