The Families of Solos and Small Firm Practitioners

By David L. Gates

Professionals who work on their own or in a small practice are especially susceptible to the stresses of burnout, boundary conflicts, lack of effective stress-management skills, and general wear and tear. Whatever stress we experience in our professional lives, that stress echoes throughout our family systems. For example, it is impossible for those around a lawyer to be unaffected by the schedules, conflicts, and stress that practicing law entails.

In fact, not only are the “intimate others” in our lives affected by our stress, but they typically echo that stress back to us in ways that escalate our individual issues on a relational level. This results in our stress increasing geometrically as poor responses elicit further poor responses. (Think Cold War escalation: Do we really need tens of thousands of missiles? Do we really need to get in the last complaining, whining comment?) When overwhelmed by the needs of others, both personal and professional, we may respond by pushing away or pulling back, unsure of when and how to set boundaries in our professional relationships.

Boundary conflicts certainly are basic issues to every marital and family counselor. Being able to separate one’s feelings, concerns, and responsibilities from those of others is a fundamental psychological principle that is easy to describe but often very difficult to practice consistently. The most common metaphor to illustrate boundaries is the fence between two neighbors. As a neighbor, I am responsible for my own yard, but not that of my neighbor . . . no matter how badly I’d like to teach him a thing or two. If I stay on my side, I’ll have enough to do. If my neighbor would like me to do what he would prefer in lawn care, I should thank him for his opinion but do what I feel is best for my lawn. As Robert Frost reminded us, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Poorly managed boundary conflicts result in our feeling overwhelmed. It is as if we’re trying to take care of the whole neighborhood’s lawns (simultaneously!) and trying to take care of each lawn the way that each home-owner would prefer. However, our first defense against the stress that results from boundary conflicts is typically to deny that it exists.

We typically would like reality to fit our preconceived, and very often self-serving, notions. Our skills should be recognized and appreciated, for example, or hard work and good intentions should be positively rewarded. We use various forms of denial to avoid facing the realities of our work and the positive and negative consequences of our efforts. Denial in its simplest form is a straightforward effort to refuse to acknowledge that what is happening is indeed happening. This allows me to live in my fantasy of what I want to occur rather than face what is actually occurring. More sophisticated forms of denial include filtering out information that makes me uncomfortable, minimizing the negative effects of my behavior, betting that my way will work eventually. Two significant consequences can result in our personal lives as we avoid finding solutions to our conflicts. We may become “burned out” and lose our motivation and our desire to pursue our goals, or we may experience compassion fatigue and feel overwhelmed by the struggles and pain of those we deal with daily in our professions.

Burnout is a familiar term in our culture for the syndrome affecting those who have encountered the ennui of discouragement and futility. I begin to feel like Sisyphus rolling a rock up the hill, only to have it roll right back on me again. I become less effective and less efficient and start to care very little about the results. The causes of burnout are many, but a frequent cause for the sole practitioner is the “switching of gears”—the demands of a solo practice require a wide variety of skills and a variety of levels of attention from issues that range from routine to critical.

Compassion fatigue is the cumulative cost of caring. It has been referred to as a secondary trauma experience for which lawyers have little if any training to understand or to cope with successfully. Barbara Rhode, in “The Well Balanced Lawyer,” an article for the February 2006 issue of the St. Petersburg Bar Association’s newsletter Paraclete, reminds lawyers that it is easier to prevent compassion fatigue than to recover from it. She adds a wonderful quote from Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning: “What is to give light must endure burning.” We must be of help to our spouses, our children, our clients. But in order to endure that burning, we must take care of ourselves so that there is a sufficient amount of us left afterward. Otherwise, our family relationships will suffer.

The impact of stress and burnout on family relationships can be very detrimental. In a new marriage, for example, a spouse may feel neglected or eventually abandoned by a partner who is preoccupied with his or her practice. Busy lawyers may become closer to those they work with than to their own spouse or family. If there are young children, the sense of neglect can result in poor bonding between the preoccupied parent and the toddler. This lack of attachment sets the stage for an anxious relationship down the road. Older children experience the same poor attachment but also experience a form of grief over missing the connection between themselves and the preoccupied or absent parent. If there are adolescents in the home, they may feel unstable if they are not able to depend on their parent to be there for them. Teen years are by their very nature unstable, and teens need stability in their family relationships as they are experimenting with independence from those very relationships.

We seek magical ways of dealing with our stress and disappointments. In our culture, the use of alcohol and drugs is an acceptable, even encouraged, method of coping with our problems. It is a slippery slope from social use of a legal substance such as alcohol to being preoccupied with its use. We are very comfortable with the drug effects of alcohol. As a central nervous system depressant, it can, initially, relax us. Past the social dosage of one to three ounces, however, it quickly reverses its effects and creates a variety of side effects that increase our tension—the opposite of our original goal in using alcohol. Marijuana has a similar long-term result of preoccupation, loss of ambition and interest, and loss of time and money. Other substances such as cocaine and methamphetamine similarly create unmanageability in the user’s life.

Families of alcohol and other substance abusers learn to adapt to the unpredictability of the abuser by using the same denial patterns that the abuser uses to avoid facing the consequences of his or her behavior. Families learn to not talk about—or even think about—the problem and to deny any feelings associated with the problem. Above all, family members learn not to “rock the boat.” A conspiracy develops to maintain the denial patterns so as not to upset the status quo. I remember working with one professional who assured me that his family had no idea of the extent of his drinking. While in treatment for his alcoholism, he was confronted by his two children, each of whom had written two single-spaced pages of how his drinking had affected them. His wife contributed five pages. Obviously, the person he had deceived the most thoroughly was himself.

Setting personal goals within your practice and within your family can free you from the tyranny of circumstances and the mood swings that come from cycles of gains and losses. Such goals should be unique to yourself and to your family. They can range from family hobbies to volunteer work to new experiences. If the family becomes invested in such goals, a bond is created among family members, which allows each member to experience the others in new ways that are not possible if each is simply pursuing individual goals.

Family traditions are a significant way for members to feel part of a greater system. Family dinners, game times, hiking, and other outdoor activities shared as a family create and maintain bonds and therefore stability. Over a family’s life span these traditions can be difficult to maintain and may at times have to be modified, but the effort to be creative and persistent will bring rewards. Traditions define who we are as a family and give us a sense of belonging.

Complicated family issues are best addressed by working with a therapist specifically trained in family systems. Early intervention in family therapy can prevent the development of destructive patterns and help families create traditions and develop coping skills that will serve them well in the future.

Resources available to attorneys in particular include the lawyer assistance programs in your area. Such programs specialize in mental health and substance abuse issues. Mentoring and accountability are very effective ways to protect us from ourselves and from errors that others have made before us. We don’t know what we don’t know, and therefore we will always benefit from the wisdom of others with more experience and more “battle scars.” The ability to deal with compassion fatigue can be aided by resources available such as the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (www.compassionfatigue.org/index.html).

In a profession that deals daily with stress, conflict, and loss, lawyers must develop the resources and skills to cope effectively with such strain. The sole practitioner will have to seek such resources and use them on a consistent basis. The families of such lawyers can only benefit from such modeling and support.


  • David L. Gates, MA, LMFT, CSADC, is an individual/marital/family therapist with 30 years of experience in the fields of family therapy, addiction, domestic violence, and mediation. He may be reached at david@davidlgates.com.

    Copyright 2009

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