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Personal & Financial

Tackling Emotionally Draining Matters

Yoninah Orenstein

Tackling Emotionally Draining Matters
Cecilie_Arcurs via iStock

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The life of a young lawyer is a delicate balance of competing demands, between ensuring one’s own professional development, satisfying the needs of supervising attorneys, and meeting the often fickle demands of clients.

Your Day Job Can Take an Emotional Toll

In addition to those well-known demands, you must also confront the significant emotional toll that your day job can exert on you personally. This reality came as no surprise to me as a young family law associate because the intricacies involved in redefining a family amid divorce or a client suffering domestic violence clearly involve emotionally charged issues. However, all types of cases can involve emotional issues, especially in the areas of family law, criminal law, and wrongful death. Even business disputes can be deeply emotional for clients who may be dealing with a breakdown of a relationship and a great distrust of the opposing party. For some lawyers, dealing with the emotional aspect of the job comes easily, and they can simply leave the stress of the office behind as soon as they open the door to come home at night. For many others, however, developing a proper emotional balance takes practice.

The crux of the challenge for many young attorneys is learning how to demonstrate empathy while simultaneously remaining objective and focused on advocating for the client. If you remain emotionally isolated, the client may feel that you are not driven to fight for his or her rights. On the other hand, if you take on your client's problems, you can lose perspective and forget that one of your most important responsibilities is to counsel clients honestly and with candor.

Extreme Empathy Will Lead to Burnout

If your emotions are not properly balanced, you likely will be in a constant state of stress. For example, vicariously sharing your client’s feelings blurs the boundaries between the lawyer-client relationship. This form of “extreme empathy,” where you truly feel your client’s trauma or malaise, will inevitably lead to burnout. Meanwhile, failing to balance your emotions can also create the opposite result, such as feelings of isolation and extreme apathy, in which case you might feel helpless or useless. Extreme empathy and extreme apathy are mechanisms of self-preservation, and it is critical to avoid these unhealthy extremes.

As always, self-care, such as getting enough sleep or exercise and eating a well-balanced diet, helps maintain self-preservation. Through my practice and discussions with colleagues, I have found other important tools, however, to develop resilience when emotions run high.

Important Tools to Develop Resilience

  • Constantly remind yourself that you are not the cause of your client’s problem! Rather, you are there to help your client navigate through a difficult situation, often one of the more stressful events in his or her life.
  • Think about timing. Try not to review accident reports for an especially distressing tort case right after lunch.
  • Don’t schedule a meeting with a vulnerable client right before you are scheduled to make a presentation.
  • Set aside a discrete time to address matters that are particularly draining for you, and center yourself before starting the task. Strategize and prepare. 
  • Take the long view. Remember that this is just one case and that there will be many others in your career. This situation will be over eventually. Apply what you’ve learned from it going forward.
  • A supportive work environment is just as important as a supportive social network. Leaning on colleagues while working on particularly emotionally charged cases and sharing your experiences so that you do not feel as though you are shouldering the full burden of your client’s problems is critical.

These are key steps in maintaining control and can help avoid the stress associated with reactive litigation that can lead to excessive emotional investment in a case and unnecessary stress.

Of course, these recommendations are easier said than done. But you are a professional problem solver, and you will be confronted with many emotionally charged problems over the course of your career. Over time and with repeated practice—remember it is a practice—you will learn to be resilient and advocate like every case is the most important, even those that are emotionally draining.