We’re Just Lawyers

In a comment to a post the other day about  dealing with trolls, Deborah made a point about how we forsake the opportunity to provide a therapeutic opportunity for trolls, those people with such sad and empty real lives who find comfort by interacting online in a counterproductive fashion, when we cut them off.  I responded that blawgs aren’t the psychiatrists couch.

Norm Pattis took this down the road much farther, with a couple of hard rights and lefts in the process, to note that the facile nature of communication, particularly email, has enabled the client to engage in an immediate, and often constant, barrage of burdens and demands on the lawyer.  This alone could be chalked up to merely an awkward time waster, with questions such as “what’s new” only hours after the last query, with no intervening occurrence that might explain the query. 

But increasingly, that’s not what the emails have to say.

In a significant number of cases, enhanced communications requirements press lawyers into roles for which they are not suited: counselors required to validate the feelings of clients.

And so does the practice of law grinds to a halt in many an office encumbered by both the perceived need to validate the anger, fear and frustration client’s in litigation experience and the expectation that this need be met instantaneously. How many of you have received an email in the morning raising a concern only marginally related to the case you are working on, with a follow-up hours later on why the first e-mail wasn’t answered? I simply do not know how to cope with the avalanche of human need that inundates my firm.

The nature of what we do necessarily involves some very deep, very vulnerable feelings on the part of clients.  Any lawyer who fails to recognize that, and expect it, is in the wrong business.  Still, that doesn’t offer much of a solution about how to deal with it.  It ranges from basic hand-holding to intensive psychotherapy.  The former can suck up an enormous amount of time from the day, time that can never be recaptured and is needed to perform the functions that clients have paid us to do.  The latter is far beyond our abilities, and we are neither adequately prepared nor functionally competent to provide clients with the therapy they need.

Often, it’s not just the client, but the client’s spouse or parent who needs an outlet for the fear or rage, Some lawyers curry favor with the client or family by happily spending a substantial amount of time patting backs and wiping tears.  While this is almost obligatory for anyone dealing with the human condition, it becomes a secondary (or primary, according the extent of the demands) function for the lawyer who believes that its a proper part of his job or something he does particularly well.  This may be an example of narcissism, these lawyers believing that they have ability to address the therapeutic needs of clients and their family. 

Ironically, this is not merely a criminal defense lawyer problem, as Norm notes:

Just last week, I was speaking to two prosecutors about a criminal case. They expressed exasperation about the rage, anger and ever-present need of victims who were trying to transform the criminal justice system into a tool of private vengeance. The prosecutors bemoaned the impact of new victim’s rights laws that required them to consult victims before exercising their judgment.
To the extent that we’re ill-equipped to deal with the problem, prosecutors are even less so.  At least we have a financial motive to keep our clients content.  Prosecutors don’t work for victims, no matter what victims seem to think, and victims have no incentive to be reasonable or rational.  This is understandable, but makes them impossible to deal with when their rage takes over.

My imperfect solution to the situation is somewhat different than Norm’s, who hands the problem off to staff or lets the emails sit unread.  I hold hands to the extent that it doesn’t interfere with my function as a lawyer, both in terms of time and advice.  I will not allow empathy to stand in the way of telling a client what they need to know, even if it doesn’t help their psychological state.  I don’t sugar coat.  And I don’t use the time allotted to listen to angst when it’s needed to write a motion.  I’m the lawyer. My job is to do the lawyer things needed. 

When the demands exceed my time, conflict with my function, or surpass my therapeutic skills, I have a frank discussion that I cannot satisfy their needs.  They need therapy.  They need someone to talk to, a person with whom they can express their fear and rage, their frustration and emptiness.  I am not that person.  I’m just a lawyer.

As Deborah suggests, we should feel badly about the lost opportunity to help others, and I sometimes do.  Helping others is certainly one of the most important reasons to pick criminal defense as a practice area, and without it a lawyer will serve his clients poorly.  But we are not trained as therapists.  No matter how good we are at practicing law, it doesn’t mean we’re worth a damn at fixing clients psychological issues.  Indeed, we could do a lot of harm in our well-intended but inept effort to be overly helpful.

There are people out there who are educated and prepared to help.  Use them.  Refer to them as needed.  Help your clients as much as possible, but not by playing half-baked psychotherapist.  As hard as it may be to accept this proposition, we’re just lawyers.

8 thoughts on “We’re Just Lawyers

  1. Deborah

    Oh Geez, I didn’t expect you to respond. My point was that a simple kind response to a blogger may do a world of good for them.

    Regarding our clients who need emotional support………..we have this as well in the healthcare profession. Yes, we assist as best we can and you are correct……if the client shows emotional distress outside of our skills, abilities, licensure, we refer them to counseling in a kind and therapeutic manner. Always walk on the side of caution when dealing with human nature as we cannot walk in anyone else’s shoes. We as professionals can become ‘insensitive’ to the plight of the individual experiencing the stressors of which brings them to our services; we see so many ‘worst cases’ that some with lesser troubles can seem ridiculously unimportant in comparison. This is a professional consideration and, we too, are only human. Our job is not become ‘callous’ in our experience.

  2. SHG

    Your point was important and worthy of further discussion.  But lawyers aren’t health care providers.  I don’t think it’s a matter of insensitivity, though it could be interpreted that way by those for whom mental health is an integral part of their function and believe that every opportunity to help people in emotional distress must be utilized.  The comparison would be to expect mental health professionals to give legal advice to their patients whose problems transcend the emotional into the legal.  Of course, they are ill-equipped to do so and would do best to spend their 50 minute hour on therapy, referring the patient to a lawyer for any legal needs.

    And this, obviously, refers to patients/clients.  Trolls do not fall within the purview of people for whom we take responsibility.  If that means we won’t be up for sainthood, most of us can live with that.  I know I can.

  3. John R.

    I don’t take any responsibility for trolls, but I think there is some merit to “holistic” approaches to clients, where you do your best to deal with any issues they present, including mental health issues.

    Mental health issues are very common among people who consult lawyers, especially criminal defendants. I’m not saying lawyers should be therapists, but if after a few years in the trenches you can’t identify at least a few mental health issues when they are present, you’re not paying enough attention.

  4. SHG

    I believe that would fall under the heading of referring someone in need of a mental health professional to a mental health professional, as discussed in the post?  The point being, we are lawyers, not mental health professionals.  I thought that was made clear?

  5. Mike

    Of course. The issue is whether “paying attention” qualifies one to treat mental health issues. It’s probably best to leave the law to lawyers; and the psychology to the psychologists.

  6. Kathleen Casey

    I learned very early to say, “I am not licensed to provide therapy. See a therapist.” Today I also add, “and consider attending services. Whatever your religion,” because therapeutic problems may instead be spiritual problems. As in — beyond the reach of purely human assistance.

    That is a possibility that may not occur to people in legal trouble, and it assists them to mention it. In my experience.

  7. SHG

    Good point.  Much the “neediness” is a normal by-product of the stress and uncertainty of a criminal prosecution.  It doesn’t necessarily reflect mental health as much as the need to find comfort and solace during the process.  Often, faith may serve that purpose better than hand-holding by a lawyer.

  8. Kathleen Casey

    Sometimes legal problems are a by-product of clients’ disconnection from their religious traditions and so faith may benefit them lifelong. However the case turns out.

    We regret seeing people get in the trouble that they do but they do. And we regret seeing them in trouble again.

Comments are closed.