When I was new to the practice I developed stomach problems. I went to see my physician, a wise and compassionate former hippie. He asked me what the problem was and I told him that I had a stressful job that was causing me stomach problems. “What do you do for a living?” he asked. I told him I was a divorce lawyer, thus proudly bolstering my self-diagnosis.
He asked, “are you getting a divorce?”
I told him that he misunderstood me–I was not getting a divorce but rather I represented people who were. He said that he did not misunderstand, but rather it was me who misunderstood. He pointed out the difference between my professional and personal life. This hit me like a thunderbolt. I realized that my client’s problems were not mine. And if I made them mine, I would not survive long enough to help them.
Clients often invite lawyers to share their problems.
Like a person in a sinking ship, with water springing up everywhere, people seek company in their sinking ship. But if the lawyer climbs in, both will drown. The lawyer must remain dry on the dock, throwing a line and life preserver to the hapless passenger before the water overcomes him or her.
It is true that I stand close to the emotional mud puddle and often have mud splattered on my Brooks Brothers suits. I am not completely immune to the pain and misfortune of those I am trying to help. Lawyers’ clinical judgment must be tempered by our humanity. We must strive to understand our client’s pain so that we can provide guidance, and try to help them relieve that pain.
How can you do what you do?
My divorcing clients regularly marvel at my ability to withstand the stress of the divorce process.
I presume this is because they project their suffering onto me. They assume that because they are suffering I, by inference, am suffering as well. So when I am asked how I can do my job, what people are really questioning is how anyone can withstand the pain of divorce. My typical response is “I can do this every day because I am not getting a divorce.” This response is an unfortunate dodge thought. A better answer may be no answer.
There is no concrete solution to the question of how one can best survive his or her emotional pain. This is what the Buddha taught over two millennia ago. What suffering people really need is help to understand the nature of their pain, that it is temporary and that life will go on.
Rather than giving people a logical response to the “how can you do this” question, I think a better response is to take the time to really listen and to empathize with their pain. As lawyers we are not trained to listen, instead, we are trained to identify issues, gather facts, apply them to the law, and to argue persuasively for a particular outcome. But representing people getting a divorce is much more than that.
Divorce lawyers must strike a balance between legal problem solver and concerned human being.
Focusing exclusively on legal problem solving will create a sterile and inhuman environment for someone facing the trauma of divorce. But, too much personal concern will destroy the lawyer’s objectivity, effectiveness, and ultimately his or her health.
The lawyer must use finesse to understand both the legal issues as well as the emotional dynamics of the client and the case. He or she must nudge people to act reasonably and properly, despite the dust cloud of emotions swirling around. The lawyer must work with someone going through the worst time in their life and coach them to make good decisions under difficult emotional conditions.
Divorce, like life generally, can be difficult and sometimes painful. To help others we must first help ourselves. We must maintain perspective, stay healthy physically and mentally and remember it’s not our life.
How can I do what I do? It ain’t easy.