Developing broader shoulders

Developing broader shoulders
Something really terrible happened in the life of one of my clients a few months ago. I was totally shaken by it and lost several nights’ sleep. As time has passed, I have gained more perspective but wanted to write about what I’m discovering is one of the toughest parts about this job: coping when something difficult happens to a client.

I’m a very resilient person but am easily affected by others around me who may be in pain. I am always driven to relieve someone else’s suffering, sometimes even to my own detriment. I enjoy supporting others, being a cheerleader, a sounding board, and a reality check, as needed. Clients come to me upset, stressed, and anxious, and ideally leave our first meeting relieved a plan is in place and I’ll be with them each step of the way. I consider it a real privilege to be able to provide that service.

But it’s an odd space we occupy as lawyers. The lawyer-client relationship is one of the most intimate professional relationships there is. Think about it — some clients probably tell us more secrets than they do their own doctors. Yet patients typically don’t socialize with their doctors as they do with their lawyers. Part of our job in developing business is to get to know our clients on a personal level, whether it be  through small talk about families, taking them to sporting events, sending holiday greetings, or generally keeping up with their lives.

In the end, though, it is still a professional relationship. While I know how to comfort friends and family members (usually through home cooking and frequent check ins), it occurred to me I don’t know how to do that yet with clients.  I don’t believe I have any business inquiring about a client’s personal life unless it is superficial or directly relevant to our case.

Family and criminal lawyers get far more detail and insight into their clients’ personal lives than do civil litigators. I’ve always been intellectually curious about family and criminal law but avoided those practice areas because of the intensity of the subject matter.

My friend and colleague Christine Mainville practises criminal law at Henein Hutchison LLP in Toronto. When clients are struggling, Mainville suggests directing them to their own support system.

“If the client is truly in distress,” she says, “the key is to identify persons — whether in their personal circle or not — who you might encourage them to go to for support. A lawyer sometimes just needs to be the person to listen, and hear the client out. Indeed, listening and providing support is an important part of any criminal lawyer’s job, but there is only so much we can do given our duty to be professional and to respect confidentiality.”

I wholeheartedly agree with her advice. It is not our job to be a client’s therapist. As one lawyer I know jokes, we’re twice as expensive and half as qualified to do that. But once we’ve directed our client to the appropriate resources, we’re still left with the toll the stress has taken on us. Even though I could acknowledge my limited role in my client’s life, I still felt helpless in this recent situation and couldn’t help but wonder if there was something, anything, I could have done better or differently.

I talked to a long-term mentor who I respect greatly. She has been in practice for more than 30 years and has seen her share of difficult situations. I explained what happened, and she listened intently.

“How do you deal with pain in the lives of your clients?” I asked. “Maybe I just need more time in practice to develop a thicker skin.”

She stopped me. “No,” she said. “It’s not about having a thicker skin. I want, and I know you want, to be able to empathize with your clients. We want to understand what they’re going through, even if it’s difficult for us to handle. Over time, you’ll become stronger and better able to bear the burden. I think of it not as developing thicker skin, but broader shoulders.”

As usual, she was exactly right. Her image of broader shoulders really resonated with me. I understand how some lawyers may simply want to (or need to) develop a barrier so they are not drawn into their clients’ personal lives.

Mainville points out maintaining some professional distance is part of the objective, quality service our clients pay for and deserve. I agree. But to the extent I can manage, I don’t want to close myself off from empathizing with my clients. They come to me in some really difficult situations. I want to get that.

And within reason, it should be a two-way street. My life hasn’t been without its anxieties or disappointments. I think that makes me a more compassionate person and lawyer.  Along with my technical knowledge, my life experiences and ability to empathize are part of the value I bring to clients.

So, it seems this is another lesson to add to my growing list of experiences as a lawyer. I’m developing a greater sense of the delicate balance between empathy and professional distance. Fortunately, I have terrific colleagues that I can turn to within the lawyer-client privilege cone, and they have given tremendous support.

For those who need someone to listen on a confidential basis, don’t forget our law society dues in Ontario pay for the terrific Member Assistance Program. MAP provides counselling services to all lawyers, paralegals, students and judges, and their families. It is entirely confidential. Visit the MAP online for more information. 

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