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How to Know When You Are Working Harder Than Your Client

I spend several days out of my week working along side Family Law Attorneys in various settings from Adoption Home Studies, Disputed Custody Home Studies, serving as a Parent Facilitator, a Counselor or a Communications Facilitator on Collaborative Law cases.  I’ve witnessed attorneys experiencing the exhaustion that comes from working with Families in Conflict. I too go through periods of exhaustion due to the intense work required to help these families get to the next stages in their lives.  So, for those of you incredible Family Law Attorneys that I know…and some that I don’t…this blog is for you.

I’ll start with a joke I saw posted on the Grossman Law Group website


A man in a hot air balloon is lost. He reduces the balloon’s height and spots a man below. He shouts, “Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?” The man below says: “Yes, you’re in a hot air balloon hovering at 30 feet.”
“You must be a lawyer,” says the balloonist.  “I am,” replies the man. “How did you know?””Well,” says the balloonist, “Everything you have told me is technically correct, but useless.”The man below says, “You must work in business.”  “I do” replies the balloonist, “But how did you know?”  “Well,” says the lawyer, “You don’t know where you are, or where you’re going, but you expect me to be able to help. You’re in the same position you were before we met, but now it’s my fault.”

How many of you have felt the weight of the world on your shoulders while working with families in conflict?  How many of you have felt the brunt of clients’ anger over situations that you couldn’t fix?
Well, this is my refresher course (I’m sure you have already seen the statistics on lawyers and depression) on the very thing that tends to slip our minds when we’re working with families.
In order to write this blog, I surveyed some attorneys across the Metroplex, asking them the question, “How do you know you’re working harder than your client?”  Here are some of the responses;
  • When they repeatedly fail to complete the tasks they are required/assigned to complete
  • When I notice that I’m thinking about a case too much
  • When I cannot pick up the client’s file and work on it
  • When my emotional response is greater than theirs
  • When they present you with a problem that you lose sleep over looking for a solution; and then when you call them with your advice they let you know that it really wasn’t a problem and they’re not concerned about it any more.
  • When I care more about beating the other lawyer than winning for the client
  • When I wake up in the morning and ask myself what am I doing?
  • When I start to feel I care more about the situation than the client

and finally…..

  • When I decide after answering this question that I hate Family Law and I want to sit on the couch and watch back episodes of Oprah and eat miniature dark Hersheys until I run through my kids’ college savings.

Remember when you first decided you wanted to become a lawyer?  What were some of the reasons you chose THIS profession over all of the others?  To right the wrong?  To provide justice to those who can’t get it?  To advocate for those less fortunate?  To be a hero for someone?
When I read The Lawyers Creed the following word struck a chord with me; Advise, Endeavor, Commit, Passionate, Responsible, Obligated, Honest, Fair, Candid, Zealous, Obligated, Loyal, Courteous, Fair, Civil, Prompt, Reasonable, Considerate and Mindful.  Wow!    What a commitment to yourself and others.  What a heroic work ethic.  The problem isn’t in working too hard for your client, the problem is that this heroic work ethic has a dark side to it that we tend to forget about sometimes, and left unchecked…it can wreak havoc in our lives.
Why is it important to know when you’re working harder than your clients?
  • Researchers at Johns Hopkins university in Baltimore interviewed 12,000 workers about depression and lawyers ranked number 1 on the list of occupations that were most depressed.  Lawyers were more than 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than average.
  • Quality of Life Survey conducted by North Carolina Bar Association reported that almost 26% of that bar’s members exhibited symptoms of clinical depression.  Almost 12% of them said they contemplated suicide at least once each month.  One study found that lawyers have a much greater risk of acting on their suicidal thoughts and succeeding in doing so.
  • “Attrition rates are high-some 80% of associates leave fancy law firm jobs within five years of being hired.  Of the associates that stay on, more than half doubt they’ll be working at a law firm in five years.” Project for Attorney Retention at UC Hastings College of Law’s Center for Worklife Law”

  • The ABA has reported that the desire for more time to meet personal and family needs is one of the major reasons lawyers experience burnout and consider leaving the legal profession.
  • The pressure to bill thousands of hours each year to keep firms afloat is demanding and exhausting.

Listen.  Stress in and of itself isn’t bad.  We all have it.  The question is, “Have you or can you develop skills that will help you adapt to the stress?”

If not, or if you haven’t, you may find yourself experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue.

Here’s some of the many symptoms associated with Burnout or Compassion Fatigue;

  • You find yourself being negative most or all of the time.  This  isn’t from a personality or character defect that you have, this is something that has been rearing it’s ugly head over time and it’s now prevalent a majority of the time
  • You find yourself overreactingmost or all of the time
  • You find yourself having a hard time sleeping
  • You find yourself experiencing a decrease in intimacy with your significant other
  • You find yourself angry at the world
  • You find yourself overeating or under eating
  • You find yourself procrastinating until the very last minute
  • You experience an increase in use of alcohol
  • You develop addictions to drugs, alcohol or gambling to help escape the stress
  • You find that you could care less about what anyone has to say
  • You find yourself withdrawing from family or social events
  • You find yourself being easily frustrated

All of the above are warning signs from your mind, body and spirit saying, “HOLD UP A MINUTE!!  We’ve got to do something different!”

What can you do differently?

  • Change your schedule- Schedule the more difficult clients/cases for the beginning of the day and end your day on a positive note with a client you enjoy working with
  • Change your definition of success-perhaps winning every case is not possible- maybe the client just needed to “have their day in court”
  • Some of the best cases you will ever have are the ones you say “No” to.  Be willing to say “No”
  • What time of day are you most creative?  Save that time for your most creative work
  • boundaries, Boundaries, BOUNDARIES- know when to say “No”, know when to shut the work time clock off and the personal time clock on, For those clients who burn up the phone lines and email in box, make new boundaries- 1 email a day with all of your thoughts, 1 phone call a day with all of your thoughts written down to talk about, no more than 5 minutes by phone, the rest has to be in person

Remember, working harder than your clients has a potential dark side that can take your life over if given the opportunity.  Be in charge of your life!

Health and Happiness to you,

Brenda Lee Roberts M. Ed., LPC

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