Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Legal Profession and Stress - A Therapist's View

You're in Trouble, a provocative article by Manhattan therapist (and former lawyer) Will Meyerhofer, examines the underlying causes of anxiety in the legal profession, and reaches a cloudy conclusion:

The cloud hangs over you in the office and follows you home. When you were a kid, it eventually dissipated, but now it lingers indefinitely. What’s really going on?

A little dose of anxiety is being injected into you, in the form of a thought.

Anxiety is triggered by cognition – predictive thoughts. You predict something bad is going to happen, so you clutch up in preparation – tense up and prepare for attack.

At a law firm, the standard predictive cognition – the expectation – is that you are going to be criticized. They do that a lot at law firms. It is a fair guess that if something goes wrong, you are going to be blamed – and things go wrong all the time.

It got to the point for me, at Sullivan & Cromwell, that I felt my entire body clench in preparation for attack just walking through the doors of 125 Broad Street and stepping into that elevator.

When you spend long periods of time tensed up, on alert for attack, it takes a toll on your nervous system. In fact, it can produce lasting damage.

For Mr. Meyerhofer, the difficulties observed among his lawyer-clients have much in common with symptoms more typically seen in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder:

I’ve worked with lawyers who are literally jumpy from the sense of having enemies – hyper-critical, angry attacking partners – spring out at them whenever they let down their guard.

I’ve seen lawyers who have numbed themselves until they barely admit to feeling emotions, even in a therapist’s office.

And yes, lawyers have nightmares about their firms. One former attorney had a recurrent dream in which he realized he was back in his old office. He knew the dream so well he’d start thinking his way out of it right from the start, telling himself it wasn’t like it used to be – that he’d left the firm, they didn’t own him, they couldn’t hurt him anymore, he could get his coat and leave.

Some law firm environments are so punishing and toxic that they produce trauma and trigger PTSD symptoms. At least, that’s what I’ve witnessed over the years from lawyers I’ve seen as clients.

My best advice for anyone working under these conditions is to get some support – and to leave this environment as soon as possible.

This is an important, and too rarely-heard discussion.

The demands of professional practice - and these certainly extend well beyond the critical partners and supervisors Mr. Meyerhofer references - can indeed take a toll on members of the profession. In some circumstances, that toll can become acute.

It is well worth noting that resources and assistance are available for Ontario lawyers experiencing personal and emotional challenges:

The Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program (OLAP) is a CONFIDENTIAL provincial program for judges, lawyers, law students and their immediate family members. The services that OLAP provide include professional counseling, peer support, assessment, resource information and referrals to specialized programs and centres. OLAP reflects the commitment and acknowledges the responsibility of the legal profession to assist its members who experience personal or professional distress.

According to its website, OLAP "is funded by LawPRO (Lawyers' Professional Indemnity Company), the Law Society of Upper Canada, and supported by the Ontario Bar Association and by Ontario lawyers. OLAP is a registered charity and operates confidentially and reports to an independent Board of Directors."

Also see ABA Journal: Law Practice Can Trigger Stress Disorder, says Attorney Who Now Works as Therapist

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

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