Why Lawyers Should Embrace Compassion

Why Lawyers Should Embrace Compassion

Nonviolence means an ocean of compassion. It means shedding from us every trace of ill will for others. It does not mean abjectness or timidity, or fleeing in fear. It means, on the contrary, firmness of mind and courage, a resolute spirit.
— Mahatma Gandhi

As lawyers, we are in the suffering business. I suppose there are practice areas where clients come to us with happy news (if you are in one of these practice areas, please let me know what it is), but generally speaking, clients end up in our office due to disputes, divorce, bankruptcy, injury, etc.

Perhaps it then makes sense that lawyers experience higher rates of burnout, stress, anxiety, depression, and alcohol/substance abuse compared to other professions. We’re constantly marinating in human misery. Add to that the incredibly high demand of billable hours and being expected to deliver the right results, not to mention the expectations we place on ourselves.

Unlike therapists and mental health professionals, lawyers do not receive any training on the impact of witnessing constant human suffering has on our own well-being. A recent ABA Journal article reported that PTSD-like symptoms can result from legal cases involving trauma.

Sadly, there isn’t any place where lawyers can frankly and openly discuss the toll our work can take on our physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.

In fact, lawyers are taught to suppress or deny their emotional world. I’ve heard lawyers frequently say something like, “I never bring my emotions into a case.” I find statements like this to be puzzling because emotions are precisely the thing that cause humans to take actions. Also, just because you say you don’t allow your emotions into a case doesn’t mean that they, in fact, have no impact.

Surely these lawyers experience some emotions when they lose a case.

There is another profession that seems to experience similarly high mental health issues as lawyers do — doctors.

It seems doctors are also expected to abandon their emotional world and perform with robotic precision. Never mind that your last patient died on the operating table, doctors are expected to bounce back and get ready for another surgery immediately after.

As medical professionals begin to recognize that the attitude of “shut up and deal” isn’t effective, they’re turning to research for answers.

There’s a whole body of research that seems to indicate that tools from mindfulness and compassion are effective in combating secondary traumatic stress, burnout, vicarious trauma, stress, and anxiety.

Stanford University, for example, started The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research And Education (CCARE) to study the impact of compassion and mindfulness practices.

I was fortunate enough to take the 8-week CCARE program twice. Initially, I was skeptical. It makes sense that we would want people in the healing profession — doctors, nurses, therapists — to be more compassionate but should lawyers be as well?

The answer is a resounding yes. It’s true that lawyers are distinctly different than medical professionals in that we’re in an adversarial system and our job is to deliver a favorable result for our clients. However, we’re also similar in that we witnesses people at some of the lowest and perhaps most challenged times of their lives.

I’ve seen clients lose their entire life savings on a business deal gone awry, and lives destroyed by unexpected illness or death or simply being a victim of a bad economy. Needless to say, sitting with clients who are experiencing trauma day after day has an impact on the lawyer.

When I talk about the concept of compassion with lawyers, they often misconstrue it as getting along, conceding, or my personal favorite, navel gazing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In the context of how compassion is researched and practiced, it has a very specific definition. Compassion is referring to our innate desire to do something to help when we witness suffering in others.

Of course, this is what we do as lawyers. We do what we can to help our clients through their difficult situations. However, what is often lost is this: recognition of our own suffering.

Now, let me pause and say that paying attention to your own suffering does not mean only paying attention to yourself. It’s not about feeling sorry for yourself or wallowing in your own misery. As the quote above suggests, compassion does not mean abjectness or timidity, or fleeing in fear.  To the contrary, recognizing your own difficulty, your own pain, your own emotional reaction in the situation allows you to acknowledge it and find ways to work with it.

Taking a more open stance towards your own experience is difficult. Yet, cultivating these qualities of compassion, empathy, and kindness for oneself and others is critical for being a good human and a lawyer.

I often talk to lawyers about the importance of self-care and caring for one’s wellness. This is the core of practicing self-compassion — recognizing your own difficulties and practicing taking very good care of yourself so that you can better care for others.

As the saying goes, secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

The research indicates that an increase in self-compassion and self-care reduces stress, anxiety, and depression, and enhances connection with others. Perhaps it’s time that we as lawyers borrow a page from positive psychology and implement these practices into our lives.

This article was first featured on Above the Law.