Why Law Schools Are Failing Future Lawyers By Not Talking About Human Suffering

Why Law Schools Are Failing Future Lawyers By Not Talking About Human Suffering


Lawyering is hard.

Being human is hard. This human condition — as Buddha said:

“the [first] noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering.”

Perhaps they should’ve taught this in law school — as lawyers, we are in the suffering business. Clients rarely come to see a lawyer with happy news. They often come to see us during their lowest, darkest, and scariest moments.

Yet, for the most part, legal education glosses over the fact that as lawyers, we’ll regularly meet with clients in crisis, clients who experienced some type of trauma. 

In Torts class, we’re asked to review the facts, write it into concise statement, frame the issue, recite the rules, run the analysis and come to a conclusion — my client should win.

Nowhere are we taught that the act of sitting with someone who is suffering — someone who has been unjustly treated, physically, emotionally, psychologically or financially harmed, or lost dignity, limbs, or loved ones — is really deeply painful and hard work.

Instead, we are regularly told nonsense like, we’re lawyers, we shouldn’t have emotions.

We are taught to only focus on the clients, neglect our own well-being, never show our “weakness,” always be tough and be warriors.

Lawyers are taught to deny their emotional and psychological experiences that results from doing their work. The only “remedy” is to have a few stiff drinks (or few glasses of wine) to get over the pain of having had a tough day.

Except, this strategy of denial doesn’t work. We know this from data. If this was an effective coping mechanism, we wouldn’t have so many lawyers suffering from chronic stress, anxiety, depression and alcohol/substance abuse.

What is the vaccine against so many of these terrible side effects of lawyering? There are certainly no easy answers; the causes (and therefore, the solutions) are complex. Some of it is biological, genetics or chemical but we do know from research that we can train ourselves to be more resilient, to experience more happiness, to decrease the likelihood of burnout, and depression through two practices: compassion and self-care.

These practices can feel foreign and touchy-feely to lawyers. Sometimes, when I tell lawyers that I teach mindfulness and meditation to lawyers to increase joy and satisfaction, I’m met with a comment like — is there chanting?

Just for the record, there is no chanting in my CLEs or workshops but I also think there are many benefits to ancient practices like yoga, chanting, meditation, and prayer.

It’s interesting to me that the very lawyers who are struggling with the consequences of lawyering are so quick to deny their own experience and dismiss any attempts to acknowledge it with sarcasm.

See the disconnect? The work that we do often carries with it incredible pressure because so much is riding on the outcome. This has an impact on us (obviously). And rather than acknowledging it and putting healthy practices in place to mitigate the impact on our own well-being, we’re told to “toughen up” or “suck it up.” This message in turn creates an atmosphere where if as a lawyer, you experience any negative side effects from the work (insomnia, anxiety, burnout, sadness, depression), you’re a failure as a lawyer. Lawyers are a prideful group, both to their credit and detriment.

Often, these messages are internalized and loudly narrated by the inner-critic. You know, that voice inside of your head that’s constantly telling you that you’re a failure, not good enough, a terrible lawyer, a terrible parent, etc.

A lawyer, who often represents marginalized aboriginal or Inuit (Eskimo) men wrote to say that he “checked the mail – there was a confirmation of payment from Legal Aid.” The payment was for a trial. He went on to say, “…and I caught myself thinking “great – getting paid to lose a Trial.””

This is something I too have been guilty of. I’m only as valuable as my last win. Or that if I lose, the work was meaningless. If I lose, I’m a failure.

Perhaps we should’ve learned in law school that as a lawyer, as a good and successful lawyer, we will occasionally (or even frequently) “lose.” However, it would be wrong to assume the loss is a reflection on you as a lawyer or your lawyering ability. It would be a mistake to assume your work doesn’t matter or that you are a failure.

When I think about how to be with the suffering we witness, I think about Bryan Stevenson and his incredible book, Just MercyHe represents people who are on death row. Losing his case means his client will be executed.

There’s a haunting passage in his book where Stevenson is talking to his client after all the courts said, “too late.” His client, Jimmy Dill was scheduled to be executed. Stevenson writes:

Why do we want to kill all the broken people?

I tried not to let Mr. Dill hear me crying. I tried not to show him that he was breaking my heart. He finally got his words out.

“Mr. Bryan, I just want to thank you for fighting for me. I thank you for caring about me.”

For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness.

Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abuse power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression or injustice and not be broken by it.

We are all broken by something.

It’s a mistake to think that showing up, fighting, defending your client, doing the work you’re given, even if you lose doesn’t matter. It mattered to Mr. Dill, it matters to the Eskimo men. It would also be a mistake to not tend to your own suffering because our client’s suffering and our own — it’s interrelated. We cannot have compassion towards others without first having compassion towards ourselves.

Perhaps it is time that as lawyers who are in the changemaker and peacemaker roles to create a space to care for our own tenderness. To embrace our own humanity. To take a gentler stance with ourselves. And law schools to teach the value of vulnerability.