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We Swim in Toxic Emotions HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
There’s a dark side to practicing family law, and most of us in this practice never discover the darkness until it’s too late.
And so were many of my friends going back decades. They suffered through heart attacks, alcohol and drug abuse, broken marriages, suicide, disbarment, criminal convictions, humiliation, and shame. This is not a recent phenomenon. I’ve lost a lot of friends.
A True Story of Darkness
Dirty Little Secret
Let me tell you a true story that happened a few weeks ago.
Here’s the dirty little secret of family law practice: We swim in toxic emotions. All day, every day. That’s our job. But just like a fish doesn’t recognize the water it swims in, we don’t recognize the toxins we inhale just by doing our job. Eventually, emotional poison kills us.
“But just like a fish doesn’t recognize the water it swims in, we don’t recognize the toxins we inhale just by doing our job.”
It was a post-divorce dispute. I was in District Court to testify as an expert witness. Different attorneys mangled five retirement plans in a divorce plan three years ago. We were five minutes into the second day of trial. Five minutes of hell. Five minutes of mumbling
Hope for All of Us
and fumbling and stumbling through a routine cross- examination. “If I could have a moment, Your Honor,” the attorney said. He was rummaging through five stacks of papers, each two feet high, piled beside him. The judge had seen enough of this attorney: slurred speech, vacant eyes, unsteady gait, disoriented. Finally, the judge said, “We’re going to take a short break. Bailiff, please escort counsel to my chambers, alone.” The next thing we knew, the judge canceled the trial for the day. The attorney’s paralegal drove him home. The rest of the entourage for both sides had a free day. I never inquired what the problem was. Drunk? Abuse of legal prescriptions? Illegal drugs? It didn’t matter. I’d seen it too many times before. My friend lost his battle with the toxin that attacks us all.
I’ve discussed this professional epidemic with many family lawyers across Texas. The disease is widely recognized, but the antidote — not so much. I’d like to use a well-worn cliche: We are very good at ignoring the elephant in the room. Austin family lawyer Jimmy Vaught gave me the wisest counsel; I’ve never forgotten it. “Set boundaries,” he said. “We are not required to share the experience of our clients’ toxic emotions.” “Aha!” I said. Can it be true? I can choose to not be angry when my client is angry? I can choose to not hate along with my client? I can choose to be kind to the opposing counsel? I can choose to search for humanity in the opposing party? I can pursue my calling professionally, like an artist, without bullying or intimidation? I can extend courtesies without my client’s approval? I can do good? Will I not appear weak? Is this not heresy? I’m happy to confirm that there’s professional life after burnout. It seems just a distant memory for me. I’ve been fully recovered for a long time. But the pain returns every time I see a colleague go down. It’s true that family law practice has its dirty little secret.
A Professional Epidemic
But the cure is available for all of us: set boundaries.
I’m told there are only two types of divorce lawyers: those who have burned out, and those who have not burned out ... yet. I am among the former.
–Judge Stephen Hernsberger
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