Domestic lawyer getting over-involved trying to help clients

Issue July/August 2006

Q:At times I've been feeling overwhelmed by my domestic and juvenile law practice, and at other times burnt out and almost numb. Although I myself was raised in an intact (if somewhat dysfunctional) family, the human pain that surfaces around divorce, custody, etc. really seems to push my buttons. Some of my colleagues seem able to keep their cases at a surgeon-like distance; for me, it's hard to draw the line.

Aside from the fact that I "feel their pain," especially that of kids caught in the middle of various lose-lose situations, I also tend to get personally over-involved. One time I spent more time in the hospital with a sick client than his mother did. In another case, I canceled my own vacation because a client demanded that I be with her for a meeting that really did not require a lawyer.

I'm in solo practice, which sometimes feels like swimming with no lifeguard. Yet I'm drawn to this kind of work. What do you suggest?

A:We have long noted that the world of lawyers offers too little — especially for those who practice solo — in the way of support, community, apprenticeship, etc. Newer lawyers often report feeling like t­­hey are adrift or drowning, while more seasoned practitioners are more likely to feel burnt-out — you seem to be somewhere in the middle.

The issue of "drawing the line" with clients naturally arises more in the field of domestic law than, say, corporate litigation (which certainly presents its own stresses). In fact, it's a concern shared by those of us in the mental health field, and the goal is probably the same: to care enough, and be involved enough, to be helpful, while keeping enough distance so that you don't lose your own grounding or perspective.

For your client, you are the lifeguard. You must extend yourself enough to make a connection and be able to pull them to safety while maintaining a firm enough footing to avoid being pulled under. Just as a lifeguard can't rescue several people at the same time, a lawyer needs to be selective about how many potentially overwhelming cases are taken on simultaneously.

To help you cope, make good decisions about how far to extend yourself, keep your perspective, know where to draw the line and then maintain it, there's nothing like the chance to talk it over with others. There are too few mechanisms in place for this purpose. We are aware of some solo practitioner listservs, such as Solosez via the ABA ( In addition, at LCL, we offer a monthly Solo Practice Discussion Group addressing just these kinds of issues (as well as others faced by solo practitioners).

Questions quoted are either actual letters/e-mails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

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