Give yourself a break, too

Issue August 2010 By Jeffrey Fortgang, Ph.D.

When I joined the staff of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers well over a decade ago, I shared some stereotyped, media-based perceptions of lawyers, so often portrayed as wealthy, arrogant, combative individuals who demand huge fees even to the point of impoverishing their clients. I was nevertheless drawn to the challenge of finding a way to connect with them, and mindful of the contrary fact that many of my best friends dating to college were now attorneys, and that most of the lawyers I had met while doing inpatient psychiatric work had been caring, sensible and respectful.

My years at LCL have cast the legal profession in a very different light. In our lawyer assistance program, we see many attorneys who struggle to stay on top of their bills, hate and avoid conflict, and more than a few who are "too nice." These are the attorneys who take on clients of limited means, and are so sympathetic to their clients that they endanger their own financial (or, on occasion, physical/emotional) wellbeing.

They are not inclined to ask for help until things reach a breaking point. Some are on the brink of bankruptcy (or in the process of declaring it); others have sunk into depression, in the more severe cases so wrapped in a combination of worry and fear of facing reality that they stop reading their mail or answering the phone.

There is no shortage of attorneys who would like to be doing "God's work" on behalf of the less powerful or advantaged. Over time, however, the real need to pay the rent and the student loan installments becomes a more pressing concern.

While a large law firm provides structure, and layers of institutional insulation between attorney and client, the lawyer in a solo or small practice (especially one with no administrative staff running interference) develops a direct, personal/professional relationship with clients, which can easily lead to going above and beyond a manageable level of time and effort. There's also a close-up awareness of the client's own financial burden. In response, not infrequently the lawyer will "throw in" many hours of service (of which the client may be completely unaware), billing for only what he perceives the client can afford.

While this compassion is laudable, sacrificing to the point of ignoring one's own needs, in any line of work or any relationship, endangers one's own survival. Attorneys who ignore the fact that their own professional, financial or emotional ships are taking on water find themselves going down with the ship. In the long run, you'll offer less help to others if your own practice doesn't make it.

So, how do you shift the balance toward taking good-enough care of yourself, even while attempting to maintain your compassion and sense of duty toward others?

The Financial Side

Even those of us who are "good with money" are not capable of seeing our own financial pictures objectively. Are we taking unwarranted risks? Are we unreasonably depriving ourselves? Are we putting enough away for our future goals, or a rainy day? Should we be seriously considering bankruptcy rather than struggling to pay bills and running up credit card balances? At LCL, we have made referrals to credit counseling services (though some seem to be more trustworthy than others, and there are many times where their solutions are simply unworkable) as well as financial planners. An outside perspective can be very sobering, sometimes disappointing, but there is relief in having faced the situation head-on. Many lawyers would benefit from ongoing consultation, monitoring income, expenses, and evolving financial goals.

The Practice Side

One must face the fact that good legal skills are not the same as good business practices. Having someone else handle the business and/or organizational component, (a partner with different talents, an effective administrative staffer, etc.) can be very valuable - the person, for example, who "says no" to resource-draining clients and potential clients, or insists that the lawyer get paid for his or her time. It's important to engage in periodic reviews of all the business partner's decisions, since some may be less reliable than they appear.

Practice consultants and administrative support staff cost money, and if you are already in a lot of debt, that can be hard to justify. There are also benefits, though certainly not identical to those kinds of resources, in consulting with LCL (e.g., via our Solo Practitioners Forum if applicable) or with the affiliated Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP), both of which still provide their services at no fee.

The Psychological Side

Your personality and other psychological factors comprise part of the reason that you may find yourself with an "unfavorable balance of trade." Some lawyers I have encountered have too little sense of entitlement to expect to be rewarded for their work, or to decline tasks that would clearly be too taxing. Some are overly prone to feelings of guilt, and easily sucked into the quicksand of feeling responsible for a client in an awful situation. They may feel that declining to assist someone in need is tantamount to ignoring someone who is drowning. (Of course, if you are too worn out to swim, the result will be two drowning victims.)

Some attorneys rely almost solely on doing for others as a source of self-esteem, while others are too proud to admit that their financial realities put them in no position to be magnanimous with their professional time. Others recognize on some level that they have gotten themselves into an untenable position but feel too anxious or immobilized to face and deal with the situation.

If you have a big heart and a wish to help, those are admirable qualities. If you can balance those with a healthy regard for your own wellbeing and that of your practice, you will be in a much better position to stay "in business," contributing your skills to others' lives for years to come.

Dr. Jeffrey Fortgang is a clinical psychologist and certified addictions specialist on the staff of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, the nonprofit lawyer assistance program serving all lawyers, judges and law students in Massachusetts. He can be reached at (617) 482-9600.  More information about LCL and the issues of life in law, as well as the option of submitting anonymous questions, can be found at