You Don’t Own This, So Don’t Let it Own You

I had just arrived in the office, dumped my bags at my desk, and sprinted down the hall. I had to find my boss. I needed to tell her about a call I received from a client in the middle of the night that made my heart race and jaw clench. It involved an urgent, immediate, life-altering matter that couldn’t wait until morning, and I had to give the kind of legal advice that you ruminate about for hours after you hang up the phone.

I found my boss sitting at her desk and scanning through her email. I knocked and immediately started to talk. Barely breathing, I told her about the 2 am call, recited the facts that were presented to me, the questions I asked, and the advice I dispensed. After I stopped talking long enough to catch my breath, she glanced at me, undoubtedly saw my deeply entrenched distress over what transpired the night before, and said:

“Jenny. You don’t own this, so don’t let it own you.”

In that moment, I realized that I was absolutely owned.

With few exceptions, a significant and sometimes overlooked aspect of legal practice is the emotional shrapnel that whizzes around us as we administer legal advice. Clients come to us with problems, emergencies, despair, anguish. We are trusted with, and simultaneously burdened with, the emotional and intellectual baggage that comes with solving their problems. Some situations, no matter what kind of psychological barriers you establish, will still ricochet against you with such ferocity that you are sent reeling, even if just momentarily.

Sometimes, we can’t solve their problems—no matter how hard we try, how many cases we read, or how many ways we try to reframe the issue. Some problems are unsolvable or resolve in a way that leaves us with a fist-gripping, stomach-churning, sense of self-righteous injustice that we just can’t seem to shake. I am a good lawyer. These are good people. This should not be happening. I should be able to fix this. Why can’t I fix this?

I used to allow my clients’ problems to become my problems, and let their feelings and emotions permeate through me, to my detriment. However, that advice from a boss early in my career taught me the importance of learning how to emotionally and psychologically separate my work from the rest of my life.

Since that conversation with my former boss, whenever I get a call from a client that makes my heart skip a beat, I mentally separate out their emotion from the underlying issue for which they need assistance. I talk my client through priorities, help them assess what’s urgent and what can wait, and establish next steps. While I willingly take on the intellectual burdens involved with providing counsel, I don’t let the emotions of the situation take up residence in my mind, because I don’t own it, and it doesn’t own me.

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