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Lawyering and the Five Stages of Grief

Counsellor, heal thyself.

Law and Psychology

The law of lawyering is easy. Yet a lawyer is supposed to be more. Although lawyers are not given psychological training in law school, and although counsellors aren't even allowed to see patients until they've had 3,000 hours of supervised training, lawyers are considered counsellors-at-law.

Consider, for example, the requirements one must meet to become a licensed Marital and Family Therapist:

Experience Requirements

104 weeks of supervision

3,000 hours of supervised work experience.

Yet any new law graduate is expected to competently handle divorces and criminal cases. Divorce, as my god friend Norm Pattis told me, "is one-part homicide, one-part suicide." Even the spouse who wants the divorce feels somewhat dead inside, since hurting someone you once loved is damaging to all but the sociopathic.

In a state like California or Nevada, family law is really easy. If there are no children involved: Divide everything by half and walk away. If there are children involved, child custody is formulaic. How mcuh do you earn? OK, this means you're going to pay $x per child. Alimony can get tricky, but again, it's not tough stuff.  

Yet try advising someone about family or criminal law. You're going to face psychological issues. It's not just the client's issues to worry about. It's your own. Counsellor, heal thyself.

Kübler-Ross model

Although the Kübler-Ross/Five Stages of Grief Model was developed for terminally ill patiences, it has substantial application for lawyers.

A person going through a divorce or charged with a crime is dying. A divorcing couple once had hopes and dreams together. They thought they were going to build a life. That dream is dead.

A person charged with a crime may go to prison. He may be raped. He won't know his children. He will be, for the rest of his life, a convicted felon. One part of his life is indeed over. He is dying.

Yet we often don't treat clients as people facing terminal illnesses. Instead we become frustrated when they won't follow our advice. Yet no matter how sage the advice is, the deaf cannot hear - and a client in denial may as well be deaf and blind.

Kübler-Ross model for client counselling

As its name suggets, there are five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

1. Denial. I can't be charged with a crime. I'm not like people who are charged with crimes. I'm a good person. The police and prosecutors will listen to me.

Denial is the most challenging stage to deal with. A person in denial makes self-destructive decisions. "If you just let me explain to the police and prosecutor, they will dismiss the charges." No, alas, they won't. Yet a client in denial cannot heal the logic of decades of experience.

Fortunately denial is only temporary. One exceptionally good criminal defense lawyer tells his clients who are in denial of their impending arrest, "Put your dogs in a kennel so they don't end up like those dogs in YouTube videos."

2. Anger. Why is this happening to me?! Other people have done much worse!

Anger is also frustrating to deal with, since the lawyer becomes the recipient. Clients send endless e-mails and leave voice mails screaming at lawyers. Lawyers are accused of conspiring with prosecutors. Rage, as the saying goes, is blind.

A lawyer has an ethical duty to shrug off the abuse. It's natural. Yet I've concluded that lawyers should regularly see a psychotherapist rather than a drug doctor, since the clients' anger roots itself in the lawyer's subconscious.

3. Bargaining. What can we do to make this go away?

In law unlike in death, bargains can be struck. This is where the client at least develops a healthy relationship with the legal process. Yet getting to this stage requires a lawyer to guide the client through denial and anger.

4. Depression. My life is over.

Here is where clients lock up. "I thought we had a deal," a lawyer will ask his client. "Sign these documents. We already went over this," the frustrated lawyer will tell his client.

Yet a client in depression cannot do what lawyers demand. Depression is gravitational. It pulls the client away from the world and into the abyss. The fourth stage requires the lawyer to remain patient. Understand what the client is going through. It's not a failure of logic. It's a failure of emotion, namely, the client lacks the emotional will to follow through.

5. Acceptance.

It is only here that the client can behave as his lawyer expects him to. Yet what a mess it was getting here.

Kübler-Ross model for lawyers

It is easy to tell a client, "You're in denial." Yet this is often said through a lawyer's gritted teeth. Why are you so frustrated with your client, lawyer?

A lawyer should not be frustrated with clients, since clients are behaving predictibly. They are behaving just as millions of people before them.

Understanding the Five Stages of Grief is not necessary just for client counselling, but for a lawyer's own mental health.