With all the talk and advancement in the mental health space, beyond Kanye changing his hair color, there’s a syndrome that’s been looming in the shadows of the legal industry for decades. Legal Abuse Syndrome (LAS) is a subcategory of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but its occurrence is rarely publicized. Similar to the fight on the battle field where soldiers endure high stress and near death experiences, LAS is a natural response to cumulative trauma caused or exacerbated by experiencing injustice during litigation. The injustice comes in many forms, from false statements going on the record to being coerced to take a plea deal, and creates a feeling of helplessness. Everyone has a way to deal with their issues but it is important to seek out help and find ways to relax and enjoy yourself when these feelings set in.
Whether it’s your first year practicing or your 30th year, walking into the courtroom is a stressful situation, starting from the layout and seating of the judge and jurors to the way the prosecutor is postering at you. I wrote an in-depth article analyzing how the design of the courthouse is meant to enlist a submissive role from you. This scenery is a subtle force on the defense team and plaintiff to make them seem wimpy and crummy. The court is meant to represent justice and inclusion but once you’re in the courtroom and ready to make your arguments the tale is different.
Lawyers have an image in the public as dishonest people, that image is a tough one to disprove even though there are honest ones. Many times prosecutors and judges are less than honest. Prosecutor have sometimes withheld pertinent information about evidence or juror selection. Inaccurate claims have been put on the record as facts, causing a skewed jury perception of the defense team. That taint remains in the subconscious and makes it nearly impossible to achieve an unbiased resolution. Rulings like this can wreak havoc on the lawyer and plaintiff. And, as any trial lawyer knows, the reading of a jury verdict is the most stressful moment of all.
The stakes are different for each party but the psychological abuse is not. The key moments when PTSD sets in can be monitored with biofeedback equipment, from sweat to accelerated heart or even heart attacks. I imagine the same can be done with LAS. Along with all the things going in an attorney’s personal life, the addition of the stress from litigation can exacerbate or be the factor to cause LAS. Attorneys must learn how to deal with stress in order to survive LAS and lead happy lives in retirement. I’ve known way too many very skilled and successful trial attorneys who have not made it to retirement.
Over the years, I have developed my own mode of stress management, and can attest to its success by pointing out my present age (62 years old) and the fact the black hair you see in that photograph on my website is natural and not dyed. I divide my stress management into three main areas: (1) client relations; (2) case load control; and (3) diet and exercise.
Maintaining good client relations is essential to both a successful practice and good health. Not only does an attorney have an obligation under the Rules of Ethics to respond to clients and keep them informed about their case but also a special duty as a professional to do the best job possible to defendant and advance the client’s interest in the legal matter at issue. If you do these things, your client should have good reason to be happy with your services. Unfortunately, some clients are very hard to please. With these people, I do everything I believe ethical and legally possible to follow through on the client’s wishes. Sometimes, even this is not enough. In these cases, I will tell the client it is better for both of us, if the client finds another attorney. Sometimes, even a big fee is not worth the aggravation and long-term consequences to my health and reputation.
A good part of managing client relations is to manage my caseload. I used to work in the Public Defender’s Office with caseloads sometimes approaching 100 and know the stress and unhappiness this can cause. In private practice, bigger caseloads mean bigger revenue but, again, I’ve found this not to be a long-term benefit. With more cases come more “problem clients,” more headaches, and more unrealized expectations. My caseload now consists of five (5) trial-level cases, six (6) post-conviction cases, and five (5) direct appeals. I know all of my clients’ names and can spend more time on each of their cases, which, in turn, leads to more happy endings to the cases. This also allows me more free time away from the stress of my law office. I also can justify higher fees to each of my 16 clients, because I am spending more of my billable time on each of their cases. One important message I would like to give all potential clients of criminal defense attorneys—quantity does not equal quality, and, if you want a cheap lawyer, you get what you pay for.
Finally, stress management must also include looking after your own health. This means watching what you eat and drink and keeping your body fit. As we get older, maintaining health becomes more difficult, but, in the legal profession, we must keep ourselves able to deal with the mental and physical stress associated with LAS. One of the new trends in stress management involves “mindfulness” therapy and meditation. I haven’t participated in this to any great degree (I still try to run at least 5K every morning) but know people who swear by it.
Under the American with Disabilities Act, a disability can be any sort of impediment that requires accommodations to be made so you can perform with full effectiveness. Protracted litigation can feel like a war of attrition because of the constant arguing and psychological warfare. This same warfare can be detrimental to your health, causing long and short term side effects. What that means is any condition, it doesn’t have to be transitory to qualify. This applies in the courtroom, it requires the judge take on a ministerial role, the judge is now mandated by law to accommodate to your specific needs as a person suffering with LAS. The same way there’s requirements for physical accommodations, there are also testimonial and participatory accommodations that must be made. All this is to ensure that everyone is able to seek justice and have full executive functionality during that process. Discrimination occurs when any entity cover by the Act, treats an individual with a disability unfavorably because they are disabled. Any form of discrimination should be taken up with the ADA access coordinator or directly to the United States Access Board. I know personally of one attorney who was able to use LAS to support a workman’s compensation claim (at the Public Defender’s Office). Is LAS a proper basis for an ADA claim? Time will tell.