When I reflect upon my last quarter century as a lawyer one of the most challenging things I faced was practicing law in a way that was healthy for me. The biggest obstacle I had to overcome was my own fairly ridged, idealized image of the way lawyers are “supposed to be”.
I grew up on the prairies as the first child in a family of three and carried the flag of my parent’s hopes and dreams. I was the first person in my family to go to university. Mom & Dad wanted me to “be somebody”. This meant becoming a doctor or lawyer. I complied without giving it too much thought. It seemed like a good idea at the time based on my parent’s “story” about lawyers, combined with my own fantasy image based on the latest Perry Mason television series.
My first day as an articling student was the first day I had ever set foot in a law office. Academically, I had meticulously prepared and planned my career; unfortunately I had given little thought to the psychological and social realities of being a lawyer.
As I articled and began to learn the culture of law I could see some disturbing signs of what would happen if I didn’t effectively deal with the enormous pressure of being a lawyer. When I looked around “the firm” I was struck by some of the older lawyers who reminded me of Philip Larkin’s haunting line “They look like men whose first coronary is coming like Christmas, who drift, loaded helplessly with commitments and obligations and necessary observances into the darkening avenues of age and incapacity, deserted by everything that once made life sweet”. Part of me was concerned this would be me in 15 years, part of me didn’t believe it could happen to me.
A second realization of my discomfort with law came as a result of my early practice as a family law litigator. In one memorable matter I was representing a father of two very young children in a hotly contested custody case. At the end of the case, when the judge unsurprisingly gave custody to the mother, the father broke down in tears, trembling in soul shattering grief – as did the mother.
This immense pain was also clearly shared with the gallery of friends and relatives of the couple as well as the lawyers. These were not tears of sorrow or joy, neither had won or lost anything, the emotion was mainly from the relief that comes at the end of a hellish nightmare for this family. I resolved never to put either my clients or myself through such an ordeal again. The message was becoming clear, I was not suited to resolving conflicts in this way.
Based on these stark realities I was faced with 3 difficult choices about my life as a lawyer. Accept it, change it or leave it. Since, at that time, I had practised for less time than it had taken me to become a lawyer and since I was disinclined to “suck it up” and accept it, I was left with changing my idea of what practising law was about for me. Since I disliked the court scene I switched to a solicitors practise, which better suited my personality. It was not as dramatic as litigation but was challenging enough to maintain my interest and I found it much less stressful for me.
Over time, I made other changes and began to study and practice mediation as an alternative to the court process. This was much more in line with my own core values and beliefs. I became so enthusiastic about this method that after taking to basic CLE courses, I returned to university at the age of 39 to study it more detail. I was now a solicitor, a student, and mediator. The change from full time law to this “composite career” was invigorating. I was probably working more hours, but I loved the variety. After many years as a part time lawyer, mediator and student I received my MA in counselling and began my PhD. Along the path, I went from being a student to becoming a teacher; teaching law, and alternative dispute resolution, at local colleges and universities. This multi-faceted approach worked well for me because it re-injected life and interest into my career.
My legal career came alive when I dropped my image of what it “should look like” and I went with my own personal passions. Over the years I have done a lot of self-exploration, seen counsellors, attended groups, and obtained support to help me grow and to make the changes necessary in my life. I have stayed involved in the legal community and have received a great deal of support and encouragement for which I am most grateful.