I’ve been a criminal defense attorney for the past 19 years, working in one of the busiest court houses in Massachusetts, handling over 6,000 criminal cases. Sounds crazy, right? Well, it is! How do I stay sane and keep my stress level low? I keep one phrase in mind at all times “I go home at 5!” You might ask, how could this one phrase keep my stress levels low? Let me explain, because this can help you as well.
Here’s a regular scenario for me and probably for you: I meet a client, he is in lock-up accused of a major felony, he has a long criminal history and is currently on probation for a past felony conviction. For fun, let’s throw in that he has an opiate addiction. I know that when I go to speak with this client, his anxiety level is going to be through the roof. Not only because of the new charges, but because of his probation violation and because he’s starting to detox and needs a fix. At this point, he’s desperate to get out of lock-up and back on the street. I know that he’s not leaving lock-up for a while, but he doesn’t know that. He’s still hoping for a miracle.
So, when I start to talk to my client, he’s sweating profusely, and he’s totally stressed out. He starts to raise his voice. He gets animated. I tell him that he’s not going home but of course I will fight for him and try to get him out, but it’s not looking good. His anxiety level then increases, he starts to pace around the cell and then he starts to accuse me of “working for the prosecutors” or “not doing my job”, usually I hear those types of things but with some saltier language than I’m using here. It can be so easy for an attorney to “take on” that client’s anxiety and stress and allow it to affect them. The negative energy that the client is giving off is staring you straight in the face and you need to block it out. However, most attorneys won’t do that, instead they will start to raise their voice and yell back at the client, trust me, when I was a younger attorney, I did this, many times. Then the stress that the client is feeling is now transferred to the attorney and he or she is anxious and stressed out. Client and attorney start to argue. They swear at each other. The attorney ends up storming out of lock-up yelling at the client as he or she slams the door behind them. That’s when you realize that everyone in the courtroom is looking at you, heard your antics out back and now thinks you’re the insane one. Not a good look.
So how do I stop this from happening to me? First, I recognize when I am entering into a high stress situation. I then literally put up a wall in my mind, blocking their negative energy from my positive energy. It is a conscientious act that I literally perform in my mind. Then I allow my client to say what they want to say and don’t allow any of it to affect me. I recognize they are not in a good place mentally and physically. When they have finished telling me what they want to say, I speak with them in a calm and collected tone, provide them with the pros and cons of their situation and have a respectful conversation with them. If they continue with their stressed out and anxious behavior, I just maintain my calm, remember the imaginary wall I have put up between myself and my client, blocking out their negative energy and I say to myself “I go home at 5!”
Why “I go home at 5!”? Because I always remember that I am not the one in their situation. I’m not the one who may have made bad choices, they did. I’m not the one who chose to use drugs, steal, rape, murder, etc…. I’m the one who does the best possible job I can do. I’m the one who is here to help them to the best of my ability. And I am the one who will be going home at 5! Knowing that this is my job and not my life, is the #1 way to reduce stress for me. I spend all day long dealing with difficult clients in difficult situations. Saying “I go home at 5!” reminds me to take a deep breath, block out their energy, be positive and remember at the end of a long workday, I get to go home to my husband and my dog, have a nice dinner and relax. Give it a try, I bet it will work for you too!
Pamela Rogers is a criminal defense attorney in Massachusetts and a personal coach for attorneys. Drop her a line at [email protected] or visit audacityuniversity.com.