Tissues and Boundaries: Empathy Without Enabling Destruction
Tissues and Boundaries: Empathy Without Enabling Destruction
Lawyers Absorb Clients’ Pain
Our clients come to us in pain. Marriages do not dissolve overnight; many of these people have been suffering for months, sometimes years. Most lawyers (especially family lawyers) are inundated everyday with client’s emotional and physical traumas. Our brains and bodies end up absorbing clients’ pain and drama. This is known caregiver fatigue. Caretaker’s fatigue strikes everyone, but especially the ENFP on the Myers-Briggs like me. It’s unavoidable.
Many family lawyers have savior syndrome. It’s instinct! When I see a client crying, I embrace them because I want them to know I care and I truly want to help them. Many family lawyers feel this way. They want to pull their clients up from the gutter of betrayal, an abusive spouse, a bad financial situation. However, as the case unfolds, you realize there are always 3 sides to every story, emotions override reason, and time and money is wasted over and over again.
Remember, you are their lawyer. As such, you become useless when law is no longer their problem. When it’s no longer about the law, but all about their destructive emotions and behaviors, you are may be enabling them. When there is a reasonable settlement offer on the table, but they refuse to sign it because they want to drag it out to dole revenge, it’s not about the law. By taking their case, and feeding their desires for more revenge, you are enabling them.
When Helping Becomes Harming
In the beginning of my career, I was not aware of, and thus did not enforce the boundary between empathy and enabling. I would trust my clients without question, be their on-call emergency lifeline, and let them reject reasonable settlement offers, even if we would net less going to Court. It wasn’t unusual for them to be in the driver’s seat, even owing me money. I was their slave, and my health suffered from caregiver fatigue. At a court hearing in 2014 the day before my 38th birthday, my appendix burst. I finished the court hearing and promptly drove myself to the emergency room. The appendectomy happened on my birthday. I have compromised my family and my health many times for clients who neither acknowledged or appreciated me; thank God I had a life-threatening emergency to change my ways.
People who undergo divorce are not themselves: they are angry and vengeful and do things out of spite. Many times, they are unreasonable. When they are struggling, they reach for someone and cling on so tight that they can drag you down. As a professional, the family lawyer must prevent being dragged down. Their job is to maintain clear boundaries. You can empathize, but never enable destructive behavior. There is no winning in divorce.
To be a happy family lawyer, you need to know the difference between empathy and enabling, and keep clear boundaries: be selective about who you take as clients.
If at any time, you feel you can no longer help them, you have the absolute right to terminate the relationship. In family law, bad situations escalate very quickly – divorce lawyers are murdered!
Empathy v. Enabling
What is the difference between empathy and enabling? Empathy is the “ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. Enabling is “giving someone permission and authority to do or continue to do something that is harmful.”
Empathy is what gives us family lawyers the instinct and desire to help someone. Enabling is what we do when encourage the self-victimization, engage in revenge war, which leads to more anger, frustration, wasted attorneys’ fees, culminating in the breakdown of the attorney-client relationship and likely, your health.
For example, you may have a self-victimizing caller who badmouths the other side and exaggerates facts. They will focus on the other side’s bad traits and manipulate situations by lying, cheating or not paying you. This is very common in family law. To perpetuate their image as a victim, they will constant blame others, and eventually you as their lawyer. Our firm receives a lot of calls from these self-victimizing people. In reality, they are the abusers. Do not take these cases.
Example of Self-Victim
On or about July 2019 when Phebe first started at my firm, this lady called our firm approximately 5-6 times. She refused to pay to schedule an appointment; instead she repeatedly call just to rant and rave about her husband. She tried to bypass our consultation procedure by playing the victim: claiming her husband is dangerous, and has a gun and physically beats her, and that she has filed several police reports on him. Since my firm does not handle domestic violence matters, my staff offered to refer her to another attorney. Most reasonable people are grateful for the listening ear and the referral.
This woman was neither grateful or satisfied with the 45 minutes Phebe spent with her via phone. She demanded to speak with lawyer, free of charge. Phebe politely repeated that we would gladly refer her, since our firm does not take cases with domestic violence. The lady then revised her story and said she misrepresented herself, that there was no police case or violence, but there is mental abuse, and started crying. The call went on for several more minutes as she vacillated between sobbing and arguing with Phebe, culminating with her cursing my firm and threatening to report me to the State Bar. She ended the call screaming, “Abuse is present in every marriage. Spouses always threaten to kill each other! Tell your lawyer she is not a true lawyer because she won’t help people!”
Empathy is Feeling Bad For These Callers; Enabling is Taking Their Cases
I have great empathy for these callers, and I want to help. That is why I provide compassionate and kind staff and lots of free information on my website. In fact, while other lawyers golf or yoga in their free time, I choose to write. The articles and blog posts on this website consume many hours of my time. It is how I can help those going through a divorce. People going through a divorce don’t necessarily need divorce lawyers. Sometimes they just need a little guidance and information. I choose to help by providing information, free of charge.
I can empathize with all callers, but, I am not the right lawyer for callers who have self-victim mindsets. They plan to use a lawyer as a weapon of mass destruction to enable their bad choices, and perpetuate their self-victimization.
I do not have 45 minutes in my day to argue with them, and I cannot take their case because they have a victim mentality and in this example, the mere act of taking their case, I am enabling them. I am also crossing my own boundary of safety if I take a case with potential domestic violence issues.
It is Good to Empathize; Bad to Enable
Empathizing is good. What are some examples?
A sobbing client just found out her husband is cheating on her. She is inconsolable and outraged. They have no minor children. Marriage is short-term, they are both self-supporting.
This is Empathy
Letting her cry and listening to her. (You should have trained staff who can handle these types of calls, for they can be very time-consuming and you will not be able to run your legal practice if you answer your phones or offer “free consults”.). Allowing her to have her time to grieve.
This is Enabling
Telling her “He is a lying dirty cheat” and “We will destroy him by reporting him to the police and IRS”! Encouraging her to immediately seek a domestic violence restraining order, advocating for revenge. Promising you will “take him to the cleaners”, promising her a higher amount of alimony, and property division.
Why Enabling is Harmful
You may think that your client wants you to be a “pitbull”, and that is the trap. If you pretend to be a pitbull to get clients, you will end up firing your client. Toxic personalities abound in family law. They are attracted to each other. Pitbull lawyers and their self-victimizing clients usually have a fall-out, because a relationship based on toxic need and enabling is tenuous and will end as soon as the money runs out.
People in a divorce are subject to the highest amount of stress. As such, they may resort to destructive behaviors. If you enable them, you continue the vicious cycle of self-destruction and get them stuck in the lowest moment of their lives.
Tendency to Self-Victimize
The trick is to have empathy without enabling their destructive behaviors. Since 2008, my firm no longer handles domestic violence restraining orders. While safety is the biggest concern, I also found a lot of people falsely alleged domestic violence, a direct result of self-victimization.
Common fact pattern: A client calls and immediately says, “My husband is abusive and stalking me. I would like to file a domestic violence restraining order.”
My staff will immediately respond with referrals to DV lawyers. 7 in 10 callers will immediately retract their statement. “Actually, my husband is not really violent, and he’s never hit me or abused me…”
I am not saying domestic violence doesn’t exist. It does, every minute of the day. Watch these videos
But, a lawyer cannot help these victims. One can seek a restraining order, but they’re pieces of paper which often flame the fury, rather than protect. Sometimes a restraining order will trigger the abuser to attack the victim. Read these stories of murder victims who had restraining orders against their abusers.
As a solo practitioner, I renounced DVRO’s a long time ago and never looked back.
Moving forward is truly the healthiest thing for family law litigants. Don’t focus on fairness because fairness is subjective. It’s never just about the money in divorce. Obviously you don’t want to just roll over and play dead and be sued for malpractice, but you also don’t want to fight tooth and nail, and churn the case and client (and you!) to death.
It’s a delicate balance.
Family Lawyers Rely on Two Weapons: Tissues and Boundaries
I would optimistically estimate that about 70% of us family lawyers have a genuine desire to help people. To be a successful family lawyer, you need an arsenal of tools which includes tissues and boundaries.
Family lawyers need to have a helping heart, and tissues ready. By the time the clients call, they have endured months, sometimes years, of suffering.
Like sugar cubes, each marriage dissolves at its own rate, based on the subject’s conditions. Sugar cubes dissolve the slowest in ice cold water. There really is no predictable formula to your client’s condition, no rhyme or reason.