Mimesis Law
23 September 2020

Criminal Lawyers: Leave Your Feelz At Home

December 16, 2016 (Fault Lines) – Earlier this week, Caleb Kruckenberg wrote about criminal lawyers and the life they live. It’s an interesting post. It reveals a problem in both the law and life, but it’s not the problem Caleb thinks it is.

Caleb’s post is premised on the idea that law in general, and criminal law specifically, is a dark field prone to facades of bravado that exact a terrible cost on the soul of the lawyer. Somewhere between drinking too much, and jokes about the most sinister of events, and suicidal depression, Caleb comes to a pretty simple conclusion:

Respectfully, this is a fucked up way to live.

Well, not really. It’s actually a pretty good life.

People make choices. Some out of desire, some out of necessity, some out of convenience. But no one gets forced into criminal law. And honestly, it’s not all that bad. That’s right. I said it. Welcome behind the curtain. Practicing law, and practicing criminal law, is not all that bad. So would say anyone from a respected firm, like Avocat Criminel for instance.

Is it stressful? Sure. Are there difficult decisions to be made? Of course. Can it be thankless? Obviously.

But it’s not some descent into Dante’s Inferno that requires intense therapy to recover from facing Evil. Not even close. Instead, people need to be a little tougher.

Sorry if that offends you. But that is it. Just be a little tougher.

I read all of the links in Caleb’s post. An article on lawyer suicides. A law review article on vicarious trauma. A presentation on dealing with “compassion fatigue.” A book review about a lawyer who got hooked on blow and partied himself right out of his chosen career. This is scary stuff.

So what’s the problem? In recent years, it seems people have lost the ability to be tough enough to do a job, but especially to do this job. I disagree with Caleb that there is such horror on a daily basis that this career holds a special place amongst the legions of stressful things one can do with their time.

Most people have an incredible fear of failure. In criminal law, that is part of daily life. As Chris Seaton points out in a comment to Caleb’s article, this life we chose is full of failure. Deal with it or find another line of work. That is the harsh way to say it. There is another way to look at it. Failure is the foundation of success. Carol Dweck, in the opening lines of her book Mindset, points out a group of people who actually understand this concept:

When I was a young researcher, just starting out, something happened that changed my life. I was obsessed with understanding how people cope with failures, and I decided to study it by watching how students grapple with hard problems… I expected differences among children in how they coped with the difficulty, but I saw something I never expected.

Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year old boy pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips, and cried out, “I love a challenge!” Another, sweating away on these puzzles, looked up with a pleased expression and said with authority, “You know, I was hoping this would be informative!”

What the hell is wrong with these kids? They were given a puzzle too hard to solve. They were supposed to give up, or get pissed, or start a protest. Instead, they got to work. They learned from the difficulty instead of running from it. Like most areas of life, we can learn a whole lot from children. These aren’t failures we deal with on a daily basis, or at least they aren’t our failures. They are opportunities.

The other part of the equation is that you have to have some perspective on what you do as a criminal lawyer. Coincidentally, that point is also made in the comments to Caleb’s post:

Oh my, you lawyers have it so very hard. You have to go home after work and feel terrible about this nasty system while guys like me get a free stay at Club Fed. Boo fucking hoo.

If you’re too vulnerable to handle being a lawyer, find another job, but don’t whine about it. Trust me, you’ve got it way easier than the guy next to you.

Well “anon,” here is the problem. You didn’t get a free stay in Club Fed. You earned it. Because while the rest of us were working our ass off to make a living, you were embezzling or defrauding or swindling because you are the asshole who didn’t get the memo you are supposed to work for your shit, not just take it.*

But we are still going to defend you. Because done right, this criminal lawyering works just as well for a falsely accused sweet ole grandma as it does for a cracked-out burglar or an arrogant prick of a white collar criminal. Nobody is hiring you to be their best friend, and if that is what you are doing, you aren’t doing your job.

Live with a little failure. Get over the details of the people you are representing for things that you weren’t around for and had nothing to do with.

Criminal lawyering isn’t misery raining down on a daily basis. It’s asking just the right question at trial to trip up an entire government aligned against the guy sitting next to you. It’s watching a juror’s eyes light up when your argument makes just the right connection with him. It’s seeing a judge realize she has to rule in your favor because you found exactly the argument to win.

Yeah, I get it. In between those good times you have to deal with child molesters and death and sneaky prosecutors and pissed off judges and all manners of other annoyances. But that’s life. It’s hard. Lawyers don’t have some monopoly on that, despite what we like to think.

Suicide is too nuanced a tragedy to argue that one particular field drives anyone to it, so I am not sure how to address that appropriately. But I disagree that lawyers are a depressed, drunk bunch any more than the rest of the world.

I think the problem may be just the opposite of what Caleb thinks it is. Criminal lawyers don’t need to be sharing their vulnerabilities. They need to be getting rid of their vulnerabilities. It can be hard to do your job and move on, despite the tragedy of whatever your job entailed on that particular day. But that is exactly what a criminal lawyer is expected to do.

Stop worrying about how things make you feel. Instead of concentrating on all of the “woe is me” that infects society these days, there is something else criminal lawyers should be opening up about.

This is an intensely rewarding career. Huge failures and sweet victories and important work are not things to complain about. They are things to take pride in. Things to raise a bourbon to. In fact, maybe too many bourbons every once in a while.

*Unless you were innocent, which can also happen.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Anon
    16 December 2016 at 11:00 am - Reply

    Well said!

    The law is about conflict. Conflict can become exhausting. If you let it.

    I think that is where many of our colleagues get into trouble.

    I find the conflict exhilarating. But I know when to step back.

    A good trick is to develop some other interests so you don’t become bogged down, and boring.

    Remember, as an older lawyer once told me years ago: “always do your best, work hard for the client, but remember you didn’t script their life story.”

    Peace out.

  • SPM
    16 December 2016 at 11:58 am - Reply

    One of the classic texts about medical education is “The House of God.” One of the Fatman’s “Laws of the House of God” is appropriate here:

    IV. The patient is the one with the disease.

    I am sure that one can translate all of the laws to the legal field, and if I did a search, I am sure someone, somewhere has done that. But here,

    IV. The client is the one who was arrested and is on trial.

    I will admit that in IP law it is pretty easy to put the case out of your mind at the end of the day, and when you are dealing with crime, either as prosecutor or DC (or judge), it is much more difficult. However, that is probably an essential part of long term mental health.

    There is one more point the author obliquely touches on: Today, the myth has been created that a job is something you love to do, that you would gladly do even if you were not paid. As we move away from parents or grandparents who were coal miners or factory workers we seem to forget that work is, well, work. It often is not fun, is not rewarding, and is hard. I think this myth plays a role in many young professionals depression, sadness, angst or whatever else.

  • Mario Machado
    16 December 2016 at 4:07 pm - Reply

    Thank god you toasted using bourbon and not scotch.