Putting emotion to the side, and the personal price of impartial legal advice

When I was at university, I was trained to put emotion to the side. It weaves through all the work we do, particularly around professional conduct. After all, lawyers can be asked to undertake any number of tasks they find morally or emotionally objectionable. Lawyers defend child molesters; they support parents that may seem unfit to keep custody of their children; they help large companies find loopholes in agreements to the detriment of small businesses, heck plenty of lawyers are involved in some of the deals that destroy rainforests and pollute rivers. And we do it, because we are meant to have faith in the system and the law that we are applying. The right to a fair trial applies to us all, as does the principle of ‘buyer beware’.

I wrote in my earlier post about how I fundamentally believe in the universal application of human rights. The idea of altering that scares me, even if sometimes I think some individuals have shown such little regard to the rights of others that I find protecting their rights distasteful. But I’m accidentally circling back to serial child molesters again there.

I believe that, and I believe in the principles of reasonableness and fairness, even when justice seems like too much to aspire to.

What I have learnt, over recent weeks, and months as the work that the team and I conduct has grown both in volume and complexity is that the application of this logic and rationality comes at a detriment to myself.

I’ve mentioned before that my mental health hasn’t been great recently. A big part of that, I am learning, has been because of the way I have taken to shutting my emotions away in a box packed so tightly that they come flying out like a scene from Greek myth should I ever go to open that box.

And the more I work on that, personally, the more my over-whelming emotion becomes frustration.

You see not everyone does shut their emotions away in a box, some people don’t even put them to the corner whilst at work, and vent them later over wine with loved ones. Some people just display their emotion out for all to see.

And this time last year I admired those people brave enough to speak up. After all, it’s not that I don’t care about what I am doing. Quite the opposite. Rather, disconnecting myself from my emotions is a self-preservation technique that enables me to talk about evidence and due process when those around me are talking about abuse, neglect and individuals who are profoundly unwell in situations that would break my heart if I hadn’t learned to guard myself in whatever way I can.

In my experience, most situations I have been involved in as a professional call for a balance between the emotional and the rational, the personally invested and the professionally distanced. That’s usually how the best outcomes are achieved.

But as the stakes get higher, boy am I finding professional distance difficult. Balancing emotion with logic is so difficult when there is so much anxiety and fear and stress around. It makes people stop listening to reason. It doesn’t matter how well I explain the legal position if its going to be countered with ‘but people are dying!’.

Some of the decisions being mooted at the moment scare me, they run contrary to some of the core beliefs that I hold dear. But I’m a lawyer, so I’m not allowed to mention that.

And it’s not my decision, after all. My job is to advise only, and people are always welcome to ignore my advice and I’m supposed to go home and feel like I have done my job.

But the truth is, I don’t. Because I know the decision-makers around me, and however much I try to convince myself otherwise, I always go home feeling like if I had just explained myself a bit more clearly, if I had been firmer, had better stage presence, looked less like I’m fresh out of university…

There are days, today being one of them, where I want to join in with the emotion. Maybe I can be dramatic too and express my frustration that we’re missing the bleeding point half the time. We’re reactive, we’re in a panic and we swing between trying to fix gaping wounds with sticking plasters, and trying to crack nuts with sledgehammers. But I’m not to mention any of that.

And it’s a weird position to be in, as an in-house legal representative. Because we don’t have the luxury of being able to just focus on individual cases, or just look at the high-level strategic issues and instead I’m flitting between the two in a whirlwind.

In that context, putting my emotions to the side is truly exhausting.

This post might seem like a whinge (and it kind of is). But there’s method in it. I like to try to understand things from other people’s points of view so I can come up with solutions. Yet so much of our thoughts and motivations are left unaired, and so people around us are left affected by decisions that we don’t understand. So this is also a plea for openness, empathy and professional balance between logic and emotion.

And maybe, just maybe, when lawyers are explaining why something isn’t a good idea, remember that we’re not trying to be obstructive and we haven’t just decided we don’t like your idea. We’re not (usually) being petulant or petty.

But we are human, most of us anyway.

In case it isn’t obvious from the fact I still haven’t identified the authority I work for, the views expressed on this blog are my own opinion and not the opinion of that local authority

Leave a Reply