The initial concept of this article was to discuss special ethical considerations to legal assistants in family law. While listening to a presentation on stress management, it occurred to this author that there is a direct correlation between how a legal assistant handles stress (his/her own, that of the client, and that of the supervising attorney) and ethical behavior and responses. I believe that if you looked at a situation surrounding the commitment of professional misconduct on the part of a legal assistant or lawyer, you would find that stress, and the inability to recognize and cope with stress, played a major role in causing such ethical violation. This article will attempt to give you some ideas on how to recognize and handle the special stresses found in a family law practice, and how those skills relate to the ethical choices a legal assistant makes every day.
In no other area of law, except maybe criminal, do you deal with clients who are undergoing one of the most stressful events in their lives – divorce. What happens to them at this stage affects not only the spouses’ lives, but the lives of their children, family members and even friends. And their divorce can affect your life, too.
Whether or not you practice in the area of family law, you probably have been through a divorce, or had a close friend or family member who has gone through this ordeal. And it is an ordeal, even in the most amicable situations.
The premise of this article is that if a legal assistants adheres to the ethical considerations of this profession, the end result will be quality services to the client, and a reduction in stress for the legal assistant, both on a professional and personal level.
I must give credit to three sources of information found in this paper: "An Overview of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct", written by Mike McCurley; "The Happy, Healthy Trial Lawyer" written by Mike McCurley and Kim (Foster) Mercier; and various materials from a Stress Management presentation created by Catherine W. Burton, M.A., Relationship Enrichment Counseling Center, to all of whom I give credit and my sincerest thanks for allowing me to use portions of their articles.
Ethics – The study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by the individual in his relationship with others.
Stress – Pressure or strain; a mentally or emotionally disruptive or disquieting influence.
Legal assistants are engaged in a constant battle with stress and its associated symptoms. The more stress a person is under, the less likely it is that he or she can make good "moral choices" regarding their work, and the relationship with the lawyer, the client, and others.
It is undisputed that stress is a major cause of a broad range of illnesses and disease. Each year, 1.5 million Americans experience a heart attack, and 500,000 die as a result. Stress has been directly linked to high blood pressure, stroke, insomnia, depression and other physical and mental ailments.
Statistics show that 75,000 to 85,000 lawyers in the U.S. abuse drugs or alcohol. There are no such statistics for legal assistants, but similar pressures probably result in similar statistics. Substance abuse causes enormous stress at all levels – physical, mental, societal, and professional.
Identifying stressors in your life and your clients’ lives is the first step to clearing the way to make the correct ethical choices in providing legal services.
How many of these stressors exist in your life? Noise, traffic, office distractions, clutter, too much heat or cold, uncomfortable furniture, inadequate or malfunctioning computer equipment, telephone interruptions.
What kinds of environmental stressors exist in your client’s life (with regard to the litigation)? Tension in the home environment (if one spouse has filed for divorce prior to parties’ separation); anxiety on the part of children dealing with the breakup of the known family unit; maintaining job responsibilities while dealing with the stress of a divorce; facing family and friends with the news of the failure of the marriage and the details that go with it.
Deadlines, financial problems, change in job/financial status, demands of people or things around you, office and/or home reorganization, holiday stress, moving, taxes, etc., are situational stressors that apply to the legal assistant and the client from their respective points of view.
Spouses, family, friends, bosses, coworkers, counselors, clergy – all of whom impact each day on the legal assistant’s ability to handle their case load and on the client’s ability to handle the particular aspects of the litigation. There also exists the relationship between the legal assistant and the client, the client and the lawyer, and the legal assistant and the lawyer which contains various dynamics that are individual to each case.
When a client is involved in their divorce, stressors include improper nutrition, (too much caffeine, sugar, salt, chemical additives), illness, allergies, too much or too little sleep, fatigue, lack of exercise or too much exercise (compulsivity), and the obvious affects of substance abuse (alcohol and/or drugs).
Physical stressors also greatly impact the legal assistant – prolonged computer use without taking breaks to rest eyes and stretch, repeatedly working through lunch, working without enough sleep, working while sick, etc.
Clients frequently have negative, pessimistic thoughts regarding their perceived failure in their marriage, the fear of what affect the divorce will have on the children, low self-esteem as a result of the breakup of the relationship, guilt, shame, and fear of an uncertain future. These thought patterns are self-defeating, and can make one overly sensitive, depressed, anxious, and incapable of contributing constructively to the preparation of their case.
Legal assistants are not immune from these negative thought processes – getting too personally involved with a client can lend a sort of contagion to the client’s negative attitudes – feeling bad about what the client has to go through, feeling like you cannot do enough to help, not getting support and encouragement from your supervising attorney and coworkers, in other words, "taking the world on your shoulders".
Now that you’ve identified the sources of stress, what do you do? Suggestions for coping with the chaos that results from too much stress will appear in the next issue of the Texas Paralegal Journal.
Kay Redburn is a legal assistant with the Dallas firm of McCurley, Webb, Kinser & Nelson.