Interlock Member Assistance Program

Grief, trauma and lawyer response

by Nancy Payeur, Regional Director, Interlock

Monday morning, just after a staff meeting, one of the senior partners doubles over, clutching his chest in pain. Moments later a colleague attempts to revive him, while others call 911. He loses consciousness and is rushed to hospital where he later dies.

A much beloved office manager is diagnosed with terminal cancer. After a year of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, and several months away from work, the call comes from her husband that she has passed away in hospital.

A former client has made a series of verbal and physical threats to law firm staff. Staff are feeling extremely anxious and unsafe. While all possible actions have been taken with police, and security measures have been implemented, many employees continue to discuss their fears at length.

All of these situations* involve loss or trauma in the workplace.

Our reactions and the kind of support we require from others during a time of trauma depends on many factors - the nature and intensity of our involvement, our personality and preferred coping strategies and the overall level of stress in our lives at the time.

Interlock has been providing confidential, professional counselling services to members of the Law Society since 1981 through the Members Assistance Program.

Over the years, Interlock has responded to many calls from lawyers and firms dealing with difficult situations. While the range of reactions and coping styles has been diverse, and while it can be risky to make generalizations about any group, we have learned a few lessons in working with lawyers:

Lawyers prefer one-on-one help In most situations, the lawyers who contact Interlock express a strong preference for an individual response, rather than for any kind of group meeting or worksite intervention. While there may be several factors contributing to this preference, it appears at least partly based on a strong sense of personal privacy. Group sessions that Interlock has facilitated have generally been more highly attended by administrative and support staff than by lawyers.

Lawyers' training sometimes works against them

It appears that a lawyer's professional training may, at times, work against certain natural coping skills. One counsellor notes that legal training means learning to think and problem- solve in a disciplined, logical and analytical way. The development of these skills is essential to lawyers in carrying out their professional duties. But following a tragic or traumatic event, highly developed analytical skills may be somewhat "out of balance" and at times counter-productive to effective coping. They may, in some circumstances, serve as a barrier to effectively dealing with an event that involves strong affective responses.

Lawyers unrealistically expect to stay in perfect control

Society views lawyers as highly educated, intelligent professionals, and lawyers themselves value independent, critical thinking and personal autonomy. They have chosen a field in which they are sought out for guidance, advice and expertise. They are problem-solvers who are used to being in charge and who often have their skills on public display. They tend to be high achievers in many areas of their lives. Our experience shows that many lawyers, when faced with tragedy or trauma, have an unrealistic expectation that they will remain in perfect control. They are often extremely hard on themselves when they experience the normal reactions to loss and tragedy, including intense feelings of anger, fear or sadness.

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Lawyers have told Interlock that they were initially hesitant to call. Once that hurdle is overcome, however, they appreciate the opportunity to discuss a personal trauma with a neutral, professional counsellor who can help them address their sense of fear or anxiety.

Part of Interlock's work in traumatic situations is helping our clients accept that they may experience a range of emotional reactions in a time of loss or trauma so they can avoid being immobilized and can move beyond self-judgement.

We also encourage lawyer clients to look after their physical and emotional well-being in a variety of ways, since the tendency for many professionals is to carry on as though it's "business as usual." It is important for lawyers to share their experience with trusted friends or family members, to take time to reflect on the meaning of the events for their own lives and to ensure overall self-care (adequate sleep, healthy food and leisure time).

Interlock invites you to call for information on our confidential and professional counselling services. The Members Assistance Program is funded by the Law Society and services are provided at no direct cost to BC lawyers, articling students or their immediate family members. A brochure describing Interlock is enclosed in this mailing. Interlock can be reached at: Lower Mainland: 604 431-8200; toll-free: 1-800-663-9099;

Please note that group services are normally provided at the worksite and funded by the law firm or organization requesting these services.

* These scenarios do not refer to specific situations but are based on typical requests.