In the spring of 1989 I abandoned my long-time plan to become a clinical psychologist. Instead, I planned to write the LSAT and apply to law school the next semester, which would be during my final year of undergraduate studies. At the encouragement of a family member, I arranged to meet with a Toronto lawyer in private practice named Eric Gossin to learn more about law as a career. We met in his boardroom with bookshelves lined with volumes of legal books with exotic titles like Ontario Reports.
Eric generously offered his time and guidance to a kid whom he had never met. I couldn’t have known then that, after law school and three years of practising primarily as a litigator on my own, Eric and his new partner, Ray Stancer, would invite me to join their firm. We’ve been together for close to two decades.
From across the imposing boardroom table Eric asked “why do you want to be a lawyer?”
I struggled for an intelligent answer. Law school had been my ‘Plan B’ throughout undergrad, but I hadn’t given much thought as to why, or what the practice of law might look or feel like. I’ve since learned that my lack of clear motives is common.
So I said the first thing that popped into my head: “I want to help people.”
I actually meant it.
Eric gave me a knowing grin, and nodded his head. “You know,” he said, “the great Achilles heel of lawyers is that they want to help.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant. Was it a warning to turn and run away while I still could? I simply nodded back, coughed nervously, and changed the subject to my current struggle with mastering logic games for the upcoming LSAT, which I wrote weeks later. If Eric had been trying to warn me, I was clearly brave or foolish. I joined Osgoode’s Section C in the fall of 1990.
In ancient Greek mythology Achilles was a hero of the Trojan Wars, as described in the Iliad. As a baby, Achilles’ mother, Thetis, wanted to make her son immortal and impenetrable, so, while holding his heel, she dipped his body into the river Styx (yes, that’s how the band got its name). The river, which formed the boundary between Earth and the underworld of Hades, had magical properties. However, Achilles’ mother forgot to dip his heel into the river – and, thus, part of Achilles remained mortal and penetrable. The immortal Thetis could not be blamed for this negligent act since she was likely sleep deprived. Her husband, the mortal King Peleus, likely refused to equally share child-care duties - and there was no mat leave for immortal mothers.
During the war with Troy, the adult Achilles was renowned for his strength and courage. His greatest feat was to slay the Trojan prince Hector. However, Hector’s brother took revenge by shooting a poisoned arrow at Achilles, which penetrated the heel that had not been dipped in the river.
Our superhero warrior then dies – like a mere mortal. His humanity, in the form of his heel, made Achilles vulnerable – despite appearances.
Fast forward many centuries to real life: You are a lawyer in private practice (note: I did not write normal life). During an average week, you may be met with the following opportunities, requests, or outright demands:
- A senior lawyer asks you to “take this motion/discovery/trial/appeal on short notice”. You’re told “It’s great experience – and have fun with it”. You will receive little instruction or mentoring. You decide to just suck it up and say “yes”. You want to be a dependable, team player.
- A desperate person on the line, or in their email, pleads with you: “10 other lawyers have already turned me down. I have a great case. Won’t you please take it?”. Your Spidey sense is tingling, but you want to help. You already do lots of pro-bono and spec work -- so what’s another file?
- Your colleague exclaims, “you have so much to offer -- we really need you on our board of directors (or executive)”. You’re flattered, and sure you can make a difference, yet you somehow forget that you are overextended with other commitments.
- In response to a client’s ordeal, you respond: “They did what? That’s outrageous! Never mind the money [or the time and risk], it’s the injustice; it’s the principle! I’ll take this case to end.” And you do.
- Your parent/sibling/cousin/step-cousin/old family friend/new friend/your friend’s friend/your spouse’s friend’s ex-brother-in-law all urgently need your help with a legal matter.
- You arrive at the courthouse. Suddenly, you’re accosted by a stranger who is not your client. They insist that you hear their story and request for assistance. You patiently listen and feel simultaneously trapped yet useful.
- You agree to keep your eyes open for an articling positon for the student who sent you the unsolicited email that probably violates CASL. You spend an hour sending (CASL-compliant) emails to colleagues, but they have no leads. You wish you could do more -- because you know how it feels.
- You state your fee to a prospective client. In response, they offer to pay you far less -- but there is a vague promise to send you more work in the future. Also, you find this new file really interesting -- and you would really like to help.
You begin to wonder if there is a billboard or Google AdWord with your photo and the words: “Helping Wanted”. After all, you help everyone who asks - despite carrying a sleep debt larger than your mortgage, you barely see your friends and family, and you haven’t hit the gym since you joined last January 2. It’s just as well, you think, since you would probably tear your Achilles tendon.
At the recent OBA’s Institute in Toronto, I met up with Doron Gold, “The Lawyer Therapist”, and staff clinician with Homewood Health, the provider of the Ontario Legal Profession’s Member Assistance Program (www.myassistplan.com). Doron is a social worker and former lawyer. I’ve known him since undergrad. While I gave up a career in mental health for law and mediation, Doron pursued law and became a mental health professional. If we lawyers have an Achilles Heel then Doron would know why, and what to do about it.
I wasn’t disappointed. According to him,
Not being able to say ‘no’ is an absence of professional or personal boundaries. Boundaries are what we use to protect ourselves from harm and what we use to teach others how to treat us. In the absence of boundaries, people will continue to make demands upon us without regard to the impact it has because they are assuming we’re fine – and lawyers are good at putting on an image of “fine” or “pulled together”. So everyone assumes they can handle more and more.
I was intrigued. So, like Achilles, we act like immortal warriors – but remain vulnerable. Yet why?
Lawyers are also pleasers and doers, so some have trouble saying ‘no’ to people for fear of disappointing them, letting them down or feeling like a failure for not taking on and completing a task”,
Applying this to the business of law, Doron added:
For some lawyers in private practice, turning away potentially troublesome clients is difficult because running a business is hard, especially at the beginning, and you appreciate all the business that comes your way, including that which may ultimately hurt you. Some think that having boundaries is selfish -- and they’ve been taught from an early age not to be selfish, but to serve others’ needs. Some even get their sense of worth from the validation of others. So, being useful to people gives them worth. Therefore, it’s hard to turn down people because it affects their self-esteem. Ultimately, those without boundaries are likely to burn out because they are sacrificing their own well-being for the needs of others - and that is unsustainable. We wear ourselves out.
Turning back to the Achilles heel metaphor, I realize it isn’t a warning, but an observation - as well as a prescription: Law is a helping profession. As we cannot help without limits – at least without diminishing or even destroying ourselves - we need to pause and reflect before saying “yes” to everyone and every cause. We need to protect ourselves with boundaries.
Let’s return to the ancient Greeks -- this time not to mythology, but to philosophy. Specifically, to a practical school called Stoicism. It was invented by Zeno of Athens. Stoicism was further refined by the Romans, including Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, but their words were written in Greek, and they survive to this day. Through the centuries, other thinkers carried the Stoic torch. Stoicism later inspired Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy in the 20th century. Today, Stoicism is enjoying a popular revival. It has a lot to say about our modern condition – including our Achilles heel issue.
Reflecting on a quote from Seneca, I note that the authors of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (New York: Portfolio, 2016), Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, appear to pick up where Doron Gold left off:
Do you ever wonder how you can get some of your time back, how you can feel less busy? Start by learning the power of “No!” – as in…. “No, I just can’t right now.” It may hurt some feelings. It may turn people off. It may take some hard work. But the more you say no to the things that don’t matter, the more you can say yes to the things that do. This will let you live and enjoy your life – the life that you want.
In the Stoic vein, I suggest that the things that matter to lawyers include helping others, but we must draw boundaries and jealously protect them with the weapon of saying “no”. Realistically budget your time, well in advance, between paid work that you want, ‘low bono’ and pro bono files, mentoring and extra-curricular volunteer work – but leaving ample time for you, friends, family and healthy habits. You have set boundaries. Then jealously stick to your budget as you would a financial one, because time is a more precious commodity than money. It can never be replenished.
In the end, equip your Achilles heel with sturdy army boots so as to guard against poisoned arrows. Your humanity is precious – but it requires sensible footwear for the battle ahead.
About the author
Mitchell Rose is a Chartered Mediator, lawyer and settlement counsel with Stancer, Gossin, Rose LLP in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys helping people while wearing sensible footwear.