I Do Not Need a “Shrink” to Hold My Hand


I Do Not Need a “Shrink” to Hold My Hand

For three decades, I was a trial Crown Counsel with the BC Prosecution Service. My case load consisted mainly of prosecuting devastating vehicular homicides and violent crimes against children and vulnerable victims.

I thought that I was tough and would never need a “shrink” to hold my hand. I had a lack of understanding of those who went on “stress leave.” However, I retired early at the peak of my career. I was exhausted and burnt out from the cumulative and corrosive impact of my work. I retired seeking the help of a clinical psychologist and the guidance of a clinical counsellor. What happened?

I placed upon myself heavy expectations. My family were immigrants from the Philippines. I was the first lawyer in my family. I was the first Filipino-Chinese Crown Counsel in British Columbia. I recall an incident early in my career. A defence counsel asked the court clerk about me: “Who is that junior ‘Charlie Chan’ calling the court list?” I needed to prove that I belonged. As an articled student, I was eager to prove my worth and diligence to the firm. When I got the call that my wife was going into labour with our first child, I rushed her to the hospital. But I also brought my work binder with me so that I could review the file in between her contractions. At the time, I thought I was doing the right and diligent thing. But when I look back at that today, I cringe with regret at how misguided my actions were.

The lack of knowledge and care for my mental health, the irrational drive to constantly prove myself, and the desire to be seen as productive, valuable, and available to everyone, eventually wore me out.

The legal profession makes insatiable demands of our time and energy. Lawyers are celebrated and venerated for billing excessive hours. We crave the recognition and significance that come from our work, both in and out of
court. We are valued for our ability to “win” cases, generate income, and produce excellent legal work. We desire stature, admiration, esteem, and respect from the legal community.

We care and fight for our clients and causes. We must be strong and tough; we must always be present and available to those who need us. Our skills are required and sought to resolve or litigate conflicts, which are frequently highly antagonistic. We live in constant vigilance and fear of what people may say about us. The stressors of being a lawyer are many. We toil in a cauldron boiling over with the high stress, demands, and expectations of our profession. Unless we care for our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health, we will burn out.

This is not a call to dumb down our profession or to remove all stressors from our work. This is a call to stop working non-stop. This is a call to set honest and realistic expectations for ourselves and others. We need to set boundaries to guard our health and our relationships. We need to recognize the barriers to self-care. These barriers include a false sense of invincibility, unrealistic belief in our limitless energy, lack of humility, denial, ego, and pride.

We need to know and keep an eye out for the symptoms of anxiety and mental health deterioration. These symptoms include procrastination, lack of motivation, fits of anger, exhaustion from prolonged stress, impatience, outbursts of emotions, incivility, listlessness, and depression.

We need to recognize and identify the dangerous and destructive ways we self-medicate to mask or reduce the symptoms of our mental unwellness. These include substance abuse, procrastination, over or under sleeping, and denial.

We need to create for ourselves a wellness and accountability regime. We need to have a wellness toolbox that includes a group of trusted people we ask to check in on us and keep us accountable, honesty to admit deterioration, and humility to seek help. We need to reset reasonable career goals and realistic income expectations.

Give yourself the gift of health and wellness. Recalibrate how you measure your worth and success as a lawyer. Count the cost of what you seek to achieve and attain in your work and find that delicate balance. By doing so, you will be a healthier and better lawyer.