Column: Experiencing anxiety in a legal aid job

Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019 By Dr. Jeff Fortgang
A "Tips on Law Practice and Lawyer Life" column

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Question: Though I graduated from a well-regarded law school last year, I always felt a sense of mission to do socially meaningful work and took a job with a legal aid agency. I fully embrace the mission assigned to my branch of that agency, but I have been struggling with a recurrent sense that I’m really making no difference. The attorney to whom I report is too busy to provide any kind of close attention, and I often feel like I’m faking it, with little idea about what I’m doing. But when I do develop ideas for how we might act in a more effective way, the feedback is to keep doing things the way they’ve been done in the past, which, as far as I can see, does very little to truly advocate for our clientele. When, demoralized, I review my work life with my domestic partner, the main response is criticism for not having sought a better paying job that would reduce the strain of keeping up with loans, rent and bills. I feel like I’m doing everything wrong and question what I was thinking when I decided to become a lawyer. I’m full of anxiety on behalf of my clients, and my self-esteem is much shakier than it was before I passed the bar. How do I find my way out of this trap?

Answer: Sounds, in part, like you don’t know whether to blame your work environment or yourself, but are starting to lean in the latter direction. Truth is, harshly judging either yourself or your setting won’t be particularly constructive. While your observations about the deficiencies of your agency may very well be accurate, it’s also true that it’s very hard to change any entrenched system. You can make suggestions, both for more attentive supervision and for trying new approaches in representing those for whom you advocate, and exercise whatever decision-making power is actually within your own power. But in large part the situation may require a level of acceptance and doing your best within your constraints. It’s all a useful learning experience that, later in your career, you may value having had. Maybe years from now you’ll be in a more powerful position in a similar workplace.

We know that if you feel as if you’re having no impact, you will be susceptible to diminished self-esteem and optimism. I’m guessing that a tendency to find fault with yourself probably predates your having become a lawyer. Certainly, self-examination is very productive when seeking to problem-solve (that’s a big part of what we do in therapy), but the purpose of internal inventory is to make course corrections, not to scold or belittle yourself. While it’s understandable that your partner (and you, too, I’m sure) feels frustrated by the financial pressure, the implication of a kind of disrespect for your vocational mission really calls for communication and correction. The data we have suggests that lawyers working in high-paying law firms are no happier than you are (in some cases less). In fact, long-term well-being in the profession is associated with maintaining a sense of mission, so I’d suggest appreciating yourself for the commitment it took to stay connected to yours and finding a way to have an assertive heart-to-heart talk. I know your job demands would make it hard to keep appointments with a therapist, but you deserve to carve out the time to work on these challenges, and LCL can help you find an appropriate behavioral health professional. 

Dr. Jeff Fortgang is a licensed psychologist and licensed alcohol and drug counselor on staff at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts, where he and his colleagues provide confidential consultation to lawyers and law students, and offer presentations on subjects related to the lives of lawyers. Q&A questions are either actual letters/emails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking LCL’s assistance. Questions may be emailed to DrJeff@LCLMA.org