Anger in the courtroom

Issue January 2015

Q: I've been a contracted Commission for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) lawyer for many years, and in many ways I think I have a great handle on the job. But it seems that I've also lost patience when others - often an overly entitled client, but sometimes an assistant district attorney or even a judge - have an axe to grind that gets in the way of a reasonable resolution to the case. I'm confident of the correctness of my instincts from a legal standpoint, but I now find myself coming to the attention of those in authority positions, as well as the Board of Bar Overseers, so I guess I need help with "anger management."

A: Remember that scene from And Justice for All, where Al Pacino's character completely loses his temper in court? His points are valid, and his outrage well-founded, but there is no benefit in his mode of expression (other than to entertain us in the movie audience and vent our shared anger at, as you say, the obstacles to reasonable justice). Thankfully, you show self-awareness of what's happening with your frustration and how it is working against you.

There are various approaches to "anger management," some of them more appropriate for those with a much lower level of awareness and who justify even abusive behavior. Approaches for people who do have insight often involve developing a behavioral analysis of triggers to anger and finding alternate ways to think and behave in reaction to them. Indeed, strong, reflexive reactivity without awareness or conscious decision-making is often a recipe for regrettable behavior.

A related, but different, approach involves applying so-called "mindfulness" to the situation arousing the reaction (in your case, the behavior of clients/lawyers/judges that you find self-serving and irritating). Mindfulness is in some ways the current incarnation of the "meditation" and "relaxation response" and "be here now" approaches (those terminologies more prominent in previous decades). More broadly, there is an emphasis on, in a sense, zooming out to a broader perspective from which one observes and accepts, rather than judging or reacting.

Imagine that you are driving on an interstate when suddenly you're hit by a blinding snowstorm. It might be natural to react with fear, anger at nature, at the foolish drivers barreling past you on the slippery road, etc., but what would be the most helpful stance? Probably to become more grounded, highly alert, observing conditions and positions of other vehicles, accepting the immediate reality since it is the one before you, and using your awareness and experience to make fluid choices about navigation - responding more than reacting. There might also be the sense of slowing down the action and viewing the entire situation from a greater distance. It may well be that this road should be better lit, that the weather forecast should have been more accurate, etc., but focusing on those factors over which you have no control is worse than useless, because it uses mental resources that could be focused on using the available information to find the best solution.

The analogy to your situation is obvious enough that we need not spell it out. Taking a more mindful approach does not mean that you deny your anger - you can observe it within yourself, including its physical manifestations. But taking a few self-observing breaths coupled with increased perspective, you may be able to let it go, identify more productive ways and times to express it and prevent stirring up additional conflict or calling negative attention to yourself.

At Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL), we can do a careful review with you of the situations that have elicited these difficulties, and get you started on a path toward better management of your anger when it emerges. As we often mention, our services are confidential and free to any Massachusetts lawyer (or law student or judge), and if you need more sustained clinical input, we refer to quality outside providers.    

Questions quoted are either actual letters/emails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. Questions for LCL may be mailed to LCL, 31 Milk St., Suite 810, Boston, MA 02109 or called in to (617) 482-9600. LCL's licensed clinicians will respond in confidence. Visit LCL online at