This post contains references to suicide. It is published with permission from and deep respect for the family of the affected attorney. It is written by my dear friend, Robyn Smith, who I met in law school. Though we have handled cases on the opposite sides of the “v” for much of our practices, we have remained friends and benefitted from sharing our different experiences. We recently shared a post from Bob Coursey, an employer-side employment lawyer. This post from Robyn offers a different perspective but I think you’ll find that both Robyn and Bob think humanity and decency are essential to law practice.
Just in time for Christmas, Ryan Reynolds, Will Ferrell, and Octavia Spencer star in Spirited, a musical comedy adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It’s a fantastic story of human struggle, self-loathing, and redemption. If you have not yet seen the movie, go watch it right now. We’ll wait.
Finished? You’re welcome. It was great, wasn’t it?
And there could not be a better cinematic explanation of people struggling with something called moral injury – a concept that describes the price paid by people like us, attorneys who work as we are taught, and who exist within a system that tests our personal senses of right and wrong … and who are hurt by it. Moral injury, according to Veterans Affairs, is a psychological injury that comes from perpetrating, failing to prevent, or witnessing events that go against a your deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.
These injuries have been studied in the instances of combat veterans who have had to inflict harm on others, as well as health care workers who have had to turn away people in need of care. Scientists have noted that it changes the brain, but not in the same ways as PTSD. Spirited depicts several folks struggling with their own pasts, presents, and futures, as their choices and career paths have consequences.
The Spirited character to have watched was Octavia Spencer’s. She does as she is told. She conducts the opposition research. She works up the facts. She discloses the truth. She knows how it will be used. She is hurt as the fruits of her efforts are used to destroy other people’s lives. She knows that’s how it will go. But she is just researching, like we do. She’s just portraying facts, like we do. She’s just doing her job … like we do.
And she hurts because of it. Like we do.
I believe that the law industry is designed to subject lawyers to moral injury. We are trained to work in our clients’ best interests and to keep their confidences. We are permitted to withdraw from representations most of the time – but not all. We may only raise an alert when a client is about to inflict certain types of injuries on other human beings. We have knowledge that can weigh on us. We have to argue things that we do not admire or respect. We are complicit in systems that oppress and injure. And whoever structured this industry decided that was okay, at our peril.
Not all of us, and not all of the time, of course. But our ethical rules do not allow us to prioritize our own morality – ever. I don’t think I’ve met a lawyer who has not had to take a position she abhors, or oppose a person she truly believed to be in the right. In those circumstances, we are told, we have to consider our clients’ best interests, the integrity of the tribunal, and a handful of other things that are not our own precious peace of mind.
I represent workers, including attorneys. Some of them know what is happening around them is wrong, and they feel gaslit by the failure of others to speak up or break free. It’s a lonely feeling. Some of the people I admire the most are people who, astonished, have asked me “Am I crazy?” after recognizing a severe and unbearable moral injury and declaring the pain of it. And suffering the fallout. Speaking out against the machine is taboo, isn’t it?
I had an attorney friend who undertook a very important job overseeing Kentucky’s unemployment insurance agency in early 2020. When the pandemic set in, he went to work, putting every ounce of his energy into connecting newly locked-down workers with the money they needed to buy food, medicine, diapers, and medicine. He would call it “the most important thing I’ve ever done.” He saw problems with the system, some ethical, others legal. He rationalized what he could. He opposed the rest. My friend was fired.
He spent the next several months watching in horror as the benefits system crumbled, with workers spending endless months without benefits, hitting metaphoric brick walls in the agency, and having nobody in the agency empowered to advocate for them. My friend gave an interview to a national media outlet, and when the reporter asked how it felt to watch all of the people in pain as they waited for help that was promised but never provided, he responded simply, “It kills me.” A few weeks later, my friend took his own life.
For well over a year, I did what many people affected by suicide do. I talked with people. I raged against the people who hurt my friend and his family. I blamed myself. I researched and read, looking for something to make it make sense. I looked at studies. Everything I learned about depression, anxiety, PTSD, secondary trauma, and how they affected lawyers was really insightful, but never really a complete picture.
Then one day, I was in my car, listening to a science podcast about the “invisible epidemic” of moral injury. I gripped my steering wheel and yelled, struck by the realization that this was the piece that fit. When a principled person leans into his moral fortitude at a time when very little else is available, and when that sense of morality is shattered … it’s a whole lot to come back from. And we are made of flesh and bone, not iron and steel.
I had been staring into the same abyss as my friend. Because the fact is that I truly believed that I had let him down. And I carried with me every cut from every point in my career when I had helped people advance their own interests against my own sense of morality. In recent years, I opened my own firm. I represent only people I want to and do a lot of pro bono.
While I don’t represent people I don’t want to represent, I am still at risk for moral injury every time I see the justice system (that I prop up) hurt people who don’t deserve it. I’ve watched my opposing counsel wince as they open old wounds in my clients in depositions because it is their job. I’ve heard a government lawyer lament, “Robyn, I have no discretion here” when a person’s ability to feed a family was at stake. I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, and I know that it’s real.
You are reading this piece on a blogsite where my dear friend Claire gives you tools to process, understand, and heal. You are here to learn about the tools to help you work within the sphere of your own control. But in case nobody has told you this lately, it’s okay to conclude that the things outside your control might be wrong. Real wrong. And you are not a freak for wanting to break free from it. It’s incredibly okay to leave. To adapt. To grow.
My favorite scene from Spirited is a deleted scene showcased in the credits. Will Ferrell’s character wants to know what the everlasting effect of a single act can be – a “ripple.” He wonders, “I have to believe, inside the worst of us there is some decency there … we can achieve something miraculous if we only dare.” That’s true. It is. It’s true of our clients, and it is always true of us.
Because it’s not about winning. Or raking in money. Or having other people be afraid of you. That’s the old way of evaluating success in our industry. The new way, and the way Spirited has considerately reminded us of, is that you can take account of your own worth. And you can decide when someone has asked of you the unaskable. And you can say “no.” You can heal, and you can help others heal. And you can determine your fate from there.
Robyn Smith is an employee-side lawyer at The Law Office of Robyn Smith in Louisville, Kentucky. She chose the area of employment law to protect workers, who she believes are Kentucky’s greatest resource. Robyn has represented workers in litigation against massive institutions, both public and private. She is also a mother of two and committed to improving her community and the profession. Robyn has been honored for her pro bono work, is a coach for law school client counseling competitions, and teaches Law Practice Management at the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville.
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