Grounding Space

By Peggy Kerdo

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The man walking towards me was wearing a black coat over his business suit.  As he approached – head down, lost in his own world – I glared at him, boiling with hatred.  He came closer, filled my vision and then passed.  I did not know this man.  I had never seen him before.  He was just a person, probably slipping out of his work place to get some lunch or a cup of coffee on a wintery afternoon in Melbourne.  I had come out of the offices of Legal Aid, where I had spent 4 hours with a client applying for a refugee visa.  She had gone into flashback recounting the details of her rape at the hands of government officials in her country.  The flashback was so intense she had been dry retching into a waste paper basket in my office.  I had stopped typing her story and sat on the floor next to her – a silent witness to her horror and trauma.  We finished.  She went to see her trauma counsellor and I went to get some lunch.

Why is there was an unspoken expectation that lawyers have no feelings?  Is the logic that because the law is held to be completely objective, lawyers must strive to be completely objective?

Perhaps this is a worthy notion, but the invisible assumption made, is that there is no room for feeling, or common humanity, when one is being objective.  Indeed, if a lawyer is seen to express feelings, not only is there a fear that the lawyer’s reputation may be diminished in the eyes of colleagues and the legal community, but the lawyer themselves starts to believe that maybe they aren’t a ‘good’ lawyer and not ‘up to the job’.  That’s certainly what happened to me.

I had come to law bright, enthusiastic and eager.  And after seven years, I felt completely drained, horrified by humanity’s ugliness.  When I look back, I can see all the signs of classic burnout and vicarious traumatisation:  tightness in the chest; not being able to breathe into my belly; feeling exhausted and sick all the time.  I gained 30 kilograms. I could not concentrate for more than two or three minutes.  I could not watch the news or movies that had any level of violence. I had no capacity to ‘give’ anything to my family, feeling completely spent.  I lost my ability to connect with people. It was difficult for me to get to work before 10 or 11 in the morning and I found it almost impossible to return phone messages or complete tasks.

When I started teaching as a lecturer and clinical legal supervisor, my broader task involved assisting law students to become ‘work ready’, so that they could find their way around a file, interview, and write letters.  But I want my students to be ‘world ready’.  I want them to have a grounding space, so that they can identify what is going on for them at any particular moment.  I want to show them that there are some resources that not only decrease stress, but increase emotional intelligence. Using reflection, debriefing, and mindfulness training throughout the course, I emphasise that emotions, judgments and reactions that may be experienced during legal practice are perfectly normal.   It is how we deal with these mind creations that has consequences for our career and for our life more generally.

As I walked out into the street, on that cold winters day, all those years ago, I felt buffeted by the lunchtime rush.  When I saw the man in the black coat, he became the perpetrator of my client’s injury.  He was a man and my client was tortured and forever altered by men.  It made no sense then and it makes no sense as I write this now, but my logic could not convince my being out of the pure hatred I felt for that nameless man at that moment. When I got back to work, there was no debriefing, no support and no real understanding of the dangers of vicarious traumatisation and burnout. I felt that the work of my heart had broken my heart and there was nowhere for me to go.

Thankfully, I had just enough ‘me’ left to apply for and obtain another job within the law, which I love.  And hopefully, I can better prepare law students coming through my course for the peaks and troughs of a stimulating, exciting, challenging, rewarding and emotional life in the law.

Peggy Kerdo is a solicitor and lecturer at La Trobe Law School. Peggy is also currently a PhD candidate. Prior to her work at La Trobe Law School, Peggy was employed by Victoria Legal Aid in the field of human rights law, specifically in the areas of refugee and immigration law and mental health law. Peggy has also advocated on behalf of marginalised and disadvantaged members of the community and is passionate about access to justice. Her teaching focuses on clinical legal education, emotional intelligence and law reform issues that arise at the limits of the law.

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