By Liz Fraley
In one of my earliest days teaching, I was in the courtroom grading students as they gave their first-ever opening statement. Nerves are common in this setting, and so we give feedback on both the structural and performance aspects of the exercise. The last pair of students took their spots at counsel table, and I instructed the plaintiff’s attorney to proceed with her opening statement. She stood in the center of the courtroom, spoke three words, and completely broke down. These were not leaky tears; these were body-wracking sobs. I confess to being caught unprepared for this. I could not imagine what about this exercise had her emotionally distraught. I did know, however, that I could not let her stop; I believed that would irreparably damage her confidence that she could complete the exercise. I told her to get a drink of water (always a good move) and to continue. She would get a few lines out and then cry again. I kept prompting her with statements like “and then what happened” until she completed the exercise.
After all the other students left the courtroom, she asked to talk to me about what had happened. I readily agreed since I was mystified. She shared that when she was a first year student, she had attempted suicide. Thankfully, she had gotten help and was much better. However, the case packet used for opening statement by the students prior to her exercise involved an insurance dispute over death benefits: had the decedent died accidentally or by suicide? Hearing the previous students give opening statements in a case discussing suicide triggered the emotional response in this student. I had not dealt with a “trigger” event like this before. She assured me that having her continue and using calm, measured tones had been the right response for her. She successfully completed my class and the bar, and happily seems to enjoy a good career.
Triggers present a lawyer-leader challenge, both in law school and in practice. As fiduciaries, our own personal triggers cannot prevent our putting a client’s interests ahead of our own issues. We cannot realistically expect a law firm to change its business to adapt to our triggers. In other words, we cannot be fragile in this profession. We have a job to do, and we must do it to the best of our abilities. This certainly puts the onus on us as professionals either to seek the mental health help we need to manage our triggers or to be intentional about the type of practice setting we seek. A lawyer like my young student probably does not need to work in a field where she would be likely to encounter suicide issues as part of her work.
In the law school setting, training lawyer leaders may require us to provide support and guidance to student who have unresolved trauma. We do not serve students well by suggesting the world will adapt to their triggers, but we can help them understand both their professional obligations and how their own experiences can actually make them a more empathetic and wiser counselor. In many settings, client have significant emotional responses to their legal issues: sadness, anger, despair over the events and their lack of control over difficult and upsetting situations. Transforming negatives into a positive enhancement for emotional intelligence makes a better lawyer. This type of work in law school also reinforces the internal locus of control skills that are needed for good leaders.
Identify a situation like mine when a student reacted in an unexpected manner to the discussion.
If you did not engage the student to discuss the situation, consider what possible reasons might have existed.
How might you handle similar situations in the future?
I would also love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Do you agree or disagree with my take on triggers?