In defence of hardship: finding resilience in law

By Menoz Bowler

There is no manual for how to practice criminal law, or how to manage the day-to-day stresses, how to manage your clients, the­­ir family, or their friends.

I will not mention the vicarious trauma ­­­or the horrendous stories we hear about on an almost daily basis. As a criminal lawyer, you develop a particularly good ability to compartmentalise, be rational and ‘let go’ at the end of the day.

In my first few years as a criminal lawyer, I realised that representing those charged with a criminal offence meant that I was more than just a mouthpiece for my client’s case.

Clients are complex, have multifaceted problems, which not only require a lawyer, but a social worker, financial counsellor, and life coach as well. Often, I must fulfil all of these roles simultaneously.

These are real life practical and social considerations which I was not taught how to address at law school. Nobody is.

Instead, I had to learn how to identify mental health problems, signs of domestic violence, alcohol, and drug addictions on the job.

Working from home during COVID-19 is no easy task. I have to fulfill my role, answer many phone calls, send and respond to endless emails, scan and file documents, and appear through the online Magistrates’ Court system called WebEx daily. All of this with children at my feet, in the background, under the table or in the next room, getting up to goodness knows what. 

All this while also trying to achieve the best for my clients but being hampered by the daily realities of the pandemic. During COVID-19, many support services have closed or are running at a significantly and dangerously reduced capacity: linking clients into these services has become particularly difficult and almost an impossible task.

Clients are suffering, many are experiencing homelessness, and cannot access the services they need to survive. Who is hearing their silent cries?

Every experience and every story counts. It is important to give voice to this experience as I would like to encourage others to speak about their feelings, experiences, and difficult times.

We should not ignore the difficulties and challenges but embrace them as they will be our new way of life for the foreseeable future. We need to accept that it is very isolating and exceedingly difficult.

Pre-lockdown, to digest my day as a criminal lawyer, I would rely heavily on the physical presence of my colleagues. I would debrief and catch up with many of them. I regard them as the source of my energy amongst other things. I have had to shift my needs regarding this. Instead of catching up for coffee, I now call my colleagues to work through the day or distract myself with Netflix and spend time with my loved ones.

Working from home is and continues to be challenging.

On some days it is untenable.

A typical working from home day involves being woken up by our new addition to the family, Winston, who is 10 kgs of pure gorgeous puppy love, followed by my two young children, Suri who is five years of age and Andrew who is four.

Andrew has an extra special touch. He was born blind. Allow me to digress for a moment.

I barely knew what I was doing with Suri. Now I had two, one with special needs. I can tell you that this was very foreign to me. 

My life for a while was a blur, I recall working full time, but life was littered with many hospital appointments, questions, external organizations, but most importantly, lots of help.

Resilience is forged in hardship.

I was taught in law school to always look for what can go wrong, or the worst-case scenario.

That may be good lawyering, but this pessimistic view can eventually colour your outlook on life. Constantly looking for the negative can eat away at you.

Perfectionism is another obstacle to resilience. Lawyers expect themselves to get things exactly right.

It is important to understand the difference between striving for excellence and the obsession with perfectionism. Excellence puts you at the top of your class. Perfection, however, is an ideal that can never be achieved, certainly not in this world and definitely not in the practice of law.

Most lawyers understand this on a rational level, but for many, there is always a subconscious desire for perfectionism — an itch that can never be scratched.

The constant anxiety about work never goes away as long as you practise law.

Sometimes you feel unsuccessful no matter what you do. Perfectionism creates unrealistic expectations, which drives self-blame.

The takeaway message is try not to do it. It will take a toll on your physical and mental health.

I have learned a lot about myself and my ability to figure out alternatives when things do not go as planned.I have become more grateful too, which has helped teach me to be happier and less pessimistic about the future.

I am not as hard on myself when my plans get derailed by things out of my control. I have learned to accept the things I cannot change.

Working from home has taught me how to manage my time better. I have learned to set more realistic expectations. I practise self-compassion.

I’ve made my wellbeing a priority. I take the time to look after my mental health. 

Self-care is hard right now, but doing something for myself every day — like making sure I’m getting enough sleep — has helped me feel calmer, reinvigorated, and better equipped to manage this demanding chapter in my life.  

I have begun to assess the time spent on my phone and in particular, I have become mindful of what I look at on social media.  

I try not to compare myself to others as it often leads me to feel even more pressure.  

This time will pass. 

It may feel as if this situation could last forever, but normal life will return.

My experience with my son has helped develop my resilience. Although COVID-19 has thrown unimaginable curve balls, I have also felt that navigating the challenge has helped me manage current and future adversity.

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