I want to be a better trial lawyer.
But I also want the experiences for my client to be better.
I want to lessen their pain and ease their suffering.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to win cases.
But even after a full acquittal, clients are left in a state of bereavement. They mourn the loss of the military that raised them like a parent, abandoning them to an orphanage at the first allegation; they mourn the trust that is gone for their teammates who did not dare to stand alongside them; and they mourn relationships that were unable to sustain the onslaught of both.
For years I have been searching for a way to end this lather-rinse-repeat approach to UCMJ defense. Win one case, onto the next.
Accolades aside, the “success” of those wins is short-lived when you travel this path feeling the grief of each client and their loved ones. The “victories” subside when you experience vicariously the trauma of their clash and attendant schism with a system that once tethered them to a greater cause. And the “wins” feel less than as you realize that the client’s voice continues to be silenced by whispers of raising doubt vice the vindication of exoneration.
I was fortunate and feel tremendous gratitude to have attended training to become a Master Resiliency Trainer. Truly transformative, examining mindsets, thinking traps, and communication skills gave way to personal realizations. In addition to finding a personal awakening, I was exhilarated as sparks went off for its application in shaping the outlook of my clients to help arm them emotionally for the war to come.
Those facing charges and a trial (and even others facing a threat to their jobs from an administrative onslaught) tend to spiral in their thought-processes. They focus on one negative outcome after the other, and it becomes difficult to see one’s way out of it. As I received instruction from masters level sports psychologists, I also considered application for attorney relations. But that is a blog post for another day.
I find myself redirecting clients away from unhealthy thinking traps, better equipped not only to recognize them, but also more adept at dissecting the mindset with the client to help identify the unhealthy patterns.
And then there’s psychodrama. As a student of Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers’ College near Dubois, Wyoming, I was thrust into the deep end of a chasmic pool, working personal conflict and past, unresolved traumas by putting them into action. By this way, we can better understand connections in repeated unhealthy mental processes and behavior. Imagine group psychotherapy in action with reverberating connections, synapses firing and processing for days and sometimes weeks or months later.
Mr. Spence recognized the myriad applications for trial lawyers, not only for we as stressed and traumatized practitioners, but also to help us find the voice of each client, to discover their truth, and to ensure his path is understood by those who will sit in his judgment.
In mid-July, I travelled to a (fairly) remote location in upstate New York to study psychodrama and specifically to train in its direction; that is, how to direct the psychodrama of a protagonist, the person whose story needs to be told and is aided by putting that story into action. I am not a psychologist, and I am not a licensed counselor. But candidly I have been seriously considering obtaining my masters degree in counseling, a key first step to becoming a licensed psychodramatist.
Ever important to establish boundaries in relationships with clients, I am examining whether I will be a better trial advocate and counselor at law if I dip more than my toe into putting their stories into action.
In my practice and in my colleagues sharing with me uses in their own practices, using psychodramatic tools in legal practice has blown me away from the beauty this process creates.
Evidence of Transformation
Ever the trial lawyer, I’ll give you evidence to concretize for you what I mean.
I had a client for more than three years. I felt I knew him well. I felt I understood his case on many levels. There was trust between us (and still exists between us), and I felt like there were not impediments to discovering his truth in a way that would allow me to tell it effectively to his panel (jury). Despite our solid foundation, when we approached telling his truth, what reverberated from him was anger. He was (justifiably) angry at being falsely accused of child sexual abuse; he was unforgiving and unable to fathom how his accuser could ever reach a place in her heart to tell such lies. I feared that his anger would translate to seeming defensive and appearing guilty during his direct and cross-examinations at trial.
I turned to the psychodramatic tool of reversing roles. Specifically, I asked him to reverse roles with his accuser. As we approached what would be a two-week trial for allegations that spanned over six years of alleged abuse I wanted him to tap into empathy for her. To do so would require more than me encouraging him to pray about it, to try to soften his heart by trying to talk to him from my experience in trying to forgive, rather than from being able to walk the path of his existence.
What happened during our session was truly transformative.
As I approached an interview with his accuser (him taking on her role and answering my questions in the first person as her) he revealed to me more than I had learned in our nearly four years of battle. He struggled at first to step into her shoes, stopping to ask me how he should answer. Insistent in staying in character, we glided along and found the rhythm of a somber movement.
I came to understand her plight, how she never felt she belonged in this life, and the significance my client played in the emotional burdens she carried. Was he to blame? Certainly not. But I became a better advocate for him through that exercise, and he was able to tap into empathy.
When he took the stand in his own defense, he spoke his truth. When I cross-examined her, gently but probingly, we revealed her truth together. She agreed with me that she never felt she belonged in the world, and we walked down the path of why her step-father was a part in her feeling that way. She did not mean to reveal her motivations for falsifying her allegations, but she did. And there was a shift in the room as the entire panel mournfully came to understand as well.
I am a better lawyer for learning the tools of the psychodramatist.
Where to From Here?
The question is how better to serve others. Do I go down this path or do I stay on my current trajectory? Or maybe some combination?
I am not quite certain, and I am okay with not knowing.
I do know that I need to learn better how to make reentry – the process of coming back from six days of intense psychodrama in the woods. In the vault exercise of life, I did not stick this last landing. I fell on my keister, more times than I care to admit. And kept stumbling as I tried to make my way back to a world that is less accepting and loving as the group we forged in New York.
Through pain there is healing.
Here’s to finding my role in accepting I am not the cure, but that I can be a valiant instrument on a path to some relief.