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Don’t be ‘The Internalizer’

In light of the recent spate of superhero movies, I thought I’d come up with my own new, legal superhero: The Internalizer.

He (or she) is an attorney who, over the years, internalizes all of his clients’ issues. From criminal charges to contract disputes to personal injuries, he takes on all of his clients’ life-altering problems as they are his own. In doing so, he becomes a big ball of stress and anxiety who is grouchy and has trouble functioning at work and at home.

Sounds pretty terrible, right? I’m still waiting to hear back from Marvel.

I remember early on in my career, I was handling a contract dispute case not far from trial. Without getting into too many details, let’s just say that the other side believed my client owed money and my client believed that the other side had breached the parties’ contract and was not owed nearly as much as it was seeking.

It was one of those cases where nothing was clear-cut; there was no obvious winner. I was as nervous as I had ever been. It wasn’t the kind of nervous energy that naturally comes before trial, either. It felt more like the anxiety that comes when you have messed something up.

But here’s the thing — I hadn’t messed anything up. I knew the facts of the case like the back of my hand and I was prepared to attack any legal argument the other side could possibly make. I was ready to present the best possible case on behalf of my client.

So why the nerves?

The answer is something that still haunts me to this day. I was internalizing my client’s problems. Like any attorney, I want to win every case in which I’m involved. (That is, obtain the best possible result for my client.) But here I was presented with a case where I really had no idea what the outcome would be and it was driving me crazy.

I brought my concerns to the partner on the case, and he put me at ease. He asked me if I had properly prepared for trial.

I had.

He asked if I had missed any deadlines.

I had not.

He then reminded me that, as attorneys, we are not always presented with home-run cases. Sometimes the odds are stacked against our clients and we have to deal with the cards with which we are dealt. He had the utmost confidence in how I had handled the case.

My case went to trial, and my client got the type of “win” that was recently described by Julius Blattner on Generation J.D. The other side obtained a judgment against my client, but the amount awarded was actually less than we had offered to settle the case. My client was ecstatic.

As attorneys, we have one of those jobs where people often come to us with the biggest problems they have faced in their lives. As empathetic people, it can seem nearly impossible not to internalize our clients’ issues. Constantly dealing with that amount of stress, however, would be debilitating.

It is important in any case to ensure that you are zealously advocating on behalf of your client and effectively preparing your case. But when you feel yourself internalizing your clients’ legal issues to the point that they are bringing you down, you need to snap out of it. This can be done by taking the necessary steps to ensure you’ve properly handled the case or by simply talking things out with a colleague.

In other words, try to avoid turning into The Internalizer!