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Post trial physical, mental storm normal | Kyla Lee

Friday, November 22, 2019 @ 8:46 AM | By Kyla Lee

Kyla Lee %>
Kyla Lee
After a particularly effective cross-examination, I called my law partner while driving home. Triumphantly, I declared myself the queen of cross-examination. He listened dutifully, as law partners to trial lawyers do, while I recounted how I had ensnared the witness and got him to admit his numerous errors.

When the call ended, I was still driving back home from court. I sat in silence in the vehicle for a few moments before the tentacles of doubt started to creep in. Maybe I was wrong, I thought. Maybe the evidence didn’t come out the way I think it did. Like any trial lawyer, I immediately picked up the phone again and called my junior under the guise of seeing if she had any questions or issues to discuss.

She confirmed my original thought. We had done well. We had done a good job representing our client that day.

And so that call ended too, and I was again alone in the car. I turned on the radio. But I didn’t listen to whatever was playing. My initial excitement began to morph into something more sinister. By the time I pulled into the grocery store parking lot to pick up dinner, I could barely motivate myself to get out of the vehicle. When I walked, my hands trembled and my balance was unsure.

What had just happened was what happens to every trial lawyer after a trial is complete. But I didn’t know this at the time.

As lawyers, we shy away from talking about our mental or physical health. Sure, we may share diet tips or workout routines, but we are all very reluctant to talk about the extensive physical and mental toll that our work takes on us. Trial lawyers are, I suspect, the worst of the bunch.

If you enter a barrister’s lounge over a lunch break or during a court break, undoubtedly you will find someone very learned in the law trading war stories with a more junior counsel. Or counsel regaling their colleagues with their tales of victory over a particularly difficult witness. We love telling war stories. Find us at lunch, on breaks in conferences, in presentations at CLE events or bumping into each other in the street. It won’t be long before a trial lawyer will tell another trial lawyer about something they did in court that just worked well.

I didn’t think what happened to me after trials was normal for a long time. It didn’t matter if I succeeded on every argument or lost every issue. Once the work was done, there would soon be a crippling depression and physical exhaustion that kicked in. I could even time it. The symptoms began a few hours afterward and reached peak mental distress at around 48 hours later.

It wasn’t until a recent bar event, when a colleague who was in the midst of a lengthy trial, asked me about long weekend plans. Knowing that I would be fresh off a trial and feeling safe in the confidence of a fellow young lawyer, I half-jokingly responded “Oh, you know, struggling to deal with the crippling depression that sets in after a trial.” To my surprise, my colleague nodded sagely and responded to indicate that they, too, experience the same thing.

My colleague then offered their theory about why this happens, and importantly, self-care tips to prepare for it and weather the inevitable physical and emotional storm.

This was one of the most refreshing comments I have had about lawyers and mental health in my career. I no longer felt alone, and no longer felt completely insane for experiencing a complete physical and mental deterioration after a trial.

As lawyers, we need to speak to one another about this phenomenon and share tips for how to address it, in the same way that we share tips for how to impeach a witness or argue over the applicability of a hearsay objection.

After my most recent trial, I made sure to let my junior know what was about to happen, let her know that it was totally normal, and let her know that she was doing a great job. And while I told her so that she would be aware that she was not alone, I also helped remind myself that I’m not alone either.

Kyla Lee is a criminal lawyer and partner at Acumen Law Corporation in Vancouver. Her practice focuses on impaired driving. She is the host of a podcast, Driving Law, and a weekly video series Cases That Should Have Gone to the Supreme Court of Canada, But Didn’t! She is called to the bar in Yukon and British Columbia.

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