Publish date: 11 October 2022
James Leggo

Rarely do people consult a lawyer when their life is going well.

Having practised in personal injury law for over four years now, daily I speak to people whose lives have been thrown into turmoil after having been the victims of unfortunate accidents or wicked behaviour.

Most discussions I have share a common theme: I’ve been injured; I’m in pain; I can’t work; I have bills I can’t pay; I didn’t deserve this; why did this happen to me?

During law school I was taught that my role as a lawyer was to be my client’s advocate. I was to take their instructions, devise legal solutions, and champion my client’s cause to the best of my ability within ethical and legal boundaries.

However, I don’t recall being taught that my role included helping the client bear the burden of their problem. I always thought that was something best left to a mental health professional.

It seems though that in the present day, with access to mental health services at a critical low (the wait times for psychologists are now up to 12 weeks), clients in psychological distress are increasingly selecting lawyers to represent them that they believe actually care; lawyers who can empathise with them beyond the surface level.

Given we are often a client’s first point of contact when things go wrong, whether it is reasonable or desirable that modern practitioners have mandatory training or education in counselling or psychology before starting practice in tumultuous legal areas such as injury, family, criminal or domestic violence law, is a matter worth discussing.

In this regard, it is pertinent that doctors, who often deal with a different side to the same story, include mental health training within their medical degrees; a key ethic of the Hippocratic oath is that the doctor “will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug”.

The advice we provide our clients is delivered from a position of authority and objective insight. Given our unique position to influence the reality of our client’s lives, we have the capacity, and some would say ethical duty, to improve the suffering of our clients, or at least their perception of it. A conversation could be enough to change a person’s life.

In this regard, the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism, which aims to “maximize positive emotions, reduce negative emotions, and help individuals to hone their virtues of character”, could be a useful tool in the lawyer’s arsenal for both personal and professional use.

Stoicism is not an unusual concept: most self-help books these days are based on Stoic practices which have undergone a rebrand for modern society. Cognitive behavioural therapy has its origins in Stoicism. Activities such as journaling, meditation and the practice of self-restraint, are all Stoic exercises.

Stoicism was a popular philosophy in the ancient world, where life was often short-lived and misery common. Notable stoics include Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Cato the Younger.

As described by Epictetus, the fundamental tenet of Stoicism is that:

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within your control; and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquillity and outer effectiveness become possible.”

According to Epictetus, we should calmly accept when things out of our control happen to us, but we as individuals should strive through self-discipline to control our reaction to these events.

In other words, what happens to us is never directly under our control or completely up to us, but our own thoughts and actions are – at least the voluntary ones.

Marcus Aurelius, known as one of the five good Roman emperors, was the last famous Stoic philosopher of antiquity. He frequently applied Stoic philosophy to the challenges of coping with pain, illness, anxiety and loss. He is quoted as saying:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

The idea of living a good and virtuous life by controlling our reaction to adversity was how the ancient Greeks solved the problem of happiness over 2,000 years ago.

Aristotle termed it Eudaimonia, that is, a state of mental wellbeing or flourishing happiness achieved not as an end state, but rather as a continuous process of fulfilling one’s virtuous potentials through taking personal responsibility for our lives, expressing the highest version of ourselves moment to moment, and making the best use of what is within our power and taking the rest as it happens.

The lengths the ancient stoics went with this idea is often interpreted as being cold and apathetic. For example, it was said that Xenophon, a military leader and student of Socrates, when told that his son had been killed in battle calmly replied: “I knew that he was mortal.”

The idea of being a mountain against the most serious adversities that life throws our way is a simple concept in theory, but incredibly difficult in reality. Achieving virtue is not easy.

In modern times, perhaps the best example of stoic doctrine applied in practice is by Viktor E. Frankl, author of the best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, suffered through and was witness to the worst human atrocities imaginable during his time spent imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War.

He found that those prisoners who had a reason to keep going, for example, the hope to eventually see their families again, were the ones most able to bear the peak suffering of their existence. On the other hand, the prisoners who had nothing to live for were often the first to go.

Succinctly, Frankl quotes and adopts the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher, who observed that “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how”.

The stoics believed that adversities were a trial that life delivered so one could exercise the strength of their character, to demonstrate their virtue, and by so doing become a better person.

They describe that we humans have control over two things, our actions and our judgments. We can decide what events mean to us, which are our judgements, and how we want to react to those events, which are our actions. Events are not what upset us, but rather our opinions about those events.

The reality of the lesson for those whose world has been upended by injury and adversity is that whilst we cannot control what happens to us, we can choose to construct for ourselves a tower of strength where we decide that outside events no longer have power over us, and ultimately we are, and have always been, the master of our own fate.

The wheels of justice turn slowly. In personal injuries matter of late, insurer behaviour has been disappointing, which has seen cases dragging on much longer than they really should.

The result is that the deserving claimant is forced to wait even longer to access just compensation, with their suffering prolonged through no consequence of their own. Stoic teachings are more relevant now than ever before.

It is hoped that at least by having a different perspective on suffering, we can give strength to those that need it the most. In the words of Frankl: “suffering, in and of itself, is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.”

As published in Lawyers Weekly.

James Leggo
James Leggo
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