Bench + Bar of Minnesota

Counselor at law: The privilege and burden of keeping secrets

By Paul M. Floyd

Almost from the moment I passed the bar, family and friends began confiding in me regarding their legal problems. Be it a lease dispute, an employment offer, or a noncompete question, they sought me out to provide legal advice and advocacy to help them resolve their legal issues. This is precisely what law school had prepared me to do and over time I became quite good at it. I was an “attorney at law” and knew I had found my calling. 

However, as my practice morphed from one of advocacy to more advice and counselling, people entrusted me with more private, personal, and confidential matters. Clients, friends, and family confided in me some of their most personal and heartbreaking secrets. Matters they would not tell another soul. They trusted me as a lawyer to keep their secrets from their spouses, partners, colleagues, etc. Receiving these confidences can be humbling. They can also take an emotional toll on you. 

At the outset, I failed to acknowledge the inherent burden that accompanies these disclosures. After all, no one of these confidences by themselves reduced me to tears or caused me sleepless nights. But even if your clients’ secrets do not rise to the level of severely affecting your daily life, they may still have a cumulative effect. “Microstresses” are small, difficult moments that embed themselves in our minds and accrue over time. The long-term impact of this buildup can be debilitating: It saps our energy, damages our physical and emotional health, and contributes to a decline in our overall well-being. A microstress can be as minor as getting cut off in traffic, having one’s internet connection freeze during a Zoom meeting, or getting a call from the school nurse about your sick child. Most of us can handle one or two of these microstresses daily, but when they quickly accumulate over time (how many demanding or irritating emails did you get today?), they can overwhelm us, which we in turn may reflect back toward those around us.  

Microstresses—the contentious call with opposing counsel, the rushed court appearance, providing feedback to an underperforming employee, keeping the troubling confidence of a client, close friend, or colleague—are the hazardous airborne particles of lawyers’ lives. We tend not to be as well-versed as mental health professionals in recognizing secondary trauma and the need for self-care. In my case, certainly, the responsibility of preserving client confidentiality, coupled with the burden of their secrets, incrementally impacted my emotional well-being and mood. Perhaps you too have felt similar effects when confronted with unsettling or traumatic client stories. 

Encouragingly, there exist several strategies to prevent burnout and emotional decline in our practice, ensuring it doesn’t adversely affect our colleagues and loved ones.

First, if you feel triggered or emotionally burdened by a new matter, take a moment to reassess whether you should accept the representation. It may be flattering to be entrusted with the honor of being consulted for advice, especially from your closest ally or peer. But it might be more prudent to direct the individual to a reliable colleague, someone untouched by potential biases or conflicts due to unfamiliarity with the other parties involved. True wisdom lies in discerning when to engage and advise, and when to redirect someone for the mutual benefit of both client and counsel.

Next, learn to identify and acknowledge when the burden of miscrostresses is becoming unhealthy. I have had to remind myself to slow down, to breathe, to take a break, to get regular exercise, and to get a good night’s sleep. For more troubling, perhaps triggering, secrets, seek professional help. Sometimes help is as near talking with another lawyer. Other times it involves seeing a therapist. 

Being a trusted “counselor at law” carries a significant privilege and responsibility. Every time a client shares a traumatic or troubling secret, they are entrusting you as their lawyer to keep it confidential. Secrets of this nature, even if not overtly disruptive, contribute to cumulative microstress that affects our well-being. Recognizing the toll and seeking support is vital to being the best lawyer and person you can be to all of your clients, family, friends, and colleagues. 

2023-MSBA-President-Paul-FloydPaul M. Floyd is one of the founding partners of Wallen-Friedman & Floyd, PA, a business and litigation boutique law firm located in Minneapolis. Paul has been the president of the HCBA, HCBF, and the Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association. He lives with his wife, Donna, in Roseville, along with their two cats.

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