Revisiting Dr. Karin Huffer’s “Legal Abuse Syndrome”

Some seven years ago, I wrote about Dr. Karin Huffer’s work on “legal abuse syndrome,” her label for a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder “that develops in individuals assaulted by ethical violations, legal abuses, betrayals, and fraud,” generated by legal actors and systems. Since then, I’ve encountered many individuals who have become familiar with her work, either due to personal experience with the legal system or a professional interest in reforming our legal structures and the legal profession.

In the updated edition of her book, Legal Abuse Syndrome: 8 Steps for Avoiding the Traumatic Stress Caused by the Legal System (2013), Dr. Huffer — a therapist — offers a dedication to “lawyers, judges, and bureaucrats who do not abuse their positions,” but she quickly takes aim at “judges, attorneys, regulators, and others, who elect to be solely self-serving.” This includes lawyers who reportedly “knowingly exhaust their client’s resources and leave their clients vulnerable” and strike deals to preserve their professional status, as well as judges who “find for the more rich and powerful in spite of evidence.”

Huffer invokes the term “Institutionalized Abuse of Power” to characterize a legal system that may inflict a heavy price on those at the wrong end of the power spectrum. Powerfully adverse business interests buoyed by teams of attorneys can fuel lengthy, stressful, and expensive legal proceedings that sap one’s physical and emotional health, family relationships, career and employment status, and financial well being.

The road to recovery includes healing from the trauma of that experience, in addition to dealing with whatever events prompted legal process in the first place. Huffer also offers advice for those who have experienced legal abuse syndrome, her “Eight Steps to Recovery”:

  • “Debriefing”
  • “Grieving”
  • “Obsession”
  • “Blaming”
  • “Deshaming”
  • “Reframing”
  • “Empowerment”
  • “Recovery”

Uncomfortable read for lawyers and judges

A lot of lawyers and judges aren’t going to feel comfortable reading Legal Abuse Syndrome. It does not pull punches, and to some the book will come across as being overly polemical. Furthermore, those who treat clients and parties to lawsuits with respect and dignity may feel unfairly maligned by the harsh characterizations in the book.

But I would urge those folks not to take offense. Too many lawyers and judges are profoundly unaware of the emotional consequences of their actions and the system in which they work, especially the often aggressive world of litigation. Empathy for those ensnarled in legal matters can run low.

It’s also sadly the case that too many lawyers and judges don’t care that much about these emotional consequences, blithely justifying their actions on assumptions of how legal actors and systems are supposed to operate. The worst among our profession may even get a perverse satisfaction out of inflicting emotional injuries upon others.

Bullying in the legal profession

The culture of legal institutions comes into play as well. Just today, for example, the American Bar Association Journal summarized a new study finding that workplace bullying “is rampant at law firms, but many law firm leaders are reluctant to punish the offenders.” This piece by Deborah Cassens Weiss further reported that “Ninety-three percent of surveyed leaders at the nation’s top 100 law firms reported bullying at their firms” and that among “all of the surveyed firms…, the most common problem, cited by 89 percent, was bullying and lack of respect.”

Let’s consider the implications of this study. A significant share of the nation’s most prominent law firms harbor cultures of bullying and disrespect. These law firms are most likely to represent the wealthiest, most powerful business interests, and sometimes governmental interests as well. (Concededly, most also do pro bono work on behalf of impoverished individuals and underserved causes, but not in ways that directly conflict with the legal and business interests of paying clients.)

Bullying behaviors run downhill. If a culture of bullying and disrespect governs how attorneys treat one another within their own law firms, then how will their clients and opposing litigants fare when dealing with lawyers who have been schooled to think that interpersonal abuse is the norm for their profession?

Therapeutic jurisprudence to the rescue?

Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), a school of legal philosophy and practice that, in the words of co-founder David Wexler, “concentrates on the law’s impact on emotional life and psychological well-being,” is part of the solution to this state of affairs. At our recent therapeutic jurisprudence workshop at the York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, concerns over the experiences of parties in litigation with legal systems came up in multiple discussions. I consistently sense that TJ adherents are much more likely to understand how being a party to a lawsuit or complicated legal matter is often an unpleasant, stressful experience, and sometimes may become abusive.

Currently we are a long way from being able to characterize TJ as the mainstream or dominant framework for looking at the law, legal systems, and legal actors. But if we want tackle legal abuse syndrome and similar consequences of being involved in lawsuits and legal matters, then embracing TJ is a big part of the solution.

5 responses

  1. I appreciate this information. I can relate to this for sure. Yes Judges can abuse ( as not for profit Board members) their power and the need to abuse others seems to go with the role & personality in some cases.
    Look forward to the read.
    There is no question navigating the legal system( finding a lawyer; developing a case; dealing w judges; framing what will be heard; fees) for bullying victims is the next frontier – a huge task.
    Again thanks for your work and others
    It is emotionally lifesaving.

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