Former lawyer turned psychotherapist, Doron Gold, shares his insights into how we as lawyers and law students can learn self-awareness, resilience and overcoming personal traumas.
This episode addresses vicarious trauma in the legal profession and the personal traumas that can sometimes interfere with our ability to connect with each other and live in alignment with our core values.
Episode 11 Aligning with Your Values: A Conversation with Doron Gold
Myrna McCallum: I’m Myrna McCallum, Métis-Cree lawyer and passionate promoter of trauma-informed lawyering. Welcome to my new podcast, “The Trauma-Informed Lawyer,” brought to you in partnership with the Canadian Bar Association.
I believe that law schools and bar courses are missing a critical competency requirement in their curriculum: trauma-informed lawyering. Becoming a trauma-informed lawyer will, among other things, challenge you to critically reflect on your personal behaviors, beliefs, and biases; call on you to positively transform the way you approach advocacy; guide your practice to avoid doing further harm to others; and ask that you commit remaining open to learn new and old knowledge you didn't know you needed before beginning your career. Your education starts right here, right now. This podcast comes to you from the traditional, unceded territories of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh [Squamish], səl̓ilwətaɁɬ [Tsleil-Waututh], and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm [Musqueam] people.
Welcome back, everyone, to the trauma-informed lawyer podcast. Before we get started with today's episode, just a couple reminders. One, I'm teaching a course on October 8th and 9th through CLE BC on trauma-informed lawyering. It's, of course, it’s open to everyone—lawyers and non-lawyers alike—whether you're in British Columbia, Canada, North America, or wherever you are. It will be delivered in the mornings via webinar. If you're interested, go over to cle.bc.ca and you can register there.
Second, as I'm planning for season 2 of this podcast, I intend to reserve a few advertising spaces. If you're interested, please get in touch with me. Finally, I want to say thank you so much to those of you who reach out to me with some very personal comments about how you're receiving this podcast. It really means a lot to me to hear your feedback and, recently, I—I received an email from someone. Now, I can't reply to everybody because it would take a lot of time, but I read all of your comments, whether you're sending me comments on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or sending me an email. I read it all. But, I received an email about this podcast and how it has helped this individual and I just want to say that, Ian, I hope you're listening to today's episode because this one is for you.
Doron Gold is a psychotherapist and former practicing lawyer living and working in Toronto. He works with lawyers and law students in his role as a staff clinician and presenter with the member assistance program as well as with members of the general public in his private psychotherapy practice.
Thanks for joining me and making time to chat about all things mental health for lawyers and resilience.
Doron Gold: I am a huge fan of this podcast, so it’s my honour to be here. What comes across in your podcast and talking to you is your passion for this. It's like you can't not talk about this. And, that's what drives me when people perceive me as passionate. It's—I think it's because of the same reason you do and that is, before we were advocates we were human beings going through stuff. Before we were human beings going through stuff, we were the children of human beings who went through stuff, back generations, you know.
I was thinking about this in anticipation of talking to you and talking about trauma, generally. Sure, the roots of my interest in the to—topic are that I was born physically disabled, socially awkward, heavy kid, bullied as a child incessantly and isolated. And—um—and, so, growing up, I was awkward and not particularly well functional. I flunked out of first year university back in 1985. I somehow got it together later through some really good therapy and some good self-reflection and a little bit of maturity, but all of my passion around this work, why, after 14 years in lawyer assistance, I still, this morning, did a talk to the incoming class at Western law school with the same passion I brought 14 years ago, 'cause I'm thinking of each individual and that, to me, is part of what being trauma-informed is. It's thinking of each person you encounter as an individual with a history, with experiences both positive and negative. It allows for empathy. They're not cookie cutter. They're not—I didn't talk to a bunch of blank-faced law students this morning. I talked a whole bunch of individuals with varying but impactful—individually impactful—circumstances and I would even go so far back as to say it's—it's not just passion that is rooted in my own life experience, but I'm the son of a Holocaust survivor.
My father was 11 years old when the Germans rolled into his town. My grandfather, who I never met because he was killed in a gas chamber and concentration camp, and I lived with my father, who coped with it all those years. We come from people. I think it's Louise Hay who says, “We're all children of victims.” We come from places, we come from people, we come from histories. My family’s history, Jewish history, is—all the Jewish Holidays are about, you know, “they tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat,” you know? Everything is about trauma and it goes through generations and it's passed on in cultural habits and it's passed on cultural wounds.
And, here I am now, working in this work because of all of that along with the fact that I'm suited to it. I found my place in the world and it took a while to find that place, so that's where the passion comes from and that's why I'm very connected to what you do because I know you're so—uh—rooted in being passionate about it because it's where you come from, it's what you do, it’s what you've lived.
Myrna McCallum: You mentioned empathy and, as soon as you said the word and—and I was thinking about law students and my own law school experience. I don't recall ever hearing the word empathy in law school.
Doron Gold: Uh, I might have heard it in—in family law. I've often described myself as a snob with an inferiority complex. That I am all at once confident and a total impostor. And, so, whatever build-up they gave us, whatever they told us didn't necessarily create a bunch of, you know, superhuman world-beaters. It created a whole bunch of people, like me, who were totally insecure and felt like they weren't living up to that standard.
My mom had a Charlie Brown Peanuts cartoon on our fridge when I was growing up. It said, there is no greater burden than the burden of a great potential. I was poster child for not living up to potential. “If only he would apply himself” said every report card ever, right? So, going to law school and being told that you're the cream of the crop didn't do me any service because, a), I thought everyone else really was and, b), I thought it wasn't, which made me other. It made me a failure juxtaposed against their brilliant success and that did nothing for my self-esteem or for my mood.
And, so, that story that the people get told in law school I mean I—I can tell you the number one piece of advice I gave last week. I gave it this morning. Don't listen to other law students. They have no idea what they're talking about. That they walk around with this puffed-chest attitude: “I know exactly what it takes to be a great lawyer and let me tell you all about it.” No you don’t. You’ve never been a lawyer. You have no idea what it's like. You're trying to justify to yourself that you're gonna be OK by puffing yourself up or by having the law school puff you up. It's artificial. The empathy is about me seeing that person puffing himself up and knowing that that's really just, you know, self-soothing, seeing the pain underneath the behavior.
I'm really big on—sometimes it's a problem for an empath like me—but looking for peoples pain 'cause he instructs most behavior, including the good behavior, sometimes. I'm passionate about this. I’m passionate about my work because I see people's pain. I imagine it as, I was that lawyer out in a rowboat at 3:00 o'clock in the morning with no oars, with no one around, so I perceive other people in the profession in that position so that my job in lawyer assistance, in Ontario here, working at member assistance program, which is the lawyer’s assistance program in Ontario. I see us as coming and rescuing that person if they want to be rescued, if they're ready to be rescued, but letting them know they're not alone because I know what it feels like to feel like I'm alone and shameful and not even worthy of help or not capable of being helped. I often will joke about, you know, depression. Lawyers don't think they have depression. They think their life sucks and that they’ve caused it and they just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And, when you say you should go talk to a therapist, their answer will probably be “there's no psychological modality for sucky life. I just need to figure things out. I need to buck up.” You can't buck up from depression, but that's the story we tell ourselves and, if we stay alone with those thoughts, and we don't get any perspective from anybody else, then that—those thoughts are true. If I think I'm a failure and I'm not talking to anybody else about it, I'm a failure 'cause that's my reality. It’s my truth. That's why we encourage people to reach out even though legal professionals are really bad at that.
Myrna McCallum: Can you share a little bit about your experience as a lawyer not just in terms of the practice of law but maybe the impact the practice of law had on you?
Doron Gold: I would even go so far as to start at law school—
Myrna McCallum: Ok
Doron Gold: —which was a very unpleasant experience, not because of the law school—Osgood Hall was fine—but I went into law school because there really wasn't anything else I could think of doing. I thought it would get me into politics 'cause, at the time, I was really into politics and I have a BA in political science. But, I was not well through most of law school. I didn't go to most of the classes. I sat in my apartment on campus and watched soaps, mostly, and ate pizza and just got by on my wits. So I—when law school was over, I was not—I didn't love it. I wasn’t one of those people who really took in law school and ran with it. I was one of those people who survived law school and immediately looked for something else. I didn’t think I wanted to be a lawyer. I didn’t connect with it. So, I looked into an MSW immediately. I, at the time, it was 1994—I'm dating myself but—I spoke to the Dean of the joint law and social work program at U of T back then, told her my story and her answer to me was, “you know what, there's not enough lawyers who think like you. Don't give up on it yet.”
And, in hindsight, I'm glad she gave me that advice even though I wasn't ultimately meant to be a lawyer because it allowed me to work through what I needed to work through and being a lawyer for a while let me do that. It let me learn a bunch of stuff, including how to be a good therapist, frankly. When you're a family lawyer, you learn boundaries. What you need is a therapist. You learn how to hold space for people, people who are vulnerable. You learn how to listen empathetically. You learn how to, sometimes, be prescriptive and sometimes totally hold back your—your instinct to be prescriptive and fix problems and just listen. So, I learned a lot as a lawyer. I also learned that I didn't want to be a lawyer but I needed to do that first. I didn't want to fight. I didn't like the incivility. I didn't feel like arguing over money was something that made me passionate. Even if it was important, even if it was, you know, child support, which helps a person stay out of poverty, it still didn’t—wasn’t my thing. I was always most interested in—you know—some of the work I did was working as, sort of, the favourite lawyer of a couple of women’s shelters. Helping women get their lives back, becomes safe, get back on their feet financially, but also get the abuser away from them, including, usually, his ability to threaten her feeling that she has—she can take care of her children, things like that. That was the most fulfilling work. And the other stuff, the net family property stuff, the spousal support stuff didn’t move me, but even in the stuff that mattered to me, the arguing in the fighting is not my natural way of being. I did it. I did it well, I think, but I never really felt great about it, even when I won.
So, I had to move away from a career that left me anxious a lot of the time. Out of alignment to me, you know your values or you figure out what your values are and then you try to live your life according to those values and, if you are not doing that, you feel misaligned. There's a dissonance between who you are and—and what you're doing and the dissonance, the space between those two places, is actually where things like depression sneak in. Where substance use sneaks in. 'Cause that misalignment hurts. You know you're not in alignment with yourself. It hurts 'cause you wanna be you. The healthiest—mentally healthiest human beings I know are the people who are themselves without apology. But, it's hard to get there 'cause who am I to decide who I should be. You know, when I was 25 it was like 5 minutes ago I was a kid. Now I'm supposed to run an adult life? I'm supposed be qualified to do that? I should check with other people first. I could—I should see if they approve of my decision-making, which means I'm deferring to them, I'm also seeking their approval for my decisions. I'm not living my life based on my values. I'm allowed to have my values. In fact, the best lesson I ever had on this was, so my mom was a was principle of a—of a Hebrew school for many, many years. Widely regarded. She was given an honorary doctorate in—pedagogy. Very well regarded as an educator. Loved by everyone. And, I was a difficult kid, which meant that if I disagree with my mother on something, I'm a bad person, 'cause she's her. She's the person who is loved by everyone, so if I am not aligned with her way of thinking or doing, I'm a bad person. And, the most important lesson for me in adulthood was disagreeing with my mother doesn't make me a bad person, it makes me another person. I'm not her subordinate, I’m her peer, 'cause I'm an adult, too, I get to have my values. They don't have to be in alignment with hers. To make her wrong doesn't make me wrong, either. I'm entitled to my values and to live them my way. So, when I quit my law job in 2005 and called my mother and told her, she said “go back and beg for your job back” 'cause she was afraid I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills and my mortgage and—and she was—she was thinking safety. I’m lucky I didn’t listen to her, 'cause here I am. She had her values, I have my values and I had to trust that my values were legitimate and I could follow them.
Myrna McCallum: Doron, how long was it from the time where you started to know that, maybe, this is not for me and I need to ease out of this?
Doron Gold: It came to my consciousness in law school, but I put it—pushed it down a little bit. Part of it was, when I decided to practice, after getting called, I decided I know that I don't feel comfortable with this and I don't think I want to do this but I gotta try because it felt like, if I just drop law, it will be out of fear and I couldn't live with that. It felt cowardly.
So, I thought, you know what, if I don't think I'm smart enough to be a lawyer, if I don't think I’m disciplined enough to be a lawyer, I'm going to be a lawyer and find out so that I can, you know, get it out of my system or find out I love it and stay with it. So I gave myself a three year plan, which turned into a five year plan.
In the process, I got to do a lot of—a lot of work. I had—proud of my—my one win in—at the Court of Appeal of Ontario against McCarthy’s, and trial success, and, you know, lots of stuff in family court and motions court, etc. I'm proud of all of it. I did a lot of work. I feel good about the fact that there are, you know, children grew up in better homes because of work that I did. Things like that.
But, I also knew right away and all along the way that I was unhappy. It's just that, for the longest time, it felt like it was something I needed to figure out and surmount. So, I like to quote Albert Einstein’s saying that “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will think it's stupid” and what I was doing for a lot of that time, was being a fish trying to master climbing trees.
It wasn't that—uh—I wasn’t suited to climbing trees and I should go find water, it was that I'm a lawyer and I slay Dragons. I don't quit. I figure out how to make hard things work. So, it felt to me like it's not—it's not settled—it's not worked through until I learned to love being a lawyer. Until I started to realize, around 2004—or 5—I'm never going to love this.
Now, there's the other part of it, which is that lots of people will say “not everybody loves their work.” You know, that's—whoever said that you have to love your work? Lots of people do work 'cause they have to support their kids and—and that's noble too. But it was very clear to me that I was never going to be a lawyer and it was going to stress me out a lot.
And, it was actually during a meditation in the fall of 2005 when I was training to be a personal coach. . . I didn't imagine that I could go back to school and become a therapist at that point about life. So, I thought I'll learn how to be a personal coach and I'll build up a coaching practice with lawyers or with people going through separation and I'll dial down law practice. Except, one morning, in the middle of a meditation, I felt this enormous weight on my chest. Huge. And I was like, what is this weight on my chest? And I visualized a piano laying across my chest. And I, for life of me, couldn't figure out what this was until it just started to come to me. The piano on my chest is law practice. It's suffocating me. I’m continually trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole and it's not working and it's not going to. Why am I continuing to do this? And that was the day I went to work and told my boss “I'm gettin’ out of law practice. I'll—I’ll stay here for a couple more months. We can—you know—You can hire up somebody new. We’ll get them up to speed on the files, but in January of 2006, I'm movin’ on.” But, it took that, right?
It's not as though I realized I didn’t wanna be lawyer and immediately snapped my fingers and stopped being a lawyer. It took a long time of, “yeah, but I shouldn't feel that way.” I devalued my feelings. I thought, “I'm just a quitter and I shouldn't be a quitter. I should figure out how to make this work.” ‘Till I realized “I'm a fish. I should go find some water.”
Myrna McCallum: Tell me about that process of finding water and really just finding a groove to do all that you do now.
Doron Gold: You know the old saying that “the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.” It had to be that I didn't know where it was going to go, but I needed to make a change anyway. That's such a huge reason of why people don't make changes. Because they’re—
Myrna McCallum: People don't like uncertainty.
Doron Gold: Ch—Change is, by definition, uncertain and especially big change, like changing careers in your 40s. And, so, at the point of being clear that I really didn’t want to practice law anymore, I just embarked on, “I'll do what’s in front of me and I'll stay open to what unfolds.” And what unfolded was, as it turns out in hindsight, a beautiful journey. I could not have foreseen it, though. I had to, you know, I'm using a bit of a coach-y term, but I had to trust the universe a little bit. I had to just move in a direction, just turn to the right 30 degrees and change direction a little bit and see, you know, the old thing about, you know, coming to a fork in the road and “taking the road less traveled” being—making all the difference. It’s kind of what I did. I went in a different direction not knowing where it was going to take me and all along the way experiences happened. I met people I only got into lawyer assistance because, in trying to build a coaching practice, I called the lawyer assistance program in Ontario that existed then suggesting they send me people 'cause I know their clientele, right? I know lawyers, you should send them to me. And, we met to discuss it and they never sent anyone to me. Except, that a couple months later, they called and said, would you like to work here? We’re hiring a part-time case manager.
And that was the beginning. That was simply me making one phone call, in 2006, out of nowhere. I could not have known that that phone call would have led here. I'm full of sayings today, but, there's one that says “luck is the convergence of effort at opportunity.” If I hadn’t made the phone call, if I hadn’t made the effort, I wouldn’t have been lucky to have the opportunity, 'cause I wouldn’t have been out there to receive it. So, having been out there, it's just lucky really—I mean, in the end, it is luck, right? I happened to call the right place at the right time, but I could have also not called and I wouldn't have taken this road.
So, in the end, to shorten it, I worked there as a case manager. That led to me working with lawyers and law students for a while and really loving it and feeling like it was fulfilling, but I wanted to be more well-grounded in the work I was doing. I wanted to do deeper work. I wanted to be a therapist. And, I discovered that I could do a Masters of Social Work while keeping my job, and I did that.
And, so, 2012, I was granted an MSW and that allowed me to do the work I'm doing now. And, it's—I couldn't have foreseen that journey leading here. Part of what's beautiful about it, isn't it?
Myrna McCallum: Absolutely, I think some of the greatest journeys are the ones into the unknown or into the mystery and you have no idea where it’s gonna land you, but where you land is pretty great and aligns with your purpose and aligns with your values, and all that good stuff. Sounds like you tapped into that. Since tapping into that and really living in alignment with your values and, clearly, your purpose, what would you say is maybe some key themes that you see in law students or lawyers who are struggling to safeguard their mental health while continuing to practice law or do the work that they feel like they've been called to do?
Doron Gold: So, I would start with the overwhelming number who aren't working on safeguarding and mental health. When you say that, you know, the law schools act a certain way towards us, in my day, the law schools didn't acknowledge any of this. In fact, it was pretty socially Darwinistic, right?
It was pretty much “Suck it up and deal. You want to be in this profession? You gotta be tough. You gotta be tough” —it's very gendered—“You gotta be a tough guy”—it's grit. So, those who were feeling really vulnerable, which, I think, was most of us, didn't see a place there. We just had to figure out how to get through it. But, the instinct was not “Go get help, go get compassion.” The instinct was “Stop thinking this way. Think differently.”
And, the truth is, there is no such thing as an inappropriate emotion. If you feel that way, then those are real legitimate feelings and you have to work with them. That's our humanity. If we're going through a hard time, if we’re going through something that's uncomfortable, or challenging, or painful, we can't push down our emotions, but that, to your question, is what a lot of lawyers do. It's kind of part of the personality.
We are, on the Myers-Brigg’s formulation, much more thinkers than feelers. Well, what do thinkers do? Thinkers try to think their way out of problems. Without illusion at all to the feelings that underpin all of it. It's not going to work. It's just not going to work If you're coming into something having been a traumatized young person and you try to think I just need to be need to think my way out of it, I just need to be tough, I just need to have a good schedule, I just need to have good study habits, yeah, good luck when you can't sleep at night 'cause you're having nightmares. Good luck when you're in a—when you're in a criminal law class and you're triggered by some story that's told in one of the cases and your professor doesn't have time for that kind of stuff.
So, the lawyers that I deal with, the law students too, many of them have that personality that is inclined towards ignoring feelings 'cause they don't know what to do with them and many of them grew up in homes where feelings were not welcome.
I recommend the movie Inside Out to many people. Animated movie. Essentially, the movie is the inside of a little girl’s brain. It's like the deck of the Starship enterprise. There's a control board, and there's people working on the control board, and there's a big screen where they're looking out—looking out the little girl’s eyes, right? And, there are different characters. Joy is there, and sadness is there, and anger is there, and disgust is there, and fear is there. And, Joy is trying to run the whole thing. And, Joy is trying to shut everyone else up, pretend like everything’s fine all the time. And, the whole movie is about Joy discovering that, sometimes, sadness has a place. Some things are actually sad and that's OK.
You don't have to pretend like it's not there, but that's very much what lawyers do. They try to rationalize. They try to minimize, and they discount their own feelings and their right to feel that way. And, there’s the dissonance right? “I'm hurting. I shouldn't be hurting. I should be stronger. Ergo, I'm weak and that's shameful. So, I'm not going to talk to anyone else about it 'cause they're going to judge me the same way. And I don't need to hear that.” That's why they don't go to counseling. That's why they don't talk vulnerably to other people. They keep it inside. And I—I’ve joked over the years that a lawyer left alone with his or her own brain is a dangerous person.
Myrna McCallum: You know, younger lawyers are thinking about work-life balance. They're thinking about side-hustles, not exclusively committing themselves to the practice of law. And, sometimes, that is still budding up against this idea that you need to be a workaholic. You gotta have a sofa in your office that can flip into a bed because you might have to stay here for five days. And, so, what do you say to folks who are trying to raise awareness about how that kind of lifestyle is not necessarily a healthy lifestyle?
Doron Gold: So, I would start with, a couple things come to mind. One is the word workaholic. Think about it for a second. What are we saying? We’re describing—workaholic sounds like a pathology, doesn't it? It's synonymous with alcoholic. Workaholism is an “ism.” It’s a condition. It's a pathology, right? It's not just another way to be. Alcoholism isn't another way to be, it's an unhealthy way to be that's going to harm you. So is workaholism. So, in and of itself, it sounds compulsive. It sounds like it's taking you over. It's not a matter of choice. It's a matter of compulsion. I often see it as connected quite strongly with perfectionism ‘cause workaholism is, in many ways, about “There's always more to do.” “I’m never quite there.” “I’m always chasing perfect.” And, since perfect is elusive and frankly quite impossible for humans, “I’m always doing more, and always doing more, and always doing more and never quite satisfied,” which means, “I'm never good enough, so I'm not necessarily very happy either.” So, there's that one thing.
On the—the other part of that is, you described it in terms of the—the community of lawyers. In terms of young lawyers coming in to a community that may not welcome their focus on work-life balance. And, what I invite them to do is, along the lines of what I said earlier, don't sell yourself out. Fit the law into you, don't fit yourself into the law. So, if you're entering job interviews, interview them as much as they’re interviewing you to make sure that they align with your values. Now, easy for me to say, if I have $100,000 in debt and this is the only firm interviewing me it might be the only job I have—I can get right now and I might need to take it, but I understand it and I want to suggest that one does that cautiously because, for all of the financial demands that come along, you also find yourself sometimes working for people that can be unpleasant, at best, and abusive, at worst. You can find yourself working hours that are not humane. You can find yourself doing the law that is not interesting to you but, if it was the only job you could get…
I mean, I was an articling student in an insurance defence firm. I was not moved by insurance defence law. You know, seeing videos of, you know, insurance claimants who were fixing their roofs when they were supposed to have a bad back was amusing but didn't really move me as something to do with my life. But, I had the job. It was the only articling job I could find. So, I took it, and it was fine. I did a lot—and speaking of vicarious trauma, I was in the law firm that represented the French and Mahaffy families in the middle of the—of the Bernardo trial. So, I know a little bit about vicarious trauma.
We make those choices, sometimes practically speaking, but always with a mind towards “Where is this going?” So, when I say that I got out of law not knowing where it was gonna go but trusting the universe a little bit. . . I've bastardized the Martin Luther King saying that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice [“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”] and I like to tell lawyers that the arc of a legal career is long and it bends towards fulfillment. It doesn't necessarily start there. You don't necessarily get out of law school and get the ideal articling job or the ideal first job after you’re called. Sometimes you take the job you can get in the area of law that's available, whether it's of interest to you or not with people or environments that are aligned with you or not. But, all along the way, you remain mindful of “Where do I want this to go? If I know, is there a direction I want to go in? Am I inching it in that direction? Am I moving the arc in the direction of being fulfilled and living the life I want?”
My life is a testament to starting in an absolute wrong place and bending the arc, and bending the arc, and bending the arc, and lo and behold I'm in a better place because I stayed mindful of the fact that I had underlying values that needed to be satisfied and quenched. Sometimes it was possible to do that and sometimes it was totally not possible to do that. I didn't lose sight of longer goal of wanting to have a life that was in alignment with me and, I have to say, my values are not the same as your values or other people’s values. So, it's not that I did it right. It's just that I did it right for me.
Myrna McCallum: I hear what you're saying. I'm thinking about how my own experience to get me to where I am today. I don't know that I was ever really mindful about the—whether the job I was doing or the role I was in was serving my purpose or aligning with my values. I just knew after a time this is not the place for me. And, I don't know where is the place for me, but then an opportunity would pop up. And, I feel almost like I am, like, a ping pong ball in those little video games. I just shoot this way and then I get pinged off to go this way and then this way. And, I just trust that, wherever I go, it’s going to lead me to where I'm supposed to be. But, you know, I'm also, like, almost 50 so it took a while to get here. And, I think, along the way, regardless of whether I was in a job that aligned with my purpose or that felt like where I needed to be, every experience I had has served as a building block to help inform who I am today and the message that I share with people.
Doron Gold: The journey, not the destination.
Myrna McCallum: Yeah, exactly.And, so, what would you say to law students and lawyers who are thinking now about wading into the conversation around mental health, and wellness, and resilience, and what does that mean within this legal profession? So, it could be people coming in from all different directions and for all different purposes now.
Doron Gold: I—When I think about mental health, mental illness, mental wellness, I think trauma is intertwined with it. And, the word trauma is thrown around a lot. I use it maybe more loosely than most because I think of trauma simply as injury. And, there's lots of things in our lives that can traumatize us. Sometimes, they’re a car accident, single things. Sometimes, it's years of abuse. Sometimes, it's just being treated badly in a large job and it makes you afraid to go find another job 'cause you think that's what the whole profession is like. It's about your reactions to the world and what your brain is telling you about those things. So, people who approach it, as you're talking, the first thing that keeps coming to mind is knowing oneself first before one then goes out there and starts talking about it. And that's not a perfect thing. I like to think I'm self-aware but I know there's lots of stuff that I’m totally oblivious to in terms of myself. But I’m on the journey on the way to learning. The concept of journey versus destination is an anti-perfectionistic idea because it is all about “There's not an endpoint that is perfect. There’s a journey in which we collect along the way lessons and wisdom and impacts and we stay mindful, we stay aware, we stay supported, we don't do it alone.” So, I think, for people who are embarking on this, they have to do it as a community. They can't be free agents. We are all attachment creatures. We are built to be attached to other people. We are built to be supported by other people and support other people. And, so, it requires community and the community allows us to get perspective when we're getting distorted thoughts in our heads about ourselves.
It requires us to be kind and compassionate with ourselves—like I said about not judging oneself. Not feeling “I should or shouldn't feel a certain way.” “I just feel that way and I'm entitled to feel that way and I'm entitled to help for this, just as I would give help to someone else.” And, then, it can branch out into bringing that wisdom to other people. Bringing that wisdom to the profession. So, when you say young people are entering the profession with a different ethos than their older—the older generation, I agree with you. And, I also, you know, I think it's moving like a huge tanker on the water very slowly. To turn one of those things takes a long time so that the profession is in a much better position than it was when I got out of law school 1994. And, it's nowhere near where it needs to be. But those young people are coming in with a new insight. With an awareness that they have the right to want certain things. So, to tie it back to workaholism, this may sound crass, but you don't have to be a workaholic if you don't want to be.
The profession can tell you all they want. “You want to work here, then you’re going to have to work eighty hours a week.” And your answer can be “thanks, but no thanks. I can't have a human life working that much. I have too many other things I want to do. I have too many side hustles. I have too many people I care about that I want some time with. I want to sleep. So, that's not for me.” Or, we can just surrender to that's what the profession requires of me and I will surrender to it. And that’s a ticket to burnout for most people 'cause again you're misaligned with your values. So when you—that's why I said—when you're looking for a job, for instance, you really need to be somewhat selective about the kind of job you take knowing full well sometimes you have to take jobs you wouldn't otherwise take ‘cause there are financial or other considerations. But, you can't lose sight of how you want your life to work.
Like, I can tell you, for all of the ups and downs of my legal career, I never wanted to work really crazy hours, so I never did. That was one, for some reason, I just kind of took too easily. I found jobs that allowed me to do sort of a 9 to 6 day. And, I didn't make as much, but that wasn't a priority for me. And, that helped. I didn't burn out because of overwork in the legal profession. I burned out 'cause, you know, other reasons. Lack of ultimately being connected to the subject matter, or whatever, or something more I wanted to do. But, for other people, you gotta bring who you are to it and then “how can I make this career—which is mine and no one else gets to tell me how to do—how do I make it work for me in the way I want it to work in the way I know, today, which might change overtime?” And, that is all self-awareness. That's all letting yourself be yourself. Paying attention to how you feel. Knowing when you don't feel well and not just putting it off, too, you know, “I'm having a bad week or something.” But, actually, “maybe this isn't good for me. Maybe I should talk to someone about it.”
I think the talking to someone about it part is just huge lawyers because we isolate. We self-judge. We stigmatize ourselves, let alone letting everyone else stigmatize us. So, I have, over the years, observed enormous power in a lawyer or a law student speaking to a counselor, speaking to a peer support volunteer about their challenges and discovering that that person is actually reflecting compassion back to them instead of judgment. They're surprised, usually, 'cause they're walking in assuming there's something inherently and devastatingly wrong with them and it turns out that there's just a wounded person who needs to be validated.
Myrna McCallum: So, let me ask you this. Would you say that, maybe, the foundation or the key to building resilience is self-awareness? And, I just also want to be clear to some people who are listening, when I talked about resilience in these terms, I’m just talking about the things that help us to—to stay strong and to guide us in a good way as we do what we do versus pulling up your bootstraps and getting on with it, or getting over it. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about, like, what really equips us to be able to do what we have to do in a good way that puts our mental well-being and, maybe, our overall well-being at forefront.
Doron Gold: Resilience is a loaded word these days—
Myrna McCallum: Yeah.
Doron Gold: —'cause different people take different things from it. Some people take it as strength or stick-to-itiveness. Other people take it as judging you for not—not feeling OK today, “you should be more resilient.” So, I'm always careful with the term. I think of resilience of just—as just continuing to move forward in spite of obstacles. In spite of feeling like you—you just can't.
There’s a—I have a 5-year-old daughter, so I am imbued with the entire soundtrack of Frozen and Frozen 2. And, in Frozen 2, there is a song called “The Next Right Thing,” which Anna sings at her most desperate and giving-up moment. Lost in a cave, Olaf has melted away, she thinks her sister is gone and she doesn't even know what she's going to do next, and she decides she's just gonna do the next right thing. And that leads to the next right thing. And that leads to the next right thing. It's a beautiful song. And, the actress, Kristen Bell, I saw a documentary about the making of the movie, and she talked about how that song totally mirrored her own experience in her darkest moment. That doing the next right thing was the best way for her to go from “I can't move; I don't want to move” to “I'll just do something. And, when I’m doing something, it might lead to something else.” When a person is desperate, when a person is hopeless, doing anything feels completely futile. So, sometimes, movement for the sake of movement is resilience.
But, that requires self-awareness. You have to know that movement is possible. That, even though “I don't feel like I can lift my finger; I'm going to try because that might lead to the second finger lifting and that might lead to me standing up; and that might lead to me bumping into someone who's kind to me; and suddenly the pain is thawing ever so slightly and it finds its way out into potentially even hope, at some point.” Resilience is that—to me—that continuing to move forward in spite of pain, sometimes overwhelming pain. And, so, self-awareness fits into that because you need to have enough of that external witness observing you from outside of your own storm, looking down at you non-judgmentally, to say “Oh she's there right now. Yeah, she's been there before. That's a bad place. I hope she knows that, if she just takes one step, that might lead to another step. I hope she knows that.” That awareness that you're not utterly and irretrievably stuck, hopelessly stuck, that's the kind of self-awareness that we're talking about in those kinds of places.
But, generally speaking, resilience is moving forward through obstacles, through traumas, through difficult people, through unfair circumstances, social injustice, you know, easy to say “resilient—be resilient” to the Black woman.
I have a client who was confronted about why she was in law school and the assumption was that she must have been affirmative action admission, which is like a gut punch. People of Colour, Indigenous people, women, people with—with disabilities, are constantly hit with those things. And, when you say “res—be resilient,” yeah, thanks. But, the truth is, it's not about an external judgment, “be resilient.” It's about their internal fire, the thing inside of them that keeps them—the survival mechanism that says “I know this is awful, but I have it in me to keep moving forward and to hopefully have it get better. At least, leave enough space in front of me so that, if it could get better, it might. I don't know if it will, but I'm going to try.” So, resilience is your internal fire it’s your survival instinct, which is, in the end, strength. It's just that the word strength suggests weakness in the inverse and it's not what I'm suggesting. It's just about knowing that you have it in you but it is really hard to do by yourself. We need other people, and that's a hard lesson for people in our profession 'cause that sounds like weakness, right? It sounds like, you know, “If I can't do it myself, you know, how will I ever survive?” I say, you'll never be able to survive by yourself. So, they don't want to be self-aware self-awareness hurts. It’s scary: “If I go down the rabbit hole of trauma, go back to where the trauma occurred, I may not come out.” Now, I don't know anybody who never came out when I work with them, or when other trauma therapists work with them because, we're back to your word, resilient. We have a lot of strength. We have a fire that's going to keep us going. But, when we think about going there, we shut it down and we find all kinds of ways to shut it down. Sometimes, we shut it down by saying “I don't want to make excuses. I don't want to blame my parents. They did the best they could and I'm an adult now, I should be over this by now.” They come up with all the reasons why “no, it's not trauma, it's something else.” And, the answer I usually give them “is let's focus less on intention and more on impact.”
Let's say it was abuse by a parent. We don't have to judge that parent. It's not our job here. We're not looking for people to blame. We're looking at a child who was abused and what was the impact? What did that child go through? If we skip what that child went through and go straight to “I’m an adult now. I can—I can move past it,” that child is still sitting on her bed crying, invalidated. And, that child needs validation. And, that child created a narrative about who she is in the world based on what she experienced. That narrative was often self-blaming, self-judging. It was a person a child, meaning a tiny person with a little brain and no life experience, dealing with overwhelming things that she can't understand or comprehend or make sense of, trying to make sense of it so she could move forward. And, the best way you could make sense of it was “Must be my fault 'cause other kids seem OK. So, if I'm perfect, maybe it won't happen again, 'cause if I was a better kid, bad things wouldn’t happen. Ergo, for some people, perfectionism.” But, we also, that child, also, by coming up with that narrative about why bad things happen and why they happen to her, it's not as though, when she becomes an adult, she realizes “Well, that's ridiculous, I need to figure this out in a more mature way.” I know 60-year-olds who are still looking at the world through the eyes of a 7-year-old. This 7-year-old came up with some self-blaming, self-judging that she's inherently broken. And, the 60-year-old still thinks of herslef in that way and therefore she's living a life that is impacted by that lens. She never came up with an adult narrative about “No, that was an innocent child. Children aren’t responsible for what happens to them.”
But, as adults, I as an adult, used to look back at a picture of myself at 8, that bullied little kid, and if you asked me at 30 what I thought of that eight year old, I would have said he's a weak little you-know-what because, as an adult, I still saw him through his own eyes. It was only when I healed that, when I worked on that, and I realized he was an innocent little kid. He didn’t deserve what happened to him. That's when I could be healthier adult 'cause now I could look at myself the same way, with the same level of compassion, maybe. It's hard.
Myrna McCallum: It is hard. And, I think it takes a lot of courage to look within and to make that leap, right? Like “I'm gonna go there.”
Doron Gold: That's why you need a good therapist because the therapist helps you hold the space. Helps you feel safe.
Myrna McCallum: Yeah.
Doron Gold: It’s too hard to do by yourself. And, listen, with vicarious trauma, you know much more about this than I do, I think, there's different things you can do. It starts with, I think, your awareness of the impact of the things you're observing or hearing, or smelling, or your or the history that you're hearing. It's child protection lawyers. It's criminal lawyers.
Like I said to you, during the Bernardo trial, when I was an articling student, I would walk by the lawyer’s office and see a VHS tape sitting on the wingback chair in his office and I knew exactly what was on that tape. It was the torture and murder of three young women. And, to do his job, he had to watch that tape, probably more than once. At the time, in 1995, I doubt that he did any particular self-care stuff around it. He just sucked it up and dealt, right? But, we know, in hindsight, that Justice LeSage was profoundly impacted by that trial. John Rosen was profoundly impacted by that trial. I forget the name of the psychiatrist that was on a panel with him once. Also, he was impacted by the sounds on the video more than the visuals, right?
These things impact us, so our awareness of the way these things can impact us, that we are not impervious just because it didn't happen to us. . . human beings weren't meant to see or hear certain things. When our brains encounter those things, we are sometimes injured by those things. In fact, I often think of it in terms of, most of human history, where most of the information you had was whatever happened within 5 kilometres of your village, wherever you lived in the world. There was no social media, there was no news, there was no anything. That was enough information for our brains: to know what's happening within a radius of where we are, a pretty small one.
And, suddenly, we get news bulletins on our cell phones and breaking news on—on cable news and social media jumping—it’s a firehose—drinking from a firehose. We weren't built to take in this much information, including traumatic information. Watching fires in California right now is traumatizing. I have clients who are actually injured by the images of it 'cause they are flashing forward to what the world is going to be like in ten, fifteen, twenty years. All that stuff requires processing and there are various ways to do that but the only way that you really can't do it is by just sitting with it alone.
You talked about debriefing. Debriefing amongst colleagues who understand 'cause they go through it to, essential. Having a therapist. Sometimes it's talking to your spouse or your partner, but sometimes it's too much for them and you need to know it's not good for your relationship. In other words, you find the places that are safe and therapeutic for you, and they might be different for different people, but you have to find some of those spaces. You can't be alone with them. We weren't built to process these things on our own.
Myrna McCallum: Well, jeez, Doron, I could, like, ask you so many questions and go long 'cause, like, some of what you said got me thinking, you know, about Patrice Band’s comments and child pornography cases that he has had to—that he's had to preside over. And, in the last episode, I talked about some of his messaging in there about how he's sort of serving as a—like a gatekeeper, saying “OK” to his court staff “we've got this matter on the docket, this is what's going to come up if you don't think that you wanna be there or could be—can be there for that, let's see if we can swap out with another colleague.” And then, talking with counsel about “can we find another way to introduce evidence that's not going to be traumatizing to everybody in the courtroom.” And a less traumatizing way...really inviting us to think about rules of evidence and the ways we practice law are there ways to mitigate against prevention in trauma in the court room. And, almost, like, you know, you've heard the expression trauma I've seen lawyers who they don't even look twice when they see an autopsy photo and, almost, they want to hold it up and show the world—just become so desensitized and…
Doron Gold: I want to note the inverse of that because one of the ways one copes with vicarious trauma is to decide that one should not be exposed to those things even though one is compelled to. So, you are a woman who is just survive domestic violence and you go to law school and you become a lawyer and you want to represent victims of domestic violence but, as a result, you have to be surrounded by domestic violence every day. Images, sounds, the man, usually a man, —the man. I used to go to court, it was Newmarket court, I would stand there with my client and her abuser would be sitting across the room, on purpose, sitting right across from her to intimidate her. And I, in my macho best, would stand between them and stare him down, 'cause I thought I was doing something with that. It was just me being macho. But, I was defending my client, protecting my client. But I know that some people who are driven by trying to correct wrongs so, to use my example, the woman who's been the victim of domestic violence then serving victims of domestic violence . . . that person may be well served by doing that it. It may be a way to heal some of what they've been through in their lives and, for some people, it's not healthy to re-traumatize yourself by being around these things over and over and, in spite of the internal compulsion to do something about this, I may not be the person who should do something about this. Or, I may need to find a way that hurts me less to do something about this. So, along with what that judge said, I would also add some people, in spite of their drive to do this work, perhaps, shouldn't do this work and it's OK. They might be able to find other ways to help that don't re-traumatize. That don't go at them uniquely in such a hurtful way that they're sacrificing themselves to the larger cause, but what does that leave of them?
Myrna McCallum: Absolutely. I'm glad that you brought that up. I have met a lot of lawyers who got into the areas they practice, I think, because they wanted to be the voice they didn't have when they were children, myself included. I mean, I was particularly keen to, you know, before, when I was adjudicating residential school claims, still disconnected from my own residential school experience until I was, like, three years in and it was, I knew then, I'm not person to do that job, but I still stuck it out and to my own detriment. But, I really appreciate the time that you’ve taken to share your insights and your experiences and your advice for folks.
Let's talk a little bit about going back to your organization for people who want to reach out, who wanna connect to—even just to stop being alone with no real preparation or commitment to get into therapy, but if they just want to ask questions . . . but where could they find you? Where could they reach out?
Doron Gold: First of all, let me just say, because this is a national podcast, if you go to the CBA Wellness site cba.org/wellness, they have a list of the lawyer assistance programs across Canada and there is one in every jurisdiction. In Ontario, we have something called the member assistance program that is operated by Homewood Health, which is a national employee assistance provider. It also has a Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, which is a longstanding addiction and mental health hospital and treatment centre. And, so, what we offer is, as I said, a confidential service that is, doesn't cost anything from the day you get into law school until after you retire and, not only you as a lawyer, or paralegal, or a judge, but also your immediate family members are entitled to use the—this service too. And what one does is one contacts us. So, I'll give you the two easiest ways.
One is a website, www.myassistplan.com. The phone number is 1-855-403-8922. When one calls, one will have that possibility for accessing counseling, which, currently, is on the phone or by video but will return to face to face when that is feasible. People across Ontario in almost every community and, where there isn’t someone in your community, you can have remote access, like we do right now, including, as I mentioned, two former lawyers who are now therapists. And, one is entitled to short-term solution-focused counseling. One is also entitled for depression, anxiety, or trauma to something that is longer-term, which is based in cognitive behavioral therapy. I want to say this because this is a conversation that happens a lot. I don't bring it up often when I talk about the program. This is not a cure-all. There are people who may not benefit from this. There are people who may call and feel like they didn't get a good counselor. Most of the experience I've had is people end up connecting with someone and it's really, really helpful, but sometimes the issue you're dealing with is longer standing and we just didn't fit for you. People talk about therapy often as what modality do I practice? Am I a cognitive behavioral therapist? Am I an interpersonal therapist? Am I a therapist you connected with is, frankly, mostly what I want to know.
The alliance that you create with your counselor is 70 or 80% of the efficacy of the counselling. The modality they then apply to it, to me, is secondary because you are not going to get anywhere unless you feel safe and heard and validated, that they hold space, that they respect you as you are and that includes all kinds of things, it includes cultural competence. It includes feeling like you’re—you’re seen as a Person of Colour, or you’re seen as an LGBTQ person. And, that the person understands. I’ve had clients who are, you know, nonbinary, for instance. I can’t work with them if I don’t totally accept them as they are, and why wouldn’t I? I can’t function as a therapist unless my client is whole, as they are. Even if society says they’re not. That’s for the client to feel, and it doesn’t always work. But, I have found, like, when I was going through difficult times, I went through a lot of bad therapists till I found a good one. And, I didn’t always feel enough stick-to-itiveness to keep pushing through. I felt like, I guess therapists just aren’t for me. And, I probably had periods where I just didn’t. And then, I found someone really good and that made a difference for me.
I often tell people “be a good consumer. When you call for therapy, if you get someone great, fantastic. If you don’t ask for someone else. And, also, it’s not just about counselling. We also offer peer support, as I mentioned. So, a roster of lawyers who have been through various challenges, addiction challenges, depression, anxiety, law society issues, career issues, family issues, etc, and everything else, of every—every . . . I shouldn’t overstate it—of many different cultures. Men, women, various gender identifications. The idea being we want to match you with someone who is, in fact, a peer to you. Who, for instance, has dealt with alcohol abuse, so they speak that language. But, they also are of the same gender, perhaps, or the same culture. Similar ages. We try to match you with as many affinities as we can so you feel like this person gets you, uniquely. And, by the way, since they’re also lawyers, they get that part to, which is a big part of a lot of us. Being a lawyer is part of our identity in many ways. So, that peer support is actually often even more powerful than the counselling because that’s total validation. The peer volunteer is offering them not only empathy and kindness and no judgement. They are also offering them an example of recovery. A person who has been through something similar who is in a better place and for the lawyer who is skeptical, who thinks, “I guess I’m just out of luck,” then they look across at the other person and see someone who was in a similar position who is thriving: “is that possible for me too? Wow. I never thought of that.” That is where peer support is particularly impactful. So, all one needs to do is call the MAP, member assistance program, or go on the website and ask for counselling, ask for peer support. There are lots of other services that are, uh, you know, employee assistance program services like nutritional counselling, and new parent support, and elder care advice, grief counselling, etcetera. There’s lots of different services. Go and look at all the things we have. And, courses online, etcetera. The idea being, and it’s the same in pretty much every province to different degrees. You are not alone if you are in the legal profession. It doesn’t mean that every program is gonna address your issues every time. You may even have the occasional experience where the person didn’t get you at all, and that is so hard and, hopefully, enough people benefit. There are actually times—I am often on Twitter, and I invite your listeners to follow because most of the stuff I post is lawyer and law-student focused anyways, it’s @DoronJGold—and sometimes on Twitter, I will hear about someone who engaged one of the Lawyer’s Assistance Programs and didn’t find it useful or felt like it was, it was billed as a one-size-fits all. And, I always feel bad about that for two reasons. Number one, that individual deserves help, and I hope that they find their way to help and I hope that we can be part of that solution. I also think the people reading it, who are already inclined to—not to ask for help, might take that as a sign that “I absolutely shouldn’t.” And, I hate that idea because I don’t really want anyone to be dissuaded from trying to ask for help. So, that’s why I keep doing these things. I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions, but I do believe in offering as much support as one can offer, ‘cause, if you’re out in a row boat and you’ve got no oars, you want to know there’s someone who will come and be by you, so you’re not alone.
Myrna McCallum: Thank you so much, Doron, for making time for this conversation. It’s a really important conversation, I think. It’s really just the tipping point and, I’m sure, at other points in this podcast, it will come up again to really just come back to that fire, how are we keeping it burning? And, individually and collectively. And, that was just such a good analogy, thank you.
Doron Gold: It’s my honour, thank you so much for everything you do.
Myrna McCallum: Alright everyone, that’s today’s episode. It kind of felt like a therapy session didn’t it? [laughter] All good, we all need some therapy, even just a little bit. I’m so grateful to Doron for taking the time to share his insights with us. Let me know what you thought about today’s episode. You can find me @LegalTrauma on Twitter. I’m always find me on LinkedIn and Instagram @thetraumainformedlawyer. Please subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. I read the comments, a lot of people do. So even just a line on Apple Podcasts about what you think, truly appreciated. Until next time, take care everybody.