Transference and Countertransference: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Attorney-Client Relationship

Clients retain attorneys with myriad expectations, including unspoken emotions that may drive the success or failure of the legal representation. Through years of practice, attorneys develop experience and instincts that help them steer client relationships away from the shoals of misunderstanding. Yet even the most seasoned attorneys find themselves relating with certain clients, in ways that are counterproductive for reasons that are not purely logical.
In contrast to lawyers, psychologists and other mental health professionals dedicate much of their training to understanding the emotional dynamics of their relationships with clients or patients. One of the most important aspects of their education is learning how to handle the phenomenon known as transference as well as its counterpart, countertransference. The influence of transference on the professional relationship can be positive, contributing to a productive working relationship; on the other hand, if uncontrolled or misunderstood, its impact may be highly disruptive. This article introduces the theory of transference to attorneys in order to increase their understanding of a particularly challenging aspect of acting as Counselor at Law. Transference/Countertransference in Psychoanalysis
At the beginning of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud originated the concepts of transference and countertransference in formulating his theory of psychoanalysis. Freud described transference as a patient’s transfer of emotions from his or her own past onto the therapist, including feelings that are unconscious.1 Transference is qualitatively different from the flow of empathy or other feelings that generally takes place between individuals in the course of a relationship. Transference, instead, is the emergence of the patient’s repressed feelings about significant childhood figures, displaced onto the person of the therapist. Countertransference refers to the treating professional’s emotional response to the patient’s transference feelings. Freud recognized that transference is not confined to psychotherapy; indeed, it can impact virtually any relationship.2
Freud and later theorists advocated that therapists advance a patient’s treatment by using information that surfaces as a result of transference and countertransference.3 According to a current variation of this idea put forth by the Relational school of psychoanalysis, transference and countertransference are mutual creations of the patient and therapist, not necessarily characterized by distortions of emotion. The client and therapist respond to each other, their reactions shaped by the internal dynamics of the treatment and their own pasts. Hoffman (1983) described transference as a “Geiger counter,” sensitizing patients to notice things that might be unimportant to others and creating the impetus for patients to reenact relationships that have shaped them.4 For example, a patient who expects the therapist to respond critically to their dependency needs might behave in ways that trigger such a response. According to this theory, the therapist will naturally respond in accordance with the patient’s views of others, and eventually becomes a participant in the transference dynamic.
Racker (1968)5 viewed countertransference as a therapeutically invaluable tool that affords the therapist access to unconscious and otherwise inexplicable aspects of the patient’s inner world, as well as providing a window on real aspects of the therapist’s personality. A patient with a trauma history may not be able to articulate his or her overwhelming feelings. Yet, that patient may unconsciously communicate feelings of helplessness and rage onto the therapist. The therapist’s countertransference reactions in response can be used productively as a key to understanding how other significant people in the patient’s life are reacting to similar behavior.
Kiesler (2001) viewed countertransference more narrowly, as the therapist’s reactions to the patient that are “out of the ordinary,” such as intense anger, a desire to retaliate or withdraw, or sudden experiences of self-doubt regarding clinical skills.6 These reactions have the potential to heighten emotional reactivity by the therapist and can strain the working alliance. This dynamic is not uncommon for therapists working with patients exhibiting significant interpersonal and self-regulation difficulties (Shafranske & Falender, 2008).7 Clients with Borderline Personality Disorder, for example, will have rapidly fluctuating and self-destructive behaviors, changing their views of the therapist as “all-good” or “all-bad” on a frequent basis. Clients exhibiting narcissistic features may initially idealize therapists as all-knowing, but later respond with rage or in a highly critical manner to the clinician’s comments. When working with these patients, therapists need to contain their own strong reactions and reflect on the underlying meaning and context of the communications.
In a therapeutic model that stresses the reenactment of maladaptive interpersonal patterns, the therapist’s very presence and stability can help the patient perceive new ways of relating to others. The therapist must fully enter the patient’s world to engage in transference-countertransference reenactments. Then the therapist must disengage from that dynamic in order to observe, process, and interpret what has taken place. The effective therapist balances active participation in the treatment dialogue with observation of the passionate undercurrent of the countertransference (Gordon, Aron, Mitchell, & Davis, 1998).8 Ultimately, the therapist should present the information back to the patient in ways he or she can understand, opening a dialogue towards the development of insight and behavioral change.
Lawyers, Clients and the Transference of Emotion
While attorneys and clients do not enter attorney-client relationships with the intention of engaging in psychotherapy, the dynamic can invite transference and countertransference feelings.9 Clients approach attorneys with high stakes problems and reveal confidential information, at times of a personal or disturbing nature. The client presumes that the attorney is the repository of special and valuable information, i.e., “the law.” The client may feel responsible for having caused the “legal problem” that the attorney undertakes to solve. The legal representation inevitably requires that the client fully express his or her view of the world to the attorney, who then wages the battles necessary to achieve the client’s goals.
On the attorney’s side, unconscious emotions may be evoked by the client’s decision to retain the particular lawyer, to the exclusion of all others. This may cause the attorney to feel particularly competent and grateful. A client may treat the attorney as an all-knowing protector in a hostile world, eliciting parental feelings or rescue fantasies on the attorney’s part. Countertransference feelings may cause the attorney to give advice on matters outside his or her area of expertise. More dangerously, the attorney may be tempted to behave in ways that cross personal boundaries, jeopardizing the professional status of the relationship. On the other hand, if a client treats the attorney in an unduly critical manner, the attorney may relive unpleasant childhood feelings and develop a wish to retaliate or avoid the client.
Vicarious trauma is a countertransference-like response that attorneys may experience if they work with traumatized clients. Symptoms of vicarious trauma include intrusive thoughts, hypersensitivity and avoidance or numbing of feelings. To use the vernacular, vicarious trauma can lead to burnout. One study found a higher rate of vicarious trauma reactions in attorneys when compared with mental health professionals working with the same populations.10 Possible explanations include the high volume of clients or cases handled by attorneys and judges working in trauma-oriented fields. Making matters worse, attorneys lack training on how to handle the emotions generated by these matters. Moreover, attorneys may feel they have no venues to express the feelings these difficult cases generate.
Productive Attorney Responses to Negative Transference
Attorneys rarely complain about clients who idealize them or display outsized affection due to positive transference; the good feelings usually facilitate productive working relationships, so long as the client’s trust is not exploited. Attorneys worry instead about clients who are unduly hostile or who evoke negative or troubling reactions, causing the attorney-client relationship to reach an impasse or worse. There are warning signs that transference/countertransference reactions are interfering with the professional goals of the legal representation. Attorneys should ask themselves the following questions regarding such cases:
• Are my responses disproportional or out of character?
• Am I over-identifying with or feeling hostile toward the client?
• Has the client evoked difficult feelings from my own history or in response to the client’s experience?
• Can I reflect on and control my behavior with the client and other attorneys involved in the matter?
• Do I spend an unusual amount of my time/energy/emotion on the case or avoid working on the matter?
• Am I tempted to act differently with this client or to cross ethical boundaries?
There are a number of possible responses when transference/countertransference issues threaten to derail the attorney-client relationship. Taking a lead from therapists, attorneys should observe the transference and consider the context of their own reactions. This requires that the attorney “disengage” from the transference dynamic and evaluate the situation from a more objective stance. If the attorney can observe and handle what has taken place in a professional manner, the time may be ripe for a conversation with the client that corrects the course of the relationship. The transference/countertransference may provide the attorney with a window into the client’s world. That information may be helpful to the attorney in assessing how a jury or judge will respond to the client. It also gives the attorney deeper insight into how the client may have behaved in the past or will act in the future, invaluable information in determining a legal strategy for the case.
If the working relationship becomes unduly difficult, the attorney should consider consulting with a mental health professional. Psychotherapists regularly seek supervision themselves when working with challenging patients; attorneys have no less need for insight from an expert. Aside from helping the client at issue, the consultation may assist the attorney in determining whether counterproductive patterns have developed in the manner he or she interacts with clients generally. Professional guidance and the input of legal colleagues should help the attorney to make the ultimate decision: whether to end the legal representation. For younger attorneys in particular, it may be hard to recognize the moment when continuing the attorney-client relationship becomes untenable.
Attorneys do not “treat” psychological problems. Yet, lawyers do need to handle the emotions that arise during the course of their interactions with clients. By remaining cognizant of interpersonal dynamics as feelings emerge, attorneys will further the goals of their professional relationships and reduce their own stress as they shoulder the legal problems of their clients.
Robert M. Gordon, Psy.D., is a psychologist and Associate Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at the Rusk Institute, NYU Langone Medical Center. He maintains a private practice in Manhattan and Great Neck.
Gail Jacobs, Esq., is an attorney specializing in family, criminal and appellate law, with an office in Great Neck.
1. Freud, S., Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Leonardo da Vinci, and other Works, Fifth Lecture, 11 Standard Edition, The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 51 (James Stachey ed., 1957) (1910).
2. Id. at 51-52.
3. Jacobs, T.J. (1986). On Countertransference Enactments, 34 J. Amer. Psychoanalytic Assn. 289-307.
4. Hoffman, I.Z. (1983). The Patient as Interpreter of the Analyst’s Experience, 34 Contemporary Psychoanalysis 389-422.
5. Racker, H. (1968) Transference and Countertransference, New York: International Universities Press.
6. Kiesler, D.J. (2001). Therapist Countertransference: In Search of Common Themes and Empirical Referents, 57 Journal of Clinical Psychology 1053-1063.
7. Shafrankse, E.P. & Falender, C.A. (2008). “Supervision Addressing Personal Factors and Countertransference,” Casebook for Clinical Supervision: A Competency-Based Approach, pp. 97-120, American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C.
8. Gordon, R.M., Aron, L., Mitchell, S.A., & Davies, J.M. (1998). “Relational Psychoanalysis,” Current Theories of Psychoanalysis, ed. R. Langs (pp. 31-58). Madison, Ct.: International Universities Press.
9. See Love, Hate, and Other Emotional Interference in the Lawyer/Client Relationship, Silver, M., 6 Clinical L. Rev. 259 (1999).
10. Levin and Greisberg, Vicarious Trauma in Attorneys, 24 Pace L. Rev. 245; Gift from Within – PTSD Resources for Survivors and Caregivers,