Published in the Graduate Report, Spring/Summer 2012
After four years of work as an attorney, both in private practice and in legal research at the Connecticut Superior Court in Hartford and New Haven, Traci Cipriano ’97 left the legal arena in 2002 to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, a field she became interested in during her undergraduate days at UConn. But that doesn’t mean she is no longer connected to the world of law and lawyers. On the contrary. One aspect of Cipriano’s clinical psychology practice in Woodbridge (CT) deals with patients who are experiencing some combination of anxiety, depression and relationship difficulties, and stress from conflicts involving their work and family life — and a good portion of those patients are practicing attorneys and their families.
“In graduate school I was always interested in stress and health…in part because of what I experienced and observed as an attorney at law firms [in Connecticut and New York],” says Cipriano, who earned her doctorate at UConn in 2007. “So when it came time to do my [dissertation] research I was really drawn to work-family balance issues facing attorneys.”
Cipriano’s dissertation research dealt with work-family balance in attorneys, including time-based stress (having to be in “two places at once”), the strain involved in not being at an important family event because of a work commitment or missing work because of an ill family member, and the preoccupation and lack of focus that comes with being over-tired at the office and at home that is the result of working long days and nights. She also notes that the adversarial nature of the legal profession generally makes lawyers good problem-solvers in the courtroom, but not necessarily good problem-solvers in the living room — especially if they take that adversarial approach home with them. In her clinical practice, Cipriano sees attorneys dealing with work-family balance issues, as well as other types of stress. “Having been in that culture, I can appreciate at a deeper level what it is to work long hours, face pressures from many different directions, and be expected to meet multiple urgent deadlines,” she says. “I find that my practice draws not just attorneys but their significant others because I have an understanding of their experiences.”
Cipriano emphasizes that lawyers and other high-achieving professionals often have perfectionist tendencies that adversely affect their performance at the office. “There is a healthy perfectionism that comes with being conscientious and wanting to do a good job,” she says, “but if you set unrealistic goals and never think that your work is good enough, you set yourself up for severe mental distress. In addition, you may end up working many more hours than you need to. Young associates have a particularly hard time determining when their work is good enough.” Cipriano continues, “In my study [of attorneys], I found that the overall level of mental distress among attorneys with the highest levels of negative perfectionism was in the 89th percentile.”
Although Cipriano says she followed her true passion when she decided to leave the law and pursue her doctorate, she credits UConn Law with playing an important role in her professional development and the breadth of work she does as a clinical psychologist. “When I was in law school and beyond I was very much interested in the legal issues and public policy, but I was even more interested in the motivations of the people involved in the cases I studied,” she says. “My legal training helps me see both sides of an issue more objectively, as well as the big picture. And it certainly informs my practice in terms of liability issues.”
Today, in addition to running her practice, Cipriano supervises Yale University doctoral students working with patients at an on-campus clinic run by the Department of Psychology. She also is an assistant clinical professor at Yale’s School of Medicine, where she works in the Department of Psychiatry’s Law and Psychiatry Division – an entity that focuses on scholarship, public policy and psychiatric evaluations related to forensic issues, such as the role of restraint and seclusion in psychiatric care, as well as competency to stand trial and state-of-mind evaluations. In addition, Cipriano serves as the legislative chair of the Connecticut Psychological Association (CPA), a position that calls on her to draft legislative testimony related to issues of psychological relevance, including a bill she drafted this past session on domestic violence, an issue she learned a great deal about as a Law School student volunteering at a Hartford-based shelter for women. Currently, Cipriano is overseeing the drafting of an amicus brief for CPA in a case regarding whether the courts should allow expert testimony about the scientific evidence relating to the reliability – or lack thereof – of eyewitness testimony. She also serves as a resource for Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers – Connecticut, Inc., a nonprofit corporation that provides “assistance to those in the Connecticut legal community who experience alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, anxiety, compulsive disorders (including gambling addiction), stress or other distress that impairs that individual’s ability to function.”
Clearly, Cipriano’s professional life keeps her very busy. Not surprisingly, she is every bit as busy at home, where she and her husband, an intellectual property lawyer, are raising their two young daughters. So how is Cipriano doing when it comes to following her own advice about the importance of work-life balance? “If you are passionate about what you do, you thrive and make the most out of it,” she says. “I know I am in the right place now.” Cipriano pauses and laughs. “I am getting better at it.”