Last week I did a first session with a typical client – a young lawyer worried about starting at a big firm.
I couldn’t do real psychotherapy with this guy. Some lawyers are like that – they don’t trust anyone enough to open up. It was more like an awkward coaching session. When I tried to explore his feelings, he cut me off and got down to business.
He was fine, he assured me. He’d already decided he was going to take the money. He just wanted some advice. Then he related bad experiences from the summer program, and asked for my take on big firm life.
I suggested ways to maintain emotional insulation from the worst aspects of a big firm. I also proposed that he do psychotherapy, and maybe group psychotherapy, for emotional support while he was there. This didn’t make much of an impression. His mind seemed elsewhere.
He mentioned wistfully that he “wanted to be a writer, but couldn’t make a decent living at it.” I waited for more, but he changed the subject.
Eventually he left my office, and I thought that’s that. I’d never hear from him again – another unhappy lawyer who’d contacted me in a moment of weakness, then retreated back to his cave, alone.
The next day I received an email that pretended to be a thank you, but was really a warning from this guy not to mention his story in my column. It was a curt, condescending note which ended like a law firm letter, with “best regards.” Only a lawyer could write a note like that to a therapist.
I’ve received a few of these threatening notes over the years. I consider them a by-product of working with lawyers.
I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I’m a therapist, and I charge people for my services. And of course I disguise identities in this column to preserve confidentiality. He has a right to send me any letter he wants, and to have his confidentiality preserved.
But there’s a larger issue here. Trust. And sharing. And honesty.
My column and my work as a psychotherapist are intended to help people. I work with plenty of patients – most of them non-lawyers – who open up to me and find relief.
It’s always tougher with lawyers. They hesitate to trust anyone. That makes things harder for me – but incalculably harder for them.
Big firm attorneys live in a closet. Inauthenticity is the rule at these firms – it pervades the culture. No one admits what they’re feeling because no one is supposed to trust anyone else. The result is isolation, which exacerbates every other toxic element of that life.
It’s a kind of macho code: Act like you’re doing fine. No matter what.
One of my patients said she broke down in tears last week in the bathroom stall at her firm, after a partner tore into her for some screw-up. She chose the bathroom because of her firm’s “open door policy.” She wasn’t allowed to close her office door for privacy.
I asked her how everyone else at her firm was holding up.
“Fine, I guess.”
According to her, about two-thirds of the associates were fleeing after three years. I doubt they’re all doing fine.
Lawyers are good at hiding things. Especially how they feel.
Once in a while, I receive a letter or comment on my website that says: Mr. Meyerhofer, here’s my story. I want to share it so others know what I’ve been through.
It would be nice to receive more of those notes – and fewer threats.
I’ll probably receive a letter this week from someone complaining I wrote a column about him.
You’re so vain. You probably think this column is about you.
But this column IS about you: all of you. All of you, my fellow lawyers.
I listen to unhappy lawyers all week long. Then I receive stern messages commanding me not to tell anyone else what’s going on out there. That’s ridiculous.
If you’re feeling the way you’re feeling – someone else is too.
Don’t let them isolate you. Take a risk and open up. Walk to the office next door, sit down, and talk to a colleague. Compare notes. Share your experiences.
That’s what you do in therapy – take the risk of being present, and speaking your truth.
It’s no great secret that there’s a lot of unhappiness at big law firms, or that this profession is in a crisis with the economy in recession, or that firms exploit and mistreat associates. Many people are angry and frightened and wracked with doubt over their decision to become a lawyer.
It shows strength to show weakness. And there’s no shame in admitting you’re human.
So break the sacred taboo already and talk about it. Join forces and support one another.
Please bring me your stories, and post them on the website. Let’s have a conversation about what’s really going on – and the toll it’s taking.
I guarantee you’re not alone.
[Editor’s note: this piece is part of a series of columns created by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.]
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