Remember when you were a kid, and you got caught doing something you shouldn’t, and a big cloud formed over your head?
You were “in trouble.”
The other kids sort of inched out of your path and exchanged looks. They didn’t want any piece of what you had coming. Mom was going to talk to you later. Or dad. You’d done something wrong.
It feels that way sometimes at a big law firm – in fact, a lot of the time.
Maybe you forget to ask a crucial question during a deposition. Or you wrote a memo that didn’t have the answer your partner wanted. Maybe – and this happened to me once – you ended up getting berated for being “too friendly” to the other side at a drafting conference. Maybe you’re still not sure exactly what you did wrong, but it must have been something. It’s always something.
The cloud hangs over you in the office and follows you home. When you were a kid, it eventually dissipated, but now it lingers indefinitely. What’s really going on?
A little dose of anxiety is being injected into you, in the form of a thought.
Anxiety is triggered by cognition – predictive thoughts. You predict something bad is going to happen, so you clutch up in preparation – tense up and prepare for attack.
At a law firm, the standard predictive cognition – the expectation – is that you are going to be criticized. They do that a lot at law firms. It is a fair guess that if something goes wrong, you are going to be blamed – and things go wrong all the time.
It got to the point for me, at Sullivan & Cromwell, that I felt my entire body clench in preparation for attack just walking through the doors of 125 Broad Street and stepping into that elevator.
When you spend long periods of time tensed up, on alert for attack, it takes a toll on your nervous system. In fact, it can produce lasting damage.
In World War I, soldiers spent weeks in trenches under fire, crouched in terror, waiting for that next bomb or bullet with their name on it. Those were some of the first documented cases of what was called “shell shock” then and PTSD now – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It might seem a stretch to suggest that lawyers at big law firms suffer from PTSD symptoms.
But that’s exactly what I’m doing.