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.
PTSD has three general “clusters” of symptoms:
-hyperarousal (an “on guard” or “easily startled” feeling)
-numbing/avoidance (emotional deadening)
-intrusive (flashbacks, nightmares)
I’ve worked with lawyers who are literally jumpy from the sense of having enemies – hyper-critical, angry attacking partners – spring out at them whenever they let down their guard.
I’ve seen lawyers who have numbed themselves until they barely admit to feeling emotions, even in a therapist’s office.
And yes, lawyers have nightmares about their firms. One former attorney had a recurrent dream in which he realized he was back in his old office. He knew the dream so well he’d start thinking his way out of it right from the start, telling himself it wasn’t like it used to be – that he’d left the firm, they didn’t own him, they couldn’t hurt him anymore, he could get his coat and leave.
Some law firm environments are so punishing and toxic that they produce trauma and trigger PTSD symptoms. At least, that’s what I’ve witnessed over the years from lawyers I’ve seen as clients.
My best advice for anyone working under these conditions is to get some support – and to leave this environment as soon as possible.
At very least, you need to create a “safe zone” – or multiple “safe zones” where you can let down your guard and actually try to relax.
That might mean finding an hour in your day to hit the gym, or take a yoga class.
It might mean walking through the park during lunch, or just eating outside, at a picnic table, and watching the children in the playground.
It might mean setting aside time to spend with good friends, no matter how busy you are.
It might mean making sure you disappear into a book, or play your favorite video game, for half an hour before you go to sleep at night.
The key is reserving a bit of “you” time when you can feel safe, secure, and intact within yourself.
And yes, it might mean taking an hour each week to talk to a therapist. I call my office “A Quiet Room” for a reason – it’s intended to be a place where there are no distractions and the focus is on you.
You can’t spend your life “in trouble.” The price you pay for living under a cloud might be higher than you think.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)