Archive for April, 2010

Office romances are endemic in the legal profession. I see them constantly with my patients.

Why is there so much fooling around at law firms?


A partner in a couple “triangulates” – looking to a third party to replace what’s missing in his relationship.

For lawyers, that boils down to time spent together.

One married lawyer told me she flirts with a junior associate at her office. She loves her husband, but never sees him. Flirting with the junior satisfies her craving for sexual attention. Lately, though, they’ve been going out for drinks, and she’s afraid something will happen she’ll regret.

Single lawyers experience the same romantic isolation. One said she hadn’t been to a bar or club – let alone a party – for over a year. She keeps canceling dates because of work, and her friends no longer ask her out because she always says no. This month she’s been working late nights with another associate at her firm and they’ve started hooking up.

Most people divide their days in three equal parts: You work. You play. And you sleep.

Lawyers sleep – sometimes. But they don’t play – they just work. Then they work some more.

When work replaces play, you find yourself playing at work: taking Facebook breaks, creating candy games to get through doc review…or letting things turn jiggy with co-workers.

Is there a problem with getting it on at the office?

If you’re married, or in a committed relationship, the answer is easy: yes. That’s because, if you’re sleeping around, you’re lying to someone.

There’s nothing sacred or holy about monogamy. But you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You wouldn’t want someone to lie to you, so you shouldn’t lie to him.

For single lawyers the issues are subtler, but the answer is still yes – there is a problem.

The dysfunction created by a law firm romance is epitomized by the archetypal hook-up between a 40-something male partner and a 20-something female associate.

I see it all the time, and yes, sometimes it’s a female partner and sometimes it’s between two men or two women. Doesn’t matter. It’s a train wreck.

The partner is riding out a power trip. He’s on his second or third wife, using status and money to avoid other issues like personal insecurities and fear of commitment.

The associate gets a rush of power, too. Suddenly she’s the center of attention for a guy earning seven figures – and he’s hinting that things are falling apart with the wife.

Two big problems…


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A reader wrote recently to ask about the effect of multiple moves on a child.

It got me thinking about the concept of “home.”

There’s no more powerful trope in human society.  “Home” as a concept relates to the child you once were. It triggers a universal longing.

The word resonates so strongly that real estate listings often use “home” instead of “house” to describe a property for sale.  They’d rather market a concept – something we all long for – than the thing itself, a heap of wood and brick, cinder block and glass.

The word “home” is ubiquitous in our common language, as well – embedded in everyday phrases:  welcome home, home base, home run, homing in, heading home, home sweet home, writing home, home-making, come home.

You need a home.  You may search for it all your life.

As a child, you long for stability – a regular schedule, predictable places and events.  A child savors routines that would bore an adult to tears: watching the same dvd over and over again, having the same book read to him over and over again, eating the same meal (chicken nuggets or pizza) over and over again.  A child wants to stay put and feel safe. Familiarity is like food – he gobbles it up.

The effect of multiple moves on a young child is that he will feel destabilized and anxious, and turn for succor to the one place whence he believes all stability derives – his parent.  That usually means mom, literally his first home, where he first found food and warmth, love and care.  Mama equals home.  She is the original safe place.

For an adult, that’s no longer the case.  The illusion of mom as an omnipotent, omnipresent figure fades as you mature.  In its place, a real woman emerges.  She was once a child herself, and she has her own struggles to wage.

So you turn vagabond – and search for a new home, elsewhere.

You might seek it in a big house.  Or maybe a bank account or a heap of possessions represents your vision of stability and safety.

Ultimately, home must be a person, just as it was when you were a child.  Money and things cannot offer you a true home.

But seeking your home in a partner doesn’t work either.  A relationship must be a meeting of equals – two whole people, not two half people.  It cannot be a rescue.

You cannot build a home with someone else until you feel secure in yourself.  No other person can make you feel secure in your life, and partners cannot run to one another for something they both lack.

You have to build your own place of safety.

Home must exist within you.

Luckily, it already does.  Home, for an adult, is nothing more than acceptance of yourself – the person you truly are when you are your best – your most conscious and most authentic – self.

You are already home.

You always have been.  You always will be.

Always there, always ready to offer love, security and safety.  For yourself.

What a house symbolically offers.  What mama used to offer.  What the word “home” promises.

You can provide that for yourself.

Welcome home.

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This week’s question is from Gwynne.

She wrote to say she might be interested in trying psychotherapy, but has a hesitation:

What if I’m not much of a talker – at least when it comes to talking about me?

An excellent question.

Here’s my answer:

To submit a question to Ask The People’s Therapist, please email it as text or a video to: wmeyerhofer@aquietroom.com

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist!

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I’ve written a fair amount about lawyers at the office in this column.

Right now a lot of lawyers aren’t at the office.

They’re at home, out of work.

Unemployment is tough on lawyers because they tend to be pleasers – they have to be, to earn the grades to make it into law school.

It’s all about pleasing others at a firm, too. You submit to the whims of a partner and work around the clock.

Like all pleasers, lawyers get used to looking outside themselves for affirmation of their worth.

When you’re unemployed, there’s no one to please but yourself. You’re alone with you – and for a pleaser, that can lead to a plunge in self-esteem.

That’s why, during unemployment, you have to be especially good to yourself.

You can’t afford to fall into a hole right now – you need to stay strong. That means reminding yourself of your achievements – your grades, your degree, your accomplishments at a firm.

If things get truly dire – remember the bottom line: you’re doing your best. That’s all anyone can ask.

This is no time to beat yourself up. Remember to be you – your best self – the person you really are. That’s more than just a lawyer – that’s a person. Spend time with friends, and people who like you. You’re worth something and you know it – and you need all the support you can get.

You also need some time off.

The worst thing about being unemployed, as one of my unemployed lawyer clients put it, is that “when you’re unemployed, you’re always working.”

Unemployment can turn into a 24-hour/day grind. Give yourself permission to relax sometimes. Activity is important – but so is taking time off to get your head together.

Job interviews, in my experience, can be particularly difficult for lawyers.

Pleasers never learn to sell themselves – you just do what you’re told and hope good things happen.

That doesn’t work in a job interview.

You might remember those mass interviews the law school placement departments arranged back in the boom years. They typically consisted of a handshake, a dutiful glance at a resume, and a pointless chat about nothing.

Those weren’t real job interviews. Those firms were hiring your resume. They just wanted to make sure you could dress yourself. The interviewers often seemed as clueless as the candidates.

It’s different now, during a recession. You have to sell yourself actively.

That can be tough for a lawyer. (more…)

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My patient was upset.  Another girl had dumped him when everything seemed to be going well.

“What is it about me?  They always disappear like that.  I try to be a nice person, but something I’m doing chases them away.”

This patient was making a fundamental scientific error – he was imposing a narrative onto his data.

If Albert Einstein had done that, he never would have come up with E= mc squared.

When Einstein began pondering what would become his Special Theory of Relativity, physics was grounded in basic assumptions from everyday existence.  Scientists looked at the world around them and tried to translate what they saw into mathematics.  For people like Galileo and Newton, that led to breakthroughs.  They saw something drop – and discovered gravity.  They saw something speed up and hit something else – and discovered acceleration and force.

Einstein’s breakthrough was different.  To come to it, he had to stop imposing the narrative of the quotidian, human world onto the behavior of tiny particles and waves of energy.

On Earth, as a human, you can always go faster.  Just press the pedal and accelerate.  Or jump in an airplane.  Speed is a variable.

Einstein’s breakthrough with Special Relativity was to stop imposing that narrative onto physics.  The speed of light, he theorized, might be a constant.  That would mean you couldn’t go any faster than the speed of light.  It’s simply as fast as you can move.

That makes sense, if you think about it, because if you’re moving at the speed of light, you are going so fast that you can no longer exist as matter – you become pure energy – in other words, light.  That’s why it’s called ‘the speed of light.’

And that’s what E=mc squared means.  Matter at the speed of light becomes pure energy.  (Apologies to my  physicist older brother, Dr. David D. Meyerhofer, if this isn’t exactly, precisely absolutely correct – but I think he’ll agree it’s pretty close.)

If you make speed a constant in a physics equation, then measurements we think of as constants in everyday life – like how big something is, or how fast time goes by – suddenly become variables.  Everything gets very strange, new and interesting.  Here on Earth, living at a human scale, we have always expected a foot to measure a foot and a minute to last a minute, but a speeding photon doesn’t care how big it is, or how fast time is moving.  Fundamental assumptions about our world cannot be imposed upon the reality experienced by a wave or a particle.  It would give you the wrong answer.

Enough physics.  Back to my patient.

He assumed every girl he met liked him at first, then rejected him after perceiving some fatal flaw.

This reality could be traced back to his early years.

This man was a “change of life” baby, born when his parents were older and his siblings already in their late teens.  Initially, the entire family doted upon the new baby.

But as my patient grew up, he challenged his parents’ view of the world.  His older siblings had been born in Africa, and shared with their parents a fundamentally African, immigrant viewpoint.  They put schoolwork above all other priorities, married traditional African spouses and – like their parents – pursued medicine as a career.

My client, on the other hand, had an artistic bent, and grew up like an American teenager.  He loved pop music, spent most of his time making pottery, displayed no talent for medicine – and still hadn’t decided what he wanted to be when he grew up.

Sensing that something was wrong, his parents expressed disapproval by withdrawing attention.  They weren’t sure what to make of this final child, so they frowned and walked away, leaving him with a lingering sense of rejection and failure.

Now, with the girls he was dating, he imposed that same familiar narrative.  Each woman was cast in the role of his parents – initially adoring him, then spotting some flaw, some change in him they couldn’t handle, and turning away without an explanation.

I suggested to my patient that he think more like Einstein.  Maybe he was a constant in this equation – not a variable.

Maybe he was a perfectly nice guy – kind, considerate and perhaps a bit shy, but thoughtful and respectful with everyone he dated.

Maybe the girls he was dating were the variables.  Maybe each one of them had her own issues – and her own reasons for rejecting him, which had nothing to do with him, or with the other women.

I asked a few key questions:

“That first woman – wasn’t she the one who had just broken up a long-term relationship and talked about her ex ad nauseam?”

He admitted that might be the case.

“And the other one.  Wasn’t she fighting a cocaine addiction?”

He nodded.

“And then there was the one you never really seemed to like, at least until she disappeared.  Isn’t it possible she was picking up on your hesitancy, and walking away to spare herself the grief of being rejected?”

He had to admit that might be true as well.

I made my closing argument:  “Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep looking for a woman who is actually right for you, instead of wasting time getting upset and blaming yourself each time it doesn’t work out with someone?”

From the way he looked at me, I knew I’d made my point.

Instead of imposing the narrative of his parents’ rejection on every single relationship in his life, he was beginning to grasp that alternative – and more convincing – narratives might exist.

Maybe the speed of light is as fast as you can go.  Maybe a ruler can stretch or shrink and time can run faster and slower, depending on how fast you’re moving.

Maybe each and every rejection isn’t about your issues – it’s about other people, and what might be going on in their heads.

Try thinking like Einstein – outside the box, where everything might not be a reflection of you, or the world you grew up in.

It will give you a more interesting – and more accurate – picture of the world.

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I received another challenging question this week, from Carl.  He sent it to me via video, so without further ado, here’s Carl’s question:

And here’s my answer:

Thanks to all of you who have sent in and continue to send in questions.  I will be tackling one each week.  If I answer your question, I will also offer you a free session of psychotherapy, in person or via the internet.

If you’d like to send in a question for The People’s Therapist, please email it as words or a video, to wmeyerhofer@aquietroom.com

I also welcome your comments and feedback on this new series.

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My lawyer clients sometimes arrive at my office complaining about their awful work hours. They talk about how worn out they are, how they pulled all-nighters, came in on weekends, etc.

Other times they come in with a different complaint – there’s nothing to do.

Why would that be a problem? Couldn’t they just relax a bit and catch their breath?

No. Because at big law firms, no one is ever supposed to admit there’s nothing to do.

The big firms endlessly remind you of their ridiculous demands for “billable hours” – but they never so much as whisper that they might not always have sufficient work to keep you there that long.

If you’ve ever attended a partner’s meeting, you’ll know the rainmakers aren’t just sitting around gossiping about associates. They’re pressuring one another – and especially the young partners – to cultivate clients and drum up work.

One more secret: partners hog the work during dry times. That’s why associates feel the drought so severely.

The real issue here isn’t that workflow is variable at law firms. It’s variable at any business. That’s the way the world works. Of course there will be downtime.

The problem is that this reality isn’t acknowledged at law firms. That creates an atmosphere, at least for associates, in which rest, downtime, slow-downs – whatever you want to call it – are never permitted to happen. There’s no work – but the associates cannot enjoy that situation and catch their breath. Instead of resting, you switch from one intense pressure to another. Instead of having too much work and being exhausted – you’re exhausted with worry.

When there’s nothing to do, an associate is placed in a quandary.

No one admits it and says, “Hey, it’s slow this week – why don’t you take a couple days off?” That doesn’t happen at law firms.

Curiously, it does happen elsewhere. When I was in the business world, it was considered a matter of course to grab your coat and head home if things were slow. People respected the work you did, and there was no point in “face time.” If things were slow, you took off.

A friend of mine who worked at McKinsey consulting for years told me they had a phrase for these periods. You were said to be “on the beach” for a few days or weeks, while the partners drummed up business. It was acknowledged that this was the case, and no one expected you to do anything but rest up and be on call for the next project.

Law firms are different. Here is a culture that abhors rest above all else.


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