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Archive for June, 2010

An editor at AboveTheLaw suggested some months back that I do a piece on the US News & World Report law school rankings. For whatever reason, this stodgy old weekly news magazine – which someone must still read – has created a sideline business publishing rankings of schools, including law schools. I’m not sure what the criteria are, but at least in theory, it’s a big deal for lawyers when the list comes out each year.

The rankings seem designed to make official what everyone knows anyway, i.e., that there are “prestige” schools that are harder to get into. But like any good opinion piece, they throw in a few twists – familiar names in unexpected places. It boils down to dissing one of the big places, or unexpectedly anointing a second-rank outfit. That way everyone can get riled up over the respective rankings of my school versus your school.

It sounded kind of boring, so I filed the idea away.

Then it started to gnaw at me. The US News list seemed like a good example of the amazing lengths lawyers go to in order to distinguish themselves from one another. The entire profession splits hairs like this because the career path is so conservative there isn’t much to distinguish one attorney from another. Every lawyer lines up to take the LSAT, then get processed and distributed to law schools based on hairline distinctions. In class you sit through identical lectures, take identical exams, and head off – for the most part – to identical firms to do nearly identical work.

You end up arguing over the details.

The law school curriculum is pretty much the same thing wherever you go – it’s standardized. I doubt the property law lecture at a “top” law school is much different, let along superior, to a property law lecture at a less “prestigious” place.

But, of course the students are “better” at the more prestigious school – because they did better on their LSAT. How much better? Some tiny fraction of a percentage, probably, representing a few questions that they got right and someone else got wrong.

I worked with one lawyer who went to a “second-tier” law school in New York, but rose to the top of his class and made law review. He said he still faces resistance at top firms because of snobbery over where he went to school – even though he’s been out and working for eight years. Those Yale and Harvard lawyers at the big firms, he says, turn their noses up at his top of the class record at a “lesser” school – as well as his federal clerkship and the years of hard work that followed.

I’m currently working with a couple of young lawyers who find themselves in the odd position of trying to decide how to appraise the “value” of a “top school.” One woman was accepted at a “top” place, but offered a full scholarship at a “second-tier” institution. Is it worth $150k to go to the prestige school? The education itself will be nearly identical. Is the snob value worth it? According to one of my clients, half the kids at Columbia Law are struggling to find jobs right now, so it doesn’t sound like the “top “ places are pulling their weight. On the other hand, maybe it’s even worse coming out of a “second tier” joint. Crucially, though – with no debt, she wouldn’t be as desperate as everyone else. I see plenty of young lawyers emerging from “top schools” (and every other kind of school) with shaky job prospects, huge debt and – worst of all – the sense that going to law school was a mistake. The debt reduces them to indentured servitude, making it impossible to do anything else, at least until they’ve paid the piper.

How about the law firms themselves? Surely some are “better” than others?

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This week’s question comes from L, in New York City. She asks:

Do you think that personality “flaws” (e.g. shyness, lack of confidence/self-esteem, being an approval-seeker) are entirely learned behaviors, or do you think that to some extent you are born with these characteristics?  In other words, what do you think about nature vs. nurture when it comes to personality?

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 feel self-conscious sometimes about the pessimism of this column with regard to law as a career path.  That pessimism reflects what I see every day in my practice – miserable lawyers.

My experiences might be skewed as a result of self-selection.  It makes sense that unhappy lawyers would seek a psychotherapist who is a former lawyer and writes a column like mine, and it makes sense that these same unhappy lawyers would write me letters and post comments on my site about their (mostly unhappy) experiences.

Also, in fairness, the country is in the midst of a deep recession.  It’s hard to be happy at any career when you can’t find a job, or half the offices on your floor are empty and there isn’t enough work to go around and you’re worrying about whether you’ll have a job next week.  I see clients from other industries who are also affected by the economic downturn, such as folks in the fashion and retail world, many of whom are struggling with long-term unemployment, and even bankruptcy and foreclosure.  They’re not exactly brimming with high spirited fun either.

The difference is that those people love what they do.  They’re just out of work.

With lawyers, even the ones who have well-paid jobs seem – mostly – unhappy.

Nevertheless, in keeping with this week’s theme of cheerful good times, we’re going to ignore them – and talk about happy lawyers.  Bouncy, perky, downright merry, good-time lawyers.

I have seen a few happy lawyers.  They exist, and they tend to fall into two groups.

The first group work in criminal law.  I’ve met Legal Aid attorneys, prosecutors and even lawyers doing white collar defense, and they are often happy and like what they do.  These are the guys who grew up wanting to be Atticus Finch or Perry Mason.  They typically love their jobs, and are proud of what they do.  Some Legal Aid lawyers have described their careers to me as a calling – they are deeply committed to their vital role in our society.

The other happy lawyers are the guys with lifestyle jobs – the ones who work normal hours, report to reasonable, supportive supervisors, and generally don’t mind being lawyers.  Some quirky small practices fall into this “lifestyle” category.  I’ve run into lawyers who specialize in employment contracts for fashion designers, run a “beverage and alcohol” group at a smallish west coast firm, or handle bi-lingual business for Chilean corporations operating in the US.  It’s not so much about the work, but the laid-back, supportive atmosphere of these places.  Going off the beaten path tends to let people relax – maybe because there’s less competition.  I’ve seen a similar effect with lawyers who work in federal agencies and sometimes in-house counsel jobs, where – at least compared to big firms – the culture is friendly, the hours reasonable and the supervisors supportive.

Those two groups are the happy lawyers.  They love the law, or at least don’t especially mind it.

The rest of the attorneys I treat – the vast majority – not so much.

So…what are the lessons to be learned from observing happy lawyers?

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My patient was clearly miserable in her job as a graduate student and laboratory scientist.  But she’d worked very hard to get into this position.  And she was only 3 years away from a PhD.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said.  “I’m just not good enough, I guess.”

She was blaming herself for this career not working out.  I suggested an alternative.

Instead of viewing a job as a task, consider it is a role.  Not a thing, but a person.

It wasn’t that she couldn’t do this job – it was that the job didn’t represent her authentic self.  She wasn’t a laboratory scientist.

Initially, as a teenager, your career dreams hit a cruel reality when you discover that your talents and aptitudes are limited by nature, not by choice.  You probably had all the commitment it took to be a rock star…but none of the talent.

That’s a harsh, if commonplace realization.  You tend – especially as an adolescent – to imagine yourself as the protagonist in a heroic narrative, and it can be crushing to realize you are limited by banal realities like being too short to be a basketball star, or singing too out of tune to be the next Beyonce.

Once this life lesson is learned, though, you think you’ve found your groove.  You’ll just find something you’re good at, and do it.

Unfortunately, that’s when you hit yet another realization.

Even if you have the talent and aptitude for a certain job – you also have to “be” that job.  It has to represent who you are.

That’s why you have to know who you are before you can know what you want to do.

Think about work for a moment, and how it came into being.  Originally, when all humans were primitive hunter-gatherers, the break-down of labor must have been rather simple.  Mostly likely the men went hunting out in the field and the women took care of the kids and whatever other tasks could be handled close to the settlement area.

With the arrival of agriculture and domesticated livestock – and much greater population densities – greater specialization arrived.  The Middle Ages in Europe saw the rise of guilds – early unions for skilled laborers.  There was also more leisure time – at least for the wealthy classes – so artists and musicians began to appear.  A king or a duke might hire you simply to set gemstones on snuff boxes, so he could hand them out as keepsakes.

You can view this development in one of two ways – that there was a need for lavish snuffboxes and someone had to be found to make them – or sightly differently:  there was someone out there who had the idea and the inclination to make lavish snuffboxes, and he finally found his opportunity to follow a dream.

I think the second explanation makes more sense.  As roles in society became more specialized, people were more able to express who they were by finding a niche where they fit in.  Each “job” or “career” was really someone finding an outlet to express himself.

The real question, then, isn’t how you can find something you can do.  It’s who are you, and what is the job that reflects your authentic identity.

Years ago I spent a weekend at the home of a very wealthy man, the father of a friend from school.  This guy was a genuine titan of business – he sat on the board of a federal reserve bank and went fly-fishing with Paul Volcker.  He was a terrific guy and a wonderful host, and the first thing I noticed about him was that he loved to play games – board games, card games, any games.  The second thing I noticed was that he always won. Always.  Each and every time.  By a wide margin.

Clearly, there is a link between success in business and aptitude at games.  That is demonstrably true – Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are both expert poker players and so are dozens of other zillionaires.

But some people who are good at games simply become gaming enthusiasts, or mathematicians or computer scientists.  To become a titan of the business world, you have to be a titan of the business world.  It has to be who you are.

The quickest way to figure out if a career fits who you are is to go to the lunchroom where you work, or some other forum where a bunch of other people with that career are gathered, and ask yourself if you fit in with this crowd.  Now – of course – you could always decide to do things your own way – be that renegade accountant who doesn’t ride with the pack.  But, as a general rule, if you stick out like a sore thumb in the lunchroom, it might be a good indication that you don’t belong in this crowd – and this job doesn’t represent the essence of  who you are.

Sometimes we run from the truth of who we are.  My graduate student patient had ended up studying science mostly because it was practical.  She was an immigrant from China, and pretty good at math and science, and she needed something practical, that could get her to the United States, but didn’t require perfect English skills.

Deep in her heart, she confessed to me later, she longed to be a writer – a journalist.  That might be a lot tougher to arrange – but ultimately, it was her happiness at stake, and we both concluded she’d be better off struggling to be true to herself than continuing to pursue a career that felt false and unsatisfying.

I once worked with a man who was preparing to take the MCAT exam to enter medical school.  He, too, had the aptitude to be a doctor.  But deep in his heart, he confessed to me, he longed to be a hair-dresser.

My opinion was that the world needed an inspired hair-dresser more than it needed an uninspired doctor.

You might think you need to choose something practical for a career.  But at some point, you realize a career isn’t about what you choose – it’s about who you are.  It chooses you as much as you choose it.

I had a patient who went to law school and struggled to make a career as a corporate attorney, but he was miserable.  The odd thing was that his entire family worked as teachers.  I finally asked him why he hadn’t become a teacher like everyone else.  He thought about it and said he’d wanted to be different.  Being a teacher seemed like giving up and admitting he was like everyone else in his family.

Eventually, he ended up quitting law anyway, and – sure enough – pursuing teaching.  But he found his own way to be a teacher. In so doing, he found a way to be himself.

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My patient was telling me about his new job.

On the face of things, there was nothing to complain about. He’d hated his old firm — a Biglaw institution that he called “soulless.” The new place, a New York City-based securities boutique, was different. The people were smart – practically cosmopolitan by comparison. And for the first time, he wasn’t being treated like a junior. They respected his judgment – no one was correcting his work.

I offered congratulations.

He looked thoughtful, and I asked what was wrong.

“This is going to sound crazy.”

“Crazy is my business. Try me.”

“I didn’t want to get this job. I was hoping the old place would fire me.”

“Okay. Why?”

“I wanted to be free.”

He’d gone so far in pursuit of his secret fantasy of getting fired that he’d planned a trip to India and investigated moving to Oregon, where an old friend lives. He had money saved up, and was ready to apply for unemployment and sell his apartment. It was all worked out. He was going to escape – to chase a dream of living near the mountains and surrounding himself with laid-back, creative people.

Now – by a stroke of luck – he was sitting in another big city law firm, earning a large salary, continuing with his career.

He had nothing to complain about – but he was crushed.

The problem was simple. He was going nowhere – or, at least, nowhere he wanted to be.

This guy could stick around at this firm for twenty years and end up a senior securities attorney – maybe even a partner. He’d be wealthy. He’d attend bar association thingamabobs and sit on panels. He’d have his own clients and bring in business. That was where he was headed if he stayed on his current track, passively charting the course of least resistance.

But he didn’t want any of that. He didn’t like securities law. He didn’t really like law, period. He just fell into it because he needed something to do and stayed for the money.

Now he sat in my office, crying – talking about what might have been.

“My friend owns a restaurant, in Oregon, on an old wharf. They specialize in organic, locally-grown food. I was going to move to Oregon and manage the place for him. I wouldn’t earn much, but my friend says I have the personality and the talent to run a restaurant. And I love Oregon – living near the forest and the sea.”

I asked him what was stopping him from quitting right now to pursue his dream.

“I’d never have the balls. I couldn’t give up this money.”

“Not even for your dream?”

He shook his head. That was that. It was decided.

Stasis is a trap between anger and fear. Anger that you aren’t living the life you want. Fear that if you let go, you’ll lose everything.

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This week’s question is from Laure, in Canada.  She writes:

Thank you for blogging about the various issues raised during your therapy sessions, I find it most interesting to read and learn from! I particularly appreciate your insight on lawyer patients, as I I will soon be entering law school, and all of your comments on trust (trusting others at the law firm, trusting one’s therapist and one’s partner, for example).

I was wondering if you could please develop and give examples on how to apply your advice given during your interview with Above the law (February 11, 2010) :

“I’d tell them to maintain a “self boundary” – a sort of emotional insulation from the toxic environment of law firms. There is work, and there is you, and there is a firm boundary between the two. You can do what is asked of you, and tolerate some brutal treatment at the office, but that toxicity doesn’t enter your soul; it doesn’t get in where it shouldn’t be, where you dwell, with the child that you were, the vulnerable you that needs love and care and appreciation.”

How would a law student go about shutting out the toxic environment and competitiveness of law school?

And here is 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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The phrase “addicted to oil” gets bandied about a lot with reference to the USA’s massive reliance upon – and consumption of – fossil fuels.

It’s worth taking a look at what drives an addiction, any addiction.

First, there is the physical element – the fact that, due to your genetic predisposition, you crave a substance, such as alcohol or drugs.  In the case of the USA and oil, that translates into some unique factors in our history and our geography.  Settlers from Europe “discovered” a vast, sparsely-populated continent.  They found oil there, invented the automobile, and the land grab already underway switched into high gear. Behind romanticized notions like “frontier” and “cowboy” lies a wasteful low-density settlement pattern that renders mass transit a virtual impossibility.  As a result, “the American Dream” always seems to involve owning a big house far away from everyone else, and driving hundreds of miles per day in a gas-guzzling car.

The second factor spurring addiction is aggression.  As the addict awakens to the cost of his behavior, it begins to take on a different tinge – it becomes about anger.  As one of my clients, a recovered alcoholic, told me – when you’re doing something so obviously self-destructive, there’s always a “to hell with it” attitude running things, an attitude of aggression.  You can wrap yourself up in excuses, but deep down every addict knows what he’s doing is not only self-destructive, but destructive, period.  Feeding the addiction becomes an outlet for aggression.

There are good evolutionary reasons why discharging aggression feels good.  The aggressive animal can intimidate his rivals and mate widely, producing the most off-spring.  The animal who most enjoys aggression, like the animal who most enjoys sex, is the animal who reproduces most successfully.

The problem with discharging aggression, at least in humans, is that it produces a hang-over.  You awaken to remorse.


It’s fun to chant “drill, baby, drill” with cheap demagogues like Sarah Palin and Michael Steele.  There’s a major “to hell with it” factor at play.  You don’t care about pollution – you just want to have fun, like Arnold Schwarzenegger storming LA in a Hummer or Palin blasting around a pristine forest in a snowmobile. You hate feeling deprived and controlled. You want what you want, when you want it.  Get out of my way and let me guzzle!  I’m going to get drunk tonight and Par-TAY!!!

Sounds like every alcoholic on a binge since the dawn of time.

Then comes the morning after.

It will take more than a single morning-after and one bad hang-over to wake this country up to its addiction.  At very least, it will require hitting a true bottom – like the environmental holocaust happening right now in the Gulf of Mexico.  After this calamity, there can be no more denying how far things have gone.  The USA is a sad case.  A wreck.  Let’s be realistic – we’re hard-core users.  If that oil weren’t swirling in deadly currents in the Gulf and the Atlantic right now, it would be burning in power plants and a million internal combustion engines, its deadly currents rising into our atmosphere to wreak a different kind of havoc.  We’re unleashing astonishing destruction each and every day.  We know that.

We are Americans and we are fossil fuel addicts.  We know it is bad for us.  We know it is bad for our neighbors and our family – the Earth and every species on it.  The question is whether this is it – we’ve hit bottom – or whether we’ll go right back to bingeing.  How bad does it have to get?  Can we get clean, or will we continue as we have been – following in the footsteps of so many addicts before us – killing ourselves and wrecking the lives of others.

It is a common trope in books and films about alcohol and drug addiction that to truly hit bottom you have to do something you regret for the rest of your life.  Typically, that involves causing harm or death to a helpless innocent, like a child.  The alcoholic who drives home drunk and hits a third-grader crossing the street usually sobers up, because that’s a pretty awful bottom to hit.

We’re there.  Take a look at the pictures of wildlife destroyed by this spill.

We did that, because of our addiction.

It’s time to own the situation – to get clean and sober.  Enough is enough.

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