I uttered those words for the first time back in 2001, over lunch.
I wasn’t putting myself down; I was setting myself free. This was transgression – admitting the whole legal “thing” wasn’t for me.
It’s what you’re never supposed to say, because it opens you up for slaughter. It’s throwing down your weapon, taking off the armor and walking away from the fight.
Go ahead – tear into me. I double-dare you.
It was a weird lunch. I was sitting with another former associate from Sullivan & Cromwell. We weren’t friends. I actually sort of hated him. For two years he did his best to bad-mouth me and let everyone know he was a better lawyer.
Now he wanted to do lunch.
That’s because he’d been laid off (you know, the “bad review” routine.) I’d left S&C six months before and done the impossible – gotten a real job outside law, as a marketing exec.
He said he wanted to discuss “careers outside the law.” Yeah. As soon as we sat down he started shooting the shit about our law firm days.
I felt sorry for him. He had a fiance and was clearly a mess. But I wasn’t about to play along with that bullshit.
I knew what would get his attention. When he paused from the stream of false bonhomie to catch his breath, I seized the opportunity.
“I suck at law.”
This produced a deer in the headlights face. I went on.
“I never belonged at that place. Who was I kidding? You were twice the lawyer I was.”
From his expression, I’d morphed into a winged goat in a tutu.
First rule at a law firm: Never admit vulnerability. Second rule: Conform. Third rule: Compete.
It felt like an accusation. I meant it that way. You were much more lawyer-ey than me. No, really. I insist. You were far and away the better lawyer. You are law, dude. You much much law. Me no law.
No one gave a shit at my new job if I was a good lawyer. That’s because I wasn’t a lawyer.
I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Rent a skywriter. Hire a blimp.
From the outside I look like a pretty good lawyer. Top 20% at NYU. Article in a journal. Sullivan & Cromwell.
Yeah, well I’m not. I suck at law.
I’m good at school, and law school is school. That doesn’t make me a lawyer.
Here are the facts:
I ignore details. I hate small print.
I’m not a “team player.” I hate working on stuff with other people.
Money and power bore me. Give me music, books and art.
I’m not confrontational. Put me in a room and we’ll all start getting along.
I can’t do all-nighters. At 10 pm I go to sleep.
Nothing is more boring than the Supreme Court. They mostly (5-4) hate gay people. I mostly (5-4) hate them.
Litigation terrifies me. It’s complicated and scary. Threaten to sue me, and you win. That’s it. Take whatever you want and go away.
I suck at law.
The other night one of my clients told his therapy group he was graduating from law school with $200k in debt and no job.
The group – all non-lawyers – stared in horror.
The worst part is he went into the wrong field. After doing some therapy, he sees that he prefers fields like teaching, where he can help people directly.
One member of the group, an immigrant from China, sympathized. He chose to pursue science – neurobiology – because of his limited language skills, but now felt trapped. He loved the humanities and wanted to be a journalist in his new language, English.
The law student wasn’t Chinese. He was Jewish, from Long Island. There was no good reason why he chose law. When the group asked, he fumbled for an explanation:
“It seemed more impressive than teaching. I wanted money and status.”
This guy competed for years like his life depended on it, to become what a law firm needed, even if it had nothing to do with anything he cared about.
Stop, at some juncture, and ask yourself who you are.
Otherwise you end up competing in something you suck at.
And you’re never going to be good at something if it isn’t what you want to do.
At least, I used to believe that, until one of my clients who’s a senior partner at a major law firm confessed to me that he “hates legal reasoning.”
So maybe you can be good at something, even if you hate it.
But you’ll still suck at it.
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.)