Archive for January, 2011

I’ll never forget a moment in a wildlife program about Antarctic penguins – I think it was a David Attenborough series.

There were two little penguin parents and a penguin chick.

Then, suddenly, there wasn’t. The chick fell into a crack in the ice.

The little guy squeaked for all he was worth, the parents circled, there was frantic waving of wings – and not a damn thing anyone could do.

Five minutes later – which seemed like several lifetimes – a member of the film crew tore away a chunk of snow and released the chick.

Profound relief for all involved, penguin and human.

But there was a wrinkle. The show’s non-intervention policy had been violated. A voice-over explained that an exception had been made because the film crew may have created the crack in the ice.

Uh, yeah.

I doubt David Attenborough was buying that story.

The truth? You try filming a baby penguin slowly perishing in front of its parents.

One of my clients, a biglaw senior associate, experienced something similar.

The situation: An 8th year associate – not my client – was up for partner. She worked at a branch office of a huge firm. My client was preparing a case for trial, and her team needed help. They sent word to the branch office, which sent the 8th year. She showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but the partner – an unstable sadist – decided on a whim after two weeks that this 8th year was no good. He didn’t tell her to her face. Instead, he mocked her behind her back to the entire team, proclaiming her work product worse than a second year’s, and bragging he’d send her packing to the branch office, where she belonged.

My client watched all this, and felt complicit. She wasn’t laughing, but she wasn’t saying anything either.

It was like watching the baby penguin.

This 8th year had no idea she was the object of ridicule. In fact, she was arrogant – confident she’d make partner. At the branch office she was their pride and joy, and they sent her to the big city to win support for her bid.

That bid was being derailed. One word from the partner to the branch office and Miss 8th year’s aspirations were toast.

There was nothing wrong with the 8th year’s abilities – she just wasn’t used to the level of aggression this partner demanded in his written work. That, and the partner wanted to hurt something small and helpless.

My client’s instinct was to step in and warn the 8th year.

She didn’t.

Maybe the penguin analogy isn’t quite right. This 8th year was hardly a helpless baby penguin – she was a cold-blooded litigator. If she were watching this happen to someone else, she wouldn’t intervene either.

A better analogy might be gazelles on the African savannah, watching as a hungry lion paces nearby. Each gazelle knows how things are going to end – one of them will be lunch. They would prefer it be someone else. They eye the others – that one’s old, that one’s lame, that one’s still a fawn.

The lion makes the same calculation. He chooses a weak runner, and gives chase.

The other gazelles flee, knowing he’ll get his meal. But this time, it’s not them.

My client was afraid of this partner. If she warned the 8th year, it might get back to him – and that wasn’t worth the risk. There was nothing she or any of the other gazelles could say to the lion – or to one another – that would do this 8th year any good. She was marked. The others were already stepping out of the way. Nature would take its course.

But the lion and gazelle analogy might not be apt either. Gazelles are harmless, but at a law firm anyone can turn dangerous. My client wasn’t naïve. She knew, if this 8th year came to power, she would grow fangs and learn to kill.

A friend of mine recently returned from Australia. He was amazed to find nearly every living creature that walks, swims or crawls Down Under can turn out to be deadly poisonous. It was incredible, he said – they had venomous toads and frogs and spiders and fish and snakes and centipedes and jellyfish and even a poisonous octopus. Just about anything you met could end up killing you.

What was it about living isolated together on a desert island that turned everyone poisonous?



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An intriguing question from “A”:
My boyfriend’s ex has gone through therapy one on one and in a group setting.  She now thinks she can diagnose and help anyone.  In her mind she is “helping” but in reality she is being intrusive, causing more problems, trying to find out secrets.  I see this as someone who is in a delusion that she can fix anyone and is looking for someone who is in her opinion broken.  She thinks that she is bonding with people by “helping them”.  She even tries to make you feel comfortable by saying she is a “bleeding heart.”
I see it as she is prying into to people’s lives looking for dirt to use against them.  I guess being trusted with someones secrets somehow makes her feel that she has created an unbreakable bond.  My instinct is to run away as fast as I can from this person.  I think she is dangerous, manipulative, untrustworthy, and only motivated by money not true friendship.
This is the second one of his (my boyfriend) female friends that I don’t like or trust.  The first one was in love with my boyfriend and trying to break us up.
I know that everyone needs friends but I cannot help her.  I cannot be a true friend to her because I don’t trust her.  Life is hard enough without someone playing the therapist game.  Does she realize that this game she is playing is dangerous and can have severe consequences? What does it say about me that I don’t want to have anything to do with her?

And 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!

Check out The People’s Therapist’s new book: “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

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I was chuckling with a client the other day about the insanity of trying to please a partner with a piece of written work.

The trick, she said – I’ve heard this before – is to adopt the voice of the partner. That’s what he wants – something that sounds like him. It doesn’t matter if your style is better than his. He wants to hear himself.

My client can imitate the writing styles of five partners. That includes whatever quirks – run-on sentences, rudeness, biting sarcasm, unnecessary adjectives, circuitous explanations – capture that partner’s unique gift. It’s a piece of cake: assemble substance, add ventriloquy, and voila! – a happy partner.

She learned this trick after receiving mark-ups. Her heart would sink as she combed the scribble for a critical error. But there was never anything there – only her failure to clone.

This is an example of a more generalized phenomenon – partners, as a group, tend to be arrogant and narcissistic. They harbor absurd notions about their own abilities and tend not to notice anyone else’s right to exist.

Nothing new. But it’s interesting to ask why.

Law firms are abattoirs of self-esteem. If you think you might be a good, useful, capable person, give yourself a few weeks in the world of biglaw and you’ll come to realize you have no ability whatsoever, are in way over your head and were a fool to consider you might succeed at anything.

That’s the special magic of a law firm.

You are also entirely alone. Everyone else is flourishing. They’re doing fine. It’s only you. You are the problem.

How do they achieve this feat of psychic disassembly?

For starters, nary a kind word.

If you put dozens of pleasers in the same room, everyone tries to please everyone else. No one acknowledges he’s pleased. That’s not what pleasers do.

Everyone can’t try to impress. Someone has to be impressed. That person would do the hard work of thanking and praising the others – “You’re doing a great job. I appreciate your effort.”

You’ll never hear that sort of piffle at a law firm. In a world where everyone is starved for praise, no one has time to waste feeding anyone else’s confidence.

Two defenses, arrogance and narcissism, permit lawyers to survive in this hostile environment.

The simplest defense against self-doubt is arrogance. Inside you’re scared, so you pump yourself up for others to see.

The simplest defense against isolation is narcissism. You’re afraid no one wants to be with you, so you tune them out.

Arrogance always appears a bit comical because it’s so obvious. If you’re terrified you might not have what it takes, you put on a false bravado, but it doesn’t fool anyone. And once you’ve taken the leap into arrogance, you’re stuck – you have to maintain it, or risk humiliation.

Narcissism is more insidious, and less amusing. If you’re not receiving anything you need from anyone else, you shut them out – put up a mirror – and stare at a world that looks like you.

Maybe you must be an arrogant narcissist to make partner. That would certainly explain some things.

The downside is that you become an arrogant narcissist. The money’s good – but no one can stand you. You wind up correcting memos to sound like you wrote them. You don’t realize you’re doing it.

J.K. Rowling, in her Harry Potter series, presents a flawless portrait of a biglaw partner.


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I did a podcast a while back with the American Bar Association Journal. The topic was “work/life balance.” You can listen to it here.

It was a weird experience – like living on another planet.

I was the sole male. The other panelists and the moderator were women. That’s fine, but somehow, faced with the topic of “work/life balance” everyone turned into Gloria Steinem circa 1971.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a shrill, strident feminist committed to full equality for women, and I have no beef with Gloria Steinem.

But how is work/life balance in the legal world strictly a gender issue? Women are admitted to law schools, and graduate from them, like men. They go to the same law firms, make the same money and take the same abuse.

I have tangential experience with this stuff since I’m gay. When people talk about homophobia at Sullivan & Cromwell I roll my eyes. Homophobia wasn’t the issue. Humanophobia was the issue. Some of the partners and plenty of the associates were openly gay. Homo or hetero, male or female we were all in the same boat.

The unspoken “women’s lib” angle on the “work/life balance” at law firms is this: women give birth to children, and it’s impossible to raise a kid if you are a partner at a law firm, so women are less likely to become partners. If they did, they wouldn’t have time to raise a kid. It’s also impossible to meet anyone you want to have a kid with when you’re working 70-hour weeks.

These are incontrovertible facts of law firm life.

Plenty of male partners have kids. They become absentee fathers, and their kids never see them. Nothing new there. But a social stigma kicks in when your kid tells his friends he only sees mommy an hour a week.

You also have to find time to be pregnant. If you put it off until you make partner, you face fertility problems. That’s a fundamental bummer about being a woman who wants a kid – when you’re mentally prepared your body gives out. At sixteen, anyone can get pregnant. At 39, you can only get pregnant if you don’t want to. If you’re trying, it never happens.

The solution to all this is obvious – have a kid while you still can, and let your husband do the raising.

That’s more or less where the other panelists ended up, but only after spouting “women can have it all” slogans and fabricating visions of “part-time partners.” The law professors on the panel had no concept of law firm reality. The young lawyer running an internet-based T&E firm receded politely when I pointed out the obvious: plenty of women would rather stay at home with the kids than work at a firm. Hell, I’ve worked with couples where the husband and wife fight over who has to do law for a living. They’d both rather stay home and play with junior. Wouldn’t you?

A second yawning gulf between me and the other panelists came with their determination to defend law as a profession. They were “pro-law” and I was “anti-law.” That’s understandable, since the ABA Journal represents the official propaganda ministry for Law, Inc. Law professors need to herd eager young things into school – that’s how they earn big bucks. And the internet lady was trying to drum up business, too – she has loans to pay.

I’m not from that world. I’m a psychotherapist who cleans up the wreckage of young lives decimated by the law school/law firm machine.

Here’s a little scandal for you: at least 10 minutes of the podcast – the final 10 minutes, where I stopped sitting back feeling out of place and came out swinging – were deleted from the recording. You hear a fadeout as I’m about to come on.

What did you miss?


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This month “The Alternative” with Terry LeGrand celebrated its one year anniversary. Congratulations, Terry! (And congrats to his technician and sidekick, Andrew Holinsky, too!)

For the anniversary show, we talked about a good New Year’s resolution for every LGBT person – coming out of the closet – but with a twist. For many in our community, there’s a second coming out that’s less fun, but equally important – coming out as HIV+.

You can listen to the show here.  My segment starts about 31 minutes in, but as always, it’s worth sticking around for the whole hour.  To find out more about Terry and “The Alternative” on LA Talk Radio, check out Terry’s website and the show’s website.   And be sure to catch Terry’s new show “Journey to Recovery” which deals specifically with substance abuse and recovery issues.

If you enjoy his shows, you can become a Terry LeGrand “fan” on Facebook here.
Thanks, Terry! See you next month.
Check out The People’s Therapist’s new book: “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

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I get asked this all the time:  “What if it’s only chemical?”

Good question.  Why talk to a therapist if you can take a pill and be done with it?

Freud was intrigued by the possibility.  According to Peter Gay, in Freud’s late work, “Outline of Psychoanalysis:”

“[he] speculated that the time might come when chemical substances would alter balances in the mind and thus make psychoanalytic therapy, now the best available treatment for neuroses, quite obsolete.”

It’s appealing to treat mental illness as a chemical problem because chemistry seems clean and precise.  The fundamental functioning of the brain is both chemical and electrical, based on the difference in potentiality between sodium and potassium.  No problem.  You identify an imbalance, add ingredients, stir, and restore order.

But there is a problem.  The brain is also a ball of flesh, soaking in countless compounds we scarcely comprehend.

Injecting a drug – one more chemical – into your bloodstream is a primitive way to fine-tune complex chemistry.

That’s why psychiatric drugs are most effective when blunt, simple results are called for.  They can slow you down.  They can speed you up.  They can numb you or narrow your emotional bandwidth.  If you are bi-polar, they may help stabilize your emotional swings.  If you are psychotic, they may bring you back to reality, or at least closer to it.

For subtler changes in brain chemistry, talk therapy – or maybe talk therapy in tandem with a drug treatment component – produces better results.

How could talking in a therapist’s office affect the chemistry of the brain?

Your emotions are chemicals.  When you feel angry, your amygdala, a region in the center of your brain, releases a chemical signal.  That chemical – or series of chemicals, is what you experience as “anger.”  Joy, fear, sadness – all the emotions you feel as fundamental responses to the world around you – are chemicals.

Your thoughts are also chemicals.  When you admire a sunset, you are releasing chemicals which trigger electrical impulses that race through the circuitry of your brain.

Your thoughts affect your emotions.  So if I can affect  your thoughts, I can affect the chemicals triggering your feelings.

The brain is extremely mutable – neural pathways can be rerouted.  If I can make you aware of your thoughts and feelings, I can reroute the neurons in your brain, so different chemicals are released.

This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.  Here’s an example:  If you are depressed and I tell you to go for a run because it will cheer you up, I’m not merely nagging.  Aerobic exercise releases endorphins in your brain.  These chemicals cheer you up, relieving depression.

In the process, you will also create a memory – a piece of stored chemical information – that links depression with going for a run and feeling better.  A faint, newly formed neural link, and a piece of memory supporting that link, have been created.

Here’s another example:  if you are denying your anger – the typical pattern that creates depression – and I arrange during a session of psychotherapy for you to address your father, or your mother, or your boss or your girlfriend, and you feel anger well up and put that anger into words, saying what you’ve kept silent for years…that’s going to have effects on the chemistry of your brain.

When you get the words out, and feel your buried anger, new pathways will form between the ancient regions governing emotion in the center of the brain and more recently evolved cognition areas in the outer cortex.

New thoughts circulate new chemicals, create new memories, and effectively rewire the way you think.

You leave my office realizing you were angrier than you thought, and knowing it felt good to get it out.  You experience a lightening of mood.  Your girlfriend, when you get home, senses that you are less defended – your resistances are down.  This alters her behavior towards you, and she starts to open up to you emotionally to a new degree.  You begin questioning your old responses to her, and your old ways of doing things in general.

Your brain is flooded with new chemicals, and new pathways have been formed, that might, with further talk therapy, begin to replace old ones.

Subtle changes have been made to the chemistry of your brain – to who you are, how you think, and how you behave with others.

That’s what psychotherapy is all about:

Better living through chemistry.


If you enjoyed this post, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book.

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2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 240,000 times in 2010. If it were an exhibit at The Louvre Museum, it would take 10 days for that many people to see it.

In 2010, there were 126 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 520 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 60mb. That’s about 1 pictures per day.

The busiest day of the year was December 15th with 11 views. The most popular post that day was I suck at law.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were abovethelaw.com, Google Reader, facebook.com, en.wordpress.com, and abajournal.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for the people’s therapist, people’s therapist, the peoples therapist, peoples therapist, and the people’s therapist blog.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


I suck at law December 2010
40 comments and 1 Like on WordPress.com,


Fighting back from a bad review February 2010


Maybe you’re not cut out for this place April 2010


Extremely Versatile Crockery November 2010


When the emptiness swallows you whole February 2010

…and while I’m crowing about the year’s achievements, please take a look at my new book!

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