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Archive for February, 2011

After Steve Spierer invited me to be a guest on his radio show on Talk Radio One, he told me we’d probably do a 30-minute segment.  Then he added a caveat:  “If we’re really on fire, we could go the full forty-five.”

Apparently we achieved ignition, because we ran the full forty-five.  Steve’s a terrific host, and kept things moving with perceptive, challenging questions.  He also arranged  for a caller – Matt, a young first-year lawyer at a top-100 firm.  It was a first – the People’s Therapist live on the air with one of the sort of people he’s always writing about, talking about what he’s always writing about.  A moment of truth.

To hear the show, click here.

For the show’s website, click here.

Steve’s a fascinating guy – a real estate lawyer with decades of experience, who also hosts a radio show about books and authors, issues of personal growth and – sound like the People’s Therapist? – the law.  I couldn’t have asked for a better match between interviewer and interviewee.

For more information on Steve and his show, click here.

I’m on for the first forty-five minutes, but stick around for the final fifteen, where Steve provides his listeners a savvy take on trends in the real estate market. His opinions might not be what you’re expecting, but he knows what he’s talking about and he leaves you thinking.

Thanks for having me on the show, Steve – and thank you, Matt, for calling in and keeping The People’s Therapist on his toes.

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If you enjoy The People’s Therapist, check out his new book!

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My client was sitting at her desk, drafting a complicated, rushed memo. The topic was an obscure derivative. She’d worked all weekend, then come in again early. Her head hurt. It was due at 5 pm. She could barely focus and was feeling panicked. It was 4 pm.

The phone rang. Not thinking, she picked up and barked her last name, sharply, the way the partner she worked for did.

“Jones.”

It was her ninety-two-year-old grandmother.

“How are you, Sweetheart?”

My client couldn’t stop crying.

“All she did was ask how I was,” she told me. “That’s all it took. I fell apart.”

When you enter the world of biglaw, you pass through a ritual of initiation – LSAT, law school, bar exam, interviews.

Then you enter the bubble.

On the inside, propositions that seem insane in the outside world are taken for granted:

  • Two hundred thousand dollars in student loans is within the normal range.
  • You have to earn six figures or you are a failure.
  • You can’t take a vacation just because you “have” a vacation. It must be “convenient.”
  • Leaving the office at 5 pm shows a serious failure of commitment.
  • Taking a weekend off shows a serious failure of commitment.
  • Working night and day and doing your best shows a serious failure of commitment.

Last week, another client’s mother was rushed to the hospital. He got a call from the emergency room, then sprinted to the train station to buy a ticket home. It was serious – a perforated appendix that could have killed her. He spent the weekend by her side. Once she was back in her own bedroom, recovering, he found himself tucking her plastic hospital id bracelet into his briefcase.

“I know, it sounds crazy, but I didn’t think they’d believe me.”

“They’d think you were lying about your mother being rushed to the hospital?”

He rolled his eyes. “I know. I know. But they’re like that. No one trusts anyone. An excuse to leave for a long weekend? Someone might try it.”

The rules are different in the bubble. The worst distortion? Money becomes more important than people.

When my client’s ninety-two-year-old grandmother called to ask how she was, it reminded her this old woman is a precious treasure – and she’s elderly, and frail. She won’t be here forever.

When you work at a law firm, things keep coming up. My client hasn’t seen her grandmother in more than a year. That’s part of the reason she was crying. The rules inside the bubble take over. You forget who you are. Then an old woman calls and reminds you.

As the author of this column, I’m asked the same question all the time – how do I survive this?

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I’ve always been awestruck by tax lawyers. They are the dudes.

As a transactional attorney, you can’t make a move without a tax guy. M&A is based on IRS consequences. It’s the tax guy who hands you a chart with boxes and arrows, holding companies and off-shore limited partnerships buying and selling and re-selling and issuing and repurchasing and spinning off. Everything starts there.

Tax lawyers do stuff no one else would attempt. They swagger out the door at 5 pm.

“Don’t start with me. I’m in tax.

Way back when, I took an advanced tax course in law school – to see if I could roll with the gangstas. I even took it the wrong semester, so instead of JD students, it was LLM’s snickering at my desperation. I received my lowest grade ever. I also discovered tax law is like higher mathematics: there is no big picture. Tax is not intuitive or guided by over-arching principle; it’s a mess of staggering, intimidating complication.

What I’ve come to realize lately, as a therapist working with tax lawyers, is that these seemingly unapproachable superstars are human. And being “the expert” can exact a toll.

One guy – a senior tax lawyer from a big city firm – walked into my office last week. He had the usual frustrations. In an ordinary economy he’d be making partner soon, but business was terrible, so even the partners at his firm were being laid off. He was expecting a pink slip.

There was a deeper issue, too: He didn’t like being a tax lawyer.

I gave him a speech about my admiration for his kind.

He appreciated the fawning worship, but his expression remained grim.

“What you describe is actually what I hate about it.”

It turns out being “the expert” can be isolating – and scary. From where he’s sitting, there’s incredible pressure to know everything and solve every problem.

He clued me in to his experiences, and in the process brought me down to Earth. Tax lawyers aren’t a race of super-beings from Planet Krypton. Tax is incredibly complicated for them, too. The job is about helping rich people avoid the IRS, which translates into “gaming” each tax law to create loopholes that the government closes up in the next version the following year.

There isn’t just a “tax code,” either. There’s an endless labyrinth of fine print: contradictory court decisions, administrative regulations, IRS guidances, state and local and international consequences for every move you make…it goes on and on and on, twisting and turning like something from the imagination of Borges or Kafka.

The mind reels. At least my mind reels. I always believed that – by some miracle – if you were a tax lawyer, your mind didn’t reel.

My client was a senior tax guy at a top firm. His mind was beginning to reel.

“They want to hear you say it’s possible – whatever deal they dream up. So you’re under massive pressure to find a way to do it. And it’s all riding on you. If you screw up… I try not to think about it.”

I thought about it. The entire deal blows up – probably in the papers. Millions of dollars lost by your client, who might try to sue you. Criminal penalties. Malpractice. Disbarment. All that bad stuff.

It’s like writing an opinion letter. No lawyer wants to write an opinion letter. Why? The same reason no one wants to step into the sights of a high-powered rifle.

“I can’t do this anymore,” this guy said. “I feel like I’m wracking my brain, dealing with incredible complexity, holding on by my fingertips – all to save billionaires from paying their due.”

It isn’t only tax lawyers who end up “the expert.” We had a bunch of experts at Sullivan & Cromwell. I remember an environmental guy whose only job was to review deals for pollution issues. There was an ERISA guy, too, who only reviewed stuff for ERISA issues (whatever they are).  And there was a strange tall guy with a mustache who always smiled and whistled to himself. He was the ’40 Act guy. I once sat through a CLE presentation he gave, and remember thinking it wasn’t that I didn’t understand the details – I couldn’t figure out what the ’40 Act was.

Sometimes the role of expert seems like a hot potato – everyone wants to pass it off to someone else. I remember doing a deal with AIG – some complicated nightmare with a dozen side agreements and sub-corporations selling and repurchasing their own holding corps. At the umpteenth drafting session, a banker scribbled down a formula on a napkin – no kidding, it was a mathematical formula, and he said “stick this in there.” They’d been arguing for days about some clause in the back of the contract and this is what he told us to stick in there. I looked at it. There was what I recognized as a numerator, and a denominator, and a bunch of letters.

The partner glanced at it and told the of counsel to stick it in there. She handed it to me, and told me to stick it in there. I stuck it in there, but I didn’t know what it was.

Of course, I knew the general rule that you’re not allowed to put math into a contract, you have to put it into plain English. So that’s what I tried to do: “the Pre-determined Selling Price shall be determined by a formula in which the numerator shall be the amount of the Settlement Price and the denominator shall be one added to the amount of the Sales Price multiplied by the First Pre-Settlement Price minus the Third Sub-Corporation Preliminary Offering Variable…”

You get the idea. I had no idea what I was doing. I tried, a few times, inserting numbers, just to see what would happen. The first time I got something like one hundred billion dollars. I knew I’d done something wrong. The second time I got something like 0.000125782 dollars.

I should add that it was late at night and I’d been wearing the same wool suit for 17 hours.

I gave up and handed it nonchalantly to the of-counsel. No biggie. I’d “taken a stab at it.” She might yell at me, but she’d know what to do. If she had to, she’d fix it herself.

But she didn’t.

I watched her disappear into the partner’s office, then return. Her face was set. She approached my desk and plopped the offending passage down in front of me.

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This month on “The Alternative” we celebrated Valentine’s Day with some lively – and racy – talk about dating and romance.  Terry LeGrand wasn’t feeling well, so his old friend Guy Windsor (who comes on every month to present LGBT theater reviews) stepped in to host the show (with plenty of help from Terry’s regular technician and sidekick, Andrew Holinsky.)

You can listen to the show here. My segment starts about 15 minutes in, but as always, it’s worth sticking around to the end. 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.

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

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My client is in the horns of an uncomfortable dilemma.

Here’s the scenario:

He and his wife are both in law, and both want out. Resources exist to permit one to escape. The other must remain behind to pay loans.

Who makes it to freedom? Who gets left behind?

Arriving at that decision can wreak hell on a marriage.

A successful partnership requires an alliance, which depends upon shared goals. If the primary shared goal was being wealthy, powerful lawyers, and that goal cartwheels in flames into the tarmac at three hundred feet per second… the alliance fractures. Sometimes the alliance transforms into opposition.

You do law. No, YOU do law.

That kind of opposition.

My client met his wife at a first-tier law school. They were in the same class, and their shared dream was simple – they would graduate at the top of their class, join powerful, big-name law firms, and make a lot of money. They would have a nice house, maybe a couple of kids, fabulous vacations – and a kitchen with granite counter-tops and an AGA stove.

This was a simple, bourgeois dream – stability, money, family. Naturally, they were intellectuals, so they’d have a subscription to the local symphony – but their dream was about making it, in predictable, concrete terms.

Then reality hit.

They hated their firms. He got laid off, which came as a relief. She went in-house, and to her surprise, hated it even more than the firm. She ended up quitting.

They relocated to another city, where he found a job at a smaller firm. He hates it less, but still basically hates it. She’s still out of work, dragging her feet. He’s paying both their loans every month – and resenting it.

She says she can’t do law anymore – it would crush her soul. She needs to go to grad school and study art or she’ll go crazy.

He wants to go to grad school and study history – or he’ll go crazy.

They both think the other should stay and do law to pay the bills.

Remember the old shared goal? Charred embers. There are new goals – and they’re no longer mutual.

When he’s not slaving at the firm, they’re fighting. That’s driving them both nuts.

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