To judge by the accoutrements of “the profession,” lawyers, as a group, maintain an inflated self-image. They think they’re all that. It’s easy to get sucked into this mind-set – especially fresh out of law school. Perhaps, when you’re not “thinking like a lawyer,” you’ve spent a few minutes admiring the little “Esq.” printed after your name on an envelope from school or a law firm – or some company in Parsippany trying to sell you a genuine mahogany and brass pen holder featuring a statue of “blind justice” for only $59.99 with free shipping.
Back when I passed the bar, I was offered the option by New York State to purchase a printed document – “suitable for hanging” – to memorialize the event. I figured what the heck and blew the twenty-five bucks. The “parchment” arrived in a cardboard tube, and it was huge – like a royal proclamation. I felt ridiculous, rolled it back up and stuck it in a closet, where it remains.
It’s hard to imagine accountants (who often make more than lawyers), or bankers (who always make more than lawyers) laying on the pretension to quite the degree lawyers take for granted.
My father was a physician, and in his early days, he fell for the professional ostentation thing, too. After he graduated from medical school, he ordered “MD” plates for his car. Sure enough, the next time he took the rusty old Mercury Marquis in for a repair, the mechanics charged him double. That was enough – he sent back the plates.
At least doctors are highly regarded in our society. My father was a psychiatrist, not a brain surgeon, but there was grudging respect for the fact of his MD. If you were in a car accident or had a heart attack on a plane, theoretically my dad could save your life. That meant something.
With lawyers, self-esteem outpaces public acclaim. That’s because, for the most part, non-lawyers view lawyers as worthless parasites – or at least, as existing on the more worthless, parasitical end of the esteem spectrum.
I’ll never forget the time I asked a Wall Street-er what he actually thought about lawyers.
I’d received the nudge from Sullivan & Cromwell, which meant I had six months to find another job. A head-hunter somehow or other set me up with an interview to be a bond trader at JP Morgan.
I considered the whole idea misguided – I was a lawyer from one of the top firms in the world, and far above working as a trader. I thought of bond traders as slick goombahs with Staten Island accents shouting into a phone all day. I was an attorney, with a degree from Hahvard. I showed up at Morgan as a courtesy to the headhunter. I radiated disdain.
For their part, the traders were patient and polite. I chatted briefly, answered some “brain-teaser” questions, and left. That was that.
During that weekend, by sheer coincidence, I read “Liar’s Poker,” and learned something about bond traders – specifically, the fact that they earn millions of dollars a year. Somehow, as that information sank in, I began to reconsider my attitude towards the opportunity.
Monday morning, I called up my contact at Morgan, the guy who interviewed me. He was Australian, and seemed distantly friendly. For whatever reason, I sensed I had nothing to lose, so I put it to him straight. I’d been reading “Liar’s Poker,” I said, and sensed I’d blown the interview. I wanted another chance to present myself.
There was a pause.
“I appreciate that mate. It took guts to make this call, and I’ll keep you in mind. Unfortunately, someone’s taken the job. You did show a typical lawyer attitude – I’m afraid it hurt your chances.”
I asked him to explain.
“That’s why I tell headhunters not to send me lawyers. You all act like you’re too good for the place. I’ll never understand it.”
I asked, flat out, what he really thought of lawyers.
Another pause, then, delivered in that charming Australian accent, with a chuckle: “Bend over and take it like a man.”
“That’s really what you think?”
“Seems like the worst job in the world to us. You work day and night, chasing your own tail. You’re like slaves, and all you do is the boring stuff.”
“Trading bonds is more fun, huh?”
“Fun and lucrative, thank you.”
That was the first honest conversation I’d ever had with a non-lawyer about lawyers – and it was an eye-opener. It led me to re-run through my head all the interactions I’d had at closings over the years with the other, non-lawyer participants at the table. The relaxed, friendly guys from the ratings agencies always showed up at the last minute like it was no big deal. The auditors from the big accounting firms smiled all the time, radiating contentment. The bright, perky bankers from Goldman, Sachs looked – well, like someone dropping by their lawyers’ office to sign documents, then take off for an early lunch. By comparison, we’d inevitably been up all night in our wool suits, and were sweaty, red-eyed and miserable.
Somehow or other, though… we thought we were hot stuff. Why?
I had a junior partner from a large law firm pose the same question to me in my office the other day. He was remarking in amazement at a senior partner who’d complained that things were getting so complex that he couldn’t trust “the really difficult stuff” to junior partners anymore – he had to do everything himself.
“Can you imagine?” My client said. “This guy was so arrogant he didn’t trust his fellow partners. That’s the level of ego we’re dealing with. He’s gotten to where he thinks he’s the only person who can do anything right. And between you and me, his writing is terrible – long-winded, pretentious, riddled with hyperbole. He thinks every sentence is a masterpiece. But he’s senior, so it’s not like anyone can say anything to him.”
Arrogance is a defense against insecurity. And it’s insecurity that drives many people to pursue law.
Lawyers often tell me they entered law because they needed to “be somebody” – to achieve status, power, a degree, a title, an office and a secretary. You go from being the guy who graduated from college and doesn’t know what he wants to do to…somebody. You are provided with a defense against the dreaded cocktail party question – so what do you do?
Many lawyers went into law to hide the fact that they don’t really know what they’re good at. All the pretense and pomposity surrounding the profession amounts to an attempt to hide the fact that many lawyers still feel like a bit of a fake – one member of a vast herd of the relatively uninspired, resolutely above-average.
Nobody’s fooling anyone.
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.)