My client wasn’t getting enough sleep. I assumed it was insomnia, but that didn’t fit the bill. It wasn’t that she couldn’t sleep – it was that she wouldn’t sleep. She was staying up from 11 pm to 2 am, lying in bed – mostly, playing Angry Birds.
Those few hours were the only time she was left alone all day – no one from the firm called to assign her something awful to do or yell at her for something awful she’d done. To relinquish this sliver of “me time” – even for sleep – was out of the question.
Morning to night, she spent at the firm. Weekends didn’t exist, in any meaningful sense – they were workdays. Laundry went undone, as did other stuff, like getting her driver’s license renewed or her taxes filed. The only hours devoted to anything for herself were stolen from her sleep schedule, and spent slingshotting daredevil birds at sneering pigs (that’s an Angry Birds reference.)
She needed to vegetate. You need to vegetate, too. There’s only so much work anyone can do. That’s why you find yourself playing video games at 2 am instead of sleeping. You need to play and you need to sleep. You need both.
A medical resident told me law sounded worse than medicine. At least with medicine when you’re on-call, you’re on-call, and when you’re not, you’re not. With law, you’re always on call. Just because you’re asleep in bed doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be working.
Another lawyer client crawled home from the office recently after midnight, only to be awakened at 3 am by the alarm on her Blackberry. She turned it off, but noticed an email from a senior associate, still at his desk. She glanced at the email, but decided to ignore it – nothing critical – and deal with him in the morning.
She forgot his account was set up so he could see she’d opened the email.
Her Blackberry buzzed through the night, with increasingly desperate messages. “What happened? I know you read my email. Why aren’t you responding?!”
The last one arrived at 5 am.
Law firms operate on the assumption they own your soul. There’s no downtime. They own your soul on Christmas morning. They own your soul at 5 am. They own your soul when you’re on vacation. They own your soul when you’re in the hospital. There is no “me time.”
That doesn’t work, because you need “me time.” Thus, there is an apparent contradiction. So you find a work-around – what we contract attorneys call a “carve-out” – an exception. And that exception becomes your “me time.”
The all-time favorite work-around is to get liquored up and sloppy. If you’re drunk… well, there’s your carve out: they can come a-callin’, but you’re not gonna go a-lawyerin’, now are you? Voila! “Me time.”
Problem is, as a lawyer, you can’t go completely wild, at least, not on a school night (which is pretty much every night). So you arrive at the concept of maintenance drinking.
Lawyers appear at my office sometimes looking suspiciously okay. On occasion, I think I’ve stumbled on that mythical beast – the happy lawyer. And at a big firm, too! Then he mentions the four whiskies he gulps down every single night before going to bed. Oh, and the eight or ten (or twelve) drinks he downs if he doesn’t have to go into the office the next day.
He looks fine at the firm. Might not be loving it, but he’s surviving. He’s put in five or six years – might even go for partner. Nothing looks wrong, unless you’re there for an hour around 11 pm when he downs half a bottle of Maker’s Mark.
Time spent getting drunk can be “me time.” It’s escape, in the form of substance abuse. It’s also an outlet for anger. People in the recovery movement talk about “drinking on anger.” If you’re abusing alcohol, you’re always drinking on anger. It’s aggressive, doing something you know is bad for you – and something that will remove you from the world. It’s not just checking out and saying I’m not here. It’s saying “fuck you.”
Getting stoned every night isn’t much different. Pot is less physically addictive and easier on your body than booze, but doing constant bong hits is tuning out the world, and tuning out yourself – and that’s an aggressive statement. It says “fuck you” and it says “this is my only escape – I’ve run out of other options.” Let me be clear: I’ve met many lawyers in prestigious jobs who go home and get high each and every night. Smoking weed once in a while – like having a drink once in a while – is one thing. Maintenance smoking – and drinking – is another thing entirely.
Coming home and yelling at your husband or wife is yet another option for “me time” – that’s the rage-a-holic’s drug of choice. You get home late every night from the firm, and your wife looks forward to spending a few pleasant hours alone together. Instead, you turn into a beast, slamming doors and tearing into her for anything and everything.
The rage-a-holic’s “me time” is about ruining the other person’s “us time.” I’ve heard lawyers tell me they can’t stop it – you need to get the anger out of your system. The endless constriction of life in big law feels like a cage. One client actually had a dream he was trapped in a concrete chair – he couldn’t sit up, couldn’t budge.
Rage – helpless anger – arises from a life dominated by the deferred gratification of slaving for years to pay off a bank and the loss of autonomy of having a control-freak partner dictating every hour of your day. So you discharge aggression, which is gratifying – at least in the short term. It feels good to terrorize someone helpless – that is, until a little later, when the hang-over comes, awareness of the hurt you’ve caused, and possibly the end of your relationship, the one meaningful thing left.
During my Sullivan & Cromwell years, my “me time” was mostly spent with my dog. My boyfriend was away at architecture grad school, so I hardly saw him. The timing seemed perfect – I was stuck at a firm, and he was buried in design charrettes. My companion, always delighted to see me, was Margaret, a skye terrier.
She had a dog-walker, but that was hardly enough. I saw the look in Margaret’s eyes when I crawled home late at night, only to disappear back to the office an hour later. Dogs need a little “me time,” too.
There is no such thing as work/life balance when you’re a slave to the billable hour. That reality takes a toll on your psyche. You require time that’s truly yours – not a tantrum of acting out before you fall asleep.
One client told me her plan for a future legal career:
Take a clerkship,
work briefly at firm,
leave for second clerkship,
work briefly at firm,
take maternity leave
get pregnant again
take maternity leave
take accumulated vacation time
refuse (subtly) to work
This scheme sounds exploitative, but it has an undeniable logic – at least she’s factored in plenty of “me time.”
Firms don’t hesitate to look after their own interests. I’ve heard stories of new hires being deferred for a year without warning, or half a class of associates getting laid off after four months.
Apparently big law firms need a little “me time” – some space for themselves, to put their priorities first.
So do you.
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.
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