As The People’s Therapist, my door is always open. I don’t turn away poor clients.
“Pay whatever you can afford,” I tell them.
Naturally, they get what they pay for. If I’m a little sleepy, or staring at the clock – who are they to complain? Come to think of it, why do we have to talk about them all the time anyway…
But let’s be real – are things any different with the the high-fidelity first-class traveling set than they are with folks flying “comfort class”? I ask myself that question a lot. I do it to stay honest.
For one thing, my wealthy clients – mostly partners at big firms – pay a lot more, which means they literally pay my rent. That means something. Therapy can feel conspiratorial, too – you tell your therapist everything. So when I’m on duty in the Platinum Elite Lounge, I’m aware I’m also pow-wowing with a supremely powerful boss making life-shattering decisions affecting my clients on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
But I have to be everyone’s therapist. That’s my job. I’m consciously working two sides of a divide.
The following is not an unusual scenario: I spend fifty minutes with a JD two years out of law school who’s making $25 per hour doing doc review – all to eke out monthly payments on a $170k financial carcinoma euphemistically termed a “school loan.” Five minutes later, in the same chair, I face a senior partner who brings in $2.8 million every twelve months. I witness abrupt social discordance at least once a week. Welcome to my world.
One of my wealthiest clients, a hypothetical composite who claims half of a large law firm as a personal asset, explained to me an especially profitable element of his firm’s business:
“You see, we get these kids in to do doc review, and we pay the company that recruits them $35/hr. The kids get $25, and we bill the client $70. That’s about it.”
It turns out there’s a sweet spot between handing doc review off to a junior associate – at $350/hr – and wiring it to some faceless drone in India to have it done for – what? – $20/hr? For $70 – the sweet spot – you’re saving the client real money but – and he insists there are studies to prove it – by hiring an out of work American JD, you’re still guaranteed high-quality, reliable service.
Do the math. The firm’s pocketing $35 every single hour – every single $25 hour that one of those kids spends chained by debt to a computer monitor, assessing corporate detritus.
Of the firm’s thirty-five bucks, a fair chunk goes directly to my client (hypothetical composite that he is), since he “owns” the account and the matter – a massive securities litigation – generating the doc review.
For each one of those dozens of doc review galley slaves slowly dying for $25/hr, my client – I’m guessing – pockets about $10/hr. That would add up fast.
Needless to say, he doesn’t have school loans. He does possess several gracious homes.
Okay. So what is The People’s Therapist doing sitting in the same room with this guy?! Even if he is a hypothetical composite – doesn’t it amount to consorting with the enemy?
For starters, Mr. Hypothetical Composite is not the enemy. He’s just a person. And what I’m doing is psychotherapy – just like with you. Let’s say he has problems with his kids, or marital issues or stuff he wants to work out from his childhood before his elderly father dies – well, then that’s what we’re talking about. Just like with everyone else in my office.
Even as I struggle to write this piece, I envision the comments and letters I’ll receive. Half will excoriate me as a wild-eyed Communist. The other half will tear into me for selling out.
Neither is the case. Trust me. I’m just a therapist.
Do I hate watching young people exploited by the law schools and the big firms? Of course.
Do I care about my wealthy, powerful law firm partner clients? Yes. And not just because they can pay hefty fees and help me make my rent. Because they’re people.
I guess my point here is that we need to do more than vilify one another. We need to understand one another – and understand the system and where we fall in it.
That sounds like a platitude. But psychotherapy is about consciousness and this is an element of consciousness.
I’ll put it this way: I sometimes cringe when an incredibly wealthy partner waxes on about philanthropy. While he’s contemplating a foundation to benefit the arts, I’m imagining what his little doc review army would think…probably that they could use five more dollars per hour in their pocket – or maybe a charitable foundation to benefit victims of school loans.
But hey – it’s not like government supports the arts in this country….We could use more foundations to benefit artists.
And at the same time, when I sit with a naïve 1L rhapsodizing on the theme of her cuddly law professor’s quirky personality, I also cringe, and imagine the loans she’ll face in a few years’ time – probably without a job.
We could argue forever about how the world ought to be – how much wealth the rich should be permitted to amass before they pay taxes, how low the poor should be allowed to sink before we reach down a helping hand. It isn’t my place to attempt to define injustice.
But I do wish we were all a bit more conscious of how the “other half” (or other ninety-nine percent, or other one percent) lives. At very least, let’s open our eyes and own that law students, scammed into buying degrees with tens of thousands of borrowed dollars, are being worked like cattle. Meanwhile, wealthy partners are pocketing millions upon millions and wondering how they can possibly give back in a meaningful way.
The Occupy Wall Street protest is situated only blocks from my office. I’ve spent time walking through their encampment, pondering its message, which boils down to: “Something is wrong with this picture.” It’s not too different from Warren Buffett’s message, when he reminds us that, as a candidate for the title of richest man in the world, he pays a lower tax rate than you or I.
I’ll add to the growing chorus: There’s something wrong with this picture. Both sides are sensing it – your half (whichever it is) and the “other half.” Both sides appear to yearn for a solution.
I’m in the middle, between the two halves, trying to help you understand one another. It’s a little like couples counseling. I don’t think the junior associates out there seek a Communist overthrow of our government. And I don’t believe every wealthy managing partner wants his name on the door of a Dickensian sweatshop. Here’s my job: I’ll repeat what you’re each telling me, out loud, so you can both hear it. Eventually, you’ll begin to understand what the other half is saying.
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 can also heartily recommend my first book, “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy”.
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)