It’s hard to generate sympathy for lawyers – especially when the group of people you’re milking for sympathy is other lawyers.
At first glance, that seems counter-intuitive. I’m writing about your fellow attorneys, after all, and they’re in miserable straits. I feel sorry for them. I want to help. But then, I’m a bleeding heart psychotherapist. I even felt sorry for them back when I was a lawyer, too – incontrovertible proof I was never “cut out” for the profession.
With lawyers, it’s not a question of “compassion fatigue” – they never show enough compassion to develop fatigue. It’s more like a birth defect – compassion deficiency.
My solution? The same trick Jerry Lewis used for his telethons. I’ll fabricate a poster child – a Jerry’s Kid – a cute, lovable little spokesperson for suffering, misunderstood, mistreated lawyers!
What would my Jerry’s Kid – ahem – Will’s Kid – look like?
Let’s call him Tim – Tiny Tim. (Cue violin music.) (Cue photo montage.)
Okay. Here’s the narration:
Tim’s parents aren’t well off. They’re plain-spoken, hard-working American middle-class folks who aspire for something better for their oldest child – little Timmy. That translated into a lot of pressure on Tiny Tim to go to the best college he could – and the best law school, too. That’s why Tim – who only ever wanted to play his trombone – ended up attending Harvard, then going to Columbia Law School.
And that’s how Tiny Tim – “T.T.” to his friends – ended up $240,000 in debt.
Timmy did well at Harvard – and held his own at Columbia Law, too. He counted himself among the lucky 50% of the kids in his class who managed to find a job – and at a great big white shoe law firm! Timmy was proud to be accepted at Nasty, Vicious & Ruthless LLP. Even after they deferred his start date, Tiny Tim wasn’t discouraged – he stuck with his dream of devoting his heart and soul to commercial litigation.
(music turns quieter, introspective)
Then, only four months after T.T. arrived at the firm, his dreams came crashing down. NV&R announced they were imploding – half the partners were leaving, the remainder merging with another firm. Tiny Tim was “let go” after a fabricated “bad review.”
(cut to image of Tiny Tim, smiling bravely through his tears)
As a first year lawyer with four months experience, Timmy found it impossible to locate another law firm job. Headhunters averted their gaze when he asked for help – other lawyers never returned his calls. His loans, all the while, grew and grew and grew. T.T’s parents – rock-solid Americans who believe if you work hard, you’ve earned a right to a fair chance – don’t understand how America changed during the Bush years. Now – as little T.T. has learned – you’re either born rich, or you’re essentially fucked.
(cut to long shot of Old Glory, flapping in the wind)
In desperation, T.T. did hourly contract attorney work for a mid-size firm. It was mindless doc review, and would have paid about $65k per year. But now that work has dried up.
(camera pans across rows of empty cubicles at a deserted law firm)
Tiny Tim knows he’ll never pay off the loans – that’s a pipe dream. But he’d like to keep making payments so he won’t have to go underground to avoid the police. A friend has a lead on a gig doing insurance defense in Baltimore. It’s drudgery, and pays $55k. But now it looks like that might fall through, too.
(cut to mid-shot of Tiny Tim, trudging home through Jackson Heights in suit and tie, carrying his pitiful little lawyer’s briefcase.)
Tim is living with friends in Queens, sleeping on a sofa in their living room, but he’s struggling to make interest payments, and the bank calls every day. Timmy’s girlfriend finally broke up with him last month after he spent too many evenings weeping. For the past few weeks, he’s been selling blood to raise cash. Now, to make loan payments, he might have to pawn his trombone – the last thing in the world that provides him joy.
(cut to a close-up of Tiny Tim, playing a long, sad note on his trombone)
Can you help Tim? He cries all the time. He hates his life. He hates law. He really, really hates law.
You know what that’s like. Open your heart. Support Will’s kids.
(end of infomercial)
Did it work? Is a tiny little spot in your heart beginning to defrost?
I doubt it. And even if you were thinking – heck, poor little loser, I’ll send him a hundred bucks…there’s another problem with “poster children.” They’re unfair to the people they’re trying to help.
This issue arose around the famous Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethons, which featured “Jerry’s Kids” – adorable tots battling motor disorders and other disabling ailments. The cute kids helped Lewis – and the MDA – raise millions for research and services. But there were problems.
First – most people with muscular dystrophy (actually a range of muscular diseases) are adults, not kids. It’s misleading to think the battle is to help adorable little children – it isn’t.
Second – the telethon was framed around “finding a cure” when finding cures for all these diseases might not happen for generations, if ever. What’s needed now is support and services for real people – help with their symptoms and with mobility.
Back to lawyers.
First of all – as commenters never tire of pointing out – lawyers, even young ones, are not helpless children. They’re adults. They got themselves into this mess. Most of my clients rightfully see themselves as victims of a scam – and I agree with them. People make mistakes. Lawyers who got suckered into massive school loans before the recession struck made a mistake. You can blame them – or pity them. Neither does them a lot of good.
Secondly, they’re not looking for a “cure” any more than most folks living with muscular disorders. They’re looking for a little help taking care of themselves. That might start with a bit of support from their fellow lawyers.
In “No Pity,” his book on the movement for civil rights for the disabled, Joseph P Shapiro writes that people living with disabilities are tired of being presented as either Jerry’s Kids or “super-crips” – those paraplegic guys who run marathons in wheelchairs or blind dudes climbing mountains. Most disabled people, like most lawyers, are neither poster-kids nor super-heros – just regular folks dealing with a tough situation. As Shapiro writes “…people with disabilities want neither pity-ridden paternalism nor overblown admiration.”
The same thing is true of lawyers. Tiny Tim doesn’t need your condescension – he’s not a child. He can own his bad decisions. But he can’t turn into some sort of superman, either. How would you propose he pay down $240k in debt on $65k/year?
What Tiny Tim – and a lot of other lawyers in his situation – could use, is your support – even if it’s only symbolic. For starters, how about knocking it off with the “blame the victim” comments – the whole “it’s your own damn fault, nobody made you do it” school of crank attacks? Yeah, it’s his mistake – but we all make mistakes, and have to do our best to put the worst of them behind us.
And another thing – let’s all gather, collectively, and admit the government’s decision to make school loans bankruptcy-proof was a monumental blunder that’s damaged a lot of lives.
People have a right to do stupid things. They sometimes fall for scams and lose all their money – or worse, end up deep in debt. But the law scam is different. If you fell for Bernie Madoff, and lost millions – lost every cent you earned over a lifetime – at least you could file for bankruptcy protection, walk away bruised but intact, and get a fresh start.
Tiny Tim doesn’t have that luxury.
I work on a regular basis with kids in their twenties who are nearly a quarter million dollars in debt because of one mistake – they wanted to make their parents happy and fell for a scam that the trusted adults around them – their own professors – encouraged them to buy into.
Now they’re trapped beneath a mountain of debt, with no hope of paying it off. Just finding a job is next to impossible in this climate, and many of them were never interested in law anyway, they just thought it might be a ladder to success. They want to play trombone.
It’s not only the unemployed lawyers who make great candidates to be “Will’s Kids”. Some guy – he said he was young and heavily in debt – cancelled on me three times in a row last month – three early morning appointments – because he had to work all-nighters each time. He works at a firm notorious for under-staffing cases and working associates to death and said he needed the morning slots because he has to be in early. The cancellations always came in around 2 am. I’ve never met the guy, so the Will’s Kid poster would have a blank silhouette. But I feel for him. There are plenty of guys like him out there, at big firms, hating their lives.
If you can’t open your wallets to help Will’s Kids – at least knock it off with the hard-ass routine. It could have happened to you. Maybe it did happen to you. Maybe it’s happening to you.
So have a heart, huh?
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.)