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Archive for February, 2012

A law student client – already an MBA – said she needed convincing to drop out of her third-tier school.

I told her to calculate the return on investment for the final three semesters.

She crunched the numbers.

“Debit-wise, I’ve burned $80k in savings and I’m looking at another $100k of borrowed money. On the credit side, I might find a low-salary doc review gig.” She pretended to scratch notes. “So… big loans, interest payments, inadequate cash flow…opportunity cost of eighteen more wasted months learning legal mumbo-jumbo followed by the bar exam…”

“In other words…” I egged her on.

“I’d be totally screwed.” She affixed the cap on her pen. “Thanks. I’m convinced.”

I posed the question we were dancing around: “Why are we having this conversation?”

My client laid out the background: “My dad’s a lawyer. My mom’s a lawyer. My little brother’s taking his LSAT. This is what my family does. If I quit, I feel like I’m failing.”

She added: “It seems like it was different in my parents’ day.”

That’s because it was. A generation gap has opened in the legal world. On one side there are lawyers over-50, for whom law still looks like a safe, reliable ladder to the upper-middle-class. From the other side – where their kids are perched – law more closely resembles un ascenseur pour l’échafaud.

My client’s parents live in a time warp – a world trapped in a snow globe. Mom’s worked for 25 years as an in-house lawyer for a state college – safe, not terribly stressful (or interesting) work, with a decent salary, good hours and benefits. Dad’s worked for decades as general counsel for a local business. It’s no wonder that for them – and their generation – law still epitomizes a safe, low-stress career with good pay and benefits.

These over-50 types can’t imagine how bad it gets nowadays for someone calling himself an attorney. Their Weltanschauung doesn’t encompass windowless warehouses packed with contract lawyers logging 18-hour shifts of doc review for hourly wages, no benefits. Mom and Dad haven’t seen young partners at top firms getting de-equitized and struggling to snare in-house positions. If they knew that reality, they’d also realize their own sort of safe, steady work with benefits, a decent wage and reasonable hours constitutes a pipe dream for a kid graduating law school today.

Another client of mine – a 20-something from a decent school entering her third year in biglaw – summed up her reality thus:

“Really? I spent myself into life-long debt, endured hours of property law lectures, analyzed Erie problems on brutal exams, crammed for the bar…all so I could waste two years on doc review, then wait to get laid off (with the de rigueur bad review and zero career prospects) so someone younger and cheaper can take my seat? Really?”

If she’d studied computer science, or gotten an MBA or just quit school after college, she might have become a better-paid “e-discovery provider.” As a JD, it’s strictly “e-discovery peon.” In any case, five years from now a computer program will do doc review all by itself. As one client put it: “that’s when attorneys start living in cardboard boxes on the sidewalk.”

This isn’t your grandfather’s biglaw.

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I received the following letter regarding humankind’s on-going battle with its own impulses:

Hi Will,

I really enjoy reading your blog, you give great insight. I have often been told that I need to focus (I do not have ADHD or any other attention disorder).My problem or what others see as a problem is that I tend have a large array of interests and life goals that are not necessarily connected for which I have much passion. There so many things I want to do, but the older I get the more I feel like everyone is right. I need to pick an area or two at most on which to focus. I have heard the arguments for and against the jack of all trades approach to life, but I am still not sold. I don’t want to focus; I want to do it all. I am I being overly idealistic? Is it necessary for one to focus on their energy on one specific passion? If so, how does one decide how to go about focusing their energy on something specific?

-DH

And here’s my response:

To submit a question to Ask The People’s Therapist, please email it as text or a video to: wmeyerhofer@aquietroom.com

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist.
========

If you’re interested in learning more about the scientific and philosophical underpinnings of psychotherapy, you might enjoy my first book, “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy”

My second book takes a humorous look at the current state of the legal profession, “Way Worse Than Being A Dentist”

(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.) 

For information on my private practice, click here.

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Atul Gawande is a medical superstar – a surgeon at Harvard who’s also a New Yorker magazine writer, and the author of several books. His latest push is for doctors to use checklists to prevent common mistakes during surgery. A scary percentage of the time, it turns out, things grow overwhelmingly complicated in an operating room and a nurse or an anesthesiologist, or a resident (or whoever) gets distracted and forgets to do something basic – like confirm there’s extra blood in the fridge, or plug that little hose into the machine that keeps you breathing.

It happens. People forget things. Best to err on the safe side, and use a checklist.

The idea comes from aircraft pilots. It turns out they use checklists for absolutely everything – a pilot literally can’t step into a plane without a checklist. Pre-take-off, take-off, pre-landing, landing, and every possible contingency that might happen in-between is assigned a checklist. That’s because when you’re a pilot and you forget something, well…it can be a problem. Kind of like a surgeon.

Or a lawyer.

This isn’t exactly a new idea. The first thing I received at Sullivan & Cromwell when I arrived there was a checklist – and my first task was to start ticking off items. That’s how you handle a corporate deal closing – otherwise you’d never keep track of all the officer’s certificates and securities certificates and side agreements and various other bits of paper required for that six hundred million dollar acquisition of the rubber plant in Brazil (or whatever.) If you’re the junior associate and you forget something that needs to be on a closing table, well… it can be a problem.

But there’s another surprising finding in Gawande’s new book, “The Checklist Manifesto.” One required item on pilots’ checklists simply instructs them to stop and introduce themselves. During that process, they explain their responsibilities to one another, including any pertinent details regarding that specific flight. It sounds like this:

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“If I don’t pass this test, I’m going to lose it.”

My client was a nursing student, who had to pass an important math test before she could receive her degree.  She failed her first attempt, and her second was coming up.  She was getting the jitters.

I pointed out that her approach to this situation – all or nothing – didn’t make sense.  That’s because the likely outcome of this set of circumstances – like most everything in life – lay along the contours of a bell curve.

If you look out into the future, you are confronted with an array of foreseeable outcomes, some good and some bad.

My client, for example, might fail her last two tries at this exam, and be delayed in her attempt to finish her nursing program.  That seems a remote possibility, because in past years only 8% of the class failed all three times, and to date she has scored near the top of her class.  That bad outcome, while possible, exists on a narrow tail of the curve.

Out on the other tail, amid the unlikely positive outcomes, she might discover the school mis-graded her first test, and she already passed.  That would be nice, but it’s a slim possibility.

The big, fat center of the bell curve, where the most likely outcomes reside, predicts she’ll pass during her second or third try.

As things turned out, she passed on the second try – with flying colors.

People tend to ignore the bell curve.  You prefer to see yourself as the hero of your own adventure – the blessed, untouchable protagonist who sails into success.  Or you go too far the other way, towards powerlessness, and go martyr, seeing yourself as the unlucky recipient of a cruel fate, singled out for suffering at the hands of the gods.

Neither is true.  The future is a set of foreseeable outcomes that lie on a bell curve.  You can look into the future right now, from where you stand in the present, and forecast the most likely outcome, and the less likely best and worst outcomes.

If you look at things realistically, there’s no reason to “lose it” if the actual outcome isn’t what you’d wish for.  You merely fell onto a different place on the curve – but you’re still on the bell, and it’s still a foreseeable outcome.

Treating the future as foreseeable can be empowering.  You are not all-powerful, and you are not helpless – you are doing your best in a world where you metaphorically roll the dice each and every day. (more…)

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It’s hard to conjure up bad stuff to say about clerking. It’s an honor, and an all-expense-paid ticket on an exclusive legal gravy train. If you’re lucky enough to clerk for a federal district or circuit court judge, you can rest assured you’re looking good and feeling good. You might even shoot the moon and sing with the Supremes. In that case, you’re good to go: You’ll never have to practice actual law again. You can sign up now to teach a seminar on “Law and Interpretive Dance” at Yale or attend sumptuous international human rights conferences hosted by African dictators. Life is good at the top. Imagine the stimulation of interacting one-on-one with the mind of a Clarence Thomas (and acquiring access to his porn collection.) You could be the clerk who builds an ironclad case striking down universal access to healthcare – or witness the day Justice T opens his mouth to speak during oral argument.

Even if you’re clerking for an obscure political hack (which is the norm), as a clerk you qualify to skip out of biglaw hell. The deal – as you probably know – is thus: you get to work non-law firm hours for a year, then return to the firm as though you’d suffered with the other monkeys. If you finish two clerkships, you double your fun and skip two years of Hell-on-Earth – then return with a third year’s salary!

Clerking gigs can be hard work – you could be researching and writing twelve hours a day. But you’re not putting in weekends (usually), and thanks to the court calendar, there are slow times built into the schedule. Your judge could turn out to be geriatric and losing his marbles (not a rare occurrence) or simply a lunatic – but you’re still doing substantive, important work – rather than, say, researching an un-busy partner’s attempt at a treatise or frying your brain with doc review.

Clerking is a sweet deal – one good reason to do litigation instead of corporate. As a clerk, you might learn something. That’s probably not going to happen as a junior doing corporate.

Yes, there’s a catch, and it’s a whopper: Most clerkships – a whole lot of clerkships – require relocating to the middle of freakin’ nowhere.

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