I recently attended a conference at a law school – a pretty good law school – and they invited me to appear on a panel and paid for my transportation and even offered a hotel (if I needed one, which it turns out I didn’t, but still…nice.)
I am a psychotherapist, which means, under ordinary circumstances, I never go anywhere, let alone on anything resembling a “business trip.” Instead, I sit in my office and listen to someone else talk. Whether that someone else is sitting on a chair in front of me, or in a chair in Australia via Skype on my computer screen, there I sit, listening, in my office, in the morning and in the afternoon, and in the evening, too. If I didn’t work out at the gym four times per week, I’d probably go all soft and pudgy and endomorphic and begin to assume (like many of my peers, who shall go nameless) the contours of the chair I sit in. Which is to say I’d look like a pear. It turns out there are two kinds of therapists – those who make the effort to step outside their offices and get some exercise, and those who look like pears.
But I digress. And regress. Which is okay in psychotherapy – free association and all – but I was talking about this conference at the pretty good law school.
The conference’s first discussion panel – which I wasn’t invited to be on, for reasons which will become obvious – was titled “An In-Depth Look at Firm Life.” (Well, actually, this was a conference for Asian Pacific American law students, so it was titled “Peering Through the Glass Ceiling: An In-Depth Look at Firm Life for Minorities” but being Asian Pacific American seemed a minor consideration compared to dealing with biglaw, even at a conference for Asian Pacific American law students.)
I wasn’t on that panel – I was on the one about Mental Health and lawyers (once again, Asian Pacific American mental health and lawyers, but whatever – I’m married to a Chinese-American and I love my Asian Pacific American fans and their mental health and their lawyers.)
What struck me, at least in retrospect, about the classy panel – the one I wasn’t on – was who was on it. Just for reference, my panel – the one about going nuts – was staffed with a research psychologist, two psychiatrists, a psychotherapist (me) and a guy who runs a recovery/support center for lawyers. Two or three of us were lawyers, but mostly incidentally. There was also a third, afternoon panel at the conference about Asian Pacific Americans being a “model minority.” That afternoon panel was populated with academics (no lawyers at all, so far as I could tell) and so things predictably took a highfalutin, theoretical turn – more like college than law school.
Only the panel purportedly concerning the actual reality of law firm life was stocked with 100% lawyers. Clearly, there was to be no fooling around with non-lawyer riffraff for them. The breakdown among the lawyers on this panel was interesting, too (for reasons I’ll disclose shortly.) First, all five of them were lawyers at biglaw firms, with the exception of one former biglaw lawyer who is now a corporate counsel at a humongous, famous, fancy-pants software company. Two panelists were partners at humongous, fancy-pants biglaw firms. There was also a senior associate at another biglaw firm, but she’d clerked for two federal judges and looked like she meant business; she was clearly not planning to be a mere senior associate for much longer – at least, if she had any say in the matter. And there was a lone junior associate, who looked slightly terrified, but she was at a top biglaw firm. Slightly terrified or not, she looked like she was dead set on going places, too.
So? Nothing wrong with that panel, right? Here were a bunch of success stories – Asian Pacific American lawyers in top jobs, reaping the success that comes with hard work. And they said all the stuff you’d expect them to say – advice on getting ahead and racing to the top, stuff like seeking out mentors, checking in to make sure you’re delivering what they want and…well, a lot of stuff about working hard and achieving success like they did. That’s hard to argue with.
But here’s the issue with that panel. The thing that stuck in my craw. The problem (if there was one) – which only dawned me in retrospect: They were only telling us the good news.
The reason I wasn’t on that panel – the reason I was on the mental health panel instead – is that I’m no longer a lawyer. I’m now an incredibly successful, internationally lauded hero of the mental health community. So I get to sit on a panel about mental health.
As for my career as a lawyer…well, as I’ve stated on multiple occasions in these columns – I suck at law. And they don’t put lawyers who suck at law on panels about “firm life.”
Here’s my problem with that policy, in a nutshell: Why not? Surely, lawyers who suck at law, whether they are tickled or rankled by that state of affairs, constitute a major portion of this profession (at least for a few years, before they crash and burn.) And you hardly need look past my own striking exemplar to comprehend that even at the finest, fancy-pants-iest law firms, a great many of the lawyers (at least, the junior ones right out of law school) suck at law. In fact, it is no exaggeration to aver that a big part of “firm life” consists of dealing with the fact that many junior lawyers in biglaw suck at law. Just ask a senior associate who’s trying to find a junior who can get something done without screwing it up, asking for endless help with it or simply breaking down in tears in his office. So why would a panel like this one, that purports to present the actual reality of law firm life, only feature the success stories? How about us failures – don’t we merit some airtime?
Why was I sitting in a room full of law students listening with – let’s admit it – rapt attention – to two biglaw partners, each of whom earns well over $1 million per year, instead of listening closely to someone like me, who lasted less than 2 years before the biglaw firm I was at (good old Sullivan & Cromwell) wised up and threw me out? Wasn’t my story equally valid and important?
When it comes down to it, my story – ghastly though it might be to contemplate – remains far more typical of what those law students in the audience might encounter once they arrived at a real live biglaw firm – if they could even get a job at a place like that in today’s market. If that panel were to be truly representative of the possible outcomes facing the audience watching the panel, it would look very different, and the message it delivered wouldn’t all be good news.
Let’s go there.
On my version of the panel – the truly representative panel on the actual reality of law firm life, there would be three type of lawyers present – and one type of non-lawyer.
One of the five folks on the panel would be that non-lawyer. If you’re that guy, then you’re the one who realized law school wasn’t for you (because you hated it) – or maybe you were at the bottom of your class first year and so you dropped out (following my advice) before second year. Or maybe you took a year off before third year and never came back. Or maybe you even graduated, but your grades were mediocre, and maybe you struggled with the bar exam, or maybe all that stuff went okay but somehow or other, you never got a job in law – at least at a biglaw firm, or someplace you really wanted to work. Maybe you’re doing doc review, or you’re a staff attorney or maybe you’re not even doing law. You’d be at least one guy on the panel – and you’d be the guy who never became a lawyer, at least in any meaningful sense of the word. No one wants to be that guy. I’m even kinda glad I wasn’t that guy. But there are plenty of them out there, and no, they’re (mostly) not (really) lawyers, and many of them are just glad they made it out of the whole law school assembly line in one piece. Most of them are paying off loans and wondering what they’re going to do next. That’s at least one person on my truly representative panel.
The first kind of actual lawyer lawyer on my panel would be a person who made it through law school, and actually got a biglaw job. But if you’re that first kind of lawyer, you got there and realized you didn’t belong in that world. This would be the guy who “sucks at law” – in the sense that you have no real interest in it. You probably went to law school to make your mother happy, like me (hi, Mom!) In any case, you’ll have been tossed out of the firm with a bad review within your first couple of years. Nice guy, but just not cut out for this place – that sort of review. Of the five people on the panel, maybe two of you fall into this category. For better or worse, I was that one of those guys, and in my humble opinion, the problem is not so much that people like us “fail” at biglaw, but that we never belonged there in the first place, and only woke up to that unfortunate reality once we arrived.
The second kind of lawyer lawyer on my panel actually likes law and is pretty good at it. If you’re this kind of lawyer, you do fine in school and get into a biglaw firm. The problem is that the hours and the grind kill you. Maybe you want to have kids and actually see them – or have friends, or a social life or some hobbies or outside interests or maybe you just need more than four hours sleep every night. Or maybe defending pointless, nearly identical securities lawsuits doesn’t live up to your dream of saving the world by enforcing international human rights law (which, alas, turns out not to exist.) But whatever combination of factors you encounter in the biglaw world grind you down, despite your natural talent and enthusiasm for the profession. Let’s say another 1.75 people on the panel match this description. Being that guy doesn’t sound so great, either.
Yeah, I know. That leaves .25 people – one quarter of a panelist – left of the third lawyer type, and you can guess who that guy is – the guy who heads off to biglaw and flourishes, makes $1 million per year (or thereabouts – the sky’s the limit) – and for whom it’s no big deal, just an incredibly well-paid job. A quarter of a person out of five people…that’s one in twenty odds, I think, which might be sweetening the chances a bit; it’s probably one in thirty or forty or fifty. If that sounds a bit pie in the sky (here I go again with sky metaphors, but it seems in keeping with the long-shot, in your wildest dreams sort of odds we’re talking here), then it should. We all want to be that guy, at least most of us in a law school audience watching that panel think we do, but very very very few of us ever will.
So the question remains… why did we get three out of five of the third kind of lawyer on the panel – and two who were demonstrably striving with some success to become the third kind of lawyer – and none of any of these other folks? Why should the law students in the audience be presented with a panel of rarities, misrepresenting the likely trajectories of their own careers?
The obvious answer is that people like to hear good news. And because law schools like to keep things upbeat – after all, they’re charging a small fortune for this “experience” – they want to put their best foot forward.
We, the audience, collude in this distortion, because we all like to kid ourselves that everything’s going to work out A-okay. No one goes to a law school panel concerning the actual reality of law firm life to hear about the actual reality of law firm life. No audience of law students wants to hear that a bunch of them will never get big firm jobs. Or that the vast majority of those who get those jobs won’t last more than 2 or 3 years before they find no one’s giving them work and they’re sitting in their office weeping, feeling like they’re on an airliner headed in a downward trajectory at very high speed. Or that the ones among them who last beyond 2 or 3 years might still be unable to stomach the hideous hours, opaque management and vicious competition of biglaw, and might indeed find themselves searching high and low for an alternative to that world – that mythical unicorn, the legal “lifestyle job” – that boring nine-to-five “compliance” gig that so many lawyers dream about as they toss and turn in bed at night (that is, when they are permitted to get into a bed at night, as opposed to sitting up at a desk, generating billable hours.)
Two more observations about this panel. No one, of the five members, mentioned the fact that most of the kids in that audience would be crippled financially for many many years to come – possibly for life, depending on how long they could endure the horrors of biglaw – by staggering school debt.
And… no one, among the fancypants biglaw partners on the panel, mentioned how much money they were actually earning every year. I don’t know about everyone else – but the repetitive phrase “that guy earns one million dollars, that guy earns one million dollars, that guy earns one million dollars, that guy earns one million dollars” – was playing in my head whenever those particular panelists spoke, and even as I was shaking their hands afterwards. I suspect I wasn’t the only member of that audience encountering this phenomenon.
Perhaps what attests to the sheer – often hazardous – power of good news more than anything is its sheer ability to block out everything else. Just like global warming, the true nature of the actual reality of law firm life – and the law school degree mill – is, let’s face it, an inconvenient truth. But dealing with inconvenient truths is often wiser, and more successful as a long-term strategy, than listening to pretty words while the planet warms and floods or you dig yourself into a career that ends in financial ruin and psychic misery.
One final thought: I was kidding about not wanting to be the non-lawyer on the panel, or one of the first two kinds of (non-millionaire) lawyers. The fact is, while none of those non-earning-a-million-dollars-per-year identities might be ideal, those people nonetheless represent most of the folks who pursue law as a career, and it isn’t as though they all end up boiling in pits of burning hellfire, either.
I work with plenty of people who drop out of law school when they realize it isn’t for them. And I work with oodles of folks who last only a year or two or three in biglaw before reaching for their parachute and a way – any way – out (I have the added bonus of having been one of those people.) I also work with plenty of lawyers who like law but wish biglaw weren’t so distorted by the power of the almighty dollar and its evil twin, the almighty billable hour.
None of these people is burning in a pool of fiery brimstone. Even the ones hopelessly mired in law school debt are somehow miraculously waking up in the morning and putting one foot in front of the other.
My point is this: waking up and hearing the inconvenient truth doesn’t mean you have to lose all hope – or wrap yourself in denial and kid yourself you’re going to sail into the position of a biglaw partner and earn a million dollars a year.
It’s about opening your eyes and seeing things the way they actually are – not the way they’re presented on panels at law school conferences. You aren’t all going to hop into a biglaw job and make partner. It’s not simply a matter of how much you want it, or how hard you work for it, or even how punctiliously you follow everyone’s advice and try to please them and do exactly what they say. It’s important you understand there is more to this than applying force to your own identity in order to make something happen that simply must happen or the sky will come crashing down. That square peg does not absolutely have to be pounded, battered and mutilated until it manages to conform to the dimensions of that round hole. It might come as a relief, once you open your eyes, and see the bigger picture, to begin making decisions in a more complex, more realistic world – the one that actually exists – where the air isn’t made of chocolate and candy doesn’t grow on trees, and all the news isn’t always good.
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.
My new book is a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls in love with a blue alien from outer space. I guarantee pure reading pleasure: Bad Therapist: A Romance
Please also check out The People’s Therapist’s legendary best-seller about the sad state of the legal profession: Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy: Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy