I was bracing myself for a session with this client. She was in a tough spot, and my job wasn’t easy – letting her vent, offering some support and, in essence, trying to counteract the toxic atmosphere of her big-city law firm.
It was bad. She was a sixth year senior litigation associate, and they were preparing to go to trial in a few months. The partner had announced “no more shore leave,” his clever way of making it known there were to be no more days off, not even evenings or weekends, nothing, not one day. My client was expected to work from morning to evening every day, seven days per week, until the trial, which might not happen (given the usual unpredictable delays) for several weeks or months. She’d already been working her “normal” schedule of twelve hour days, six-days per week, for a year or more. This was that final step on a slippery slope from horrific to unendurable. She’d begun referring to her firm during our sessions as “the veal pen.”
Today’s session (in part since she was trapped at her office) was via Skype. When the computer started ringing, I took a deep breath, and prepared for the worst.
To my surprise, she was smiling.
Anything short of winning Powerball seemed inadequate.
“I quit!! Oh my God – I can’t believe it. I’m so happy!”
It turned out she was still working at the firm – she’d given them six weeks’ notice – and it was only a leave of absence, since they’d talked her out of actually quitting. In fact, she’d probably just take three or four months off, then return as a part-timer (lawyer-speak for a forty-hour week.)
But I couldn’t help being struck by the sheer joy on her face, the flip-the-switch effect of shifting in a moment from abject despair to soaring ecstasy. It felt like a dam had at long last burst, and she was free at last – free to be herself, to say something she’d been sitting on for a long time, that she wanted out, that this wasn’t her, that this wasn’t what she wanted for herself.
A surprising aspect of this interaction was the degree to which my client’s response reminded me of similar reactions I’d seen with gay clients coming out of the closet. It seemed unexpected, but there it was. I used to work with a lot of gay folks (I still see a fair number) and I’ve dealt with quite a few coming-out experiences over the years and, well, one of these things reminded me of the other.
On its face, the comparison seems absurd. What does quitting a law firm have in common with coming out as a gay person? But the deeper I looked, the more the analogy made sense, and when I’ve mentioned it to other people, especially lawyer clients unhappy in their careers, they’ve agreed it rings truer than you might think.
I suspect a lot of gay people, when they first realize they’re gay, aren’t sure what to make of it. I certainly wasn’t. As a middle-schooler, I became aware that the boy sitting next to me in Math class had beautiful hair and his smile made my heart race. The ramifications arrived later. I don’t think anyone “plans” on realizing they’re gay. It just kind of happens.
Things have changed a lot, at least in much of the USA, since the bad old 1980’s, but back then gays didn’t exist in the media, so there were no role models. The only clear rules seemed to be that it was unacceptable to be gay and you should guard your secret with your life. My mom was a therapist, so I decided to risk trusting her. True to her times, she sent me to a psychiatrist to be “cured,” and I, for lack of a better plan, played along. Mom was a “mental health professional” and she and the psychiatrist were matter-of-fact about the whole thing: Here’s the problem, here’s the solution, no big deal.
If I were being honest, I knew deep down my gayness felt perfectly natural to me, and the boyhood crush hopeless, but sweet and harmless, too (just as it seems now, in retrospect.) But it took a few weeks of sitting in some shrink’s office, talking about essentially nothing, to make me realize the entire project was doomed from the start, and painfully misguided. Changing someone’s sexual orientation is akin to changing the fundamentals of their personality. You can’t dictate who someone else is going to love. Attempting to do so constitutes a violation of the most personal, fundamental rights and dignities of a human being…
…Which brings us back to lawyers, and another, related violation: attempting to dictate someone’s choice of career. That’s also impossible, and also flies in the face of basic human dignity – and happens all the time when someone who is not a lawyer is sent off to law school and told to become one.
If law school really could teach you to “think like a lawyer” and – presto! – you actually became one, then it might make sense to send someone there who doesn’t actually want to go. The prestige and the money sound nice – especially if deep down in your heart, you sort of suspect the person in question might have a secret, terrible desire to be a writer (or something even worse) which probably wouldn’t earn them a decent living.
The problem is not merely that it doesn’t work, it’s that the fundamental proposition is as utterly misguided as it is hopeless. A person’s choice of career represents a fundamental expression of his soul, a statement about who he truly is at his core, communicated not only through what he does each day, but what he creates, the “work” he offers to the world around him, during his time on Earth. That’s what “work” is. That’s what a “career” is.
When my mother decided I was going to become a lawyer (her method consisted of calling me up and screaming into the phone every day) I realized I might as well go all the way with this misguided mission. I’d totally failed at becoming straight, so there was an element of compensatory damages formulated into this latest Sisyphean task, and the message seemed clear: You’d better get it right this time.
Law meant money and prestige. I had no idea what else it might be about, but getting rich and looking classy I could understand, and that’s what Mom wanted, so I decided to become a millionaire partner at a biglaw firm.
The process appeared straightforward:
Do well on the LSAT – check.
Get into top law school with an essay blathering about international human rights and the constitution being a “living, breathing document” – check.
Complete law school with high grade point average – check.
Interview with millionaire big-shot partner at top firm, pose as a “gunner,” and get job – check.
Pass bar exam – check.
This stuff came easy for me. I didn’t know the first thing about holding a job or building a career – at that point, I’d mostly worked as a word-processing temp and making sandwiches at a luncheon counter. But I could go to school and get good grades. Maybe it’s because I was a gay kid, and the one thing I could do to please Mom was rack up A’s.
The transaction was simple: I would get the grades, and the legal education professionals would magically transform me into a lawyer. John Sexton, the “charismatic” dean at NYU Law, kept bragging he’d teach me (well, not just me, specifically, but me and the dozens of others like me) to “think like a lawyer,” and I (and the rest of us) believed him, just as we believed the absurd theatricality of the New York State Court of Appeals judge who told “the candidates” to rise in his courtroom to take an oath as members of the bar, then pretended that oath was the legal equivalent of fairy dust as minutes later he (or maybe it was his bailiff) told “the attorneys” to sit back down. Boom! We were attorneys, on our way to prestige and money. So far as I was concerned, my problems were over. I was still gay, but this time the magic had worked – I was no longer on a path to becoming a guy who wrote weird books and talked to people for a living (and probably starved in the process.) I was on my way to becoming a rich, fancy-pants lawyer!
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I honestly believed all that bunk – just, as a teenager, I believed my mother when she confidently announced “a quiet, poetic girl” could lure my attention from the boy in Math class. Fat chance of that happening.
It didn’t take long for me to hit a wall with my lawyer fantasy, and it wasn’t such a different wall from the one I hit in the psychiatrist’s office. I showed up at Sullivan & Cromwell, worked hard, smiled at the right people, knocked myself out trying to fit in. But there was a massive wrinkle built into the scenario: I wasn’t a lawyer.
If you haven’t already noticed, there’s one thing – one really important thing – that all good lawyers, all over the world, share in common: An honest-to-god interest in what they do. You can’t fake it, at least, not for long enough to get to the top. You have to actually be into it, to be a lawyer. It took me a while to realize those partners blithely chatting about developments in securities regulation in the S&C lunchroom weren’t just faking – they liked that stuff, and they were good at it, and it was what they wanted to talk about. I knew from day one I couldn’t suddenly develop an interest in securities regulation, or a knack for doing it, any more than I could suddenly start drooling over Angelina Jolie. It’s just not who I am. (Angelina seems like a very nice person, but only as a friend – which I’m sure is fine with Angelina.)
In case you were wondering, you can tell if you’re gay (drum roll, please…) when you’re on a date with a lovely, beautiful woman who appears to like you, and just when you’re half-convinced this might really work…you realize you’ve been staring at a cute guy walking past on the sidewalk for a minute and haven’t heard a word she’s said. She’ll know, too. He might even know. You can’t fake it.
That’s how I felt about securities regulation. It’s very complicated, intense, impressive stuff – wonky and nerdy and intellectual and deeply considered and full of policy implications and that sort of thing. I could really, really try to pretend I was “into” it – just like I could really really try to pretend I cared about college basketball (which, trust me, based upon conversations I sat through, dumbfounded, at law firm summer associate luncheons, is also a whole lot more complicated than you’d ever expect, especially if you have no interest in it whatsoever.) But at some juncture I’d find myself thinking like a therapist, i.e., contemplating the emotions underlying that last statement by the person talking to me about securities regulation, and wondering whether he’s harboring unspoken anger – or just thinking about some interesting (i.e., not about securities regulation) book I’ve been reading… and realize I wasn’t paying attention and lost the drift. You can’t fake it.
When I asked my client to explain how it felt to quit the law firm, her answer was subtler than I expected.
“I’m in control of my own life again. I’m able to define myself – what I will do and what I won’t do. I’d lost that.”
That’s how gay people feel when they come out – that same sense of suddenly being able to live authentically, as who they really are, without having to conform to someone else’s notion of who they should be.
There was another, deeper piece of it, too. My client talked about how, back when she was partner track, they’d held ultimate control over her because they could always make her feel bad about doing what she wanted to do, i.e., doing something for herself. If she decided to go home, they could say “we’re a little bit disappointed that you choose to leave last night,” and she’d know she was on warning status. If she displeased the powers that be, the powers that ruled her life, it could endanger her chances of making partner – the ultimate goal, with all its attendant money and status.
Now, with partnership no longer her stated goal, she didn’t care what they thought – or if they were “disappointed” if she went home to catch a few winks. She was going to be “part-time” and that was that – they could take it or leave it. Her hours were defined by her, and her life once again felt under her control. They could take their disappointment with her and shove it. If they liked her work (which they obviously did) they could learn to live within her boundaries.
With gay people, it’s similar. Many gay people say that the day they come out of the closet is the day they stop apologizing for who they are and trying to be anything but themselves. No more attempting to become whatever the outside world wants from them, no more compromising their souls. If their family finds them disgusting or sinful or embarrassing, they don’t have to see them anymore. There are boundaries now – and a sense of pride in defining who they are instead of having definitions forced onto them.
I always tell my gay clients that coming out is an absolute necessity for happiness. It isn’t an end in itself, it’s the beginning of authentic living. Once you are out, you exist – and from then on, it’s up to you to decide what you want to do with your life.
I’d say the same thing to a lawyer who isn’t really a lawyer. You know you can’t live in a veal pen forever – it’ll kill you, or at very least, something vital and essential within you. Once you’re out of a job where you don’t belong, real life, and real happiness, can begin. It’s a necessity – and the beginning of living as the person you actually are.
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.
Please 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
And now there’s a new Sequel: Still Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: (The Sequel)
My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy:Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
I’ve also written 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