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Archive for the ‘AboveTheLaw series’ Category

hqdefault-19There’s a new place in biglaw – not always a comfortable place – called the middle. One of its defining characteristics is euphemism, particularly around job titles. Consider yourself lucky if you’re merely saddled with a legal anachronism like “Of Counsel” or “Senior Counsel” or the more workaday “Senior Attorney” (i.e., a lawyer who’s been here a while, which is apparently the best we can say for him), as opposed to that vague moniker creeping into the legal world, borrowed from finance or consulting firms, “Principal.”

The ultimate horror (though somehow preferable as middle titles go) is that now-commonplace epitome of biglaw oxy-moronicness: “non-equity partner.” Every thinking person’s initial objection to this laboratory-experiment-gone-horribly-wrong of a credential, or title, or status, or whatever it is, is that in purely legal terms, it’s nonsense. How can a partner, meaning a member of a partnership, i.e., a fundamental part of an entity defined by shared ownership – not own anything? I’ve run this past tax attorneys (the smartest of all lawyers) and they agreed to a man (and woman): This is more than a quibble – the concept is absurd.

In essence, a non-equity partner is a non-partner partner. If a partner owns nothing in a partnership, it’s not merely that the partnership is non-equitable, it’s that the existence of a non-owning partner in said partnership renders it a non-partnership. The other guys, who own stuff, have a partnership. You, as a non-equity partner, might as well be called “that guy we let work here until we decide differently” (thus, perhaps, was born yet another neologism, the term “de-equitize.”) The phrase “salary partner” only makes things worse, by sweeping less of the evident cognitive dissonance under the rug. Might as well emblazon yourself “Proletarian Viscount” or “Marquis of the living wage.”

In fairness, the whole problem began when someone needed to come up with a word for lawyers who somehow never left their firms, but on the other hand weren’t really getting anywhere, either. There had to be something better to call them than “fourteenth year associate,” which is one of those titles more apt to leave a lawyer gazing into a mirror, his face wet with tears, than crowing with pride at a firm cocktail event.

More importantly, “Fourteenth year associate” sounds bad in front of clients, and let’s face it, the entire issue of concocting these titles for folks in the middle is about appearances, i.e., what outsiders think. No one cares what you think, and everyone knows where you dwell (amid the dark and dreadful middle realm.) Law is like fashion (to paraphrase Heidi Klum): You’re either in, or you’re out (and no, the middle isn’t in, so all the more reason for clever euphemisms.)

Let’s pause for a moment and get all “big picture” about things: What lies behind this phenomenon? Why doesn’t anyone in biglaw just work hard, make “the sprint” for partner, win the big prize and get “elevated” anymore?

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hqdefault-18Before I was a psychotherapist, I was a patient, and at some point in my time as a patient, I participated in group therapy, and witnessed an unsettling interaction. (Unsettling-interaction-witnessing occurs in groups, where you spend time watching people “work their stuff out” and often “work your stuff out” at the same time.)

A new group member, a twenty-something, showed up for his first session with us, and like new members sometimes do, he presented as quiet and a bit deferential – eager to fit in, and above all, to please.

Eventually, the therapist leading the group went to Newbie directly, and asked how he was doing on his first day. He replied with some variant of “fine” and she probed further, asking if there was anyone in the room he felt drawn to, or perhaps shy to approach (this is typical group technique, designed to make the Newbie conscious of how he’s relating to others in the room.)

Newbie opted for the “drawn to” half of the question, probably aiming to sound upbeat rather than scared, and gestured towards an older guy sitting beside him.

“I guess I’m drawn to Joe. He seems like a father figure to me.”

To which, without a flicker of hesitation, Joe snapped under his breath (loud enough for everyone to hear): “I’m not your damn father.”

Newbie winced, and he wasn’t alone. That was a chilly welcome, coming from a member of your new therapy group.

On the other hand, Joe’s statement was true – he wasn’t Newbie’s damn father. More to the point, he didn’t want to be, to judge from his reaction. That wasn’t Joe’s role. He didn’t sign up to parent Newbie in that therapy group; he was a member like anyone else, trying to make himself a bit less neurotic and maybe happier. It was Joe’s right to be there, in that room, for himself, taking care of himself. And maybe Newbie wasn’t the only one there longing for a father figure – maybe Joe could have used a father figure, too.

I realized at that moment that I’d been like Newbie in my first group, too – searching for a father (for reasons I won’t bore you with), and drawing close to folks I might have been better off shying away from.

There were larger implications: I’d done the same thing at workplaces, including at my law firm, with disastrous results.

A lot of lawyers make that mistake. After working as a therapist with lawyers for a dozen years or so, I can say plenty of attorneys confuse their law firm with a parent figure, then relate to the firm like eager-to-please children. It leads to hurt feelings, resentment, anger and much unnecessary human misery.

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images-4To talk about lawyer burnout in a meaningful way, we have to mention the finish line problem. It’s the common element in every lawyer burnout story I’ve heard.

So imagine you’re running a marathon and arrive, gasping for air, at the final hundred yards. Onlookers cheer. Digging deep for that last ounce of energy, you can almost feel the relief of crossing the finish line.

Then some guy emerges from the crowd with unsettling news.

“Did we forget to mention there’s another marathon, starting right now? We need you to run that one too.”

You process these words. You don’t scoff, or laugh, because this isn’t a joke. He means it, and you’re going to do it. First of all, because you’re a trooper, and a team player. Second, (setting aside our metaphor for the moment) because you’re a lawyer and so you don’t have a choice in the matter, not merely because you’re a born pleaser and deeply risk-averse and highly competitive and ambitious (and maybe never asked yourself in any meaningful way what else you might want to do with your life) but also (perhaps) because you owe a fortune in school loans.

In an attempt to pull yourself into a frame of mind suitable to running another 26 ½ miles without a break, you tell yourself that, after this second marathon, there’ll be another finish line, and this time there will be an end, a respite, some rest. Might as well look on the bright side – you are young and smart and capable and filled with an unstoppable go-getter spirit. You’ll pull off the impossible.

Sure enough, you make it to the second home stretch. Once again the crowd cheers. You can just about taste the sweetness of slowing down and resting.

Then someone else steps out of the crowd. Her tone is matter of fact: “It turns out there’s another marathon, and we’re short-handed. You’ll have to run it.”

You feel numb, or maybe like screaming, or maybe just numb – it’s hard to tell. Another marathon, with no break. You have to keep running.

So you do. But at some point, while running, you’re also crying. Still running, just crying at the same time. And there’s anxiety, that comes in waves, leaving you gasping. Weirdest of all, there’s also a persistent fantasy of tripping and twisting your ankle, and you contemplate how nice it seems like that would be, to twist your ankle. Not to die or anything like that, just limp off to the hospital and lie down and sleep and not run anymore. That would be better than this.

But that doesn’t happen. You don’t trip, or twist your ankle. You do find yourself hurling a cup of gatorade at a race official, which almost gets you kicked out. But you cool it, because you can’t get kicked out (although part of you wants very much to be.) You have to think about your career. You have to keep your cool. You have to keep running.

All you want in the world is to stop running, which is the one thing in the world you’re not allowed to do.

This, in a nutshell (a metaphorical nutshell – and yeah, the nutshell itself is also a metaphor so wow, we’re getting meta here) is lawyer burnout, a phenomenon that’s all about denial, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, by the time you realize burnout might be coming, it’s already here, and a whole lot worse than you think.

How bad does lawyer burnout get? On a reasonably regular basis, lawyers arrive at my office, sit down, and burst into tears. That happens. And these aren’t people with much history of bursting into tears.

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upsidedownhouseWe all know lawyers are pleasers. Everyone knows that. The weird thing is how it doesn’t feel that way from the inside. When you are a lawyer, and a pleaser, you don’t think you’re a pleaser – it seems more like you’re the only conscientious person in the world. You are the one who shows up on time, sits in the first row and hands your homework in on schedule, always perfect. Other people don’t, and that’s annoying. Thus begins a typical lawyer pet peeve – that other people never live up to their obligations. Stretch that out to the extreme, and you wind up doing a job where you bill 3,000 hours a year, just to set a good example for everyone else.

The odd thing is that lawyers simultaneously manage to feel a bit like imposters even as they’re pleasing, because pleasing isn’t the same thing as achieving. Achieving is an objective fact – you have accomplished something useful, good, of value. Pleasing just means you’ve convinced someone else that you’ve given them what they wanted, which might involve little more than smoke, mirrors and billable hours.

Lawyers are good at working hard, just like they’re good at racking up grades in school, which amounts to pleasing teachers. But hard work and good grades in school don’t mean you can play saxophone or or paint a portrait or write a gripping novel. It doesn’t mean you can design a computer or cure cancer either, especially since lawyers tend not to be much good at science and math (if you were any good at that stuff, you’ve have gone to med school and really pleased your parents.) Even if you are a lawyer good at science or math, it’s unlikely you’re designing computers or curing cancer because you’re probably an IP lawyer, who fled the lab bench for “money and prestige” (the magical lawyer incantation.) It’s a small wonder “imposter syndrome” thrives among lawyers. Don’t think you fooled me. We both know you aren’t really that good – you just run around trying to please everybody to distract them from the sense of defectiveness that haunts you, keeps you dancing so it won’t become obvious you’ve no idea what you want to do with your life. Everyone else seems to have somehow figured out what they want to do with theirs. Except lawyers.

So who do lawyers seek to please? Lots of folks. Pretty much everyone, except themselves.

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little-boy-reading-school-bookBlue’s Clues was a children’s television program developed in the 1990’s with the cooperation of child psychologists. The show was unique because it sought to incorporate the findings of cognitive psychology research on children into its content and presentation – a goal that produced surprising results.

What the researchers discovered in the course of their work was that children crave repetition, to a surprising degree – it comforts them. How much repetition do they crave? The results were unexpected, to say the least. It turns out most pre-schoolers are happiest watching exactly the same television show five times in a row. And so that’s what the producers of Blue’s Clues did – broadcast the same exact half-hour episode every weekday for five days in a row, every week. The kids loved it.

You might not be surprised by this outcome if you’ve ever sat a pre-schooler on your lap and read him a children’s book. You know what it’s like to finish “Thomas the Tank Engine,” then point to a stack of other books and suggest, “hey, how about we read ‘Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel’?” only to get shouted down: “No, read Thomas again!”

“But I just read it to you…”

“Read. It. Again!”

And so you do. Again and again and again until you’re getting kind of sick of it, until at last, little pre-schooler nephew lies comatose in your lap amid a spreading puddle of drool. Awwwww…how cute.

But why do kids like watching (or hearing) the same damned thing over and over again?

For the same reason junior (and sometimes senior) lawyers often do.

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looney_tunes_mad_as_a_mars_hare_-_screenshot“I don’t think…I mean…I’m not someone it would be fair to call a gunner…do you think?” My client asked, a quiver of trepidation in her voice.

“Of course not,” her therapist reassured her. Because that’s what I’m paid for.

No, that’s not why I reassured her. I did so because my client is a nice person and gunners are loathsome pariahs, denizens of the fens and low places, nothing like her at all. There might not be much that everyone in this country agrees on at the moment but we all (especially lawyers) know one truth to be self-evident, which is that everyone hates gunners and no one wants to be one.

So it’s worth posing another salient query: What is a gunner?

Part of the answer, at a law firm, is obvious – a gunner is someone who wants to make partner. That’s the whole point of “gunning” at a law firm. If you are already a partner, you’re busy doing your partner thing. But if you’re an associate, the goal is to make partner. That’s what a gunner is gunning for.

The term “gunning” further suggests, however, that you’re pointing your gun at someone else (or several someone elses) and (as is normally the case when one points a gun at someone) therefore mean them no good.

And that’s another part of the answer – and what we all hate about “gunners” – not merely that they’re gunning for (i.e., want to make) partner (we all want to make partner (mmmm…money good!)) It’s that, on the way to that goal of making partner, they’re gunning (i.e., want to eradicate) you (or anyone else standing in their way.)

That definition sounds straightforward – and loathsome – enough. But how does one actually know for a fact that someone’s a gunner, that he would nonchalantly pop some caps into a colleague’s back, then prance jauntily over said individual’s bleeding corpse in pursuit of partner-hood…as opposed to simply a hard-working, ambitious, talented lawyer on his way to success in his chosen field? Sometimes the distinction is not as obvious as it sounds.

In my client’s case, for instance, she stood accused of gunner-hood, but felt the charge was unjust. Even if I weren’t on her payroll, I’d be inclined to argue she has a point. Judge for yourself:

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9987116d453904225ab5b80d3b4da749Isolation is a popular topic with my lawyer clients. There are so many varieties of biglaw loneliness I hardly know where to start explicating the phenomenon. One client summed up his particular variant:

“They stuck me on a matter that had gotten lost in the shuffle – some rainmaker too busy bringing in business neglected it, so we lost a critical preliminary motion. After that, everyone knew the case was hopeless, and since I was low man on the totem pole, it became mine. Now everything that’s already gone wrong is officially my fault, and no one’s around to help – as in, if you ask for ideas, you hear crickets. I sit in my office, staring at documents, unable to motivate. A calendar on my wall at home has hundreds of tiny boxes I check off each day until November 12th, 2018. That’s when I pay off my last loan – my final day in law.”

To add to the festive ambience, this guy’s firm is in the midst of endless renovations, which they’re taking in stages, floor by floor. Some floors are left mostly-renovated, others barely-renovated, and the stragglers still untouched. My client was assigned to a half-renovated half-floor, nearly empty except for some staff attorneys who toil down the hall in an un-renovated former conference room.

It’s creepy. And according to firm gossip, theirs is one of those “sick buildings” where the ductwork is clogged with black mold or toxic dust or something insalubrious, especially on the as-yet-not-renovated floors. Those could be unfounded rumors. Or not. He hunches beneath fluorescent lights and stained acoustic ceiling panels, trying to breath through his nose.

Law firms are lonely places by design, or at least biglaw firms are, since they’re typically located on multiple floors of sterile glass towers. One partner client was assigned to her office renovation committee. The new philosophy, she says, encourages walls of glass, to bring light in and cheer the place up. So now, as a biglaw attorney, you work in a fish bowl, with everyone looking in as you pretend to review something while surreptitiously playing Candy Crush, or merely ride out an anxiety attack. In a “modern” glass-walled law office, lawyers retreat to the bathroom if they need to cry.

A relatively recent factor contributing to biglaw alienation derives from the fact that biglaw firms aren’t really “firms” anymore – they’re closer to conglomerates or loose federations.

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