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Archive for the ‘AboveTheLaw series’ Category

There’s no getting out of it: This is a column discussing a syndrome in which lawyers (I suspect mostly women lawyers) sometimes cry on the job in what are arguably inappropriate situations, and the often negative (and avoidable) fallout that results. 

Maybe I shouldn’t post this one. It’ll only get me into trouble. But what the heck – I’m here to talk about what I see and hear happening in the world of law, and darn it, this falls under that heading.

So here goes nothing:

My client had done what a lot of lawyers wind up doing at some point in their careers – tried to get herself fired.

That’s a phenomenon I see all the time in biglaw – the unconscious attempt to get yourself fired thing. You can’t rationally convince yourself to quit, but the irrational part of you knows it isn’t about to let you stay, either. So, in therapist speak, you “act out on unexamined feelings.” That manifests itself in stuff like complaining about your job a bit too loudly in places that are a bit too public. Or coming in late. Or not coming in. Or just acting weird at the office without owning the fact that people are going to notice and some of them aren’t going to like it.

I urge lawyers, if they have reached that point of no return (the place where you really cannot come back and work at your firm for one more day without losing your shit) then please, go ahead and own it, and make the decision to leave in a conscious way. It’s best to reframe all aspects of your life as conscious choices, including your career, and put your decision process into words someplace safe (like a psychotherapist’s office) so you can take back your autonomy and be the actor in your own life, instead of acting out on unconscious, unexplored emotions.

You’re allowed to quit. There will be consequences, especially if you don’t have another job lined up, or are saddled with a heap of school debt. But everything in life involves a cost/benefit calculus; this is just another one of those things.

The person who most needs to know what’s going on with you, so she can deal with it, is your boss. That way, instead of wondering what the heck is going on with that associate acting like a lunatic, she can process the news that you want out and, maybe even work together with you to find a solution.

My client freely admitted she’d been broadcasting her discontent to a lot of people – other associates, secretaries, paralegals, word processors, librarians, doc reviewers, you name it. In fact, if you were with her for more than a few moments, you probably heard how miserable she was, along with a stream of complaints and criticism about her firm.

Sure enough, a partner she worked with eventually took her aside and said, “I’ve been hearing you’re unhappy. Why don’t we set up a time to talk?” They agreed my client would come by her office the next morning.

And that’s when my client called me. 

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batman-joker-interrogation-dark-knightYou are really, really sick of law. In fact, you want out. At a minimum, you need to get out of your current job, or you might die. That much is not in dispute. 

But you still have the loans. Therefore common sense says you should “give law one more try.”

As H. L. Mencken once observed:“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

You sense this quotation might apply to your current situation, because it seems clear and simple you should go find another job in biglaw, at least for a year. Here are some screamingly clear and simple reasons why:

  • You need money to pay off loans – one more shot at biglaw money.
  • It’s not life or death – you can always quit the new job if it doesn’t work out. 
  • According to the headhunters who call you twice a day, there are loads of “lifestyle” shops that would love to snap you up from your hotshot firm, despite the fact that you loath that place with every cell in your body. 

The list of “cons” includes:

  • imagining starting a law job at another firm makes you physically ill;
  • the thought of interviewing at a law firm makes you physically ill; and
  • the thought of walking into another law firm makes you physically ill. 

A lot of lawyers find themselves in this situation, stuck (in the metaphorical sense) between a rock (school loans) and a hard place (the thought of continuing to practice law.) 

However, the final decision tends to be along the lines of – well, no harm in going for an interview. Which is why you’ll probably wind up going in for that interview. 

“So, should I go on this interview?” One client asked me recently. I knew he was talking about that interview. 

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My client said her firm had, more or less, a checklist of what they wanted in a lawyer they made partner. And she had knocked herself out checking off every last damn item.

  • Helped with firm marketing efforts (including hundreds of non-billable hours)? Check.
  • Worked with a variety of partners in various areas, including powerful group leaders and major rainmakers? Check.
  • Logged long hours – and billed those hours – including nights and weekends, producing top-quality written work that was universally praised? Check.
  • Cultivated positive relationships with existing clients, who produced enthusiastic feedback about her work? Check.
  • Worked on important matters in a variety of roles, including stuff like taking part in trials and depositions and handling matters relating to complicated, highly regulated industries? Check.
  • Brought in her own clients and began developing a meaningful book of business? Check.
  • Tackled meaningful pro bono work? Check.
  • Participated in events with summer associates and recruitment efforts? Check.
  • Supervised and mentored juniors and ran large teams on big cases? Check.
  • Anything else you can think of? Check.

Other folks in her class, even junior partners at her firm, considered her promotion, at least to of counsel, to be a given. As one put it, “if not you, then who? You’re the dream associate, a superstar.”

The logic was simple: They have to promote someone, and if it’s anything even vaguely resembling the meritocracy they claim it is, she had to be that someone.

But no, as you might be guessing, that’s not how things worked out. They promoted no one.
After a year, or two or (really) many years of “making the partnership sprint,” the firm told her she wasn’t up for anything – not partner, not of counsel, not senior attorney, nothing. At her review, she was informed she could remain at the firm, as an associate, for as long as she wanted. That’s what they were offering, in gratitude for years of devoted labor – more of the same.

Oh, and there was one more thing: They needed her to work late that night on an important, complicated filing due the next morning. (No, I’m not making that up.)

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There’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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