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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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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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screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-4-14-02-pmIt was especially fun getting together in a recording studio in midtown Manhattan a couple weeks ago with my old friend, Frazer Rice, to compare notes on life and work and everything else, former lawyer to former lawyer.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-4-17-25-pmFrazer is a great guy, and a great interviewer, and we managed to cover a lot of ground.

Click here to listen to the podcast.  It’s about 40 minutes long, and we used that time to unpack a lot of the madness of the legal life and work life and lots of other facets of being human.

Thanks, Frazer.  Let’s do it again sometime.

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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

Read Full Post »

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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enhanced-buzz-13963-1374365048-27This one really happened – and it happened to yours truly (as opposed to the usual disguised anecdote loosely based on a factually altered tale from one or more carefully anonymized clients.)

One night, (or morning, or sometime between night and morning, since we were working an all-nighter) shortly after my arrival at Sullivan & Cromwell, a fairly senior partner at the firm took a moment to lean back in his desk chair and impart the following to little junior associate moi:

“You hang on by your fingertips, kid.” He raised his hands and bent his fingers, as if to demonstrate. “Till it starts to seem normal. Just dangle there and wonder how long you can last – or what happens if you let go.”

Apparently that was all he had to relate on the topic, as he snapped back to focus on reviewing a purchase agreement. I recall wondering if he, after (presumably) a zillion sleepless nights just like this one, felt as bleary-eyed, sweaty and slightly sick to his stomach as I did. I’ll never know the answer to that question. Maybe partners don’t need sleep – maybe that’s their secret.

I also recall wondering if this guy was exaggerating with that whole “dangling by your fingers” routine to impress me – or if he was a little bonkers. In retrospect I think he simply meant it.

Working in biglaw is a straight-forward exercise: You’re paid a lot of money to sit at a desk and work long hours. Someone provides the work, and you do it. That typically means arriving at around 10 am, working on something complicated, with a short break (maybe) for lunch, and then (maybe) for dinner, until about 10 or 11 pm, every day. You also sometimes work all night and sometimes weekends and sometimes all night on weekends.

To review: You arrive in the morning, you sit at a desk, you work until late night. Then you do it again the next day.

An additional factor is that the work is hard. Not rocket science hard, but not stuffing cotton into little bottles either. Initially, there’s a lot of “running changes,” “creating a chart,” “putting it into a table,” “checking cites,” and that sort of thing. Even that stuff can freak you out when nothing you give them is ever what they want and they keep handing you more. “Firm culture” can take getting used to, as well. A junior associate client of mine closed her office door one night, as was her habit, so she could break down and have a good cry, only to realize (through the paper thin walls) that someone else was also weeping, in the office next door. There’s nothing like feeling part of a team.

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SONY DSCI’m always hearing that I’m a downer, that all I ever write about is the negative side of law. Nothing could be further from the truth. If The People’s Therapist has one precept he lives by, it’s that old adage (okay, so maybe it’s a tenet) from management theory: Don’t bring me a problem unless you’re also bringing me a solution. It’s hardly my issue that all people ever seem to bring me (at least where law’s concerned) is problems. I’m drowning in their problems, and they must have the wrong guy, because I’m a constitutionally upbeat, constructive person – all about solutions, and upbeat ones, at that. Upbeat, constructive solutions are my forte. But these law people…what can I say? They just keep coming with the problems.

This dynamic plays out a lot when I do interviews. As an international celebrity, trend-setter and raconteur on all-things legal, I’m flooded – or, I should say my people (agents, managers, major domos, land stewards, footmen, grand viziers, and so forth) are flooded – with requests for interviews, podcasts, panels, speeches, award ceremonies, ribbon-cuttings, product endorsements, mall openings, ship launchings, red carpet appearances and the like. Of course, I always say yes, since I’m an upbeat, constructive guy. But in the course of these lavish, star-studded galas, my merriment is again and again interrupted by pesky, repetitive questions about anxiety and lawyers, depression and lawyers, suicide and lawyers, yadda yadda yadda. For whatever reason, these appear to be the favorite topics of whoever wants to chat about law in these situations, and so I find myself reluctantly fielding inquiry after inquiry regarding how common these phenomena are, why they occur and (just to drive home how ridiculous this all gets) if there’s something about law or law firms that might somehow be responsible for the sky-high rates of anxiety, depression and suicide that apparently seem to occur among lawyers.

I’m an upbeat, constructive, cosmopolitan kind of a guy, more flaneur than talking head, and this is downer, negative stuff coming at me when I’d rather opine about matters fun and hip. But I’m also a celebrity and a spokesmodel, with the attendant obligations (as well as a plain old, down-homey, profoundly decent and modest regular guy), and so I do the best I can to satisfy the peculiar one-track tunnel vision of certain persons out there with regard to this thing we all love that we call law.

At some point in these events, there inevitably arrives a juncture at which I’m expected to answer one key question: How can lawyers manage anxiety and depression (and thus stop committing suicide), because, you know…it’s getting to be a drag.

I get that, and as an upbeat and constructive person, I welcome this juncture when it arrives, because we need to fix this! We need answers here. I’m as positive and rah-rah and gung-ho about law as anyone – in fact, I’m Mr. Gung-ho, and I eat and breathe a love for law in everything I do, and I’m not too proud to admit that. And I totally agree that it is time to stop whining and griping and start finding solutions!

There’s just one little problem, though, and it’s a doozie…

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mikeMike DeBlis is an exhilarating interviewer. After chatting away merrily for nearly an hour, delving down into the issues in a refreshingly honest and unvarnished manner, he surprised me by nonchalantly announcing:  “Will, this is great.”  I, of course, enthusiastically agreed.  Then he added, even more nonchalantly, “So, shall we begin recording?” I couldn’t think of anything else to say, but “sure.”  And so we did.

logoI realized that’s the secret to how Mike gets such open, authentic, natural sounding podcasts for his series – he uses that first hour as the warm-up, to actually sit down and talk and talk and get to know his guests.

The good news is it really works.  We kept going, and going, and going, and I think – no exaggeration – we probably talked for about three hours, and covered a lot of meaningful ground in what was probably the most enjoyable and heartfelt interview I’ve ever participated in.

Happily, Mike, and Riche (Mike’s Social Media Director, who helps Mike produce the Emotion in the Courtroom podcast series) edited down the tapes to a mere hour of all the best bits…and here’s the result.  I hope you’ll enjoy listening in as much as we enjoyed spending those hours together getting acquainted, sharing ideas and digging into the issues surrounding depression, anxiety and the practice of law today.
Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 5.46.57 PM

==========

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

Read Full Post »

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