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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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(it’s a secret)

I had a ball a few weeks ago recording a podcast with the delightful Kimberly Rice, of KLA Marketing. You can hear the results here.

We talked about my background, including my strange journey from biglaw to psychotherapy, then mulled over the experiences of lawyers nowadays in a variety of settings and pondered the future of the profession.

It’s a far-ranging conversation, and a lively and fun one. Thanks, Kimberly!

Kimberly Rice

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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

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And now there’s a new Sequel: Still Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: (The Sequel)

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My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy:Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

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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

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By definition, anyone who asks me to be featured on her podcast is a lovely person…but Karima Gulick, even if she hadn’t asked me to be on her terrific podcast for lawyers, would still be a completely lovely person. She’s just great.

The podcast, called Gen Why Lawyer, is focused on young lawyers who “who dare to live their lives on their own terms and who are building fulfilling careers.”  That sounds good to me.  You can read more about it here.

For more information on Karima, and her producer, Nicole Abboud (who also hosts some of the podcast episodes) click here.

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Karima and I spoke for about half an hour, but managed to cram in a lot of talk around about the challenges lawyers face in their jobs, and the work I do as a therapist to try and help them.

You can listen to our podcast episode here.  It has been assigned the mellifluous title “Understanding and overcoming procrastination, burnout and anxiety with Will Meyerhofer”…which makes sense, since who else could be better to understand and overcome procrastination, burnout and anxiety with than yours truly?

The Gen Why Lawyer podcast series is so strong that you really ought to check them all out – there’s a long list of episodes available here, and I’ve been dipping in and have to admit I’m hooked.  (I’m Episode #154, so yeah…there’s a lot to explore.) What they’ve put together is incredibly impressive and useful, too.

Heartfelt thanks to Karima and Nicole and the folks who help them put together The Gen Why Lawyer – I’m honored to be a part of your series.

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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


My first book is an introduction to the concepts behind 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


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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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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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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.

==========

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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b775975a44e3d7a4395cfdebcc7db7cdI just turned fifty, so I can tell you about old. Old isn’t merely the words “Mission: Impossible” conjuring memories of a show you watched as a kid in 1973 on a “color console tv set” the size of a freezer chest. Old transcends. Old abides. Old pushes through to not caring if everyone else’s memories zip directly to a movie with Tom Cruise hanging off a cliff. Old concedes Jean-Luc Picard a place in the pantheon beside Kirk and Spock, but remains firm in its belief Peter Graves and the miniature reel-to-reel tape player that self-destructed after five seconds were the height of awesome, Tom Cruise or no Tom Cruise. Old is about “values.” Old doesn’t haggle over this stuff.

What made the original Mission: Impossible show so much fun (other than its co-starring Martin Landau, which already made it fun) was the bizarrely improbable nature of the missions. They were supposed to be “impossible” to carry out, but in reality that was the least of the issues. The “mission” generally took place in some made-up Eastern European country with a name like “Vladistan” with a grey, oppressive capital city (“Vodkagrad” sounds good) and there was always an evil dictator holding a good, democratic leader guy captive in Vodkagrad (not that I remember details – I was seven years old, chomping a peanut butter and jelly sandwich during much of the action.) I mostly recall that a couple of the IMF (“Impossible Mission Force”) agents hung out in equipment rooms tapping phone lines and fiddling with electronic gadgets, glancing nervously at their watches, while the others (including Martin Landau!) wore disguises so convincing you only realized who they were when they peeled off plastic masks. How cool was that?

But my point – and I do (despite advancing age) have a point – is that I’ve recently, in my role of psychotherapist to the lawyers, been assigned “missions” by biglaw firms, requests for my services, that leave me feeling like Mr. Phelps watching wisps of smoke rise from the little reel-to-reel. I’m a publicity whore, like any author who ever sold a book (or tried to) and yes, I might be termed a whore-whore as well, in some respects, like any public speaker who ever pocketed a fee. Points conceded. But on those occasions when I’ve managed to get hired to speak at conferences and panels and industry events and even at law schools, everything has come off if not without a hitch, then at least without a major conflagration. Invite me over, serve me lunch, treat me nice, and I’m a total pro, no trouble at all.

Yet, somehow, when it’s a biglaw firm that comes calling for my services, everything goes all pear-shaped. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and be your own Mr. Phelps – check out a couple “impossible missions” that came my way recently, and decide for yourself whether you’d “choose to accept” them. I’m still scratching my head, long after the tape self-destructed. To wit:

Impossible Mission #1: Death 

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members-onlyI was recently interviewed by the lovely and vivacious Melissa Maleske, Senior Reporter for Law 360, for an article entitled “How to Stop Hating Your BigLaw Life” – and you can read it here.

Aha!  But there’s a catch (there always seems to be a catch in law, n’est-ce pas?)  You see, Law 360 is a LexisNexis Company, and you know how LexisNexis works:  You no pay, You no read.

Yes….One must subscribe to LexisNexis in order to indulge in the sybaritic delights that await you behind its sturdy paywall.

Luckily, they have a free trial offer.  So it’s really no big deal.

But, in order to tantalize you further – and to render the temptation frankly unendurable – here’s an excerpt from the article:

Based on the statistics, their pool of potential clients is considerable. The American Psychological Association has found that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to have depression than the general population. The Centers for Disease Control says lawyers are near the top of the list when suicide deaths are sorted by profession.
“It’s pretty clear that firms don’t care [about lawyer happiness],” Meyerhofer says. “Frankly, there are plenty more lawyers out there, you can grind one up and spit it out and another lines up. … I think they’ve created a world where everyone from the junior associates to the senior partners are making a tradeoff — money in exchange for an unhealthy lifestyle — and it’s kind of tragic.”

…and one more tantalizing tidbit:

There are lawyers who get a genuine thrill and sense of satisfaction out of practicing law. If you’re not one of them and you’re miserable, there’s a way out. For Meyerhofer, the realization came when he confronted the fact that this isn’t just a dress rehearsal for life, this is it. Why spend his life on work that he had no true interest in or acumen for?
“The big problem in law is that the profession has an awful lot of people who don’t belong there,” Meyerhofer says. “They just don’t really love law. They’re smart and they can do it. The schools are eager to train them and the firms snap them up. … Law is so intense that you better love it. I know lawyers who don’t mind working all night on that brief or staying all weekend to close that deal because they love it. But that’s a rare bird.”

Now you must keep reading.  Resistance is futile.  Go ahead, sign up, log in.  Tune in, turn on, drop out.  Tear down the wall.  Do what you must.  Foment revolution.  Burn it all down.  But get inside.
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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

My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy: Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

My latest 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

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gaslight_3 copyThe verb “to gaslight” comes from a 1938 stage play (which was then made into two movies, one starring Ingrid Bergman.) The plot is super-creepy, especially for 1938. In it, an evil husband tricks his young wife into believing she’s losing her mind by staging bizarre occurrences in their house, then pretending only she’s seeing and hearing them (yes, he’s after her money.) His favorite trick is dimming the gas lights in her room before clomping around upstairs or making strange sounds emanate from the walls. Soon she’s freaking out whenever the lights dim, expecting another bad trip. After each freak-out, once she’s good and melted down, he rushes to her aid, feigning concern.

It seems like a lifetime before she catches on – but she does. Things click as she (more or less) walks in on him rattling chains in the attic.

Law firms gaslight young lawyers – they create a world where nothing makes sense, then studiously pretend it does. You should catch on, too. You’re probably not the one who’s crazy.

Here’s how it works:

When you first get to the firm, it feels like summering all over again. Work is slow, and when assignments come, they’re low-priority research for marketing or pro bono. Here and there, you get a week of mindless doc review, which actually comes as a relief, since it’s easy and counts as billable hours. Mostly, you’re sitting at your desk, reading blogs. Your officemate is present half the time, not present half the time, but he doesn’t seem eager to explain what he’s up to any of the time, so you follow his lead and attempt to look serious and busy and involved in something, whatever that might be. You begin to wonder if there’s something wrong, but since you haven’t had a chance to do anything yet, it seems unlikely it’s something you’ve done. You build up the resolve to ask around and check if everyone else is dead, too – but they look busy enough, sitting at their desks, determinedly staring at their computers, so you chicken out. Just calm down, do what they’re doing – pretend there’s work. A week later, you pass the bar. You still haven’t really done anything, but it’s a step forward, right?

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3-e1423885761774I had the pleasure of confabbing away the afternoon a few days ago with the Jeena Cho, author (along with her co-author, Karen Gifford) of the upcoming book, The Anxious Lawyer, to be published in mid-2015 by the ABA.  Jeena recorded our conversation for her on-going podcast series, known as “The Resilient Lawyer.”

As you can probably tell from the resulting podcast (you can also listen to it and download it on iTunes), Jeena (although a lawyer) is very very nice, exceedingly resilient and not in the least bit anxious.  She’s also an expert on stuff like mindfulness and meditation, especially as it might play a part in rendering other lawyers’ lives a tad calmer and happier.

We covered a lot of ground – Jeena is easy to talk to, a great listener and asker of insightful questions.  You’ll have to overlook the gentle sounds of my miniature dachshund, Simon, snoring in the background, but I’m certain it’s worth the sacrifice.  Simon certainly wasn’t complaining.  IMG_5113

Jeena and Karen offer mindfulness meditation training for law firms, which seems like a good idea to me.  If any of you out there happen to manage a law firm and are in the market for calming bliss – well, I can’t think of anyone better with whom to attain it.

Thank you, Jeena, for the opportunity to meet you, and discuss the  important issues of our times…all accompanied by the soothing, slumberous susurrus of my much-loved senior canine colleague.

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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: Bad Therapist: A Romance

Read Full Post »

roachesMy client – a second year corporate associate working in a foreign office – compared remaining at her biglaw firm to eating cockroaches.

“You know, on one of those reality game shows where they dare you to eat a bucket of cockroaches and they’ll pay you a million bucks if you do.”

I requested she elaborate.

“My point is, at some juncture you stop and think – and this is probably a rational part of your brain: Hell, for a million bucks, I’ll do it. I mean, for a million bucks, you’ll do anything, so long as you can get it over with in a minute or two. The plan is to keep repeating in your head a million dollars a million dollars a million dollars until – bingo! – all done, and you’re rich.”

Alas, there’s a wrinkle.

“It should only take a minute or two to eat a bucket of cockroaches. You hold your breath, close your eyes, keep swallowing, and a minute later you’re a millionaire.”

“Then you realize it’s not so easy. The problem is, once you’re actually there, faced with the situation, you can’t get them down. Maybe one or two cockroaches, but then you’re gagging, and it all comes back up. And then you’re on all fours puking your guts out with half a bucket left to eat and you realize this might not work out as planned. You can think to yourself – I can do this, I can do this…a million bucks, a million bucks…but the fact is, you can’t pull it off.”

Why does eating a bucket of cockroaches serve as an apt metaphor for working in biglaw? Because at some point in many lawyers’ careers, you’ve paid off – or mostly paid off – the loans. And you know you’re not sticking around for much longer, because you hate it more than anything you’ve ever hated before in your life – it’s literally unbearable. On the other hand, without the loans, you are faced more starkly than ever before with the reality of why you pursued a career in the legal profession in the first place: Money.

Remember money? That was the whole point. Back when you thought a law degree could actually earn you some.

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There comes a time as a lawyer when you split in two – an angel and a devil.

The angel wants to do well – as I never tire of explaining, lawyers are pleasers. You want to make partner, earn a million bucks and be the best attorney in the world. To the angel, the firm is like your high school football team – go Skadden! Rah rah rah!!

The devil, on the other hand, would burn the place to the ground while he toasted marshmallows and sang campfire songs.

The irony is that it’s the law firm itself that turns little angels into devils – just by telling you that’s who you are.

A junior partner at a big firm told me how they did it to him. Two senior partners marched into his office and announced he was slacking off and taking advantage of the firm. It was a mistake, they told him, to make him partner.

In reality, this guy was a pleaser’s pleaser. He worked his ass off to make partner, and talked in all sincerity about his “gratitude to the firm for that honor.” He was as rah-rah as it got.

Unfortunately, none of that meant anything, because the economy sucked, and he wasn’t bringing in billables. According to firm logic, that meant he wasn’t trying, he didn’t care – he was a bad guy.

By the end of his grilling, all he wanted to do was slack off and go home.

They’d done it – turned an angel into the freeloading devil they told him he was.

A few weeks later, he’s still having trouble finding his groove, and feels tempted to fudge his hours, pad his expenses, and kick off early. It seems reasonable, all of a sudden, to glance at a document and hand it off to an associate to review instead of staying that extra couple hours at the office.

There are few things quite as frustrating as having someone question whether you are acting in good faith. It’s like one of those Hitchcock movies where they collar the wrong guy for a crime he didn’t commit and no one believes him when he insists he’s innocent.

Law firms do it all the time.

At Sullivan & Cromwell, it got to feeling like a roller coaster. I arrived at the firm fresh-faced and innocent, totally committed to doing my best. I know how absurdly naïve it sounds now, but I really did think I had a chance of making partner.

You couldn’t get more angel than me. I spent three years earning A’s in law school, pleasing professors, drinking the Kool-Aid, writing a journal article, drinking more Kool-Aid, talking about my commitment to “the profession” – all the while whipping up molten Kool-Aid gateau served with mint-rosemary Kool-Aid coulis.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I’m so bitter now – why lawyers are all bitter – because we bought in utterly at the start of things. We really were angels.

It’s a long, hard fall to the shadowland of Hades.

My expectations for Sullivan & Cromwell were ridiculous, in retrospect. I perceived the partners to be wise, caring mentors who would guide me to “excellence.” I bragged to everyone I met about where I worked, employing words like “collegial” to describe my vision of the firm. No kidding – “collegial.”

My plunge to the land of shadows only truly arrived when they ignored all that and accused me of being a slacker. It was their telling me I didn’t take my work seriously that somehow made it a reality.

There’s something about working your ass off only to be told you’re a slacker that actually turns you into a slacker. Suddenly padding your hours and avoiding work become the prime objective. Let the other little junior – Mr. Eagerness – handle things for a change.

A few days later, I’d snap out of it and remember why I was at S&C. It was the best, most prestigious law firm in the world! I wanted to make partner! I was going to make them happy, do my absolute best, and be a success!

Then I’d get stomped on by some senior associate telling me I didn’t even seem to care…and the process would begin again.

At some point, you go numb. (Even lawyers have their limits.)

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There’s a scene in John Waters’ classic film, “Female Trouble” in which Edith Massey, playing Aunt Ida, begs her nephew, Gator, to give the gay lifestyle a chance.

Gator, poor thing, refuses, which sends Ida into pleading desperation.

Here’s the dialog –

Gator: Ain’t no way; I’m straight. I like a lot of queers, but I don’t dig their equipment, you know? I like women.

Ida: But you could change! Queers are just better. I’d be so proud if you was a fag, and had a nice beautician boyfriend… I’d never have to worry.

Gator: There ain’t nothing to worry about.

Ida: I worry that you’ll work in an office! Have children! Celebrate wedding anniversaries! The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life!

Sometimes I feel that way about the world of law.

For the record, I’m not trying to change anyone’s sexual orientation here, or even suggest that it could be changed – that’s not what this scene is about. The absurd humor in Gator and Ida’s exchange derives from Waters’ inversion of the normal situation: parents are supposed to nag you to be straight, not to be gay. Just like they’re supposed to nag you to get a job and work hard and act like an adult and get serious about your life and go to law school.

But a lot of the time I feel like Aunt Ida – pleading with lawyers not to get serious and buckle down, but precisely the opposite – to give something – anything – wacky and fun and subversive – or merely indecorous – a chance. That’s because, if you’re not careful, slaving away at a big law firm can drain all the spark out of life, leaving things looking…well…sick and boring.

Now and then, after I receive a new referral, I succumb to the temptation to Google that person’s name. The first few times I did this, it was to find out whether he or she was male or female. That happens sometimes – you get an email from “Pat” or “Jamie” or “Oyedele,” and set up an appointment, then aren’t sure what to expect.

The inevitable result of an online search, in the case of a lawyer, is a page from a law firm directory. You get a passport-size photo capturing the flannel-suited subject with a slightly shocked deer-in-the-headlight expression, then the inevitable list of schools attended, bar admissions and a capsule summary of obscure “practice areas,” all rendered in lawfirm-ese: “General Practice Group,” “Corporate Capital Markets Restructuring,” “Derivatives Litigation and Regulation.”

There’s no sense of an actual person in those pages – only a scary apparition from the world of the serious and very grown-up.

I still recoil, looking at those bland, comically formal law firm directory pages – just as I wince looking at my old photo in the Sullivan & Cromwell facebook.

In the case of a new client referral, that passport photo comes to life a few days later in my office, in the form of an unhappy person confessing his loathing for his firm, bemoaning the steady stream of abuse, the sterile, alienating culture, crippling hours – the usual lawyer misery.

I wonder how ordinary people can be split in two like that, transformed simultaneously into the miserable, suffering human being sitting in my office, while the outward appearance is meticulously maintained – that official law firm image of a ring wraith from the world of the humorless.

Then I remember how S&C worked its magic on me, embalming me in its parallel dimension of un-fun.

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Last week I did a first session with a typical client – a young lawyer worried about starting at a big firm.

I couldn’t do real psychotherapy with this guy. Some lawyers are like that – they don’t trust anyone enough to open up. It was more like an awkward coaching session. When I tried to explore his feelings, he cut me off and got down to business.

He was fine, he assured me. He’d already decided he was going to take the money. He just wanted some advice. Then he related bad experiences from the summer program, and asked for my take on big firm life.

I suggested ways to maintain emotional insulation from the worst aspects of a big firm. I also proposed that he do psychotherapy, and maybe group psychotherapy, for emotional support while he was there. This didn’t make much of an impression. His mind seemed elsewhere.

He mentioned wistfully that he “wanted to be a writer, but couldn’t make a decent living at it.” I waited for more, but he changed the subject.

Eventually he left my office, and I thought that’s that. I’d never hear from him again – another unhappy lawyer who’d contacted me in a moment of weakness, then retreated back to his cave, alone.

The next day I received an email that pretended to be a thank you, but was really a warning from this guy not to mention his story in my column. It was a curt, condescending note which ended like a law firm letter, with “best regards.” Only a lawyer could write a note like that to a therapist.

I’ve received a few of these threatening notes over the years. I consider them a by-product of working with lawyers.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I’m a therapist, and I charge people for my services. And of course I disguise identities in this column to preserve confidentiality. He has a right to send me any letter he wants, and to have his confidentiality preserved.

But there’s a larger issue here. Trust. And sharing. And honesty.

My column and my work as a psychotherapist are intended to help people. I work with plenty of patients – most of them non-lawyers – who open up to me and find relief.

It’s always tougher with lawyers. They hesitate to trust anyone. That makes things harder for me – but incalculably harder for them.

Big firm attorneys live in a closet. Inauthenticity is the rule at these firms – it pervades the culture. No one admits what they’re feeling because no one is supposed to trust anyone else. The result is isolation, which exacerbates every other toxic element of that life.

It’s a kind of macho code: Act like you’re doing fine. No matter what.

One of my patients said she broke down in tears last week in the bathroom stall at her firm, after a partner tore into her for some screw-up. She chose the bathroom because of her firm’s “open door policy.” She wasn’t allowed to close her office door for privacy.

I asked her how everyone else at her firm was holding up.

She shrugged.

“Fine, I guess.”

According to her, about two-thirds of the associates were fleeing after three years. I doubt they’re all doing fine.

Lawyers are good at hiding things. Especially how they feel.

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