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Posts Tagged ‘law firms’

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

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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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