I’ve been trying to figure out a way to say this without sounding quite so bombastic, but I can’t so I’ll just say it the way it came to me during a recent session I had with a lawyer in his mid-40s. Here ya go:
Many law firms are emotional slaughterhouses.
Where do I get off saying stuff like that? I’m a psychotherapist and coach. I have worked solo for decades, and I don’t practice law. I make that statement out of decades of working with lawyers one-on-one, helping them deal with the emotional carnage that comes out of 60- and 70-hour weeks in environments often loaded with hostility, suspicion, paranoia and sabotage. Egos run amok, and it’s every man/woman for himself/herself. Caveat emptor, and we’re not talking about victory over the other side, we’re talking about the daily warfare within the firms themselves. Lawyer against lawyer in an emotional matrix in which the most cunning, manipulative and willfully dishonest are the winners.
If you are suffering, by all means, keep it to yourself. It is important to never show weakness, to take on any amount of work and to never ask for help. Or else, you will be seen as a “weak sister.” You don’t wanna be a weak sister in a big law firm. You want to be someone who can take it, take anything at all and in the process become a husk of your former self.
Alienated from spouse, family, kids. Drinking way too much. Drugging. Maybe spending a little time with sex workers or the married partner in the office next door. Or, eating like someone you swore you’d never be.
The gentleman I mention above had been ousted from a firm he was with for years and was one of its leading producers. He walked in one day and was met with a group of partners who told him to appear the following morning at a meeting of the partnership. At the meeting, he was told, “We’re here to talk about your separation from the firm.” He was bought out of his partnership on the spot and told to gather his stuff and get out.
He’d been acting aberrantly, had shouted at staff, and over time had become the scapegoat for all that went wrong in the firm. What everyone had missed was that he was clearly depressed and needed help. He needed someone to say “Hey, it looks like you’re really having a bad time. How can we help?”
In the pressured, competitive, eat-what-you-kill environment of a typical big firm, where masked insecurity is the predominant emotional condition, there needs to begin a cultural awareness of the fallout of the setting. Just as we need to at the societal level, firms need to grasp the need for dealing with trauma.
Police forces and the military are recognizing the effects of trauma/stress, and building programs accordingly. We have widespread training in CPR, anti-drowning programs, concealed carry programs, active shooter training, concussion and closed head injury assessment—all kinds of publicized awareness of PTS (post-traumatic stress) and how to recognize it. Why not something similar as a regular part of professional life in a law firm?
If a police officer is involved in a shooting, the aftereffects of this are dealt with immediately, though this hasn’t always been the case. It wasn’t all that long ago that officers clung to a code of silence and kept their suffering to themselves, to be drowned at “cop bars” with other cops or unloaded on spouse and kids.
The military has long since recognized trauma and is still climbing the curve in dealing with it at an organizational level, but at least they see and know the problem. In law firms, it’s every man or woman for him/herself. Maladaptive perfectionism drives successful outcomes but expends human capital. It was maladaptive perfectionism that Sidley Austin lawyer Gabe MacOnaill’s wife identified as a probable cause for his suicide.
Perhaps it is time that law firms recognize the emotional impact of law practice on its lawyers and their families. We already have the stereotype, almost a cliche, of the burned out, depressed alcoholic lawyer running his last lap. Where do we suppose that comes from, except from reality? Law practice is harsh, exacting and takes its toll. Police know the emotional price of law enforcement, the military of warfare. The medical profession is waking up to the challenge of health care (physicians have a higher rate of suicide than lawyers). Why shouldn’t the legal profession take the same stance?
In Texas, the bar has TLAP, the vastly underutilized but necessary Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program which provides guidance when much of the damage has already been done. What I’m pointing at is the development of in-house awareness of mental/emotional difficulties. The sense that yes, our lawyers are well paid for a difficult job, but the human soul remains tender and subject to injury, no matter how big the paycheck. There should be no waiting until the wheels start to come off. Instead, the wheels coming off would be anticipated and steps taken in advance.
Those steps would include, for example, basic training in understanding trauma (losing a trial is traumatic, and, I can already hear the claims that it just comes with the turf and ya gotta just suck up and deal with it). There might also be education on recognizing the onset of mental/emotional difficulty so that, instead of gathering in small groups to talk about how strangely a partner is behaving, there is an understanding that he or she might need someone to reach out in compassion. Right now, a lawyer behaving erratically is often treated like a rabid dog until self-destruction is complete and he or she is escorted out the door.
The question then becomes how to inject compassion and understanding into an atmosphere of competition, winning and losing, and the harsh realities associated. That might begin with taking a look at the massive investment in human capital and taking steps to protect it as we would any other form of capital.
James Dolan is a therapist and coach whose expertise is helping lawyers with depression, burnout, and conflicts at home and at work. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, ph 214-629-6315, www.therapistjamesdolan.com.