Leaving the Law

leavingWhen I was 29 years old I left the practice of law for a while.  I had lived for a time in Washington D.C. and decided that becoming a bartender was the way I could find work anywhere I wanted to live, so when I followed a woman I was involved with back to the Bay Area, I enrolled in the Golden Gate Bartending School.  I recall to this day with great fondness, old Mac McLaughlin hiking his chubby body onto a bar stool with the San Francisco Chronicle splayed out before him, ordering various cocktails which I made from liquor bottles filled with colored water.  I’d make my Manhattans and Mai Tai’s while Mac would keep up a constant banter, “So, Mr. Joe, what do you think of that People’s Temple thing, there?   That’s sweet vermouth you need…”  When I had my private practice for many years afterward, I hung my Diploma from Mac’s school along with my other sheepskin on the wall.

Upon my graduation from bartending school, I went looking for jobs and, predictably, experience counted for a lot in a fairly tight market.  I finally landed a job in a bar which was attached to an old, institutional Italian restaurant, “Bellini’s” on Telegraph Avenue right on the border of Oakland and Berkeley.  It was a pretty dicey area and a pretty dead bar, but on those few nights when we had a nice crowd in, the concentration required to keep all the orders straight was a Zen experience – hours passed by in seconds.  To this day, I cannot hear “I Will Survive,” by Gloria Gaynor or “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart without being shot back to that dark, often empty, bar and the mindnumbing number of times the owner put those songs on the jukebox.

One Friday night, on a particularly busy night in the bar, the front door swung open and in walked a guy dressed in jeans, a sweater, and with his entire head covered in gauze.  Gloves covered his hands and when he sat down at my bar, the conversation level dropped to a whisper.  He pulled out a steno pad and pen and wrote, “A beer please.”  I asked if domestic was ok and he nodded his assent to that question and, also, whether he wanted a Bud.  He introduced himself as “Mickey” and wrote that he had experienced an allergic reaction to painting his apartment and couldn’t talk and his wife had told him to get out of the house and go to a bar after being cooped up at home too long.  I asked him how long he was going to look like The Mummy and he wrote “No Mummy Jokes!”  Mickey was a delight and his company brightened my night.  About an hour into his visit, he wrote me the question: “Where did you go to high school?”  When I told him, he asked if I knew a particular woman with whom I had gone to high school and law school.  Suspicion flooded my system as I looked into those eyes and asked, “Who the f*** are you?”  He shrugged, said he had to go to the bathroom and when he emerged, bandages unrolled, he turned out to be one of my dearest friends from law school who lived in Santa Barbara.  Steven Faulstich wanted to come see me as a bartender, but didn’t want me to know it was him, thus no voice and no face.  Definitely one of the greatest things anyone has ever done for me.

As the weeks went on, and I would say to patrons of this neighborhood bar that I was a lawyer, but had decided to try something else, these working class people looked at me in disbelief and even some disgust – finding it incomprehensible that I would take this incredible opportunity to be a lawyer and just piss it away.  It got me to thinking and, out of respect for these people as much as for any other reason, I returned to practice for another 8 years before I finally went back to school to earn my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy.  Still, it took me another 10 years to fully disconnect from the practice, as I had great anxiety about what else I could do – having more experience in a field for which I was temperamentally ill-suited than for anything else.  Slowly, as I gained experience and confidence in my writing and therapeutic work, I was able to fully detach and have since enjoyed the happiest years of my life.

My experience is certainly not unique.  Now and again I read of others who have made this transition.  The most recent is a wonderful column by Bob Markowitz in the New York Times  entitled “Abandoning the Work I Hated.”  Enjoy – and for all you disaffected lawyers out there, take hope!

Living the Good Life, Part 2

lawyerThe values that are continually reinforced in the world of lawyers and law students are creating a generation of dissatisfied, unfulfilled people who, while they have the capacity to buy happiness, it doesn’t seem to do them much good.  So says a recent New York Times Article.  Comparing partner-track lawyers in prestige firms with their lesser-compensated fellows in the public service sector reveals that the latter have a far higher incidence of satisfaction and lower incidence of substance abuse and depression.  This is a tough message to bring to practitioners, who value self-sufficiency, the appearance of success and strength and, above all, the absolute armor of competence.  Anything which will tarnish this paramount of all images – the competent and confident attorney – is to be rejected like the Ebola-infected kiss.  Yet, it’s hard to get away from the years of research that continually return to the theme of lawyer unhappiness.  A Johns Hopkins survey of more than 25 years ago found lawyers to be the unhappiest of all professions.  Happiness expert, Martin Seligman, PhD, has suggested that lawyers’ training in prudence strongly contributes to this downward mental pressure.  The legal task is, in part, to consider all the negative things that might happen and to guard against their impact.  That is why lawyers are criticized as “deal-breakers” among business people.  Yet, greater than this is the set of incentives and values that have become embedded in legal culture.  The need to appear strong and competent to colleagues and clients – to eschew the appearance of weakness with utmost vigilance – are, I would suggest, the bane of lawyers’ lives.  It is an isolating force.  These rather vague attributes (“strength” “competence”) are measurable in the legal “coin of the realm” which begin with class ranking and law review election in law school and continue through to compensation and attainment of partnership in practice.  Finally, however, the sheer volume of practitioners who are struggling with substance abuse, anxiety or depression, or domestic struggles has forced attorneys and commentators, alike, to re-examine the source of happiness (and sadness).  Work with meaning that is consistent with personal values has emerged as the path to well-being.  This has been reiterated in a recent law review article by Florida State Law Professor Larry Krieger and his long-time research colleague, Ken Sheldon.  So the struggle continues – to humanizing effect on practitioners of this wonderful, society-supporting and enriching profession.

Living the Good Life ?

A New York Times article appeared on April 27th featuring the struggles faced by recent law school graduates, 20% of whom, according to one survey, are not working at a job weatlh.1that requires a license to practice law.  This rather desperate state of affairs was introduced by the story of 29 year old Jonathan Wang, a Columbia Law School graduate who is quoted as saying, “I would spend three years at school in New York, then work for a big law firm and make $160,000 a year, and someday, I would become a partner and live the good life.”

Really?

So what is the “good life” that Jonathan and his cohorts strive to achieve?   It sounds an awful lot like making a lot of money and then enjoying all the money he made.  I don’t hear him talking about a deeply satisfying work life which responds to whatever inner calling he brings with him – be it service to a population he is attracted to, intellectual curiosity, deep engagement in the machinery that makes this society just and workable.  Does the “good life” include time with his family – the chance to spend leisurely weekend mornings lazing in bed with his kid(s) crawling all over him or the loving rituals he will share with his partner that will keep them secure and bonded?  Does “the good life” include a spiritual calling – be it a membership in an embracing congregation, or the awe he might experience in moments of private reflection?  Does it include doing good works for no compensation other than the knowledge that you have contributed to the well-being of others?

This mwealth.2ay be very generational, but I really don’t understand it when young people say they want to retire when they are 50, or even 40.  I never hear (it may be said, but I’m not hearing it) that these people, who wish to sacrifice their early adult years for a “good life” later, speak of what they want to do with this good life other than spend the money they have sacrificed to amass.  Meanwhile, they will likely find they must spend a lot of time, emotional energy  (and money) attempting to reweave the bonds with their loved ones which have frayed and stretched as they have become embedded in a culture of striving for great financial reward.  We should not forget that lawyers have a unique and valuable role in our society.  No other profession studies the way a society works – how common disputes can be resolved in a productive way.  It has been said that doctors are healers of the body; ministers are healers of the soul and lawyers are the healers of the society.  It is a bit of a perversion to see the practice of law as an avenue to riches.  It has become sadly common to think of it that way.  Yet, we can’t escape the fact that lawyers have a frighteningly high proportion of their population suffering from depression.  Google “lawyers” and “depression” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  It’s good, actually, that the practice of law may no longer be a gilded path to wealth.  Hopefully, this will result in a greater number of young people not succumbing to the siren call of some “good life” and who may choose, instead, to contribute their skill, knowledge and earned wisdom so we can all live a good life.

 

Law – The “Betrayed Profession”

lawyer.4I recently came across a lengthy article I wrote about 20 years ago dealing with the stresses of law practice at the end of the 20th Century.  It was packed with quotes from both lawyers and law professors describing how legal education, and later the practice itself, have been leeched of their humanity.  I had recalled that lawyer and diplomat Sol Linowitz had made some powerful statements in his book The Betrayed Profession and sure enough I found them in my paper. While written more than 20 years ago, he and former Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman identified a pervasive and enduring problem with the practice of law in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.

In describing law as it was practiced in the middle of the last century, Linowitz comments,

“The satisfaction of practicing law were in the knowledge that others depended upon your judgment and loyalty and your abilities and that at the end of the day you knew that you had, in fact helped your client.  In my generation, we thought of the law as a helping profession, not a continuation of war by other means.”

Kronman chimed in with these comments in his book The Lost Lawyer – Failing Ideals of the Legal Profession:

“This crisis (of morale among lawyers) has been brought about by the demise of an older set of values that until quite recently played a vital role in defining aspirations of American lawyers.  At the very center of these values was the belief that the outstanding lawyer – the one who serves as a model for the rest – is not simply an accomplished technician but a person of prudence or practical wisdom as well.  It is, of course, rewarding to become technically proficient in the law.  But earlier generations of American lawyers conceived their highest goal to be the attainment of a wisdom that lies beyond technique – a wisdom about human beings and their tangled affairs that anyone who wishes to provide real deliberative counsel must possess.”

Much of this has been reconfirmed in an exhaustive study of lawyers and well-being recently concluded by Florida State Law Professor Lawrence Krieger and Kenneth Sheldon.  They found that there is very little correlation between happiness and salary, prestige of law firm or law school or the other achievements which law students and attorneys strive so vigilantly toward.  Rather, it is the degree of personal autonomy and the congruence of one’s professional life and personal values that show the highest correlation to well-being.

Lawyers and Personal Conflict

angry.couple.1I like lawyers.  Some of my oldest, dearest friends are lawyers.  It’s really the same thing that has me coming back year after year to teach counseling skilargumentls to law students.  Lawyers, as people, are smart, funny, generally very positive and full of life.  This is even more so for law students – with their youth and energy.   Yet one thing has always bemused me about lawyers – They are a conflict resolution profession that hates interpersonal conflict.  Take mediation, for example.  The classic approach to mediation is to sit the disputing people down together and have them talk to each other.  The mediator’s job is to help this process by creating a safe environment where each person will have their space to express what’s on their mind and help in phrasing it in a way that is both true for the speaker and also said in way that can be heard without defensiveness.  It is almost guaranteed that if we are accused of something (or feel we are being accused) we will automatically become defensive and the speaker will be hugely frustrated at the fact that they are not being heard.  This is just one of the realities of interpersonal conflict resolution – helping people speak to each other in a productive fashion.  Lawyers, however, find the possibility of sitting in the presence of emotion that can become hot and possibly escalate to be too potentially destructive, so they choose, almost invariably, to separate the people (or groups) in argumentdispute.   This is kind of consistent with one of the most poignant elements of lawyers’ discomfort with conflict – how they fight at home.

One of the real problems with legal training is that lawyers feel they have to “win” an argument.  Often by “winning” this means being able to explain their position either clearly enough or with enough supportive evidence (and examples from the past) that their partner will ultimately relent and admit that they are right.  So how does one deal with the reality that you don’t “win” marital arguments?  When what is at stake is each person’s deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities, “winning” seems beside the point.  It certainly won’t get us what we want, which is peace and connection.  I wrote a blog post about a year or so ago about the two different conversations couples have when they are in conflict.  The one that we try to win is the unwinnable one.  How’s that for a conundrum?  The way out of it, I think, is to understand that no relationship will touch on our deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities like our intimate partnership.  If we are going to have these feelings, this is going to be the place.  Learning to understand them, express them, listen to them and connect with them, while often uncomfortable, is the way out of that maze.

Personality Styles

type.tabletype.tableMany of us are familiar with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, a personality sorter that tells us if we tend toward Introversion or ExtrovMBTI.2ersion as a preference – whether we are likely to make decisions based upon the straightforward and logical Thinking function or the more subjective and personal values-based Feeling function – how we take in the world we experience,  as concrete and evidence reliant Sensors or future oriented and inspired Intuitive types – and finally if we prefer to affect our world in an organized, results-oriented Judging fashion or rather let our world affect us in the observant, keep-our-options-open Perceiving way.  These eight preferences result in 16 different Personality Types.   Scores of journal articles have been written about lawyers and the MBTI.  It is a standard part of many law school orientation programs.  I have presented this material in a number of law firms – to great effect and enjoyment.

Recently, I was introduced to an instrument which is similar to the MBTI, but is quicker to take, simpler to explain and enjoys almost all of the valuable insights to be gained by the lengthier instrument.  Its simplicity and brevity lends itself to a 2 hour lunchtime presentation.  The break-downs are quite simple.  We are sorted into Four basic preferences – each having its own way to prioritize information; communicate and make decisions.puzzle.4  We will usually have one style – or perhaps two – which dominate our approach to life and business tasks.  One of the great values of this material is that we can begin to understand that (1) there are other approaches which, (2) while different are valuable and which (3) exist in all environments, to one degree or another and (4) which, without some instruction and reflection will be impermeable to our efforts to connect and persuade.  These styles are characterized by colors, for ease.  Certainly the quick thinking, results oriented Directives will have some difficulty working with, and getting through to, the more easy-going, “take it as it comes, but make it entertaining Adaptives.  These latter folks may have some difficulty understanding the need of the Analyticals to get it right and find their difficulty in reaching conclusion frustrating.  That doesn’t even begin with the care these people take with their communication which can dismay the Supportive style, who finds the over-concern with precision to be antithetical to the higher value of empathic and interpersonally harmonious exchanges.  Different environments will find certain styles dominating.  Likely any law firm will see an abundance of Analyticals and Directives.   In fact, there may be such a predominance of these two styles, that the livelier Adaptives and more empathic Supportives may have difficulty understanding and expressing the value they provide.  It is the choice and challenge of every working system to find a way to harvest the kernels of skill and natural talents of every part.  The first, obvious, step is to be able to identify these difference and then to knit the fabric of our collective powers to make the overall organization energetic, effective, resilient and a place of belonging for all involved.

type.table

The Curse of the Zealous Advocate

Back when, in the early part of the last century, lawyers’ Code of Ethics required “zealous advocacy” in support of a client’s cause.  This historical roots for this demand can be found in this excellent article in the American Bar Association’s Litigation magazine.   It is often said that such aggressive and intense commitment to one’s client’s interests, only, may have a place in the world of criminal defense (and a few other places) the world of divorce is a poor forum for this kind of “my client and no other” myopia.

Lawyers’ Stress

A recent article in the Louisville Courier-Journal discusses a disturbingupward trend in attorney suicides.  This is not an altogether new concern.  More than 25 years ago, Dr. Andy Benjamin and his colleagues identified legal education and the resulting culture that has been created as leading to serious mental distress among attorneys, as reflected in much higher than normal rates of substance abuse and depression.  There are many causes for this, generally unacknowledged, problem.  Perhaps the greatest is that it is unacknowledged.  Lawyers are trained from the inception of their education, and are probably self-selected as well, to eschew emotion at the expense of reason.  I recall at the beginning of law school we would exalt the ARM (the Average Reasonable Man).  No greater disdain exists than that heaped by lawyers upon anything that is “touchy feely.”  No wonder that lawyers (who are human beings, after all – with active limbic systems that generate the normal amount of fear, caution, anger and grief over loss) will erect concrete mental defenses against acknowledging  their fear, caution, anger and grief….well, not anger.  That emotion gets a pass.  It’s easy to protect oneself against appearing vulnerable with the expression of anger.  When we are forced to protect ourselves from judgment – which is leveled at our natural thoughts and feelings – life can become exhausting and alienating.  I see this even among my colleagues in the collaborative law community.  These are a group of lawyers (and other professionals) who are striving to make the experience of law healing, rather than damaging, for those who encounter it.  Yet these lawyers, too, avoid disclosure of personal doubt, worry, sadness or fear.  These precise feelings that are universal and which can form the real basis of a bonded community are dismissed as inappropriate within this professional world.  More’s the pity.

Law as a Healing Profession

I was fortunate recently to be asked to write an article for the Washington State Bar monthly magazine about the new trends in law and how they contribute to civility in the profession. I thought I’d reproduce it here because the theme of law as a healing profession is so important today.

Starting in around 1960 and continuing through the ‘80’s, the practice of law was marked by the ascendancy of litigation as both the engine of economic growth in the profession and the prevailing ethic. Competent, smart, hard-working and, above all, tough – these were the values which permeated our professional world. Aggressive was good, results (measured in monetary terms) were paramount. Adversarial litigation exploded as a practice form, and with it came the concomitant rise in interpersonally destructive behavior. The oft-referenced rise in incivility among lawyers was both striking in its metastatic growth and often shocking in its brazenness. Isolated voices would express concern about the law’s shift from a “profession” to a “business” and its effect on the well-being of both the lawyers and the clients they served, but during this time they remained just that – isolated. But in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, these voices coalesced into what law professor Susan Daicoff has called the “Comprehensive Law Movement.”

If there is one driving force behind this, now formidable, movement within our midst, it is the recognition that law should not be an instrument for inflicting avoidable personal (and interpersonal) damage in the service of reaching a specific “legal” objective. Indeed, if there is one theme which is shared by these approaches to practice, it is that when we can manage to turn down the heat generated by adversarial conflict, we are actually able to arrive at solutions which are far more satisfying to our clients. It is about the ascendancy of civility in how we conduct our affairs – not just to be “nice” but to achieve effective results. The various “vectors” of this Comprehensive Law Movement include:

• Collaborative Law: Arising 20 years ago from the creative mind of Stu Webb, a Minnesota family lawyer, Collaborative Law is predicated on the notion that the last place to resolve disputes between wounded, divorcing individuals is an adversarial litigation process. In Collaborative Law, all professionals and the clients sign a contract explicitly abandoning litigated adjudication as the means for resolving disputes. There is a generous use of neutral professionals to support the individuals in managing their emotional challenges, making parenting decisions and untangling their financial community.
• Therapeutic Jurisprudence: In 1990, law professors David Wexler and Bruce Winnick began to write about the various psychologically destructive consequences of legal action. They explicitly joined the social sciences of law and psychology in an effort to enhance the therapeutic possibilities inherent in both legal process and result. Starting in the mental health courts, TJ (the subject of more than 600 articles and 18 books) has had a significant impact in such diverse practice areas as workers compensation, sexual orientation law and business negotiation.
• Transformative Mediation: First discussed in a 1994 book by law professor R. Baruch Bush and communications professor, Joseph Folger (The Promise of Mediation) this form of dispute resolution seeks to fashion a resolution that reaches beyond a settlement of the legal issues between parties. Baruch and Folger emphasized the promotion of each party’s empowerment and voice and the recognition of each party and their concerns by the other. TM, at its highest expression, explores the power of empathy and forgiveness, making mediation a vehicle for growth and reconciliation.
• Restorative Justice: More than 25 years old, RJ is founded in the criminal justice system. It is an avenue for healing between the criminal offender, the victim, and their community. It is founded not on adjudication of guilt and sentencing, but rather upon dialogue, future problem solving and, critically, the offender’s acceptance of accountability for his/her conduct and the damage which has resulted. RJ seeks to heal the deep rift which arises from the commission of criminal acts.
• Holistic Justice: Again, from the single seed from the brain of attorney Bill van Zyverden, Holistic Law seeks to “promote peaceful advocacy…encourage compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness and healing.” HJ emphasizes the spiritual elements of dispute resolution. The International Alliance of Holistic Lawyers is a vibrant, 20 year old organization.
• Humanizing Legal Education: Florida State law professor, Lawrence Krieger, authored an influential research report on the destructive impact of the law school environment on the well-being of law students in the early ‘00’s. His observations found a very enthusiastic audience in the legal academy and today there is a section on Balance in Legal Education which seeks to encourage and support avenues for law students to strengthen their resources for dealing with stress and deepen their interpersonal skills.

Back in 1974 we used to talk about law school as training to become “high speed legal tools.” This led to troubling blindness to a fundamental truth – we, lawyers, are people. Our clients are people… with dreams and troubles and a fundamental need for connection. During the last 20 years, our colleagues, by the thousands, have striven to sculpt a new and different profession which is wiser and more civil – not because it is nicer, but because it is a return to our roots as lawyers as counselors and supporters of our clients’ lives and endeavors.

The Happy Lawyer

Law professors Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder have just published a valuable guide for lawyers of any age.  Before you read on, I invite you to take a most interesting little quiz (derived from the findings in this book) which appeared in the ABA Journal.  How important is money to lawyers’ happiness?    Do the most satisfied lawyers come from the “top tier” law school?  (Speaking of which, check out the recent New York Times story about the competition among law schools to get those coveted -and misleading-U.S News ratings.)  Lawyers’ ability to be happy is challenged on many fronts.  The assaults on well-being by the competitive law school environment;  lawyers’ natural penchant for pessimistic thinking as described by Martin Seliman, Ph.D, the “Father of Positive Psychology”; the demands on a person’s time that are driven by the need to earn the funds to cover a six-figure student loan and the general lack of civility in legal culture and some of the most notable examples.  Keeping a handle on personal relationships is so critical for personal well-being – as is the commitment not to lose connection with one’s own particular life passions.  Achieving balance between professional and personal needs is ranked by lawyers of the millennial generation as their highest value. Levit and Linder provide a wonderful array of tips and wisdom for high achieving lawyers who feel their lives slipping through their fingers.