Summary: Learn what most good attorneys do that causes them to be so unhappy in this article.
Right now I am working with some attorneys who are looking for jobs for very strange reasons.
One attorney slept in after working most of the night and was 20 minutes late for a meeting with a client.
Another attorney discovered that they are disliked by a colleague at their 1,500+ attorney firm.
Another got too tipsy at a party and was flirtatious with someone.
In another case, the problem was that someone in the attorney’s firm found out too many personal details about the attorney’s life.
Basically, as these examples illustrate, many attorneys start looking for jobs simply because they are guilty of being human. Who cares if someone does not like you? Who cares if you like someone? Who cares if someone found out about your personal life at work? Who cares if you were 20 minutes late for a meeting after staying up all night?
Other lawyers care—that is who cares—and it can lead to unhappiness. This article is about how one fundamental requirement of being a lawyer (not showing any vulnerability), and the way that many attorneys deal with that requirement (adopting personas of infallibility), can cause attorneys to disconnect, which leads to the unhappiness experienced by so many lawyers today.
One of the major problems you will have if you are an attorney at a large law firm is that you will not be allowed to be human, or to show much weakness at all. And while it is a huge problem to show any sort of weakness when you are employed somewhere, God help you if you show any weakness while you are looking for a job. Attorneys who show weakness during job searches have an incredibly hard time finding new positions.
The higher up on the totem pole an attorney is in terms of the prestige of that attorney and his or her law firm, the more that attorney tends to be boring, uptight and wound up. The very best attorneys are some of the most difficult people in the world to connect with. When you get to the very apex of the entire profession, attorneys become so boring, dull, uptight and straight-faced it is difficult to verbalize.
Wait, so I have to sit next to this guy on a trip to Washington, DC from New York?
“Are you sure you want me to go?” I asked the day before we were going to leave.
“Yes, it will be great. This is historic. There is going to be an announcement about the changes in the electrical utility industry. This announcement has been a long time coming.”
Attorneys were stopping by my office constantly.
“I cannot believe you are getting to go with him to DC!”
“Are you excited?”
Was I excited? Was I excited!? I was so excited I would have rather taken the trip with a 250-pound brick. At least the brick would not talk and would have attracted some humorous comments and funny looks.
“Yeah, this is my brick. I call him ‘Clay Red’ because he is clay and red colored. Get it? Sure, you can touch him. Go right ahead.”
Generally speaking, most young attorneys would be very excited to have the chance to make a long car trip with one of the most famous electric utility attorneys in the country. But I was terrified. This was going to be one hell of a boring trip and I knew it. By the time we got to Washington, DC I was wondering if I could somehow feign an injury to get out of everything. After a ten-minute announcement in some government building, we went out for lunch with a group of senior attorneys from Gibson Dunn, Skadden and Orrick. By the end of the lunch I was pretty sure that I had no interest in being a top-flight electric utility attorney—or maybe not an attorney altogether. It was just too much to take. I would have had far more fun taking tickets at a carnival, or working behind the counter in a drug store. At least I would get to meet interesting people.
“The shampoo is in aisle six.”
“How are you today Ms. Carpenter?”
This is not to say that the very, very best attorneys representing the largest and most important clients are bad people—they are not at all. And there is certainly nothing wrong with being boring. But what appears to be missing from these types of attorneys is a sense of vulnerability. They just do not seem human enough, and the human element becomes less and less evident over time, as they evolve in their careers. The further down the totem pole you go, the more you will find interesting, human and fun attorneys—but attorneys who are also less competent.
Most attorneys looking for positions are unhappy with some aspect of their job, are losing their job, have lost their job—or have other issues. However, when a law firm is evaluating whether or not to interview and hire an attorney, the last thing an attorney can do is make a prospective law firm aware of any sort of weakness that might make that attorney appear less than 100% boring and competent. Attorneys are not allowed to be human.
Attorneys who are looking for jobs need to portray themselves in the eyes of interviewing law firms as attorneys who are on the way up, interested in improvement and possessing no vulnerabilities. The very best attorneys in the very best firms are often some of the most boring people you will ever meet. They do not think so, of course, but they are.
If attorneys who are looking for jobs reveal things like:
They were fired
They were laid off
They are having a difficult time finding a job
They got a poor performance review
They are not getting enough work in their current firm
They are not sure how much they enjoy being an attorney
They are having a difficult time in their personal life
They will not be successful in getting hired by prospective law firms.
Statements that reveal any sort of life or human struggle do not go over well with large law firms. In fact, attorneys who make such statements almost never get hired. Lawyers are expected to not have issues, to be perfect and to not have the sorts of vulnerabilities that everyone else has.
There are not many other professions that require their members to not appear imperfect to some extent. Law firm interviews are “get acquainted” affairs; however, what is really going on is the law firms are probing each candidate for some sort of weakness. If such weakness is found and exposed then the attorney candidate is sent packing. Lawyers going into interviews must be extremely vigilant and not let their guards down. Their interviewers will be trying as hard as they can to expose their weaknesses and if the candidates do, by chance, show they are somewhat human they are generally going to be sent packing and not get a job.
Being a legal recruiter has some strong parallels with being a good attorney and has taught me that attorneys will rarely get hired if they show weakness or vulnerability. Sadly, attorneys need to appear strong at all times—there can be no gaps on their resumes, they must have good reputations and they must appear strong at all times. They literally need to look like they never made a mistake.
Last year I encountered an attorney who had applied to just about every law firm in New York City. He attended Columbia Law School, did very well there, got a position in a major law firm and was let go after one year. He was let go because he did not bill enough hours—there was one partner who assigned work in his practice area and that partner did not like him. He was a corporate attorney and corporate law was very much in demand at the time. When I finally met with him he showed me a list of over 500 firms that he had been submitted to, yet after a year of looking he was still jobless.
“Did you get any interviews?” I asked him.
“I got one but they had misread my resume and thought I was still employed. When they found out that I was not employed anymore they cancelled the interview.”
Imagine that! Your career can be “done in” in a major city because ONE PERSON does not like you. No wonder lawyers need to be paranoid and look perfect all the time.
In the legal recruiting realm, attorneys need to be packaged with a story and in a way that does not show weakness or vulnerability. If an attorney begins to look vulnerable in some area, the law firm will zero in on this particular area and use it as a reason for not hiring that attorney. You can get away with showing weakness to some extent at law firms that are not the most prestigious, but not in the law firms that are in the big leagues in terms of salaries, clients and so forth. Any sort of vulnerability with these law firms is met in the harshest possible way. You are expelled from their circle.
Attorneys Must Portray Infallibility on Behalf of Their Clients and Themselves
The question of why attorneys are not allowed to show weakness and why they are expected to portray such a lack of vulnerability has many components to it. But it all boils down to the role of attorneys as advocates. They are expected to take a side and do everything they can to prosecute that side. They need to defend their clients and use every argument at their disposal to ensure that the clients get the best result. They minimize their clients’ weaknesses. In order to do this they need to project an infallible lack of weakness for their side. An attorney who does not do this is considered a bad attorney and someone who reflects badly on the legal profession.
When I was clerking for a federal judge, we used to have all sorts of bank robbery cases. A robber would be caught on film robbing a bank and then captured by the police a few minutes later while fleeing with the money. Incredibly, the robbers would plead not guilty and go to trial. Their attorneys had to play right along with this and I could never believe how seriously their public defenders took their roles as advocates for their clients. They would do everything they could to get the person off and make every conceivable argument. That is their job.
The job of an attorney is to aggressively take the side of someone and not let any weakness come through. Because this is such an important and crucial part of the profession, attorneys are expected to do this with themselves as well—they must appear infallible and as if they do not have any weakness.
The longest and most important case an attorney will ever handle involves the case that attorney makes for him or herself—how that attorney packages and portrays him or herself to clients, opposing counsel, colleagues, judges, jurors, and others they encounter during their careers. Attorneys must package and portray themselves to potential employers and everyone else as people who have no weakness.
The ‘Infallibility Requirement’ Leads to Lack of Connection and Unhappiness
The problem with all of this is that when you start covering up who you are, you stop being an authentic person. If you are not being authentic, then you are closing yourself off to meaningful and true connection with others. People are social animals and deep in our DNA exists a need to connect and feel connected to others. People generally define their lives by the quality of their connections to others—with their parents, spouses, children, friends and significant others. Most peoples’ lives revolve around their ability to connect with people at work, socially and elsewhere.
The lack of connection to others drives people crazy. When kids shoot up schools it is often because they feel like outcasts and not connected to others. When people kill themselves it is often because they do not feel a connection to others. When people abuse substances it is often because they do not feel a connection to others. When people pay for sex it is often because they do not feel a connection to others.
When people participate in religion it is because they get connection from it. Families give us connection. Volunteering and helping others gives us connection. People often accumulate degrees, money and things because they believe it will give them connection to others. People who are social and have lots of connections typically live the longest. People who are depressed typically lack a connection to others.
Connection is unbelievably important for people and it is something that creates the good in the world and also creates the bad. Most of the things we do are for connection and yet we often do these things and are unable to get the connection we are seeking.
Attorneys also want connection because attorneys are people. However, the role of an attorney is to not show weakness. The mentality required to be an attorney actually impairs the ability of the attorney to be authentic and have authentic relationships. They are afraid to show weakness.
Most very good attorneys never seem to completely let their guards down—even with their close friends. They are good at not admitting they are wrong. They are afraid of doing anything that would make them look weak. Many attorneys believe that to be worthy of love and belonging they need to be the people they think they should be and not necessarily the people they are.
An attorney by his or her nature needs to be someone who is not vulnerable. That is why attorneys try to be perfect. Attorneys suppress their true emotions and selves far more than people in other professions. But the problem with suppressing your true self is that your connections with others are based on someone other than who you really are. You only feel worthy of belonging and being loved if you are someone you are not.
It is no wonder that so many attorneys have substance abuse problems, high rates of divorce, depression and other issues. How could they not? The profession requires them to appear perfect and has no tolerance for vulnerability.
Everyone is imperfect and has vulnerabilities. Attorneys are also imperfect and have vulnerabilities. One of the best things an attorney can do for his or her health is to allow him or herself to be imperfect and vulnerable outside of work. Attorneys need to be human and they need be their own people. To try and be someone different than we truly are is to run from our nature. Most attorneys are always trying to be people they are not. When you are trying to be someone you are not you start closing off your understanding of others as well. You cannot understand others because you are not being your own person. When you cannot understand others you stop connecting with others and when you lose that connection you lose your ability to connect and relate to others.
Although most attorneys may realize the importance of being vulnerable, the entire legal system and large law firms, in particular, make attorneys incredibly averse to being vulnerable. Instead of connecting with others and being their own people, attorneys use all of their resources and efforts to create defenses and be people they are not instead of just being the people they are meant to be.
In my opinion, the majority of the unhappiness that attorneys find in their careers is due to the fact that the profession so sternly comes down on vulnerability, which also severs attorneys’ connections with themselves and others. Without a connection to others we are completely lost because such a connection is the most essential element of being alive.