Everything Right Is Wrong Again: Lawyers and Dysfunctional Behavior, Part 1

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The hue and cry to save law practice  is all around technology solutions, or maybe tweaking when and where lawyers work.

Yet none of this will solve law’s biggest problem, the one that drives the difficulty with adapting to new technology, to new work styles and attitudes, or to just about any change: Law is filled with dysfunction and assholes.

I can already hear the protests:

  • Hey, I’m a nice person!
  • Well, lawyers are just under a lot of stress.
  • Law doesn’t have room for people who need coddling all the damned time.
  • So what are we supposed to do, hold hands and sing Kumbaya every day?

I’ll leave out the other 4,387 protests that I’ll receive about how “assholes” and “dysfunctional” are unfair to most lawyers.

Gloom, Despair, Agony—and Change

There’s a reason that at least half the profession says if given the choice, they would not choose law school again. Time and again, my clients point to the people they work with as a top reason they want to change jobs.

elephants in dining room david-clode-unsplashThe dysfunction and assholery in law has been around for decades (I personally lived it in the 90s), and with smartphones, my clients say it’s even worse now.

Yet the lack of both a functional legal culture, and woefully underdeveloped social skills among lawyers, is the elephant dominating the profession. No one wants to talk about these messy emotional problems that plague the profession, or about how much damage the dysfunction has wreaked on the lives of lawyers and those around them. Partner suicides last year are the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Even the most bottom-line, hard-nosed managing partner should be concerned about the lost productivity of the stressed, upset, and anxious lawyers in their midst. Much of that emotional angst is preventable.

The good news is, it’s possible to change the legal culture. Even better, no need to wait for a commission to decree anything: The change can start with you. If you recognize your behavior is causing you a problem, you can do something different. It really is that simple–just not all that easy.

No, change won’t arrive overnight. No, I don’t know if enough change will happen in time to avoid the profession imploding. But I do know that changing your own dysfunctional adaptations that law has taught you will make your life better, no matter what job you have.

I Know I’m Right!

Let’s start with one of the most annoying lawyer personality tics, but one that is fairly easy to fix: The need to be right, always, in every context.

Lawyers learn this zero-sum game early in law school. It’s an important tool in the lawyer bag of tricks. Being technically correct is crucially important when it’s about interpreting statutes, contracts, or making legal arguments—you know, the raison d’etre of lawyering.

But it’s rarely necessary, let alone useful, when it comes to relating to people you regularly interact with. Yes, even including opposing counsel.

Being right is not, in fact, a tool that should be used all the time. A good mentor might impart that wisdom, but the law culture, warped by billable-hours worship, has devalued training and mentoring of younger lawyers by more experienced lawyers in the firm. (That topic itself could be the subject of entire column.)

jude law as pope
The Pope might be infallible, but you aren’t.

When your world gets narrowed to “I’m right and she is wrong,” you’ve already lost. First, you’re not infallible. Even if you are undeniably correct about your argument, it’s important to ask: Has proving this moved you any closer to solving the problem before you? Unless you’re in front of a judge or arbitrator, probably not. Though you likely have succeeded in proving that you’re an incredible jerk.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ever argue the correctness of your position, because I am not an idiot. But choosing the right time and the right place for that argument is where we lawyers often stumble. Far too many attorneys have their “I’m right” dial set permanently at 11, one of the reasons lawyers’ interpersonal relationships suffer.

It Goes To 11—How Always Being Right Plays Out

Those with settings at 11 typically have conversations that go like this:

Lawyer’s spouse: Look, I know you’re not a fan of spending time with my sister and her family, but it’s what we always do the day after Christmas. They will be really hurt if we tell them we aren’t going to show up, since it’s only a few days away. Plus the kids want to see their cousins.

Lawyer: We don’t always spend that day with them. Stop exaggerating! Remember in 2011? We didn’t go then.

LS: Was that the year we all had the stomach flu?

L: Yes.

LS: Are you really saying that we are excused from going this year, because we have missed one time since our oldest was born? The year we were all simultaneously puking in garbage cans?

L: I’m saying that we don’t always go. And we didn’t give them much notice then, either. So your whole argument that we have to go because we always have, and it’s too late to back out, is based on a made-up tradition on your part.

LS: WHAT? ARE YOU INSANE?

L: Look, you know I’m right. Calling me names isn’t helping.

LS: Stomps out of room.

What just happened there?

  1. The lawyer proved he was technically correct.
  2. The lawyer epically pissed off his spouse.
  3. The lawyer did not get a chance to discuss the real, and possibly quite legitimate reasons, he didn’t want to go to the sister’s shindig.
  4. The lawyer is going to have one helluva hard time getting his spouse to hear anything he wants to voice about family traditions.
  5. The lawyer has pretty much annihilated any chance of not going to the sister’s shindig this year, without paying a major, probably unpalatable, emotional penalty from his spouse.
  6. The lawyer also destroyed the opportunity to discuss a compromise, such as going for less time, or driving separately so he could duck out early.
  7. The lawyer has reinforced his spouse’s belief that he is uncaring about the spouse’s feelings, and about family, and maybe even about several other unrelated issues.

Quite a win, huh?

In Part 2, I’ll talk about 2 specific ways you can reform your inner Always Right Attorney-ness, and become easier to work with. Who knows, you might even see how all the acrimony created by being right has made you inefficient.

What lawyer behaviors drive you batnuts? Let me know in the comments, or via email at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com, and I might riff on it in a future post. If you see yourself in this post and want more help changing from asshole to attorney with great professional and personal relationships, drop me a line.

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