I’ve been out of practicing law now for twice as long as I was in it. Thankfully. But I call myself a recovering lawyer for a reason: There are things that happened during law school and practice that left indelible marks on my psyche.

I’m not alone.

vines on dark backgroundIf we lawyers could see our psyches in physical form, I’m confident we would see many ugly scars, spirits broken from verbal lashings, and disfigurement from scathing attacks on our eyes, ears, and voices.

If It Doesn’t Kill You, It Probably Maims You

I have long rejected Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Yet a large part of our society believes in some version of this philosophy.

It’s as if we’ve forgotten that in-between place, maiming and permanent damage that truly limits you.

Does losing an arm really make you stronger? Does surviving a poisoning really make your liver and kidneys healthier than they were? No, of course not. As one psychologist puts it, if you are stronger after hardship, it is probably despite, not because of the hardship.

And so it is with law firm culture. No, not every single law firm environment is toxic. Yet a shockingly high percentage are. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get emails from all over the country—even the world—that say, “It’s like you read my mind, that’s exactly how I’ve felt!”

Blindsided by Ancient Wounds

I recently got a vivid, personal reminder of just how deep the psychic and emotional wounds from law firm culture can run.

I was working on an editing project for a new client. Unlike most of my writing and editing clients, this one was not a law-related business. Instead, it was firm that works with local governments on safety issues.

My task: edit an RFP response. The grammar editing was no problem, but the other parts of the project were giving me major fits. I had no background in the industry jargon, customs, or even the format for these kinds of documents. All the client had given me were a few examples of previous responses for other RFPs, a draft to edit, and a chipper “Have at it!”

Y’all, it was bad. I had no idea what I needed to fix, structurally. No clue what the terms of art were, what the sacred cows were, and what was in desperate need of gold fairy dust. I was mentally flailing.

I kept avoiding the work. And I knew full well that my procrastination was due to whopping uncertainty about what I needed to do. I could watch myself dive onto Facebook, read news sites, or research random future purchases, and know I shouldn’t. Yet I could not make myself work on cracking that nut.

black white photo of thin person standing with back to camera, head down and hands around shoulders
Photo by Olenka Kotyk on Unsplash

As the deadline approached, my anxiety rocketed up through a few more levels. Then I had an epiphany: This particular level and kind of anxiety was very, eerily familiar.

It was exactly the feeling I’d had as a young associate, when I was given assignments with scant background and even less instruction on what the end goal was. And if I tried to ask questions, I was usually told the Very Important Partner did not have time for them, or was outright mocked for not knowing. Or both. Fun times.

Sink or Flail Is No Way To Train

Sink or swim was, and remains, the basic pedagogy that lawyers use to “train” new attorneys. If someone is going to make a good lawyer, the thinking goes, then they can figure it out for themselves. (Also, and not coincidentally, this increases billable hours. But that’s another rant.)

Even my teenage son knows sink or swim is ridiculous. We were talking about that dynamic while we were bingeing The Umbrella Academy. The teen said, “Well everyone knows that saying: ‘Sink or swim’ leaves a lot of dead bodies behind.”

Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

I’d never heard that saying. But I’m thrilled that his generation sees that, because certainly most Boomers, many Gen Xers, and some Millennials believe “sink or swim” is a perfectly valid way to see if people have what it takes to succeed. Of course, without training or some advice, most people at least flounder, and often sink, absent freakish good luck or freakish latent abilities.

Toxic Reservoirs

But the “figure it out yourself” approach had wound its corrosive tendrils deep into my psyche, and it did not occur to me, 20+ YEARS LATER, that I could just, yanno, ASK the client some questions.

Meaning to this day, I still have leftover reservoirs of toxicity lurking in unexpected places.

Trust me, it’s not the only dark, noxious pool from law that lurks in my soul. It’s just the one I encountered most recently.

I wish the sink or swim attitude was the only thing that created toxicity in most law firm cultures. That would be any easy fix. Of course, it’s not the only toxic demon in law culture. I’ll dive into more on trauma, toxicity, and dysfunction in law next time.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who survived BigLaw culture, and has the emotional scars to prove it. She loves telling all the secrets about that elephant in the room of legal culture—toxic dysfunction. If you need help overcoming some of the toxic side effects of working in law, send her a note at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.