Born to Argue: Lawyer Dysfunction, Part 2

Much as I would like to believe that only the most socially awkward lawyers would choose to act like the boorish lawyer I made up in Part 1, I know it’s pretty accurate. I’ve heard many lawyers over the years talk about how being argumentative and right are “just the way they are, and it’s not going to change.”

Really?

So you’ve argued incessantly with friends and family since you were a wee child? Law school and law practice hasn’t intensified that trait in the slightest?

African American toddler looking upset, possibly looking aggressiveIf you can see that law has amped up your argumentative nature, then you can also dial that knob from 11 back down to 5, or maybe less, when the situation calls for it.

Pro-tip: Most situations call for 5 or less on the argument volume knob.

Before we can start changing something, we need to become aware that we are doing it. So be your own sociologist: Observe your own behavior for a few days, or a week. Interactions with staff and strangers count, as do your interactions when you’re not at the office.

You might even keep a crib sheet, listing who and when, your own argumentative behavior or lack of it, and what the topic was. If you really must, you can note what the other person did or said.

You might see a pattern that otherwise was invisible. Or notice the triggers of your behavior.

You could also ask friends who really like you for their observations of your argumentativeness. But only if you promise not to argue with what they tell you.

New Information = Power To Change

I know, for example, that when I get physically tired, I get far, far bitchier and argumentative than I like.

Therein lies some of the solution: If you observe a pattern, take yourself out of it.

I avoid difficult conversations in the late afternoon and evenings, for example. I also refuse to talk with anyone except the cats before I’ve had my morning coffee. My family (mostly) knows better than to talk to me, or even look me in the eye, before I’ve had at least half of my ginormous cuppa.

Am I a caricature? Yep. But then, so is the Always Argumentative Attorney.

Rather than seeing life and your job as a zero-sum, right v. wrong endeavor, pick up a different lens. Maybe a wide-angle lens, so you see more of a situation. How do you do that? Try something like these:

  • Rather than instantly supplying the allegedly right answer, ask why someone came to that conclusion. In a neutral tone. Who knows, maybe they have information you don’t.
  • Rather than asking “How could you possibly think that??!!!” complete with aggressive tone implying they’re an idiot, you could say, calmly, “Hmmm, that had never occurred to me. Tell me more about why you think that.” If you hear a flaw in their reasoning, you can point it out. Without loaded, accusatory tones, please.
  • Rather than saying, “That will never work!” try “My concern is that due to this, that, and the other thing, this idea may not work out well at all. What am I missing?”

With that widened perspective, maybe you will start to see a more productive way to solve the whole problem. That is what clients actually want—their problem solved.

Sometimes, the solution to that problem will mean proving that your argument is right. But sometimes, solving their problem will involve seeing more broadly what their conflict is really about, and using your legal toolkit to get them there.

I’m willing to bet many of you are squirming, wanting to ask, “But what if I am totally right, and they are utterly wrong—like a client who wants to do something patently illegal?”

That is when you actually get to dig in your heels and insist you are correct. Break out the champagne!

It’s All in the Delivery

The way you deliver that message is important, though. Experienced in-house lawyers know this, but law firm lawyers and those new to quasi-legal roles may not.

Saying, “There is no way I will ever sign off on that, it’s totally against the law, and I don’t want to go to jail,” is not guaranteed to get the result you want.

Instead, you could use some version of, “I haven’t seen any cases that say your proposed action is anything but an antitrust conspiracy. Those, of course, can put people in jail. But if you know of any other contrary cases, I’d love to hear about them. If not, let’s figure out a way you can do at least some of what you want, without any of us risking jail time.”

picture of wolf's face, with text superimposed: Half of my problems are because of the tone of my voice. Everyone thinks I'm arguing while actually I'm just explaining my point.In all of these alternatives to a right v. wrong mindset, using a neutral, inquiring tone may be the most important change to make. Therapists tell us that dysfunction isn’t so much about what words toxic people use, it’s the tone of their voice.

Even the common phrase “Oh my God” means opposite things, depending on tone. There’s the “OMG!” when someone opens an unexpected, perfect gift. Then there’s “OMG!” when someone watches video of his lover with another man, in bed together.

If you are sure your tone is fine, but some folks are saying differently, use the voice recording app on your phone for an hour while you’re at the office and talking to people. Recording during a meeting is ideal. Have a trusted friend (preferably not a lawyer) listen to it with you and tell you what they hear. Reality checks can be invaluable.

Maybe You’re Not an Asshole

Much of what garners lawyers the “asshole” label isn’t that we are all mean, nasty people. Sure, there are many lawyers who are. But many more lawyers act poorly because they’ve never learned differently.

Many in the profession went straight from college to law school to law practice. The only professional work culture they’ve known is law. If there aren’t good role models for handling conflict well in their group, chances are good they’ll pick up some asshole habits.

Habits, though, can be changed. I hope the tips I’ve given here for the Always Right Attorney can help you, or someone you know.

What lawyer behaviors drive you batnuts? What ones would you like to unlearn? What ones serve you well? Let me know in the comments, or via jalvey@jenniferalvey.com, and I might riff on it in a future post. Or, if you want help reforming, drop me a line.

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

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.

Choosing the Right Job Match for Your Lawyer Personality

I just spent a week teaching art camp to children between 6 and 11. We did some super-cool projects, and the kids got to do real art. As in, the non-Pinterest Perfect kind, with room for experimentation and failure, and the kids’ own brand of creativity. No one’s projects came out looking alike. It was all the things I love to teach about creativity.

But by the end of it, I was a an exhausted, irritable, impatient mess.

How can that be? you’re probably thinking. She’s doing something she loves and believes in. And, what does any of this possibly have to do with being miserable in law?

Only everything, grasshopper.

What’s in a Personality?

Let’s start with some personality basics. I’m an introvert, like 3/4 of lawyers. Introverts not only process life primarily in their heads, they also get overstimulated and thus overwhelmed by constant noise and action. When you’re dealing with a bunch of 7 year-old boys, trust me, the noise and action are non-stop. Every year, I walk away from this art camp in awe of pre-school to 2nd grade teachers, who every work day step into what feels to me like chaos. I could never, ever do their job and expect to stay out of the looney bin.

Bolting the wrong job to your personality feels even more uncomfortable than walking around with staples in your skin.

Bolting the wrong job to your personality feels even more uncomfortable than walking around with staples in your skin.

So if you’re an introvert and in a job that demands regular, sustained interaction with others, you’re going to feel stressed. Ditto if you are subject to constant interruptions. While it may not be 7 year-olds whining. asking for help or acting out, you may get constantly pinged by emails, texts, phone calls, or even actual humans appearing in your office. This creates a lot of stress, because you just can’t finish a thought or a project. It’s very stressful to many introverts.

On the other hand, if you’re an extravert and work constantly behind the computer, and don’t have much interaction with others, you will feel equally stressed and out of sorts. Lack of stimulation can be a very serious problem for extraverts, particularly if they’re in law. It can make them feel flat and depressed. Moreover, extraverts tend to be misunderstood in law. Their need to process out loud can be viewed as irritating, and as wasting their colleagues’ time.

Either way, being in an environment that pushes you way past your default personality traits can make you hostile Continue reading

Jumping Without a Parachute: The Lawyer Approach to Getting Shit Done

When the work starts to pile on, lawyers not only fail to put on their oxygen masks, they head for the cabin door, rip it open, and jump out. From 5,000 ft. And then they wonder why they end up drained, dispirited and depressed about their jobs and their life.

What lawyers envision their 80-work weeks achieving . . .

What lawyers envision their 80-work weeks achieving . . .

You think I’m engaging in just a teeny bit of hyperbole? Possibly. But I swear there is a secret lawyer code of conduct that requires adherence to this routine. Nearly every lawyer I know instantly shifts to this behavior when they get that big, time-suck of an assignment, or when that looming deadline breathes down their neck with noxious, warm fumes. Yeah, been there, done that.

5 Steps to the Loony Bin

So in case you never got the secret memo, here’s what you do:

Step 1: Immediately start working much longer hours. Ignore any fatigue or feelings of being overwhelmed. Do not let yourself slack off. You have shit to do, and lots of it!!

Step 2: Within a few days, and certainly within a week, slow down or stop any exercise. You don’t have time for that kind of self-indulgent luxury.

Step 3: At the same time you’re scaling back or stopping your exercise, also start skipping lunch. Or at the very least, do not under any circumstances take a break and leave your desk for 45 minutes to get lunch and let your mind rest. You can make a quick pit stop by the vending machine Continue reading

Why Are There So Many Asshole Lawyers?

When people ask me why I left law, I usually tell them that my personality didn’t fit into law, that I found it excrutiatingly boring, and that I really wanted to do something I liked. Which is all true. I also sound less bitter than if I l tell them that frankly, I couldn’t deal with all the asshole lawyer behavior. That was the bottom line for me.

The most consistent complaints I hear from clients about law firms are the toxicity and dysfunctionality of firms, and billable hours. Those two things are actually related, but for now I’m going to focus on the asshole side of things. Fun!

Probably not the most emotionally intelligent way to interact with colleagues.

Probably not the most emotionally intelligent way to interact with colleagues.

For the 25 or so years I’ve been in and around law, the disdain the majority of law firm lawyers have for feelings and values has done nothing but grow. I recently read that as far back as the Stone Age, aka the 1950s,  this has been a problem for the legal profession. No less a luminary than Erwin Griswold, Dean of Harvard Law School in the 1950s, said, “Many lawyers never do seem to understand that they are dealing with people and not solely with the impersonal law.”

One of the big drivers of lawyers’ inability to appreciate and deal with emotions stems from a core skill of any competent lawyer: the ability to analyze problems in a detached, objective,  and logical manner. This is the Thinker default, in Myers-Briggs personality terminology. In other words, being dispassionate and logical is the default, the comfort zone for the vast majority of lawyers. (The opposing end of the Thinker axis is the Feeler, who are primarily concerned with values and what is best for the people involved.)

According to research of Dr. Larry Richard, a legal consultant, psychologist and former practicing attorney himself, about 70% of lawyers are Thinkers. Some place that number even higher, near 80%. I’d take a wild guess that for law firm leadership, it’s more like 90%. The high percentage of Thinkers controlling law firms, and the almost universally dysfunctional work environments of law firms, are not just an accident or coincidence.

Lawyers Are Emotional Idiots

Just because people default to Thinking as their preferred problem-solving tool doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings, or that they cannot use a Feeler approach to solve problems. But what it does mean is that they often are not very adept at situations that require facility with managing feelings.

Another way of looking at the source of law firm dysfunction and toxicity is via the Calpers Personality Profile. I’m not any kind of expert on it, but Ronda Muir, author of The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers (an excellent read), is. She pegs something important about law firm dysfunction when she says:

[S]kepticism is a trait that ranges from being cynical, judgmental, questioning, argumentative and self-protective on the high end to accepting, trusting and giving the benefit of the doubt on the low end.  The general population has an average score of 50 on skepticism, while among lawyers it is consistently the highest scoring trait, averaging 90.  This trait can be very useful in the practice of law, particularly litigation, tax and M&A.  However, most people tend to use their strongest traits in every arena of their lives, so this high level of skepticism is also carried over into partnership meetings, team deliberations and committee work (as well as personal relationships) that may call for more trust and collaboration. (emphasis added)

Also, when it comes to emotional intelligence, Muir points out that lawyers often don’t perceive their own, let alone others’, emotions. So “the emotional data that they are analyzing day in and day out is likely to be incomplete or inaccurate Continue reading

How Ignoring Feelings Makes Lawyers Look Like Idiots: The Donald Sterling Edition

Sometimes, Myers-Briggs realizations about lawyers hit me over the head. Like last week, when I watched lawyer commentators on The PBS NewsHour talk about Donald Sterling and the possible consequences when his racist diatribes became public.

The day the scandal broke, NewsHour interviewed 2 lawyers from academia: Michael McCann, Director of the Univ. of New Hampshire’s Sports and Entertainment Law Institute and legal analyst for Sports Illustrated, and Kenneth Shropshire, Director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative and a Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics  of the University of Pennsylvania.

Some lawyer personality traits can make attorneys look like doofuses.

Some lawyer personality traits can make attorneys look like doofuses.

McCann, who is white, was first: “It’s outrageous that someone would hold these views in 2014.” Good start. Then he continues, “The NBA has to approach this under the rules of the league, and ensuring that it doesn’t take any steps that prove to be wrong.” We’re worried about the NBA’s contracts, first and foremost?

Shropshire, who is black, came out swinging with “I think what is important at this moment is for the league to really recognize that this is a moment in time where they have the opportunity to make the rules right.” Um, the rules? Oh, such a Thinker lawyer point of view.

McCann then dredged up the horror the NBA could face with a wrong step: “The league could also pursue a more radical approach by trying to force him to sell the team. But the league constitution, which is the key legal document at stake, doesn’t likely give the NBA that authority. And if it were to pursue that path, Donald Sterling could sue the NBA and not be leaving any time soon.” Noooo, not a lawsuit! Anything but that!!!

And then Shropshire goes on to raise another subject important to lawyers: Money! “Well, the immediate economic effect on the team will be negligible. And it really will not have that much impact. But Michael makes a good point. The idea that it could last for the long term, that that could be pointed to as a reason to at least move forward and try to divest this ownership interest.”

Thinking Too Much Gets Lawyers in Trouble

Now I am sure that both McCann and Shropshire are quite excellent lawyers and decent human beings. I am sure that personally, they were disgusted and appalled at Sterling. But did ANY of this inform their views? Continue reading

Why You Don’t Have Time to Find a New Legal Career, Part 3

It’s true, there are only a certain number of hours in a day. And, for every hour lawyers have, there are probably have 3 things vying for it. (Or maybe 30.) So you overbooked and overcommitted lawyers have decisions to make about how to allot that time. I’m gonna to make a wild guess here that you haven’t gotten any peace yet about what to leave in and what to leave out. Particularly, I’m guessing you haven’t figured out how to fit a soul-searching career switch into your schedule.

You'll spend less time splashing about in your alternative legal career search if you aim toward the big rocks. Photo courtesy Cheryl Bowes via Stockvault.net.

Here’s the thing: Don’t squeeze it in. Make it one of your top priorities. Give it the energy it deserves.

Now I know that some of you are looking at your Blackberries and your triple-booked calendars and are having heart palpitations. You already don’t have enough time! How can you add in yet another thing?

Here’s how: By letting things go–the unimportant things.

Make Your Life Rocky 

Franklin-Covey makes a lot of money using this bedrock principle in its planners and time-management classes. I don’t much care for the their calendars and time management system—it’s way too tedious and checkbox-oriented for a go-with-the-flow-and-improvise P like me (P of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator persuasion). But I did take away one really important concept from the Franklin-Covey class I once took: Put the important things, the “big rocks” of your life, first. They are the things that if you look back on your week, you will be deeply satisfied that you spent time on them.

Another way to look at Big Rocks is as the stones you need to have in the stream that is your life. If you have them, you can Continue reading

Why You Choose To Work For Assholes

Think that if only you didn’t work for asshole lawyers, you would like your job? Well, maybe. But often the reason you work with assholes is because their bad behavior reflects some unexamined beliefs you are holding close to your heart.

And while those beliefs are dysfunctional, their dysfunction is hauntingly familiar. In fact, it’s so familiar that it feels like some of life’s truths. And so you deep, deep down you believe that work has to suck. And you stay stuck in your unhappy legal career.

leering businessman

If this is your vision of success, maybe you need new glasses. Or a new attitude.

Last time, I listed six attitudes that lawyers tend to carry around as truth, when in fact they’re choices about how to view the world. Today I’m going to delve into two particularly noxious ones for lawyers: mistakes and valuing head over heart. These show up as problems both in their life and work, and not surprisingly in attorneys’ legal career search struggles.

Mistakes

You would think from the way lawyers react to mistakes, there’s a required 1L course on “Mistakes: Duck and Cover.” Oh, wait, that’s the whole law school curriculum. Never mind.

In all seriousness, lawyers treat mistakes like a judgment of their (and others’) worth from on high. Get the date wrong in a letter that should have gone out yesterday but didn’t because the partner sat on it? You’re a total screwup, incapable of paying attention to details.

Lawyers use mistakes as evidence, not as data. And the evidence is gathered to show that you or someone else is deficient, is not enough. A healthier, and more productive, way to use mistakes is Continue reading

It’s Not Your Horrible Law Job. It’s You.

Unhappy lawyers often think that their problem is simply their horrible job. And I’ll be the first in line to say that the daily job of practicing law is nasty. Unpleasant, hostile people (and then there’s opposing counsel), unrelenting pressure of perfectionism, too damned much tedium and unbearable boredom, plus there are far, far too many hours expected.

Redheaded woman alcoholic

Attorney attitudes about money, certainty and lots of other stuff is as bad for them as constant boozing.

But there’s also another truth at work: Some of the horridness of your job stems from your own toxic attitudes. About money, about what work should and should not be, about what you need to feel OK about yourself, about what you should do in the face of obstacles and roadblocks.

Would you agree with an alcoholic who says that she just needs to move away from her toxic spouse, and everything will be fine? Likely not. Yes, breaking up that dysfunctional dynamic is very important, but it’s not the whole solution. Because we all know the arc of the story when the alcoholic doesn’t see her own choices as part of her problem: The wife will simply choose another toxic person to replace the spouse. That’s the choice that feels familiar, and even though dysfunctional, oddly comforting.

So which attitudes are your own personal landmines? I commonly see toxic attitudes in attorneys Continue reading

Growing Your Alternative Legal Career, Organically

I’m not a huge fan of the saying “grow where you are planted,” because too many people translate it as “stay in a toxic situation.” No sane person expects a cactus to survive, let alone flourish, in the New England countryside—too cold, too wet, not enough sunlight. No one expects orchids to grow in the arid blaze of Phoenix—too hot, too dry, nowhere to root.

businessman with blue watering can in meadow

Feed your soul soil, give it the right light and water, and watch your new, alternative legal career take off.

Yet many of you expect to somehow make your current law firm or legal job situation work, even though it doesn’t give you your soul’s basic nutritional requirements. (Quick review: autonomy, mastery and purpose that matters to you.) Be honest about your basic needs, and then seek out the situations that have those things.

For your alternative legal career search to flourish, you need to nurture that spark of soul trying so hard to bust out right now. As I discussed last time, a lot of lawyers try to nurture that spark by being more perfect. It doesn’t work; perfectionism sucks the life out of you after not too long. Much like using chemicals in the garden produces impressive-looking results at first, but ultimately robs the soil and plants of what they need to survive. They become dependent on chemical help Continue reading