The following piece originated when BL1Y, a frequent Bitter Lawyer commenter and contributor, frankly asked why the hell lawyers are such wimps. Since “wimps” and “bitter” are, well, different, he needed more input than we could provide, so he put together a roundtable of some of Bitter Lawyer’s good friends to enlighten him. This is part one of what he, PhilaLawyer, Dr. Rob, and our very own Law Firm 10 discussed.
BL1Y: When most people outside the legal profession think about lawyers, the word “wimp” usually doesn’t come to mind. Maybe wimps of the pencil-necked geek variety, but certainly not intellectual or professional wimps. However, just about anyone who’s worked at a Big Firm has found a lot of lawyers with underdeveloped backbones—at least when it comes to their job and professional relationships. They don’t ask for clarification when a partner has written unintelligible notes on a memo. They sit around for hours at night with nothing to do, afraid to pick up the phone and ask if it’s okay to leave. They rarely speak up when given tasks above their skill level.
I recall a former coworker of mine being asked to translate a document from Portuguese to English. The person who normally does that work was gone, so since she was listed as being conversational in Portuguese, the job fell to her. Naturally, she didn’t think she was up to the task. It’s pretty common for young attorneys to feel like they’re in over their head, but this was a special case. Foreign language skills are outside the normal skill set lawyers are supposed to have, and even people who are fluent in a language aren’t generally skilled enough to translate a legal document. People have a hard enough time understanding legal documents in their native language.
Completing the work as assigned would quite possibly constitute malpractice. Any reasonable person would talk to the partner and make sure he understood that she couldn’t do a competent translation. No one is going to be mad at you for being only conversational in a language that you claim to only be conversational in. They’ll just ask you to do the best you can, but you had better make sure they didn’t mistake your skill level. But, like a typical young associate, she had a minor panic attack over the thought of discussing her less-than-perfect Portuguese with a partner.
Actually, she probably had a full-on panic attack. I’ve just seen so many lawyers freak out over things that I think of panic attacks as being the normal response to any bad turn of events. If I saw someone on the floor having a seizure, I’d be as likely to think “medical emergency” as I would “must have just learned he was away from his desk when a partner called.”
In every field there are bound to be some wimps, but law stands out as an area in which wimps are the norm. What makes this really surprising is these are people we wouldn’t normally expect to lack confidence and self esteem.
BigLaw associates are people who went to some of the greatest universities in the country (Roll Tide!) and excelled there. They went on to top law schools, where they were subjected to the Socratic method and forced to compete against the best and brightest—or at least the best and brightest of those who couldn’t think of anything better to do with their lives. Still, it’s a pretty smart crop. They’ve run student governments, engaged in debate tournaments, questioned the beliefs of brand-name professors, traveled around the world, and entered slam poetry competitions as the only white person in the joint. These are people who should be confident in their abilities, but yet their hearts twitch whenever their phone rings at work or their Blackberries buzz while out to lunch.
And so, it is in that context that this panel prods at the heart of the lawyer psyche: Wimpiness.
Before going on, a bit about the panelists:
• BL1Y is an attorney laid off after a little more than a year working in BigLaw and is now author of the blog BL1Y.com. Opinionated and measurably smart (but not intelligent in any gainful way), he has engaged in some pretty wimpy behavior.
• Dr. Rob Dobrenski (hereinafter Dr. Rob) is psychologist, has been in private practice in New York since 2002, and is author of the blog ShrinkTalk.net. Basically, he’s the Dr. Phil for people with an IQ above room temperature.
• PL and Dr. Rob are co-hosting a new internet radio show called “Here’s What to Think,” that airs Wednesdays at 8:00 PM (Eastern) available on Blog Talk Radio.
PART 1: ARE LAWYERS WIMPS?
BL1Y: Let’s start this off by looking at the basic premise: Are lawyers actually wimps? Every business and industry has some wimps, so the question is really are lawyer wimps more common? The stereotype in movies and books is of lawyers who are afraid of nothing. Lieutenant Kaffee goes toe-to-toe with Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men; Atticus Finch butts heads with his entire community and stands down an angry mob set on hanging his client in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Tom Hagan intimidates a Hollywood executive by leaving the severed head of a prized horse in his bed. Strong, aggressive lawyers are more common in the media than the Sweaty Teddies (Scrubs) of the world.
But, you don’t have to look far to find real-life examples of lawyer wimps. I’ve engaged in typical wimpish behavior from time to time, though I think my slacker tendencies were the only thing that saved me from becoming a complete pushover. Bitter Lawyer has an entire Associate Abuse column with enough stories of lawyer wimps to make The Deep End not suck like a lawyer who is afraid when his coworkers find out he smokes; a staff attorney who won’t ask a colleague to stop stealing her chocolates; an associate who doesn’t speak up when getting ditched by a partner on the wrong side of town. Every Christmas and Secretary’s Day sees a slew of letters across the legal blogosphere asking for advice about how much money is one employee required to give another employee so the other employee will do the job she’s already paid for.
So, are lawyers really more prone to being wimps, or do media perceptions and the demands of the job just make lawyer wimps stand out more?
PL: Yes and no. Yes, the average paper tiger who sits around the office masturbating strategy is a wimp. He’s cocksure in the comfort of the florescent cocoon, but throw him into trial (or any scenario where he has to think on his feet), and he’s sucking his thumb.
The guy who’ll say, “Fuck it,” and take a close case into court is not a wimp. (I say “close case” of course because it doesn’t take guts to try a hopeless cause.) I don’t care how smart you are, in trial it all goes to shit. You’ll look like a fool a couple times, and you have to let that roll off your back. Dickheads, egomaniacs, liars, shysters, parasites… that fits a lot of trial guys. But wimps? No.
Being an idiot about my approach to the career, I didn’t work on the deal side, so I can’t speak to who’s a wimp or not over there. But I’d guess most are passive-aggressive sorts, like the rest of their brethren. Law’s what you do when you’re “too dumb for medicine or finance, too ugly for sales.” It’s for leftovers, and leftovers are usually leftovers because they’re not overtly aggressive enough to get a job in a competitive, enjoyable profession. Or they’re fuck-ups like I was.
Wimps don’t stand out uniquely in law. I think law caters to them. It gives a lot of them an ego where there’d otherwise be a vacuum of self-esteem.
Look around any lawyers gathering. Wimps are all over the place. Non-wimps are the ones who stand out. To have personality in the field is strange. You almost feel like a fucking stand-up comic talking to a crowd of lawyers. They’re so guarded, their personalities are paralyzed, atrophied. Between the hazing from bosses and subconscious depression, I think a lot of them have a subtle form of PTSD. Rob can speak to that…
Dr. Rob: As a non-lawyer, I’m going to assume that I’m the least miserable person here, which is really pathetic given that I currently have a light box shining on my face. Just saying… [Dr. Rob has since parted ways with his light box.]
I’ve only worked with a dozen or so lawyers, but I agree that wimps don’t stand out uniquely in the field of law. In fact, PL’s description of atrophied, paralyzed personalities is exactly what you see in the Shrink’s world: Guarded, secretive, often socially inept (which is ironic given our abilities in the office to make other people feel comfortable and willing to share). But some of that has to do with our training. It’s part of the Shrink’s Bible. It was Freud’s way.
The small number of lawyers that I have worked with and know, however, does, in fact, speak to a sort of sub-clinical trauma as they moved through the field. Most of them acknowledge that they knew the stereotypes and the jokes that would accompany the legal vocation, but they seem almost like a deer in the headlights with the recognition of the sheer enormity of the hours involved, the tedium, the fact that they could get “slammed” by a senior associate on a Friday at 5 PM—forcing them to cancel their weekends. There’s this frozen moment of “What the fuck did I get myself into?” that blows their minds, something they never really appreciated until they got into the field. Suddenly, money, power, esteem, respect all go out the window as they try to meet their billable hours.
BL1Y: Maybe wimps aren’t unique to law. Other fields, like psychology, have an abundance as well, but it still appears that the population of lawyers is disproportionately wimpy.
We’re going to conclude this first segment with a contribution from a special guest, Bitter Lawyer columnist and self-proclaimed hottie LF10.
LF10: Lawyers—especially male lawyers—are total wimps. Think about it. They have Type A personalities, they’re pathologically risk-averse, they’re brainy, and they spend all of their waking hours sitting on their ever-expanding asses in front of computer screens. This is synonymous with being an insecure pansy.
But here’s what kills me: I work for a male partner who is a prototypical insecure wimp. He’s scared shitless of somehow upsetting the other partners and firm management. But, of course, he has this completely aggrandized delusion of his utter superiority, so he’s filled with stewing resentment over having to pussyfoot around the top dogs.
So what does he do? He acts out all of his built-up aggression on me. The bastard bosses me around, yells at me, and abuses me until I’m reduced to little more than a puddle of tears. But in front of anyone with more clout at the firm, he’s a meek little lamb.
And there’s another wimpy partner I work for whose pathological terror of confrontation actually puts his client relationships at risk. The general counsel of his most important client has repeatedly voiced his dislike of a junior partner that he staffs his cases with. Yet the partner doesn’t have the balls to just kick the junior partner off of his team—and trust me, the junior partner is a total loser with very little skill. So there is absolutely no legitimate explanation for his behavior, other than the fact that he’s a total wimp.
This panel will continue in PART 2: HOW DID LAWYERS GET SO WIMPY?