What can be Done About Lawyer Wimps? (Part 3)

BL1Y Columns, Lawyer 3 Comments

This piece from BL1Y, a frequent Bitter Lawyer commenter and contributor, is the final part of a series we kicked of with Part 1: “Are Lawyers Wimps?” and continued with Part 2: “How Did Lawyers Get So Wimpy?”

Reunited is our roundtable of experts who are dedicated to identifying why lawyers become wimps and offer ways to correct it.  Here’s what BL1Y, PhilaLawyer, Dr. Rob and Law Firm 10 have to say.

First, a final introduction of our panelists:

• BL1Y is an laid-off BigLaw attorney and author of the popular blog BL1Y.com.

• Philadelphia Lawyer (hereinafter PL) is a veteran litigator in Philadelphia and responsible for the cult-classic blog PhilaLawyer.net.  He’s the author of the bestselling book Happy Hour Is for Amateurs.

• Dr. Rob Dobrenski (hereinafter Dr. Rob) is a psychologist who practices in New York and is most famous for his blog, ShrinkTalk.net.  (And he gets a shout-out for recently landing his own book deal.)

• PL and Dr. Rob co-host the internet radio show “Here’s What to Think,” which airs on Mondays at 8:00 AM EST and is available anytime on Blog Talk Radio.


Previously, on Lawyer Wimps…

LF10:  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.  He’s filled with stewing resentment over having to pussyfoot around the top dogs.

PL:  Wimps don’t stand out uniquely in law.  I think law caters to them.  Look around any lawyers gathering.  Wimps are all over the place.

BL1Y:  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.”

Dr. Rob:  My lawyer is a dick and is overcharging me, but at least I know his name (thereby allowing me the chance to go to his house and break his knees with a brick, if I so choose).  You three are sitting here bashing your colleagues for being wimps, yet you do it behind a curtain.  How do you reconcile this?  Put another way, where do you get the balls/ovaries to engage in this hypocrisy?

And now for the conclusion…

LF10:  Sometimes the end has to justify the means.  My firm has a policy against writing books, articles and blogs without its knowledge and consent.  Since half the time I’m ripping into lawyers at my firm for being incompetent, ugly, adulterous assholes, I can’t imagine any scenario in which the firm would actually consent to my blogging.  So I have to bless the world with stories of my illustrious exploits from behind an impenetrable veil of anonymity.

If that makes me just as wimpy as the losers I work for—and I don’t think it does—then so be it.  Probably isn’t the first or last time I will be guilty of hypocrisy.

BL1Y:  I will definitely admit that I’ve engaged in my fair share of wimpy lawyer behavior, but I don’t see my Internet anonymity as part of it.  Being anonymous, for me, is a pragmatic matter.  I want to be able to write about whatever I feel like without ruining my Google footprint in case I ever get another shot at a legitimate job.

I think of being a wimp more so as when you wish you would act a different way but are too afraid to.  Like going sky diving or talking to a pretty girl at a bar.  I don’t really care about posting under my real name.  Using my real name would be more like talking to the fat girl.  I don’t get anything out of it, and it’s just going to cause a big hassle (good-looking girls are generally nice, but damn, fat girls can be incredibly mean).  Why bother?

Maybe it’s a little bit wimpy, but I think if I were really pussing out, I’d be too afraid to blog out of fear that someone would discover who I am.  And, I should note, I don’t really protect my identity particularly well.  I don’t know if you can discover my identity based on the information I’ve given about myself, but if you knew me in real life and stumbled on the blog, you’d put the pieces together very quickly.  I post links on Facebook all the time.  It’s not a huge secret; I just don’t want my blog to come up if you Google my name.

PL:  I’ve been asked this a bunch and left this to explain it for me: “The Privilege of the Grave”

That’s Twain, and any answer we can muster he’d offer forty times more astutely.  Not a knock on us.  Twain just happens to be, along with writers, polemicists and comedians, like Mencken, O’Rourke, Vonnegut, Thompson, Bill Hicks and Carlin—one of those voices that was Always Right.

We’re full of shit.  We live in a Matrix of jackasses herding themselves into walls, only to back up, re-organize and do it again.  Wall Street offers this up in glowing Technicolor.  The smart followed the “You’ll be gone, I’ll be gone” approach to blowing up a bubble they knew would collapse.  The fools, as they always do, Believed In It.  Both silently drive the herd off the cliff.

If you realize that’s how things work, the fatal flaw in human nature, and play the system for money, as most shrewd people do, you can cruise through it unmolested (until the psychic damage of realizing at the end you’ve nothing but a legacy of time sheets bites you in the ass).  But if you call it out, make fun of it… If you don’t take the Industry, the Court System, “seriously”… Well, you’re a man they can’t have around.  Your “personal brand” or “Google footprint” is shot.

You can use the machine for money or be the sucker who views it as His Life.  But you can’t say the Emperor has no clothes.  And you sure as hell can’t joke about getting twisted out of your tree at work and giggling at the neurotics running around wired on the Blue Pills.  They don’t think it’s very funny, and unless you can sell a million plus books—or have a staggering trust fund—you’ll need to Play The Game with corporate functionaries in some manner to make money, whatever the business or profession.  Everybody at the Country Club has a sordid shit in his closet.  You just can’t be honest about it.

Dr. Rob:  Fair enough.  And let me add that simply having this conversation has reaffirmed how smart it was to stay out of your field.  You three are truly miserable souls.

BL1Y:  Now that that’s over, on to the final part of our discussion.  Short of juricide, what can be done about lawyer wimps?

PL, in Part 1 you said that the guys who can go into court and argue the close cases aren’t wimpy at all.  Do you think the courtroom is more of a filter or a training ground?  Is it that wimps simply never make it in/get washed out quickly, or that trial advocacy builds confidence and assertiveness?

PL:  Training ground.  They had a motion court in Philly that could be brutal.  You stand in a room filled with lawyers and wait to argue in front of an often-irritated judge.  First time there you’re scared shitless, but after a while, you learn how the room works… I gets normal, run of the mill.  I think anyone can do just about anything if he or she is thrown into it.  It’s being willing to throw yourself into it that makes the difference.  You can’t control those arenas, and I think a lot of lawyers are, by nature, control freaks, so they don’t like that sort of thing.  They’d rather work with paper, where you feel like you control the argument.

I guess it builds confidence.  I used to argue nasty motions almost weekly at one point, and it was fun to win.  After a while, though, you slide into a “Ruben Carter” pose.  Remember the Dylan tune “Hurricane,” the song they used in the long shot in Dazed and Confused where Wooderson walks into the pool hall?  “It’s my work he’d say, and I do it for pay, and when it’s all over, I’d just as soon be on my way…” It’s hard to say I cared near the end in Philly.  The process was so mindless, such an imbecilic dance toward such utterly irrelevant ends… A win was putting the money in your pocket—getting as far as possible from the toil, the people, the malignant, idiot culture of the Philadelphia litigation business, as quickly as one could.

BL1Y:  Unfortunately, on the corporate department side there aren’t motion courts to cut your teeth in.  And, even on the litigation side, a lot of young attorneys won’t see the inside of a courtroom for years.  The closest many young attorneys will have to a trial-by-fire is sitting in a partner’s office, explaining some obscure line of reasoning in a case that doesn’t really matter to anyone.

And, to get that face time with your boss, you need to stop using email.  Personally, I loved email.  Email gives you time to think, to organize your thoughts, and to make sure you haven’t said anything stupid.  You have an electronic record to use as reference (incredibly useful when re-creating your week so you can fill out your time sheets), and it gives the other person the ability to read over your comments at their leisure.  But, the ability to fine-tune your comments in an email also creates pressure to get every little thing right, and this can drive a young attorney nuts.

You’d use same critical eye you would use on a brief submitted to a court as you would on whatever short email you’re writing to a partner to answer a simple question.  Thinking that a minor mistake could be pored over by a red-faced partner can make you live in fear.

When your heart races over the thought of pressing the Send button on any garden-variety intra-office email and having an error, you can be sure you’re a wimp.  Though email creates unnecessary fear, contrariwise, it serves as a crutch.  You don’t need to be able to intelligently talk about a subject when you can spend an hour editing an email on it.  There’s no pressure to perform on the spot, such as there is in court, and without that pressure, it’s very hard to grow, both in competence and confidence.

With any luck, the only time a corporate attorney will see the inside of a courtroom is when they’re sworn in, but I think the partner’s office may serve as the next best arena.  A lot of assignments young attorneys get are small enough that they require just a short answer and don’t warrant a full memo.  So, instead of sending off an email with your answer, you have to try to meet with the boss in person, and failing that, at least pick up the phone and talk to him.

Of course, I’ve never tried this.  It’s pretty hypothetical on my end.  Rob, you’re the shrink here, what do you think can be done about lawyer wimps?

Dr. Rob:  It’s actually quite simple.  Stop taking yourself and your job so seriously, even if that means losing your career.  I’ve worked in nursing homes and with patients struggling with end-of-life issues.  None (zero, nada) of them have ever said that they’re glad they sacrificed their entire life to make partner—nor did anyone ever thank God they were able to afford a Beemer instead of just a Honda or consider themselves brilliant for when they agreed to take on an 80-hour work week so they could look like a douchebag in an Armani suit with a false sense of power and purpose.

Maybe losing your wimp status means quitting your job and finding something you actually like for a career.  If that’s not in the cards for you, then recognize that climbing the corporate ladder and being a small cog in the machine that perpetuates nothing but greed and false promises means absolutely nothing.  At the end of your life, you’ll only think about the people who cared about you and those who you positively influenced.  You’ll never consider if you made your billable hours in 2010.  Once you really get that, embrace the idea beyond “Yeah, yeah, I get it—now where’s that dinner I ordered and billed to my client?” and everything else falls into place.

BL1Y:  That’s a bit of a Catch 22.  The cure for being a wimp requires not being a wimp.  Any major life change is going to have a big hurdle at some point, but is there a way for lawyers who want to be less wimpy to make the hurdle a more manageable height?

Dr. Rob:  Some people need that “flooding” experience where they just pack it in and go balls to the wall with a new life.  Others start out more slowly.

I had one client who started bartending on the weekends (where she got the time to do that as an attorney is still unclear) and ultimately opened up her own place.  There’s no right or wrong when it comes to chasing the dream.  Or even the non-nightmare.

Wimpiness is about fear.  In a cognitive sense, fear often involves a faulty prediction about how likely an event will occur, as well as how catastrophic it would be should said event occur.  In short, fear is often about overprediction and perceived inability to cope.

Say you assert yourself at work—what do you see happening?  Verbal abuse, more work, ridicule from peers, demotion, termination?  Now, how likely, as objectively speaking as possible, are these each likely to occur?  And I don’t mean just take a guess.  Accumulate some data; treat these ideas as hypotheses.  What have you seen from your “non-wimpy” peers?  Do they struggle?  Are they vilified, praised, promoted, in charge?  What about people who were wimpy at their firms and made some sort of change?  What did you see?  What about on various legal blogs?  What happens to these people?

If your answer to most of the bad outcomes is something like “highly likely” and that conclusion is based on reason and logic, then ask yourself, “How could I cope with this outcome?” If you got fired, what would you do?  Really think about that.  Would you move to a cheaper house/apartment, sell your car, move in with your parents?  How long would it take you to get another job, in or out of the legal field?  There are answers to these questions.  It’s unlikely there is a perfect solution, but when people have a plan in place for events that have not yet occurred, confidence rises.

BL1Y:  As inspiring as that may seem, a lot of lawyers are aware of how delicate a legal career can be, especially in the age of instant internet gossip, and then they’ll remember that there’s not likely another job waiting with the six-figure salary needed to pay down their student loans.  They’ll reach the conclusion that being a wimp isn’t just safe, it’s necessary for survival.  And they may be right.

Elena Kagan, a woman who is almost certainly going to be confirmed by the Senate as the newest Supreme Court justice, epitomizes lawyer wimpiness.

Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSBlog said of Kagan, “I don’t know anyone who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law in the past decade.”

David Brooks at The New York Times wrote, “She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.”

Maybe Kagan stays quiet out of prudence, but that isn’t chutzpah, it’s just consciously choosing to be a wimp.  And we reward her for it.  But, on the other hand, there’s Bob Woodruff.

What this whole wimps thing really seems to boil down to is that you need to recognize what’s going on and find ways to force yourself into not being so wimpy.  At the end of the day, do you want to be the next associate justice on the Supreme Court, or do you want to be a well-rounded human being with thoughts, desires, and an active sex life?

SCOTUS judge, of course—but only twice as many people get to do that as get to be President.  More people win the Mega Millions.  It ain’t gonna happen for you, so just stop being such a wimp already.  Sure, you may lose your job, but odds are if you’re reading an article about lawyer wimps on a site called Bitter Lawyer, you aren’t going to miss it.

Read Part 1 of this series: “Are Lawyers Wimps?”

Read Part 2: “How Did Lawyers Get So Wimpy?”

Visit the “defunct BigLaw” musings of BL1Y on his blog.

Listen to PhilaLawyer and Dr. Rob’s weekly web radio show “Here’s What to Think.”

Buy PhilaLawyer’s book about his lost decade in world’s worst profession on Amazon.

Check out PhilaLawyer’s previous posts on Bitter Lawyer.

Visit Dr. Rob’s blog, Shrink Talk.

Read the works of Law Firm 10 on Bitter Lawyer.

Check out other Bitter Exclusives.

Join Bitter Lawyer on Facebook.  Follow on Twitter.

Buy Bitter Lawyer merchandise.

PL:  I’ve been asked this a bunch and left this to explain it for me: “The Privilege of the Grave”

That’s Twain, and any answer we can muster he’d offer forty times more astutely.  Not a knock on us.  Twain just happens to be, along with writers, polemicists and comedians, like Mencken, O’Rourke, Vonnegut, Thompson, Bill Hicks and Carlin—one of those voices that was Always Right.

Share this Post

  • KateLaw

    There are wimpy corporate execs that should be lawyers, I can tell you that.  All that talk about fear, Completely agree.  I think wimpy is just another synonym for fearful.  Grow some balls and make a decision b/c everything in life is a choice.

  • Alma Federer

    This is SO boring.  Only someone smart like me and Katelaw can even finish this stuff.  Personally, I don’t care about these people.  Fooey on this article.

  • Chad

    Wimps own every profession.  If most weren’t wimps they would be doing things differently.  This is why you can spot the aberrations so easy.  Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) being one.
    It is also why there are so many consultants.  The CEO hiring these guys doesn’t want answers from them.  He/she wants someone to blame.  They want the soft warm blanket of group think to protect them.