Keeping A Grip on Your Lawyer Self

You know that I am a lawyer. 

But what you probably do not know, unless you have read my bio, is that my husband also is a lawyer. He and I have practiced law separately and together over the last 40-plus years, and, at this particular time in our careers, we both have our offices in our home.  Yes, in the same house. Fortunately, there is enough space.

That does not mean, however, that we always respect those spaces.  It also does not mean that our worst lawyer selves do not rear their ugly heads from time to time in discussions (read that as arguments) about issues of our personal lives, our children, politics and, of course, money.  It is because we are human, but it also is because we are uniquely able to take each other on.  We are trained in the skill of advocacy and argument — which includes jumping on unfortunate word choices, finding the weakness in any position, distinguishing EVERYTHING, and relishing the victory.  Human, yes.  But a little werewolf-ish also.

As a couple, we have survived.  This year we will celebrate 50 years of marriage, and we consider that a success by anyone’s measure.  But, we have had to learn to identify the werewolf and send him or her packing back to the forest.  Without that, there likely would have been a different result than a golden wedding anniversary.

The adversarial gene likely was dominant in both of us before law school or, as a recessive gene, it was teased out into dominance during law school.  How else would we have prevailed during Moot Court?  How else would we have survived the first years of private practice, and how else would we have advanced to partnerships in a profession that so highly regards being unpleasant in the eyes of others so much of the time?

But, over time, we have learned that strutting our adversarial and argumentative selves does not work well outside the law school and law practice settings.  Specifically, it does not work between couples and in social settings.  To the contrary, it can end marriages and significantly reduce social networks.  So, we needed to learn to reign it in, and so do you.

We all need to understand how easy we can fall victim to becoming our training. We need to be aware that the sharp elbows we have developed in our negotiations and trial experiences can make us appear obnoxious and unpleasant to others. Disputing EVERYTHING may make us heroes to our clients, but it will make us pariahs to our families and friends.

And it can happen so easily. I remember as a young lawyer discovering two neighborhood boys building a fort in the woods on our land. I told them that they did not have our permission to build the fort, and I asked them to remove it. I explained to them that my husband and I could become responsible for harm that might befall visitors to the fort, but they were not persuaded. So, I chose to explain to twelve year olds the law of attractive nuisance, and, in return, I got an earful from the father of one of the boys. Did I really have to lawyer-up to kids, he asked? Instead of gaining cooperation on the basis of our relationship as neighbors, I had demonstrated what a jerk I was. Not my most shining moment.

Waxing into legalese and taking the argumentative and combative approach is generally not good for social interaction or personal relationships. And, for sure, it is not good for marriages.

So, learn to leave the lawyer at the office. Set different expectations for your professional behavior and your personal behavior. Especially if you want to be celebrating your 50th wedding anniversary some day!

Here’s an article to help you further understand the pitfalls of your inner adversary unleashed and how to avoid destructive behavior.  Our well-honed argumentative responses run deep and have merit in our legal careers, but it is risky to let those responses seep into our personal lives.  

Just because you are a lawyer is no excuse for acting like one all of the time.  Your friends and family do not expect it, and most of them resent it. Especially those who are not lawyers.

And most of us realize that non-lawyers make some of the best friends. 

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Young Lawyers Need to Pay Attention to Mental Health

Practicing law is not easy. It can be tedious and challenging and exhausting and lead to self doubt. It can involve difficult people, sensitive office politics and demoralizing conversations. Law firms are particularly competitive places and can bring out the very worst in colleagues. They also can bring out the very worst in clients. The law is indeed a “jealous mistress” as the saying goes, and it also can put you in positions to choose between your personal and professional lives more often that it should. Taken together, these characteristics can make young lawyers, especially, feel like they are walking around with targets on their backs and in states of mind that are not conducive to positive mental health pictures.

It is not like that all the time, and it is not like that for all lawyers. The things that lead to stress in some lawyers simply roll off the backs of others. And it is not a matter of one personality type being “stronger” than another. In fact, I have found that those who experience the anxiety of law practice the most are typically the ones I want on my side. They are empathetic, understanding, introspective yet firm professionals and excellent judges of character. They see shades of color not just black and white. They treat others the way they want to be treated. They are the ones I can count on the most, but they also can feel the effects of the dark side of law practice more than others.

The impacts of stress and anxiety on practitioners is what recently led the American Bar Association to identify lawyer well-being as a matter of great concern and the treatment of drug and alcohol dependency related to stress as an ABA initiative. It is why state and local bar associations and now individual law firms are identifying attorney wellness as a priority and offering programs to meet the needs.

And, in these days of coronavirus, there are threats to lawyer mental health — not just physical health — that we have not focused on before. One of the greatest threats to the mental health of practitioners is the effects of isolation.

Isolation has always been a problem for young lawyers. Being isolated in offices in front of computers performing document review twelve hours a day and seldom seeing or speaking to another human being has been an increasing problem in large firms with large litigation matters. And chaining themselves to desks to maximize on billable hours and rarely taking a break to socialize is common among associate lawyers to impress management and leadership for the best possible advancement outcomes. Surely, it would have been nice if law firm managers and leaders had actively worked to decrease the harmful effects of isolation, but they typically did not. Survival of the fittest was too often the philosophy and mantra.

However, in the days of the pandemic, isolation has taken on new meanings and risen to greater levels of concern. As working from home has become the norm, the negative effects of isolation have received more attention. There are plenty of young lawyers who live alone, and they have felt the negative effects of isolation the most, and some of them are honest and transparent about the outcomes.

What I hear from young lawyers is that this kind of isolation can lead to insecurity and self-doubt and that this kind of isolation can affect communication and social skills. I also hear that isolation to this degree can affect analytical skills when there is no push back to encourage tolerance for diverse views and opinions.

If you don’t think it’s true, consider this. When was the last time you dressed up like you were going on a date or to a party? Not sweats but real party attire. When was the last time you put on your makeup, curled your hair, trimmed your beard or donned that great sport jacket your mom gave you for Christmas?

If you are like so many others living through this pandemic, you can’t even remember when. You have let your standards slip, and it is beginning to define a new normal —- one that is a product of your isolation. And when the time comes for the big night out (and we hope it comes soon), how challenged will you be to remember the drill? How confident will you be about your appearance? How many times will you have to face down your fears of leaving your home for that first time? How much self-doubt will have crept in during the pandemic?

Probably more than you think. And that is just your appearance and attire. What else has been influenced?

So start with something small. I encourage you to dress up, do your hair, put on that pretty dress or your pair of cargo shorts and GET OUT! Take a walk. Take a drive. Whatever it takes to get involved safely and smartly with the world again. Not the world of Zoom and Skype. The real world. The one we took for granted.

Take that first step to get your mojo back. It is important to your world view and your mental health.

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The Dilemma Surrounding the July 2020 Bar Exams

The pandemic has caused a multitude of problems for our world and our country. Some of them involve life and death issues, and, certainly, nothing compares to those. Others involve economic issues like business closings, bankruptsy filings, struggles to feed families and pay the rent and issues surrounding school closings. Still others involve interference with important highly anticipated events involving families and friends, which have had to be cancelled or rescheduled, and the list goes on and on.

Concerns about an entire generation of young people, Generation Z, whose members have experienced gratification postponement and the effects of isolation that are particularly difficult for teenagers on the cusp of defining themselves and their futures. Time away from valued teachers, and supportive coaches and friends is particularly hard for them and can lead to issues of stress and anxiety.

These concerns all are weighty, but there are other bona fide concerns as well that impact particular segments of our society. As a lawyer and writer on issues affecting the legal profession, I am concerned at this time about how the matter of the July 2020 bar exams are being handled. It seems not particularly well. I have read blogs posted by Spring 2020 law school grads, who are having difficulty coping with uncertainties involving when and if the bar exam of their choice will be held and under what circumstances. Unlike some state bar examiners, I do not consider this to be a matter of “the show must go on” and sucking it up. I do not consider these recent grads to be whiners and slackers. No. These are real concerns.

Concerns like not knowing whether the bar exam will be held in just two short weeks or whether the bar examiners will make a decision to cancel — because the decision is still up in the air. Concerns like not being able to take the bar exam in the jurisdiction where your future law firm/office is located because there is now reduced seating capacity and preference is being given to law graduates from law schools located in the jurisdiction. Think NY. Concerns like having to register for more than one July 2020 bar exam AND pay the fees because of these uncertainties. Concerns like the possibility of waiting until February 2021 to take the bar exam and DO WHAT??? and LIVE ON WHAT??? until then.

These are very real and genuine concerns, and solutions can seem complicated. But I know that, unlike so many of the other results brought on by the pandemic, there is a solution. That solution does not involve life and death, and it is not a matter of economic ruin. It is a matter of common sense and health and safety.

The last time I checked, matters of health and safety override most other matters of law and regulation. During crises, rules have to change. Our country experienced it during WW II and again after 9-11. It did not lead to ruin then, and it would not lead to ruin now. It is not going to be the ruin of the legal profession to give diploma privilege for May 2020 law school graduates. It did not ruin the legal system in my beloved State of Wisconsin, and it will not ruin it anywhere else.

Yes, diploma privilege, which is essentially a waiver of the bar exam, will be heralded as unfair by some practicing lawyers, who suffered through one or more bar exams. Hopefully, it will be pointed out by a more rational majority that such positions are petty and fail to recognize the dire impact of a world-wide pandemic and the need for creative solutions.

I do realize that this position is a bit of a change of heart for me. In a blog on March 25, 2020, I stated, “It seems to me that the option for “emergency diploma privilege-plus” is the best option and could work — with one caveat. I agree that “diploma privilege” might be a good idea to meet the needs of Spring 2020 law graduates to enter the workforce as soon as possible, but I would add the requirement for passage of the February 2021 Bar Exam to that option. That should be a lot more workable than fashioning CLEs and additional requirements to effectively address competency.”

Although I still have questions about demonstrations of competency, I now see that kicking the can forward to February 2021 may have the same issues as those plaguing the July 2020 bar exams. So, I say let’s cut our losses and move forward with diploma privilege.

If some of the privileged law graduates are not competent to practice, that will be discovered. By them and by others. And it will not be the end of the world. On the contrary, it may be the beginning of a new way of looking at measuring competency in what is fast becoming a very different law profession.

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Thought For The Week

You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending. C. S. Lewis

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Thought For The Week

The most important relationship you have is the one you have with yourself. Diane von Furstenberg

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Maternity Leave for Women Lawyers is No Vacation

Maternity leave is a precious and necessary time for bonding with a newborn. It also is a woman’s contribution to a more evolved and stable society.

But it ain’t no vacation. It ain’t no boondoggle. Let’s get that straight.

There are many inequities for women lawyers — still. You know it. Yes, things have improved since I was climbing the ladder to partnership so many years ago, but progress has been slow. The profession is still riddled with both conscious and unconscious bias, sexual harassment is still practiced as if without impunity, and women lawyers bear the burden of proof of competence in a way that their male counterparts do not.

Solutions are not easy. Males have controlled the profession since the beginning, and old notions and habits die hard. Although there is evidence of unconscious bias training and diversity efforts throughout the profession, talking the talk and walking the walk are two different things. And hiring a higher percentage of women associates does not help if they are not able to advance. Retention continues to be a huge problem.

The challenges facing women lawyers, especially those with family and childcare responsibilities, continue to loom large as impediments to career advancement, and the solutions are complicated. It is hard to be in two places at one time — hard to be home at night caring for family and also wining and dining clients — and the responsibility for family care and stability, even with the increased participation of mates, likely will continue to reside largely with women.

The nurturing gene is not going to disappear, and we don’t want it to. We are proud of who we are and our ability to reproduce and nurture. It brings us joy —- but so does practicing our profession. And that is the rub.

Although maternity leave seems so fundamental, it took a long time before enactment of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gave rise to most law firm paid maternity and parental leave programs. As fundamental as it may now seem, in my experience the need for maternity leave is not universally accepted behind all closed doors.

There is still a lot of resentment attached to what is too often regarded as a three-month vacation by mostly male lawyers who have no experience with caring for newborns. You know them — the ones who are jealous of the time young women lawyers are allowed away from the pressures of the office for as much as three months. The “burdened ones,” who resent the work that falls to them in the wake of maternity leave departures by their female colleagues. And especially the single males, who have no experience with newborns and cannot relate to the experience at all.

I had a crash course in maternity leave recently when I spent time with a new mommy/lawyer. It had a profound effect on me, and I have been thinking about it ever since. Specifically, I have been thinking about the need for a more realistic view of maternity leave.

So here is what I hope you tell all your male colleagues, who may need a refresher course on maternity leave. And your senior female colleagues, who may also be resentful of programs that were not available to them in the day. That is an even greater problem … but I digress.

Most new mothers want to do everything right, and they spend months prior to the birth of their babies reading and studying and preparing. Mommy/lawyers, who research for a living, are certainly no exception. In fact, many mommy/lawyers are “Type A” personalities, which makes getting it right compelling in the most perfectionist of ways.

These mommy/lawyers devote their days and their sleepless nights to trial and error. Babies need nourishment every 2 to 3 hours for as much as an hour at a time, and the baby nursing, bathing, sterilization of EVERYTHING which comes in contact with baby, especially during COVID-19, the mounds of laundry that even a tiny baby can produce, and a possible quick shower for mommy take up what is left of the day. The new mom eats anything that others will prepare for her. And she falls into bed praying for a few moments of quiet that now passes for personal time.

The night is especially taxing. The schedule is the same as in the day, but it is done during dark and lonely hours that used to be for sleeping. Now those hours are for nursing, burping, rocking, changing diapers, and coaxing the precious bundle of joy back to sleep. Sometimes that works well, and sometimes it does not. Soon the sun rises, and it begins all over again.

Caring for a newborn also does not include much interaction with adults. Even when the baby daddy comes home at night, he also is sleep deprived and is not much of a conversationalist. He is likely to be more interested in a cold beer and vegging out in front of the TV. And you can’t blame him because he does not completely understand the drill, and he also knows that the beer he drinks will not give the baby gas!

Don’t get me wrong. Babies are a blessing — a wonderful blessing. But caring for a newborn is hard. And just when it becomes a little less stressful and exhausting, maternity leave is over and it is time to return to lawyer work —- work that was demanding even before baby and is now in competition with baby time.

It has been a long time since I cared for newborns, and memories fade with age. So here’s the question that has been haunting me since my recent experience with maternity leave: If I did not remember the demanding schedule and sleep deprivation as vividly as I should have from my experience 35-plus years ago, how are many male colleagues in law offices supposed to relate to maternity leave as anything more than a boondoggle?

By reading this blog for starters. Feel free to share it liberally. I hope that it dispels the notion that new mommy/lawyers are gaming the system for some fun-filled R & R. I hope that the gravity of it hits home.

And don’t stop with your young and inexperienced male colleagues. Many senior male lawyers in management positions need this information, too. Although they are typically older and more likely to be fathers themselves, they probably were not there for the lonely and protracted days of exhaustion that the responsibility for a new life entails. And many of their baby’s mothers did not experience self-doubt and conflict as the clock ticked away and they came closer and closer to returning to demanding legal jobs. Truth be known, most of those new mothers did not have jobs to return to.

And while you are speaking truth to power, all of you mommy/lawyers need to remember this. Although it is SO hard to balance profession with family, it also is the best combination ever. THE VERY BEST. I look back with pure joy at having the privilege of profession and motherhood.

And so will you.

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Thought For The Week: There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self. Ernest Hemingway

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