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Don’t Always Do What You (Think) You Love – A Litigator’s Perspective

Recently, as many of you know, I went through a profound career change.  After almost 12 years as a solo and small-firms consumer and civil rights litigator, I found myself in my back garden one day unable to move.  I had doubled over too quickly and blown 2 of discs in my lower back.

The pain was intense, frightening because at first, I couldn’t move.  Being used to marathon running and working out at the gym, this was an unwelcome and unanticipated development.

What was worse was the long recuperation that followed, coupled I must admit with a depression and anxiety that became extremely difficult to manage at times, setting me back in many aspects of my personal and career growth.

I found myself feeling ashamed at the clients that I previously thought were simply “difficult” or acting “inappropriately” because their pain made them irritable, confused, erratic or plain disrespectful.

During my recuperation and mental healing, particularly the latter, I did a lot of soul-searching about my life as a litigator.  I came out of the closet once before, and am now starting that process again on the subject of being a litigator.  I was fortunate to start teaching paralegals and law students early on in my career, as a side gig, and now my career path is diverting me much more strongly in the direction of academia.  Next week, I will even resume the mantel of student, as I undertake a more formal education in e-discovery.  Yikes!  In any event, I feel it is my responsibility as a teacher to be a Devil’s Advocate at times, especially if a student appears to be going down the wrong path.

In comparison to litigation, I love my role as teacher.  Being a litigator is, frankly, one of the dirtiest jobs a person can do because it steals your soul, little by little, day by agonizing day.  A guy that digs sewer trenches can wash the gunk and smell off, eventually.  But, I don’t know of any soap that will wash of the stain left by the by-product of litigation in the American judicial system.

If you love it – the mean-spiritedness, the games-playing, the lying, the jerks, the self-righteous judges – you need therapy.  No one enjoys that, day in and day out, unless they are socio-pathic to some degree.  Even if you are a “righter of wrongs,” like I thought I was, you can never right every wrong.  And, by the way, some wrongs don’t have a remedy.  Life sucks sometimes, and that’s that.  Learn, grasshopper, so that your lemon can be made into lemonade.

I began thinking about this topic today when my attention was caught by this Harvard Business Management Tip of the Day.  Something very close to this tip was presented at a law conference I attended a few years ago, and I first I recoiled at the advice.  Now, I could not agree with this advice more, with my own personal take on it, which I would like to share with you.

First, here’s what it says about the mistake of doing what you love:

  1. You love it — but you’re not great at it. Years ago, when I ran the communications department for a presidential campaign, I supervised Scott, a hard-working, smart, insightful employee who loved the glamour and rat-a-tat action of the press officebut [sic] was not a great writer. I liked his enthusiasum [sic] and could see he wanted to learn but it’s hard to succeed in any media job if you don’t have a knack for banging out good copy. So I worked hard to instead steer him to policy-research assignments and, after the campaign ended, he turned that into a career. It’s hard to judge yourself accurately, so ask your friends and employer what your talents and weaknesses are, and then play to your strengths, even if they don’t lead you to what you would currently describe as your “perfect” job.
  2. You’re skilled at your passion — but hate the work that surrounds it. Many businesspeople are masters at their craft but drop the ball when it comes to everything else. Angela is a brilliant graphic designer who worked in-house for big companies before striking out on her own. But — although she loved working closely with clients and helping them create just the right branding — she was simply unable to manage her pricing and cash flow. It’s possible to learn these skills, but, for many, the process sucks the joy out of their chosen field. (Michael Gerber writes about this extensively in The E-Myth.
  3. You’re too emotionally attached. You’ve already heard about Marion Stoddart. I recently heard Charlaine Harris , author of the wildly popular vampire series that spawned the TV show True Blood , talk about this issue too. The best writers, Harris said, don’t fall in love with their characters, or their words. They don’t mind being edited; in fact, they’re open to any suggestion that makes them better. Writers who get too close to their work and take criticism too personally never improve. Similarly, businesspeople need to look carefully at whether passion for their work is clouding their judgment. When you care deeply about a pet project, for example, it’s hard to make a rational decision about whether it should live or die.

For me, I fell into the trap of nos. 2 and 3.  In college, I was encouraged to dump my love of creative writing and classical history, and focus on becoming a lawyer because I had above average skills as a writer.  As a litigator, my writing ceased to be a thing of inspiration or beauty or imagination and, instead, became a weapon to wield with vigor and venom.  I wielded it for injured plaintiffs, rather than greedy corporations or soul-less government entities, so I convinced myself I was actually doing a good thing.  Therefore, I must be enjoying what I did.  Flawed analysis, indeed.

In truth, I took something I loved and put it into an arena where it became twisted by the mechanics of the arena, its procedures.  My clients were also not always hapless victims.  Sometimes they ended up being liars and scam artists.  It took having some moments of reflection while recuperating to realize…J.H. Christ, I really hated working with so-and-so or writing and saying all that garbage!  No wonder I was downing liquid Mylanta by the gallons!

In addition, because I was a principal in my own firm, I had to devote some time to the business side of the law office.  How much time?  I can’t answer that specifically because there was never enough…And, with clients, opposing counsel and courts clamoring for attention, guess what suffered?  The business side. Maybe some of you are already feeling this pressure.  This is where I should insert a huge “Caution” pic or something.  Lawyers close up shop and file personal bankruptcy all the time these days because they are poor entrepreneurs or don’t have time to learn how to be one and do the business of lawyering.

My continuing education suffered next, as I failed to heed Lincoln’s advice about spending too much time chopping wood that you forget to stop and sharpen the axe.  CLEs exist for a legitimate reason, and you should embrace the opportunity to be a life-long learner.  I kept up, barely.  Unfortunately, the busiest lawyers – especially solos and small firm lawyers – have little time to keep up and keep pace.

This life sounds chaotic, doesn’t it?  It was.  To top it off, I also never quite learned the ability to not get emotionally involved with a case.  Not the client, mind you, but the CASE!  If you have ever seen “The Verdict” with the late Paul Newman, you may recall the scene where he says again and again, “This is the case, there are no other cases,” or words to that effect.  For me, almost every case was like that.  However, not everything is WWIII!  When you are caught up in the moment of dealing with a difficult situation – maybe some asshat for an opposing counsel – it’s hard to remember not to exercise the “nuclear option.”

As I overly invested myself in litigating, my own relationships suffered tremendously.  This result is not a given for you, of course.  However, litigators are notoriously terrible life partners.  Always in search of triumph in every dispute, we are wont to turn our razor-sharp tongue on our life partners.  In my opinion, it would be perfectly reasonable to accompany the phrase “Pyrrhic victory” in any dictionary with an image of a litigator righteously arguing with his/her life partner.

One of the few litigators I actually respect, Gerry Spence, says a lot about this topic in How To Argue And Win Every Time.  My poor substitute would be something like this -

“What?  You left the toothpaste cap off again.  A-ha!  Now, we have an issueThis is the case, there are no other cases.  It shall be known as the infamous capless toothpaste tube case!  Remembered and studied for all eternity!”

I am lucky that I have been able to maintain my relationship, as we’ve struggled through all this and, well I can’t help but say it, the gift that keeps on giving that we here on the home front like to call the George W. Bush economic legacy.

What I hope you take from this is the freedom to allow yourself to reflect and admit that you may be on the wrong career path.  As I wrote this, my mind was focused principally on the student and then, secondarily, the new lawyer-litigator.  By new, I mean less than a year out.  Listen carefully to your inner voice and your body.  If things seem out of whack, and it seems to have a connection to your work, then it probably is out of whack and most likely does have a connection to your litigation work.  It will get worse, if not attended to.

And, if it is out of whack, don’t fool yourself into thinking you are loving every minute of it when, honestly, you may just be afraid or embarrassed to say, This really sucks!  And, now I need to move on to something that is going to be a good and stable career path for me.  It’s easy to fall prey to peer pressure as a litigator because everyone is playing in the same dirty, littered sandbox, as it were.

I welcome any and all comments you may have on this topic, any of you.  Open communication and support among lawyers about these troubles are not often available, and are sorely needed to aid our brothers and sisters.  Consider this uplifting and encouraging story in this month’s California Bar Journal.  Though not directly on point, it is a poignant reminder of how important it is that we be mentors and support each other.

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4 comments on “Don’t Always Do What You (Think) You Love – A Litigator’s Perspective

  1. Hi Eric. I know this article is quite old, but I am in the throws of determining some things for myself career wise and this really hit home. Thanks for sharing your story. I am a solo practitioner doing mostly family law, and I am beginning to realize that maybe its not the family law aspect that is driving me toward depression and anxiety, but the litigation aspect. I want to help people through a difficult process, but a part of me feels like litigation, and the dynamic between lawyers, parties, judges, and all involved conflicts with everything I hold dear — live and let live, be compassionate toward others, etc. I think I have been afraid to say that I don’t like what this career is doing to me, that I am tired, and stressed out and overwhelmed by the constant pressure to obtain results and to fight over every little thing, when all I want to do is scream from the top of my lungs, “Get over it,” “Move on” and “Stop creating conflict and be decent toward each other.” I will definitely be earmarking your article so I can come back to it as I make my way toward a better understanding of where I am meant to take my career. Thanks again!

  2. Hello Eric, I am a trademark attorney by trade, (transactional mostly, and very suited to my “people pleaser” personality, and “let’s all get along” mentality). However, the down economy has made me venture into PI law (on the Plaintiff’s side, being a good Democrat). Of course, insurance companies will not be fair w/o filing a lawsuit, so into the ligitation game I have went. I must say, I hate most every minute. My wife says I need to give it a shot to diversify (and my older brother has done very well in it), but I FEEL so uncomfortable doing it! Gamesmanship, evasion, setting up everything for the “motion to compel”, I just can hardly stand it. I feel dirty doing it. I sit in depositions thinking, “what the hell am I doing, there HAS to be another way to make a buck!). In short, (and your blog helped), I am going to wind down my PI stuff, and really focus on marketing my trademark practice more effectively. That, or become a teacher, or something more fulfilling. Anyway, thanks for the ramblings. Much appreciated. John R.

    • I am glad you benefited from my “ramblings.” I am my own worst critic at times about posting them or not, but I know what my own experiences as a lawyer have been and what fulfills me at this stage in my life. For example, I am up this morning, got my writing sweater on, and am diving into some creative writing today. If I was still a full-time litigator, I’d probably be headed to a trial calendar call somewhere, tired and bleary-eyed, fearful and wondering, “is this all there is to this so-called life?” I hope you find your way into something that fulfills you, too, whatever it may be. Each of us only gets this one, all too short a chance to find it. Good luck!

  3. Eric: Reading this article made me sit back and think about these past years working in the legal field myself. I will be posting my own article in which I will comment on your article. Thank you!

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