“It is remarkable that a group of people so accomplished can, at the same time, be so dysfunctional.”
– A Fortune 500 law firm client, discussing with me his observations about the lawyers he had hired.
When I had this discussion with a client several years ago, while still practicing law, it really made me think. Clearly, the observation was an accurate description of myself, many of my colleagues, and my work environment at the time. The really alarming part of it was that the dysfunction was readily apparent to the client. I had believed, as most lawyers do, that the client was in the dark about what went on behind the scenes. Indeed, it was part of the job to keep it that way. But what we so often failed to realize was that practicing law (or virtually any profession), is a human endeavor, conducted by and for human beings. So, it should have been no great surprise that our clients, or at least their human representatives, could see through our carefully constructed facades.
This begged the question, what were we lawyers trying to hide, and why? Of course, law clients desire security at particularly insecure times. As a result the profession abhors uncertainty, despite its constant presence within the people who practice as well as within the law itself. The profession rewards those who project the utmost confidence at all times and punishes those who are unsure but honest. It punishes humanness under the reasoning that clients don’t want humans but only want winners. So we are trained to sublimate our human sides. We ignore our emotional states lest they become public and be perceived as weakness. And, ultimately, we pay the price in terms of our wellbeing. Our inner lives suffer, and we visit that suffering on those around us, frequently those closest to us, until we can no longer sustain the charade.
Can a proper balance be achieved? I believe that it can, but not easily. Given the tremendous opposing forces involved, it is difficult to draw appropriate boundaries, to take care of ourselves, and to let go of the tendency to project only strength even when we are not feeling strong. It involves marshaling the resources at our disposal and drawing on support from family, friends and others willing to give it. It means asking for help when it is needed. And it means forgiving ourselves for being less than perfect. If you’ve read this far, you know how hard that can be. I believe that it can be done, and in the process we can become better practitioners and better people.