Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy
The legal profession has earned the dubious title as the unhappiest one. Why is that and is there a solution to it? I’ve been practicing law for some thirty years now and have had my share of troubles—difficult clients, treacherous colleagus, abusive judges, nasty opponents. I’ve also had some great clients, interesting work, helpful colleagues and I’ve appeared before very competent judges and professional and courteous opponents. What’s been interesting is that the negative experiences have a far more significant impact than the positive experiences. The one client who has been difficult and hasn’t paid its bill consumes far more mential energy than the 99 percent who pay their bills. What I’ve come to realize is that I am not alone in this. We are all affected by and dwell more on the negative than the positive. What’s more we believe that we’re alone in this as if it doesn’t happen to others. But as Tolstory said of unhappy families, we experience negative experiences and people more intensely and in our own way and this I consider to be at the root of our unhappiness.
A simple mistake and its following devastation
As a junior litigation associate at a large firm, I once made the mistake of faxing documents intended for our client to opposing counsel [This was before we had email]. Once I became aware of the error I was paralysed. I thought that when the partner on the case found out, I’d be fired and my fledgling legal career would be over. I was fearful of telling anyone—I felt that the other associates—some of them my friends—would have no sympathy. On the contrary, I pictured them as being thrilled that my humiliation and firing would mean one less person to compete with.
I created a psychological monster for myself
In the event, nothing of the sort happened. To be sure, the partner wasn’t happy with me. But it blew over. I wasn’t fired. The lawsuit eventually settled and my mistake was long forgotten. Yet for a long while I suffered a great deal. The initial panic turned into a generalized anxiety concerning my future—what will happen? Will I get a negative review? Did this kill any shot I had at partnership? Will they fire me at the end of the year? Will they even give me a reference? These thoughts circled in my mind endlessly, affected my well being, my sleep, my productivity and my relationships. In short, the thoughts crushed me.
Then the realization
Now, in the cool light of time, I wonder why did I let this affect me so much? I’ve come to realise that I don’t have control over my thoughts and feelings. I can’t just switch it off. But one thing that I can do is to gain perspective. At the time I didn’t know this; I didn’t have the perspective that I do today. How do you gain perspective?
First let me clarify what I mean by perspective. The best way to understand it is by looking back at a difficult situation, such as the one I faced as a junior litigator faxing documents intended for the client to opposing counsel. At the time, the situation was very distressful; I was bombarded by thoughts of all the terrible things that would happen as a result of my error. The thoughts were all negative. That is one hallmark of a lack of perspective. I didn’t have any thoughts along the lines of “I’m sure it’ll be OK. In fact, it’s a small mistake and will soon be forgotten.” This would have been far closer to the reality but my mind was incapable of grasping it—I had no perspective. Today, as I look back on the event, my thoughts about it are very different. I ask myself why I worried so much, why did I torment myself for so long before any of the events I feared had actually happened? Today I have perspective on that event; I can look at it without being overwhelmed by negative thoughts.
The question then is how do you gain that perspective. Obviously, once enough time passed and the negative events I had feared did not come to pass, I could look back on the situation with calm and rationality. Today I can laugh about my overreaction. I can also see it from the perspective of the more senior lawyer—I would never fire an otherwise competent lawyer for such a mistake. I would remind them to be more careful but that’s probably it. However, while most people gain perspective over difficult situations in the past, the vast majority of us do not gain perspective on current difficulties and challenges which continue to inflict a great deal of suffering on us. The challenges may be different, not our mental reactions to them. Our mental states do not change; we do not learn.
I was not alone in my profession
A friend who is a partner is a law firm was furious to learn that a fellow partner whom she considered far less competent had a higher compensation. My colleague makes seven figures and the other partner didn’t make that much more, but still, this gnawed away at my friend. She silently speculated as to the reasons behind this injustice, ruminated continuously and would fantacisze about various remedies, including elaborate schemes on how to ruin her colleague’s career.
My friend is neither evil or insane; when you meet her she comes across as a very normal and affable person. Her reaction to this difficulty appeared to be totally out of character. She hadn’t discuss it with anyone and only told me one evening after many drinks, six months into her mental ordeal.
I avoid my self made trap now
So how do you gain perspective. The first step is to become aware of your thoughts and to realise that they are just that—thoughts. They are not real. I was not fired, nor did I receive a negative review. I left the law firm of my own volition several years later. None of my fears and anxieties came to pass. They were not real; they were simply thoughts. They were not dissimilar to a bad dream from which you wake up only to realise that you’re in your bed! Except with a dream, once you wake up, you become aware that you were having a dream. Awareness is similar to waking up from a dream. Aha you say—that’s another thought! The first step in gaining perspective is awareness of your thoughts as thoughts. I’ll talk much more about awareness in other postings on this site.
Another way to gain perspective is to see that you’re not the only one who has has had this experience. In my case, surely I’m not the only associate to have mistakenly sent a document to the wrong place. Perhaps many of you reading this made a similar mistake at some point in your career. Yet for me at the time, I suffered alone as if I were the only one that this had ever happened to. I had no perspective whatsoever on the situation. I suffered greatly and needlessly as a result.
This is why I started this site—a community created by lawyers for lawyers. But not a community where you come to network and look for a job. On the contrary, a community where you come to share experiences and to improve your mental (and physical health) wellbeing.