Looking back 40 years – A circle closes
TS Eliot must have attended some school meetings of his own when he wrote: “We will not stop exploring, and the end of all our exploration will be to get to where we started and get to know the place for the first time.. “I have just returned from my 40-year reunion at law school. I saw my old school for the first time through the eyes of a man who now understands the meaning of my three years there, but also saw for the first time the reasons. of how I experienced law school and the four decades of legal practice that followed.
Over the years, announcements from law schools follow you through your new offices or addresses. Invariably, they include a direct appeal for money and showcase alumni successes. With all those smiling faces moving up to senior positions in government and private practice, I wondered how many of them were struggling like me to learn the trade and build a business. I felt like I was on the sidelines, a creature of hiding and shame, managing by comparison. It was a surreal experience to see a promotion announcement, completed deal, or court victory by someone who wasn’t even born until ten years after I became a lawyer.
But the shame was mostly self-imposed. Comparison is a deadly practice that poisons balanced vision. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that law school wouldn’t show the darkest side of alcoholism, drug addiction, divorces, lost cases, bankruptcies, and depression that especially afflict lawyers. After 40 years of stressful deadlines, demanding clients, and feisty opponents, I still managed to win a few, had my health and could claim some friends, and a close intimate relationship. Maybe I wasn’t a star, but I’d survived 40 years dodging a wrecking ball and I even had some golden moments.
The law punishes work. It is relentless, high risk, and extremely competitive. Add to that nasty cocktail that disposition attorneys focus on “getting it right” to earn the rewards of social approval. That’s great, except it doesn’t work in the long run. It does not work more than 40 years. It may not even work for four years. High blood pressure, lack of exercise, poor diet, and exhaustion can quickly turn a middle-aged man into an intensive care patient. Large law firms especially demand long hours that turn into weeks and months of incessant hours. Family meals, family events, time with the kids, getting away from it all with your spouse – these good intentions pile up in the trash of lost memories forever.
The 2016 Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation report recounts the victims. Of the responses from 12,825 attorneys in 19 states, the results indicated that about 28 percent struggle with depression, with 19 percent admitting to disabling anxiety. But of the 12,825 responses, 75 percent completely skipped the questions about drug use. Lawyers are likely to be afraid to admit their dependency for fear of losing clients and possibly their licenses. That secret only makes matters worse as they cling to the illusion that they are still in control. After all, attorneys are “take over” personalities. They are reluctant to admit that they are addicted and need a 12-step program and rehab.
According to Seattle-based psychologist Andy Benjamin, JD, Ph.D., law schools transform personalities into status-driven, often hostile adversaries who develop analytical skills and suffer stunted emotions. The artistic or playful side of law students is shrunken and disfigured by experience. Professional work after law school reinforces the dehumanizing process. The desire to serve the public good is overwhelmed by the hanging carrot of prestige and large amounts of money. The good news is that the student population is getting smart and law school applications are dropping as students realize that high enrollment doesn’t deliver the promised rewards.
The national epidemic of prescription opioid abuse leading to heroin addiction has hit the legal profession hard. Lawyers’ drive to succeed leads them to be functional addicts until the binge catches up with them. The “production at all costs” mentality of large companies can cause their colleagues to ignore the red flags as long as the addict continues to reach their quota of billable hours.
My law school meeting featured a slideshow on a large upper screen. One slide listed at least 40 dead comrades as “In Memoriam”. When my eye caught the slide for the few seconds it was displayed, I was shocked by the numbers, roughly 1 in 7 of the total population in our class. Most of us are in our sixties. As I looked around, I saw the hunched back, the rounded shoulders, the deep creases around the eyes and cheeks, the overweight or underweight physique, the bald or gray hair, and most tellingly, the uncomfortable effort to connect. With a time and a place where we were left behind so long ago.
And so, I saw myself and the law school of my past as for the first time 40 years later. I saw that I had been deceived by a subculture of promised power and prestige, but had paid the price of my soul. If I had survived 40 years, and if I had survived another ten, it would be because I kept unlearning the dehumanizing habits of law school and the practice of law. It would be because I woke up from the hypnotic trance of social status and money to claim the real meaning of being a lawyer: serving the cause of justice and social good. Corporations do not meet the expectations of shareholders with abstract ideals, nor do they pay lawyers to pursue such goals. There will always be personalities willing and able to promote shareholder value. But many great lawyers could make a living defining their legal practices for themselves if only they had the courage and imagination.