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Dr. Rob vs Philalawyer: A Running Conversation on the Intersection of Work and Life

Posted Oct 03 2008 11:31am

When I joined Rudius Media a little over a year ago, I made it one of my goals to discover the secret identity of one of the company's best writers: PhilaLawyer. He seemed so disenchanted with his work, very frustrated by questions about the human psyche (many of which have no definitive answers), and just a generally pissed-off guy. These types of people are a therapist's dream due to their insight and quest for knowledge. I assumed if I scouted out PL enough - and by scout I mean bother mercilessly for months on end - I could uncover who has the black rectangle over his eyes.

After a veiled threat of legal action for stalking, I've come to the conclusion that I've failed miserably in this quest. Being a gentleman, however, PL was gracious enough to sit and talk with me about the psychology of the workplace. With his new book due in bookstores shortly, PL has been formulating themes negatively impacting the American Worker: Boredom, Pointlessness, and Exhaustion. His ideas impact everyone who isn't a trust fund baby or has tomorrow's winning Powerball numbers, so take a look at the first part of our conversation.

On Boredom

PL: I know in law a substantial percentage of people use anti-anxiety meds, anti-depressants or escape the day with recreational drugs. Everyone knows the drunken lawyer stereotype, and a lot of others have affairs or never seem to build any stable relationships. I think the source of these dysfunctions is routine. I don't think anyone is wired to sit in front of a computer in the same office, every day, doing the same task work for forty years. I think that's demeaning, inherently inhuman, the sort of thing that makes people snap. I'd love to hear your input on that.

Dr. Rob: Many people in therapy are unhappy with their jobs, but the lawyers I've seen in my practice seem to have a greater dissatisfaction than other professions. I couldn't agree more that the routine is a part of this ("variety is the spice of life" became a cliche for a reason), but I hear a lot of complaints about the inherent emptiness of the work. Rarely do lawyers talk of justice, intellectual debate or creating a better world. Rather, I hear more about damage control, paper work, finding loopholes in the system and trying to make as much money as possible, for either themselves or their clients.

I asked a friend of mine about the inherent boredom of practicing law. This is what he said:

"So very many people in a wide variety of professions these days sit in front of a computer and stare at it all day long, and many without even getting to use their brains to make decisions. Secretaries, IT people, telephone sales, clerks, etc etc.

"So why do the numbers play out so much higher for lawyers for alcohol/drug abuse and divorce rate? Well, I think stress really is a big part of it. Between the deadlines, the frequently nasty interactions with opposing counsel, often unrealistic client expectations, often unrealistic firm expectations, including everyone's favorite item, the billable hour, the threat of a malpractice suits and the general lack of empathy/appreciation from a country that hates lawyers...well let's just say there is a reason that the California CLE requirements includes at least 1 hour of alcohol/substance abuse training. Granted, it is one hour every three years, but the thought behind the rule is the recognition of a problem prevalent in the profession.

"Adding to that, I think a lot of lawyers have huge egos to begin with, which seem to tend to grow as they get older and more experienced. That, in combination with some of the crazy things you see on a day-to-day basis in cases they handle, tend to make lawyers believe that the rules (legal/moral/ethical) do not apply to them, and bad decisions ensue.

"Maybe as a final nail in the coffin, because lawyers cannot market themselves in traditional ways, either because it is not permitted by the Code of Ethics or it is stigmatized, there is a lot of temptation to go drinking with clients/prospective clients/other lawyers, as that is the most traditional way of getting or keeping business and getting referrals. So as a result, all roads lead to the local watering hole, often at the expense of a lawyer's family and health, both mental and physical."

Dr. Rob: Research suggests that the use of one's skills and abilities is one of the biggest predictors of job satisfaction. Lawyers often tell me that spend most of the day pushing papers, filing motions, calming clients and freaking out about their "billable hours." Would any lawyers consider that a use of their skills?

PL: Billable hours stand at the heart of everything wrong in the modern legal industry. Putting aside the lack of creativity and dehumanizing aspect of the structure, billable hours encourage fraud and compel needless busywork. I've worked on both billable and contingent bases and I can't tell you how many pointless motions, letters, document reviews and depositions I've seen filed, written and taken merely to maximize fees. Lawyers and savvy clients even have a name for it - "running the meter." You routinely hear attorneys say things like "Oh, this case will settle. We just have to let the lawyers on the other side make a few bucks on it first."

You can attack a case with pinpoint precision, really paying attention to its specifics, learning it in the deepest sense of the word. Or you can take the shotgun approach - running down every blind alleyway and ferreting out every conceivable piece of evidence or argument in your client's favor, however futile these endeavors are likely to be. Many firms favor the shotgun approach, for three simple reasons, I think. First, as a CYA mechanism in the event of an adverse result ("We did everything we could possibly do"). Second, because everyone is working on so many different cases at once to maximize income nobody has the time to really understand the guts of a case they way they should. Third, it's the most fee-intensive way to run a piece of litigation.

And no, that isn't using skills, in my opinion. That's creating bills. If we eliminated billable hours and paid lawyers on a result or unit value basis, you'd see a lot of cases settle a lot more quickly. And a lot more happy, productive and engaged lawyers.

Calming clients is actually kind of fun. I've dealt with some amazing assholes and some truly odd personalities and as stressful as it is, I like that part of it. I like explaining the situation to them in layman's terms, and getting a kick out of teaching them about the absurdity of the legal system. It's fun to hear people say "You're kidding? Law is really that convoluted?" Yes, yes it is.

I'm sure some lawyers would consider document review or dry-as-dirt research using their skills. Hell, some might enjoy that stuff. I wouldn't recommend having drinks or dinner with these people.

Dr. Rob: In your book you talk about your former coping mechanisms. How do you deal with your boredom/routine involved in your job now? How successful are you at it and do you believe it's a healthy way to go about things?

PL: The trick, and I know a lot of people disagree because they think it's unrealistic, is to find a job doing what you want to do. Then you won't be bored. I like practicing the way I do now and I like writing. When you want to do something, suddenly it's not work anymore. But I understand not everybody can put themselves in such a position. We have bills to pay, commitments, etc... Well, if that's your position, I'd say find some element of the job you enjoy and try to specialize in it.

I was detaching from my wife a couple years ago. I'd come home and run straight to the gym, work out until I was winded, come home, pour a glass of vodka and shut down. I'd ignore her. That wasn't very good coping. I needed a hobby. So I started writing. I wound up getting paid for it, and decided to follow this "strange torpedo" all the way to the end. You want a cure for routine? Reinvent yourself every couple years. It's hell on the innards, but you won't run out of shit to talk about at parties.

PL: Is there any human alive wired to write ten or more hours of his day down on a time sheet in six minute increments every day? I've heard people say flex time or working from home is the answer to burnout from routine, or that we should adopt the German four day work-week. Some say we should get sabbaticals, be able to take off a month every other year in addition to vacation. How would you approach the problem?

Dr. Rob: The four-day work week has a lot of advantages: research has shown it to be related to increased job satisfaction and an enhanced quality of family relationships. I personally adopt this schedule for about 50% of the year and I think it's a contributor to what I consider high job satisfaction. I also use flex time and have been pleased with it. Studies have shown this to be related to decreased absenteeism and turnover. Sabbaticals sound great in theory, but for certain professionals it is simply not feasible. I couldn't leave many of my clients for one month, and the nature of our relationship often precludes having a "substitute therapist."

Dr. Rob: Would extended time away from the legal field have a negative influence on your clients' well-being?

PL: Perhaps on the deal side. But a large portion of litigation is dressed-up commoditized work, at least until you get into depositions and trial. A lawyer could easily take a month off every year if he wanted to. Lawyers' egos being what they are, a lot would disagree - argue that only they can bring their unique skill set and abilities to a case. For any of those sorts reading this piece, shhhh. I'm trying to help you here. Even if you don't realize it.

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