How Did Lawyers Get So Wimpy? (Part 2)


This piece from BL1Y, a frequent Bitter Lawyer commenter and contributor, is a continuation of a series we kicked of last week with Part 1: “Are Lawyers Wimps.” Reunited is our roundtable of experts—and friends of Bitter Lawyer—to help him dig to the bottom of what makes lawyers so damn wimpy. Here’s what BL1Y, PhilaLawyer and Dr. Rob came up with.

BL1Y:  While law school is, without a doubt, a magnet for those “too dumb for medicine—too ugly for sales,” in this context, it’s also a catchall for those too gutless for anything artistic, creative or entrepreneurial.  Meanwhile, there are also tons of people who go to law school with a genuine interest in being a lawyer (or at least what they think a lawyer is).

I definitely went to law school because I majored in philosophy and English and had no idea what else to do.  But a lot of wimpy lawyers actually wanted to be lawyers from the start.

No matter the motivation, something happens in law school that alters our psyche.  People who were extremely outgoing and cocksure in undergrad are terrified of everyone at the end of three years: partners, mid-level associates, secretaries, the mail guy.  While I can beeline right over to the hottest girl in a club and start a conversation without a clue what I’m going to say (and more often than not, get blown out pretty quickly), I’ll still read over a casual e-mail to a partner a dozen or more times for fear of having a minor typo.

Many think it’s the shock of going from being one of the smartest people around to being “average” in a pool of overachievers, but that doesn’t exactly explain it.  Law students weren’t impervious to other smart people before.  They were in honors programs and hung around other smarty-pants.  There’s something else that changes intelligent, ordinary people into scared little wussies.  But what?  That’s what I’m trying to find out.

First, another introduction of our panelists:

• BL1Y is an attorney laid off after a little more than a year working in BigLaw and is now author of the blog BL1Y.com.  Opinionated and measurably smart (but not intelligent in any gainful way), he has engaged in some pretty wimpy behavior.

• Philadelphia Lawyer (hereinafter PL) is a veteran litigator in Philadelphia and author of Happy Hour Is for Amateurs and the hilarious blog PhilaLawyer.net.

• Dr. Rob Dobrenski (hereinafter Dr. Rob) is psychologist, has been in private practice in New York since 2002, and is author of the blog ShrinkTalk.net.  Basically, he’s the Dr. Phil for people with an IQ above room temperature.

• PL and Dr. Rob are co-hosting a new internet radio show called “Here’s What to Think,” that airs Wednesdays at 8:00 PM (Eastern) available on Blog Talk Radio.

PART 2: HOW DID LAWYERS GET SO WIMPY?

PL:  Simple.  Law teaches you to look for danger at every corner, trust and believe in nothing.  That creates fear.  Also, the majority of lawyers who’ll criticize your work are the angry, anti-social, insecure types.  They view most gregarious social behavior as frivolous, as they’ve always felt awkward attempting it, and attempting it involves a risk and requires the ability to be self-deprecating, skill sets in which many of them are natively lacking.  Their interest in every social interaction is to appear the smartest, most contemplative person in the room.  And they craft associates in that image.

This goes to the heart of the old adage you’ve probably heard many times before: “Smart lawyers don’t make their money in the practice of law, but by learning to do deals and jumping to the business side.”

Lawyers aren’t taught to take risk, and if you don’t take risk, you can’t make real money.  Why do lawyers openly envy their peers who jump into non-legal businesses?  It’s not just the usual money difference, but the fact that the man who’ll take the jump has demonstrated he can deal with risk.  He’s got more balls than the lifers who remain trapped by the neuroses they’ve acquired in the profession.  They know that, and it bothers them.

Dr. Rob:  If PL’s first statement is true, that creates a colossal problem.  Society functions with what’s known as the “Truth Bias,” meaning we need to generally believe what we are told is true.  It serves an evolutionary purpose; it’s the basis for real communication and societal progress.  If we reject what most others say as false, communities essentially crumble.  So thanks for fucking up society.

Shrinks have a similar phenomenon regarding money and risk.  You’ll hear psychologists who take salaried positions complain incessantly about their poor income.  To do well in this field, you essentially need to move into private practice and form your own small business.  This involves risk—especially since mental health professionals are taught little to nothing about the interface of business and practice.  This is because we are taught by academics, most of who have no clue about “real-world psychology.” But if you stand pat in your first job or simply go from one staff position to another, you never really improve your financial status.  Psychology isn’t the biggest moneymaker out there to begin with, but the especially fearful, neurotic shrinks are definitely the poorest.

BL1Y:  In high school you have tests and quizzes all the time.  You get tons of grades and feedback from your teachers, and this creates a certain level of confidence.  Even if you’re not particularly smart, you’re aware of what you know and what you don’t know.

In college, this is scaled back a bit, but not terribly much.  Some classes only have a midterm and exam, but a lot have many more chances for feedback, especially things like foreign languages and creative writing.  In my deductive logic class, students could attempt proofs, plug them into the Logic Daemon and get an immediate answer, including details about any mistakes they made.

Law school is at the extreme far end of the spectrum.  Most classes have only one exam, and the only feedback students get is a single letter with no explanation.  You get a ton of feedback from the professor when called on in a Socratic Method class, though it’s generally negative—even if you’re giving the right answers, and that typically lasts only a fraction of a single class.  After that, you just float aimlessly to exam day.

What do you guys think?  Would this explain why so many very smart people end up entering legal practice with little or no confidence?

Dr. Rob:  Tell you the truth, I’d think the opposite.  If law students go into the program with confidence riding high, believing they are the cream of the crop (and I don’t know this to be true for sure because I didn’t take that path to true misery), then the lack of feedback and grades would, I think, enhance students’ reasons to see themselves in that light.  There’s no contradictory evidence until grades come out.  They get a full 15 weeks to bask in the false glow of greatness, assuming they are keeping up with their work at a reasonable pace.

BL1Y:  I think maybe I didn’t quite explain what I meant correctly.  By confidence, I didn’t mean thinking you’re good, but instead I meant being sure of your skill level.  There’s probably a word for this, but I don’t know what it is.  So, for instance, I’m not particularly strong, but I’m extremely confident in my strength.  If you ask me to carry a 50 lb. weight up a flight of stairs, I know I can do it because I lived in a fourth-floor walkup for two years and carried luggage up and down it several times.  If you asked me to carry a 250 lb. weight up a flight of stairs, I know I’d fail.

I do agree though that a lack of feedback can create some sort of delusion of intellectual grandeur, but I think many of these types of students may still be very afraid of being tested on their skills because they have no real idea what the result will be.

PL:  Skill?  What young associate has real skill?  They have analytical skill, yes.  The ability to give technically proficient responses, of course.  But that’s robot work.  Christ, the biggest problem with law in general is that it’s filled with people who are chock full of well-executed motion, yet utter shit in terms of forward progression…

“Hey, can you tell me how we can carve around this problem?”

“No.  But I can issue-spot five more potential problems that’ll likely never occur but will allow me to use general knowledge generally to look smart.”

Your point about associates being afraid of being tested on their skills is an excellent one.  Law school does kids a disservice by teaching theory.  In reality, court is to moot court as Naugahyde is to an Hermes saddle, and “success” is defined as much by how you sell and spin results to clients as what actually happened.  Those are business, rather than academic, skills.

Solution?  Fire the tenured bow ties and leave adjuncts who’ve actually run practices to teach the kids.  School them in becoming practicing lawyers.

Hell, that could be a mission statement for all of higher education.  We need an update on George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote about teaching and doing.  Something along the lines of, “Those who haven’t can’t teach either.”

Dr. Rob:  A lot of academic shrinks have little to no knowledge of practicing, ‘real-world psychology.’ In graduate school, you learn nothing about running a practice, negotiating fees, dealing with insurance companies or even how to prepare an invoice.  I know that most people could figure that last one out on their own, but I’m trying to make a point here, and said point is as follows: I agree with PhilaLawyer.

And what the fuck is an Hermes saddle?

BL1Y:  I think you might be undervaluing the ability to give a technically proficient response.  Junior associates are rarely asked to tackle an entire client matter on their own, and are assigned smaller tasks instead.  It takes a lot of training and practice to do efficient research, to know you’ve actually completed your research, and to draft a well-written intra-office memo in a timely manner.  If law students graduated with the competence to write a passable memo on their first attempt, it’d be a huge step up.

But, even the people who do graduate with the smarts to do competent work are pretty unaware of their skill level.  Not counting summer work, your average law students writes maybe one memo and one brief during his/her three years of law school, and he/she will get shit for feedback and never really learned if is was a good job and how to improve.

And I’d like to echo Rob’s question, what the fuck is a Hermes saddle?

PL:  Hermes started out making saddles.  Their saddles are handcrafted, super-expensive things few people ever buy.  That analogy pops into my head every now and again when I run into an “Hermes tie” guy (someone who wears their high end print ties to telecast he can afford them, which I used to do it myself, and it’s pretty obvious… though most of mine are gifts).  Anyhoo… Fuck, I hate a merlot hangover… How does my wife drink that shit?  Where was I?  Oh, technical proficiency, right…

My point wasn’t that a junior anything should be able tackle a whole project on his own.  It’s that he simply ought to understand a case or deal in full, even when just starting out.  School teaches lawyers to tackle things in compartments, and this training narrows, rather than opens, the mind.

They think, “Oh, I’d better get every imaginable cite on the issue, search the Congressional record and submit the densest piece of research, and that’s all.” There’s no thought about considering the broader elements of the case and taking a bit of initiative in figuring out which issue is most important and subtly focusing on that.  Instead, the emphasis is merely “answering the exact question asked.” Few would, say, see the tax ramifications of debt workout on the horizon.  They’d just get the matter settled and leave that to someone else, when it might be too late.  (I almost learned this the hard way myself.)

I guess that’s all fine if it’s a “bet company case” involving some monstrous Fortune 100 outfit who doesn’t notice the bill, but in any situation where one has to provide value, this sort of rote behavior caused me—the older associate the client thinks is honest—to get a phone call about the bill.  Yeah, I got them—because the partner would avoid them.  “Twelve hours to answer a motion to compel?!!  Four hours of research on discovery rules???  Who is this kid running the meter?”

I needn’t get into how this fucks up realization.  The kid hands in 2400 hours, and 700 have to be cut.  That fucks him in the end, and who’s he to blame?  Two crowds of people: First, the clowns who told him to go to law school right out of college, before he had a chance to work and understand how businesses operate, which would have given him a more businesslike, or value-oriented, rather than lawyerly, approach to his work.  Second, the professors who schooled him to think academically and failed to teach him about things like realization.

All law’s mid-market now, as every client is demanding value.  It’ll be interesting as hell to see how the young associates cope with being asked for shorter, more efficient answers.  Hopefully, the trial-by-fire will make them better and three- or four-times faster.  Or perhaps colleges will start discouraging the naïve from tumbling out of Colgate with history degrees straight into law school.

BL1Y:  If I may be so bold as try to summarize PL’s point here: A lot of young lawyers are wimps because they not only lack the knowledge and skills to do their job, they don’t even fully understand what doing and/or what their job really entails.  I think that pretty much describes every single day I spent on the job.

So, what it looks like we have here, basically, is that law as a wimp minefield.  You can start as a wimp who ventures into law as a default-safe career, you can get beat down from the intense and adversarial environment of law schools and law firms and you can lose confidence in yourself from spending three years in a fog with no idea how well you’re doing.  Then, you can get out of the fog and realize you’re a young professional with few useful skills and little knowledge—and no clue how to apply either.

Before wrapping up this segment, Dr. Rob has a question he would like to pose to PL, LF10 and me.

Dr. Rob:  I recently got a bill from my lawyer for $225.  The invoice showed exactly what he did, in six-minute increments.  Most of the time involved listening to my voicemail, leaving me a voicemail, documenting that he both heard and left the aforementioned voicemails, looking for a pen, loading Microsoft Word onto his computer to create the invoice and then typing up the bill.  PL talks openly about the billable hour on his site, his book and on Bitter Lawyer, so I knew this was coming, but I’m pissed off nonetheless.

So, at the risk of failing out of anger management, I have a question for the three of you: My lawyer is a dick and is overcharging me, but at least I know his name (thereby allowing me the chance to go to his house and break his knees with a brick, if I so choose).  You three are sitting here bashing your colleagues for being wimps, yet you do it behind a curtain. How do you reconcile this? Put another way, where do you get the balls/ovaries to engage in this hypocrisy?

Continued in our third and final segment, where we will discuss what might be done to either prevent wimps from being created or to rehabilitate the lawyers who have become wimps. PL already tossed up one suggestion of actually teaching law students to be competent attorneys, but good luck ever getting that to happen. Until next time, please, please remember: Don’t combine alcohol and analogies. And read Part 1 of this series: “Are Lawyers Wimps?”

Read more from BL1Y.

14 Comments

  1. Alma Federer

    April 27, 2010 at 3:49 am

    What qualifies these people to be “expert panelists”?  I, for one, am NOT a wimp, nor did I ever care about any career OTHER than law.  As a little girl, my father encouraged me to become a lawyer, because he said I was good at debating while keeping my cool.  In high school, I was voted best looking, but remained determined not to pursue a career where my looks mattered, and in college, I also stuck with Political Science, because I wanted to learn more about the legislative aspects of law.  So when I went to law school, I just culminated my education the way my dad wanted me to as a little girl.  Having taken this career route, I have never looked back.  I have a good job at a firm where most people respect me and my work.  Yes, occasionally I should be more vocal in combating discrimination by some co-workers who like to put me down, I recognize that I have to get along with everyone, even though some people are dorky.  I still do my best to maintain my good looks, and spend money to take care of myself, buying wearing nice clothing, and treating myself at Elizabeth Arden once a month.  That is NOT wimpy, and I still turn heads even as I am now OVER 30.  I will continue to pursue my legal career, and maybe even try for a job as an in-house general counsel in a few years, as I get a little more experience under my belt.  I also maintain my scrupules, and that is not wimpy either.

  2. Craig

    April 27, 2010 at 6:59 am

    There is some decent stuff in here, and in part 1, but it is kind of being forced.  Especially the wimp concept.  It was barely even brought up in this one save for BL1Y.  There is definitely some truth in a couple of things written here though.

  3. KateLaw

    April 27, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Enlightening!!!!!!!

  4. Huber

    April 27, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Is Alma, not being a wimp, willing to meet, greet and date men?  And if she is not a wimp, will she take the lead with sex with these men?

  5. Anon-

    April 27, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Maybe young lawyers are wimps because many young people these days are wimps. When I was growing up, I didn’t need constant feedback about my miniscule accomplishments to feel secure and confident. I didn’t need 1000 friends on Facebook, I didn’t need my parents to put 50 bumperstickers on the back of their car stating how “special” I was. I listened and learned from people more knowledgable than I so that when I embarked on a new adventure, I had the confidence that I was doing to right thing – regardless of what others were saying.

  6. BL1Y

    April 27, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Anon-: I think you raise an interesting point.  I haven’t really considered how social networking and the praise culture really factor into this, but I think both can lead to generally underdeveloped personalities, among which wimps are common.  I do want to say however that there is a big difference between needing praise and needing honest feedback.  When you operate without feedback you have very little knowledge of what your skill level is and whether you’re improving or getting worse.  Confidence without a legitimate reason to think you’re doing a good job is just delusion.  I’d go on, but I think you’ve all probably heard enough from me today.

  7. Anon2

    April 27, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    I think there is some truth to BL1Y’s point that the lack of feedback scares law students and the counter-point that the lack of feedback makes students think they are on top. Pessimistic (i.e. fearing) students tend to do better on law exams; and optimists tend to do poorly. Even if a pessimist does well on a law exam, he’ll probably still be terrified as law school continues. An optimist who thinks he’s doing well the first term that gets bad grades will have the fear put in him.  As a result everyone winds up terrified.

  8. Guano Dubango

    April 27, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    I renew my offer to date Alma.  I think she is feisty and could be a tigress in the bedroom.

  9. Prom Queen

    April 27, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Hermes still makes saddles and bridles and they are the most wonderful things EVER.
    I can’t afford one… but I can’t afford a Hermes purse either.

  10. Alma's Penis

    April 28, 2010 at 5:15 am

    Why do lawyers think they are uniquely persecuted?  Everyone is terrified as a new hire in a new field.  What differentiates lawyers from everyone else is how a lot of them respond to the fear.  They internalize and get paranoid where a normal person would get comfortable over time and shrug it off.  Get a set of fucking balls and tell the boss what’s what. Guess what? In almost every case, he will back down and respect the person who stood up for himself.  Once a person gets past that, the fear goes away.  Why don’t lawyers realize that’s the process in every office, everywhere? Whining or taking abuse in silence equals bitch, and once a department bitch, always one.

  11. Craig

    April 28, 2010 at 6:37 am

    Alma’s Penis.  There is no difference.  Just like any other office environment, some people are more out spoken and confident than others.  To claim lawyers are wimps, in the sense they are afraid to speak up and make their presence felt, is completely misguided.  It is actually the exact opposite.  People hate lawyers because they are loud and obnoxious.  Maybe the wimp concept can be more aptly applied to law students.  And the wimps are usually weeded out in short order and don’t cut it as lawyers.

  12. Meh

    April 28, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    Alright piece.
    PL: Fix your grammar with the “your” instead of “you’re” and “their” instead of “they’re.” I think you’re slacking a bit since you have spent more time doing crummy radio sessions instead of writing great pieces to your site.
    - PL Fan

  13. Guano Dubango

    April 29, 2010 at 3:11 am

    Alma’s Penis:  I have first claim to be Alma’s Penis.  Please respect that I will be first, if Alma wants a penis.

  14. Roy Batty

    May 8, 2010 at 11:32 am

    It’s a terrible thing to live in fear.  That’s what it is to be a slave.

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