Don’t Let The Law Suck Out Your Soul

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If you’re a lawyer, I bet there’s been more than a time or two you’ve elicited eye rolls from nonlegal friends and family by dropping legal Latin into everyday conversation. We use it enough at work, it’s going to eventually slip into our social lives, right?

But how many of us can also recall a time where, without realizing quite what we were doing, we managed to turn a polite chat with a friend or spouse into a full-blown cross-examination and closing argument? How many of us have used the Socratic method to ruthlessly disassemble an acquaintance’s ill-considered opinion? How many of us have, without even trying, escalated a minor dispute into a world-shattering contest of wills?

Being a lawyer changes who you are in many ways –- for better and worse. When you do something 40-plus hours a week for a number of years, you’re going to probably keep doing it outside those 40-plus hours. As Carl Jung said, “We are what we do.” But because the practice of law is so inherently adversarial, it begs another adage, “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.”

The Jerk Store Called

Most attorneys spend their days engaged in one form of conflict or another. Transactional attorneys have to negotiate constantly, both with the other sides of deals and even within their clients’ own corporate structures, jockeying for resources or priority. Litigators literally dispute things for a living, all day every day, on paper and in front of judges and juries. We lawyers spend thousands of hours a year in advocate mode, pushing and prodding others to try to achieve our clients’ goals.

We build up tough shells and learn not to take arguments personally, because even when opposing counsel is accusing you of fraud, malpractice, and bad fashion sense, lawyers know it’s just business. We have to be able to take it as well as we plan to dish it out.

In short, the practice of law teaches us to be jerks. It conditions us to spend our days dealing with others in a sharp, rough-and-tumble, arm’s-length manner. By the time most of us had finished our fifth years as attorneys, we had over 10,000 hours of practice at being professional pains in the rear. If you believe Malcolm Gladwell, that was the point where we functionally mastered the art of being insufferable and argumentative. For those of us at the 20,000, 30,000, or 40,000 hour mark, it can be increasingly difficult to keep those instincts compartmentalized to the work day.

The problem is that, to a certain degree, being a jerk can be good for business. I’ve had countless potential clients tell me over the years that they want to hire a bulldog, a ruthlessly aggressive attorney who’s not afraid to step on toes if it gets them a good result. Attorneys who are willing to go scorched-earth in the name of pleasing their clients seem to earn a huge degree of loyalty from their clients (at least until the client gets the bill for all the unnecessary fights their attorney picked). And in fairness, it’s hard to be an effective lawyer without being willing to strategically take stances and actions that you know will anger your opponents. We can’t control how others react, so why not do what’s most effective for our side and not worry about feelings across the aisle?

Maybe this state of affairs is an expected byproduct of an adversarial legal system. Maybe it’s just how the legal culture has evolved in the competitive early twenty-first century landscape. But no matter how you slice it, the norms of the legal world are not normal, pro-social human behavior. The way lawyers interact with one another is not generally healthy for people that want to have warm social interactions. And it’s hard to spend your days arguing with and cajoling others without those instincts spilling over into other areas of life; areas where strident advocacy and sharp elbows are far less welcome.

Taking Off Your Advocate Hat

I’m not naïve enough to think the practice of law will change with an appeal to be nicer to one another. The world is trending ever more away from professional camaraderie and toward arm’s-length, one-off dealing. And sadly, being a jerk to opposing counsel is an effective enough client-management strategy that there will always be incentives pushing some in the profession in that direction.

What I do think we can focus on, though, is openly acknowledging that our work lives and social lives need to be subject to different rules and expectations. Being an effective lawyer may mean taking tough stances in the office, but we need to train ourselves and the oncoming generations that even if you have to sharpen your elbows at the office, you better soften them when you get home. Telling the attorney on the other side of a negotiation to take the deal or pound sand may be poor form; telling your spouse or family to do the same is interpersonal malpractice.

The Warren Buffett Approach

The practice of law doesn’t have to suck our souls out. It can and should make its practitioners better people, just like it did for us back in law school. The legal mindset is a tool, one that can be used for good or for ill. We can choose to use it well. It’s just that sometimes that means not using it at all. Keeping our lawyerly habits at the office for the sake of our loved ones should be part of our basic professional training.

One can measure success in dollars or trial victories, but perhaps we should consider the Warren Buffett approach to assessing success: How many people do you want to have love you, and how many of those actually love you? If you’re still in the market for a new year’s resolution, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better goal to work toward.

James Goodnow

James Goodnow is an attorney, commentator, and Above the Law columnist. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and is the managing partner of NLJ 250 firm Fennemore Craig. He is the co-author of Motivating Millennials, which hit number one on Amazon in the business management new release category. As a practitioner, he and his colleagues created a tech-based plaintiffs’ practice and business model. You can connect with James on Twitter (@JamesGoodnow) or by emailing him at

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