T.S. Eliot must have attended a few school reunions of his own when he wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I just returned from my law school 40-year reunion. I saw my old school for the first time through the eyes of a man who now grasps the significance of my three years there, but also saw for the first time the reasons for how I experienced law school and the four decades of law practice that followed.
Over the years, law school announcements follow you across your various new office or home addresses. Invariably, they include a direct appeal for money and present a showcase of successes by alumni. With all those smiling faces moving into top positions in government and private practice, I wondered how many of them were struggling like me to learn the craft and build a business. I felt I was on the margins, a creature of hiding and shame, just getting by in comparison. It was a surreal experience to see an announcement of promotion, completed deal, or court victory by someone not even born until ten years after I became a lawyer.
But the shame was mostly self-imposed. Comparison is a deadly practice that poisons a balanced view. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that a law school will not show the dark underbelly of the alcoholism, the drug addiction, the divorces, the lost cases, the bankruptcies, and depression that especially afflict lawyers. After 40 years of stressful deadlines, demanding clients, and combative opponents I still managed to win a few, had my health and could claim a few friends, and a close intimate relationship. Maybe I wasn’t a star, but I had survived 40 years dodging a wrecking ball and even had some golden moments of my own.
Law is punishing work. It is unforgiving, high stakes, and extremely competitive. Add to that nasty cocktail that lawyers by disposition focus on “getting it right” to earn the rewards of social approval. That’s great, except it doesn’t work over the long term. It doesn’t work over 40 years. It may not even work for four years. High blood pressure, lack of exercise, poor diet, and burnout can quickly turn a middle-aged man into a critical care patient. Big law firms especially demand long working days that turn into weeks and months of relentless hours. Family meals, family events, time with the kids, getting away from it all with your spouse — these good intentions collect in the wastebasket of forever lost memories.
The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation 2016 report chronicles the casualties. Of responses by 12,825 lawyers across 19 states, the results indicated that about 28 percent struggle with depression, 19 percent admitted to disabling anxiety. But of the 12,825 replies, 75 percent skipped the questions about drug use entirely. Lawyers are likely afraid to admit their dependency for fear of losing clients and possibly their licenses. That secrecy only makes matters worse as they hold to the illusion they are still in control. After all, lawyers are “take charge” personalities. They are loath to admit they’re addicts in need of a 12 step program and rehab.
According to Seattle-based psychologist Andy Benjamin, J.D., Ph.D. law schools twist personalities into status driven, often hostile adversaries who develop analytical skills and suffer from atrophied emotions. The artistic or playful sides of law students are shrunken and disfigured by the experience. Professional work after law school reinforces the dehumanizing process. The desire to serve the public good is overwhelmed by the dangling carrot of prestige and big money. The good news is that the student population is getting smart, and law school applications are dropping as students realize the high tuition does not 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 binges catch up with them. The “production at all costs” mentality of big firms can cause his colleagues to ignore the red flags as long as the addict keeps hitting his billable hour quota.
My law school reunion included a slide show on a large overhead screen. One slide listed as “In Memoriam” at least 40 dead classmates. When my eye caught the slide during the few seconds it was displayed, I was shocked at the numbers, about 1 out of 7 of our total class population. Most of us are in our mid-sixties. As I looked around, I saw the bent backs, rounded shoulders, the deep creases around the eyes and cheeks, the overweight or underweight physiques, the balding or gray hair, and most telling, the awkward effort to connect to a time and place we left behind so long ago.
And so, I saw myself and the law school of my past as if for the first time 40 years later. I saw that I had been hoodwinked 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 was to survive another ten, it would be because I continued to unlearn the dehumanizing habits of law school and law practice. It would be because I awoke from the hypnotic trance of social status and money to claim the real significance of being a lawyer: to serve the cause of justice and the social good. Corporations don’t meet stockholder expectations with abstract ideals, nor do they pay lawyers to pursue such goals. There will always be personalities ready and able to advance shareholder value. But many great lawyers could make a living defining their law practices for themselves if only they had the courage and imagination.