Will Meyerhofer was your typical high-achieving Biglaw associate. He went to law school because he didn’t know what else to do with his Harvard English degree. He graduated from NYU Law in 1997 and went to work for Sullivan & Cromwell in New York.
“I did my part in destroying the nation’s economy,” he told us. After two years doing securities and M&A work — working for clients like AIG and Goldman — he decided to leave Biglaw, and become a psychotherapist. “Law fundamentally shaped me. It made me ask important questions that led me to therapy.”
He’s certainly not the first Biglaw attorney forced into therapy…
It wasn’t a huge leap for him. His mother and brother are social workers, and his dad was a therapist — he died when Meyerhofer was a teenager. His life insurance policy paid for law school, leaving Meyerhofer blessed with no law school debt, though “he would have preferred to have had Dad.” After a brief detour into business, working as a marketing executive at BarnesandNoble.com, he started taking classes in social work, getting his MSW from Hunter College in 2004.
Even at Sullivan & Cromwell, he had become an unofficial therapist. When working late on deals, colleagues would come into his office, close the door, and seek advice for stress, difficult relationships, and strained marriages. These days, his sessions are somewhat more formal. He has over 60 patients who come to individual and group sessions at his Financial District apartment, A Quiet Room. He has a sliding scale for payment, ranging from $10/hour for a 19-year-old to $200/hour for Wall Street types. “Therapy should be there when you need it, not when you can afford it,” he said.
He blogs about his work at The People’s Therapist, though he goes to great lengths to disguise the identities of his clients, obscuring details and switching their gender and sexual orientations.
Given his insight into the world of law and lawyers, we asked him to psychoanalyze you. Find out why lawyers are bad at therapy, why law firms are toxic environments, and why our comments section can be such a nasty place, after the jump.
After we interviewed Will about his transition from lawyer to psychotherapist, we followed up with some questions about the psychology of lawyers. Here’s our Q and A with The People’s Therapist:
ATL: During our interview, you said lawyers make for difficult clients. What are “lawyerly qualities” that make therapy difficult?
Lawyers are distrustful, which makes it very difficult to establish the “therapeutic join” that is necessary for effective psychotherapy. They have it drilled into them that they must be risk adverse – in other words, they must always be bracing themselves for attack, for something to go wrong, for someone to – for lack of a better word – screw them over. And lawyers are always blamed when something goes wrong. They are supposed to think of everything in advance, and be constantly vigilant for even the slightest risk. That’s antithetical to the psychotherapeutic set-up. In psychotherapy, you have to let down your guard and feel free to experiment with identity. It is key, in psychotherapy, that you explore feelings openly, which means saying everything – even things that seem crazy or scary or perhaps that you don’t really mean. I always encourage my patients to free themselves up and even get a little lost in themselves during our sessions. Sometimes you have to get lost in order to find your way to someplace new.
Years ago I had a lawyer as a patient who began her first session with me by grilling me about my licensing and qualifications. I admitted that, while I’d passed the CSW exam, they hadn’t mailed me the license yet to put on my wall. She immediately stopped the session. Back at her firm, she actually did research regarding whether our session, given that my license was probably in the mail, would be covered by professional privilege if I were subpoenaed. It was amazing. She just didn’t get it. I would sooner have sawed off my own arm than broken her trust or revealed anything that happened during her session. Psychotherapy is about love – you have to care. That’s fundamentally what my work is about – caring for another human being. But she didn’t trust me. She was a hard-boiled litigator from a top downtown white shoe firm. She didn’t trust anyone. How was I supposed to work with a patient like that – even with a hundred licenses hanging on my wall?
ATL: Hmmm. Sounds like the reasons we swore off dating lawyers.
You described law firms as toxic environments. Could you explain why that is?
At least in my experience, there is a marked absence of kindness in the law firm environment. People are competing – fine – I can see that in plenty of work environments. But there’s something more in the big firms. I think it derives from deprivation feelings. When a person feels deprived of what he needs, a famine mindset can form. Coming from a place of hunger, you grow mean, rapacious, grasping. You think only of yourself because you haven’t the sense of abundance that would permit you to reach out with a plenitude to share with others. Big law firms starve you of friends, of free time, of control over your own life and decisions, of praise and appreciation for who you are and what you do. Surviving in such an environment, living off scraps and crumbs, you lose your ability to project kindness to others. Instead you turn inward, and your hunger shows in small acts of cruelty that are contagious – and pernicious.
Maybe this is going a bit too far, but Primo Levi recounted a story from his time in Auschwitz, when the Nazis were denying the prisoners water during a hot summer. Levi found a pipe full of water in a demolished building, but, worried there might not be enough for both of them, he hid it from his best friend, another Jewish prisoner who was also Italian. When his friend spied Levi drinking alone, he asked him, amazed, “Primo, why didn’t you tell me?” Levi realized at that instant that the cruelty surrounding him had infected his soul. He had lost something precious – his generosity of spirit. That was one of the Nazis’ cruelest acts – to drain a man’s heart of its sense of abundance. If things are bad enough at a law firm – and it can get pretty bad when you’re feeling like no one likes you, no one respects you, no one appreciates anything you do – it can feel a bit like that.
ATL: My co-editors and I are always surprised by the nastiness we see in the anonymous comments at Above the Law: racism, misogyny, personal attacks, and of course, the ass lobster. Can you provide any insight into why lawyers and law students let loose with the venom there?
Lawyers are angry because they are treated badly – but they can’t complain about their treatment. When I tried complaining or advocating for myself at Sullivan & Cromwell, or even to my friends, I got the “well, what did you expect for over 100 grand a year” speech. People essentially told me to shut up – I’d chosen this, I’d sold out, I’d taken the money and now the firm owned my soul. Didn’t I know the big firms were Satan? What was I – retarded? That sort of thing.
When anger is bottled – when it has no permissible outlet – it either turns inward, dismantling the self-esteem apparatus and resulting in depression…or it “leaks” – turns into redirected anger, which tends to find its victims indiscriminately. Whoever happens to be nearby becomes the target, whether that’s your boyfriend, the guy working the counter at Starbucks…or Above the Law. That anger isn’t meant for you. You just caught a stray bullet.
ATL: We write a lot about the perks of working at these big law firms: six-figure salaries, generous bonuses, etc. As firms have cut back during the recession, we have seen a lot of anger from our lawyer readers. Are lawyers more prone to feelings of entitlement than other professions?
Well, yeah. I went to law school so I could have status and money. The status is a bit underwhelming, especially after a few months of working as a lowly underling receiving an endless stream of abuse from arrogant partners. So you focus on the money. I never got over watching young lawyers feed at the trough – literally. Law firms pile on the food. S&C had a separate lawyers’ dining room that would have made Caligula blush. I have one particular memory of a summer associate outing to a country club in Westchester where they put out an “ice cream sundae bar.” This was a massive table heaped with ice cream and chocolate fudge and sauces and candy and cookies and whipped cream and cakes and pies and…on and on. I mean, if it wasn’t bad enough that we’d already stuffed ourselves for an hour with unlimited steak and lobster – this was obscene. People were filling bowls and plates and going back for seconds and thirds. It was surreal. I snapped into awareness, suddenly, and froze. I couldn’t eat anymore. I was witnessing a raw hunger of the soul. Not the hunger of an empty stomach, but of an angry child who isn’t getting his needs met – his needs for love and affection and appreciation and attention.
During my final months at S&C I stopped eating. Instead of going for lunch, I hit the gym, and ate a roll and an apple in my office while I fed my spirit with a recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Every day, that was my routine. I lost 35 pounds and got into amazing shape. I also stopped going to the “lawyer’s dining room” for dinner and starting eating in the staff dining hall, with the word processors and paralegals. They were great guys, and I could relax around them. And they had normal food in there – it wasn’t all done up like a fancy hotel buffet. It was more like an office cafeteria. I needed that dose of reality.
ATL: What advice would you give lawyers to try to improve their mental health?
I’d tell them to maintain a “self boundary” – a sort of emotional insulation from the toxic environment of law firms. There is work, and there is you, and there is a firm boundary between the two. You can do what is asked of you, and tolerate some brutal treatment at the office, but that toxicity doesn’t enter your soul; it doesn’t get in where it shouldn’t be, where you dwell, with the child that you were, the vulnerable you that needs love and care and appreciation.
Don’t ever think that your “inner child” is just a lot of self-help psychobabble. One lawyer told me, years ago, that psychotherapy was “bullshit.” I corrected him. Psychotherapy is anti-bullshit. When you are in my office you are as real as you have ever been. I don’t fuck around when I do therapy and I don’t tolerate inauthenticity from my patients. It’s boring and it’s a waste of time. Authenticity means accepting that there’s a little kid in you who’s still there – and you can’t just ignore it when he’s hurting. You need to take that hurt to a safe place – like a therapist’s office – and put your thoughts and feelings – honest, no bullshit thoughts and feelings – into words. That way you can remain intact, and not let the poison destroy your sense of who you are.