Ed. note: This post is by Will Meyerhofer, a former Sullivan & Cromwell attorney turned psychotherapist. He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, and The Hunter College School of Social Work, and he blogs at The People’s Therapist. His new book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy, is available on Amazon.
I was chuckling with a client the other day about the insanity of trying to please a partner with a piece of written work.
The trick, she said – I’ve heard this before – is to adopt the voice of the partner. That’s what he wants – something that sounds like him. It doesn’t matter if your style is better than his. He wants to hear himself.
My client can imitate the writing styles of five partners. That includes whatever quirks – run-on sentences, rudeness, biting sarcasm, unnecessary adjectives, circuitous explanations – capture that partner’s unique gift. It’s a piece of cake: assemble substance, add ventriloquy, and voila! – a happy partner…
She learned this trick after receiving mark-ups. Her heart would sink as she combed the scribble for a critical error. But there was never anything there – only her failure to clone.
This is an example of a more generalized phenomenon – partners, as a group, tend to be arrogant and narcissistic. They harbor absurd notions about their own abilities and tend not to notice anyone else’s right to exist.
Nothing new. But it’s interesting to ask why.
Law firms are abattoirs of self-esteem. If you think you might be a good, useful, capable person, give yourself a few weeks in the world of biglaw and you’ll come to realize you have no ability whatsoever, are in way over your head and were a fool to consider you might succeed at anything.
That’s the special magic of a law firm.
You are also entirely alone. Everyone else is flourishing. They’re doing fine. It’s only you. You are the problem.
How do they achieve this feat of psychic disassembly?
For starters, nary a kind word.
If you put dozens of pleasers in the same room, everyone tries to please everyone else. No one acknowledges he’s pleased. That’s not what pleasers do.
Everyone can’t try to impress. Someone has to be impressed. That person would do the hard work of thanking and praising the others – “You’re doing a great job. I appreciate your effort.”
You’ll never hear that sort of piffle at a law firm. In a world where everyone is starved for praise, no one has time to waste feeding anyone else’s confidence.
Two defenses, arrogance and narcissism, permit lawyers to survive in this hostile environment.
The simplest defense against self-doubt is arrogance. Inside you’re scared, so you pump yourself up for others to see.
The simplest defense against isolation is narcissism. You’re afraid no one wants to be with you, so you tune them out.
Arrogance always appears a bit comical because it’s so obvious. If you’re terrified you might not have what it takes, you put on a false bravado, but it doesn’t fool anyone. And once you’ve taken the leap into arrogance, you’re stuck – you have to maintain it, or risk humiliation.
Narcissism is more insidious, and less amusing. If you’re not receiving anything you need from anyone else, you shut them out – put up a mirror – and stare at a world that looks like you.
Maybe you must be an arrogant narcissist to make partner. That would certainly explain some things.
The downside is that you end up an arrogant narcissist. The money’s good – but no one can stand you. You wind up correcting memos to sound like you wrote them. You don’t realize you’re doing it.
J.K. Rowling, in her Harry Potter series, presents a flawless portrait of a biglaw partner.