There is a young adult in my life who, as he breezed through his teenage years, could not understand the stress that I experienced as I managed a busy legal career and all of the other aspects of ‘adulting’ that each of us grown-up people have to deal with. When, in my stressed-out state, I used to remark critically upon his somewhat laissez-faire attitude on topics such as attending class, cleaning up after himself, mowing the lawn, or shoveling the driveway, he would just look at me and wanting to help, he would sincerely say, “you should learn to be chill like me, Mur.” Of course, that made my blood boil.
As his adult life gets more complicated, he is beginning to figure things out and it is not unusual for him to complain about the stresses in his life and expect some sympathy from me about how hard it is for young people nowadays. (Of course, instead of giving him any sympathy, the now retired and more relaxed Murray just says, “You should learn to be chill like me, bro.”)
Which brings me to my topic. I have always been absolutely amazed at the inability of some people to understand things before they have personally experienced them.
I once had a partner who was single without children and who showed absolutely no empathy when an associate had to rush home to take care of a sick child. He tried to bully her into abandoning her child and doing a research memo instead. When he subsequently got married and had twins, I just laughed and laughed while I imagined him becoming less of an asshole as he experienced real adult life first-hand.
Then there was the time that I had a partner who went though a difficult divorce. Her billings suffered for quite some time. At one point another partner pronounced that the divorced partner had taken quite enough time to recover from the failure of her marriage and it was time for her to start putting in the hours again or face the consequences.
And so it goes in law firms. There is often not a great deal of empathy going around. For whatever reason, when the storms of personal life hit lawyers, law firms are not much of a place to seek refuge.
I once had a partner named Ray who liked to say that the rising tide lifts all boats, by which he meant that each partner should focus on the common good instead of promoting their own self-interest. Of course, Ray was right. That would be an intelligent way to run a law firm. But it would require lawyers to put aside their egos, make sacrifices for the common good and on occasion earn less money in the short-term. In my experience, law firms are not built that way.
If I am right, each lawyer has two options. The first is to strive to build a more supportive law firm culture, and take any short-term financial hits required to do so. The second is to put competitiveness before empathy and play to win at all costs. I am betting that most partners will take door number two.