tuesday, 23 february of 2016

Care from lawyers turned therapists

When work became too much for Will Meyerhofer’s client, a twenty-something associate at a big law firm, she slipped into a quiet room in the office. Then she shut the door, pulled down the blinds and started to weep. Through her tears she became dimly aware of a noise coming through the wall: it was a colleague sobbing in the next room.

Mr Meyerhofer tells this story to underline the misery that lurks beneath the successful façade of some lawyers. “There is something unique about the law partnership structure, billable hours and the brutal competition of a law firm,” he says.

Based in Tribeca, New York, the former lawyer is a psychotherapist who has carved out a niche seeing clients from the legal profession; some who he counsels over Skype are in Britain, Japan and India. There is a steady stream of anxious, burnt out and depressed lawyers coming to see him, he says. While the banking sector has attracted attention for its punishing work conditions, he argues that lawyers can have it worse. In banking, there is an expectation that working life can improve as bankers scale the greasy pole, but this is not the case for lawyers.

“You’re the equivalent of a banking analyst for all your life. It’s brutal, it follows you home.” This familiarity with legal roles and culture means he is empathetic to lawyers. In therapy sessions with clients, some tyrannical bosses’ names keep coming up.

Chicago-based Alan Levin is a co-founder of a practice of lawyers turned therapists who cater to the legal profession. He says that while it is clearly not a pre-requisite to have been a lawyer to understand one, it certainly helps. “A client can refer to something in their experience and they don’t need to explain it,” Mr Levin says.

The former employment lawyer says that there can be a divide between the corporate and caring professions. A therapist without a corporate background might suggest a client could decline to work on a Saturday. “They don’t understand how impossible it can sometimes feel to turn down work.”

Mr Meyerhofer, who attended Harvard and New York University School of Law before going to work at Sullivan & Cromwell, in its securities and capital markets divisions, says he did not fit in.

“I hated it. I wasn’t cut out to be a corporate lawyer. It was very competitive, long hours, doing detailed work.” In the end, he was “delicately shown the door”.

Today, he looks back and realises he was depressed and anxious. As well as becoming an insomniac, he gained 45lbs as a result of his legal stint. After retraining as a psychotherapist and writing blogs on the emotional fallout of working in the legal profession, he discovered former colleagues who had always seemed happy confessing to anxiety and self-doubt. “I didn’t realise so many colleagues were so miserable.”

As a therapist, Mr Meyerhofer encounters many clients who, he believes, are subconsciously sabotaging their careers: for example, by talking back to their boss in the hope that they might be paid off. He asks clients: if you were fired tomorrow how would you feel? Relief is a common response.

Some of his female clients express frustration about being sidelined, sexually harassed and given the office “housework”, such as looking after junior colleagues.

Therapists’ clients are a self-selecting group. They are in therapy because they want help. In any case, not all of Mr Meyerhofer’s lawyer clients feel miserable about work. “Some love law,” he says. Nor would he always advise those feeling trapped by their job to hand in their notice. Tweaks to their role, or a sideways move, might be better.

A common problem Mr Levin, 68, sees among his lawyer clients is what he labels the “curse of unlimited potential”. These are people who have been told they are bright and feel they must live up to their potential. “The curse is it’s unlimited and it can never be fulfilled.”

A former partner at a “magic circle” firm in the City, who is retraining as a psychoanalyst at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, says lawyers can become divorced from their emotions. “On the one hand you have everything and feel nothing.” In the end, she felt the job was inessential yet “vastly overpaid”.

Anxiety can run high on the topic of compensation, particularly when it comes to bonuses, says Mr Levin. “It’s not about the money,” he insists. “Most would feel better if they were earning half a million dollars and everyone around them earned the same or less, than if they had $1m and everyone else was on $1.6m.”

The money, he says, is about validation, particularly important in a

workplace where few people receive thanks from clients, colleagues or their superiors.

Money and prestige become a trap, observes Mr Meyerhofer. A well-paid senior lawyer frequently expresses anxiety that if she left her job she would be out on the street. Such catastrophising, he says, is far from atypical.

Sarah Weinstein is based in California and has been a psychotherapist for more than a year, after working as a lawyer for 12 years. The 44-year-old says her clients appreciate the chance to let their guard down. “Lawyers pretend they are fine all the time.” Putting on a confident exterior can be exhausting.

Today, Mr Meyerhofer has mixed feelings about going to law school. “I spent a huge amount of money on law school and got depressed. But I have developed a practice out of it.” While having lawyers as clients is more lucrative than janitors, he says he earns the same now as he did when he was a junior lawyer.

He is critical of law schools, which he sees as “big cash cows”, believing too many students are admitted who are ill-equipped to become lawyers.

He advises many law student clients to quit. “A lot of kids are so unhappy.”

On occasion, a client will tell Mr Meyerhofer that he is a fraud, whiner or loser: that he is only a therapist because he could not make it in law. He freely admits he was not a great lawyer: “I’m not a complete blithering idiot . . . I didn’t want to do it.” Moreover, he says, his job allows him weekends off and evenings to himself.

(Published by Financial Times - February 4, 2016)

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