I’ve started to become a student of positive psychology. I talk to scores of people every day as I’m one of the few attorneys who will talk to anyone about any Illinois legal matter. When you do that it can test your patience because many callers don’t want to hear the truth (e.g. me telling them why they don’t have a good case), but instead want to have someone tell them that they are definitely going to win. One thing I vowed when I started this service almost 15 years ago was that I’d always tell the truth. You may not like what I have to say, but you’ll always get a blunt, honest opinion.
Spending my day telling people the truth often leads to them telling me thank you. Some people on the other hand don’t like it and since we are usually talking over the phone instead of face to face, they use it as an opportunity to tell me that I’m an idiot and have no idea what I’m talking about. Others tell me that they’ll call around until they find a lawyer who will help them even if I let them know that if we took money from them we’d essentially be robbing them.
I used to be bothered by these people, but for the most part I’m over it. Yet there were times when I’d be defensive and if someone was yelling at me, I’d give it right back to them. That’s not who I strive to be and I’ve gotten better at remembering that these people for the most part want their lives to improve.
As I’ve started to study positive psychology, very basically of course, I stumbled upon a great book called The Happiness Advantage. It’s written by a Harvard professor, Shawn Anchor, who consults with companies to improve morale. He writes about how we can change negative attitudes and become happier in our own lives. One of the main principles is that we chase things that we think will make us happy like success and money when the reality is that being happy will lead to those things.
I see this a lot with some of the miserable lawyers that I come across. It’s stunning how many (usually older) men hate their jobs as lawyers and treat people, including their clients, like jerks. Can you imagine having someone write you a check for $5,000.00 and then basically tell them what a piece of crap they are? A lot of attorneys act that way and I’ve always sworn that I would never let myself get that way. So far, so good. I like my job and coming to work. Too many of these guys come off as if they are trapped because they either aren’t qualified to do anything else or just don’t want to give up the great paycheck which of course doesn’t make them happy.
In the book, Anchor notes that lawyers have 3.6 times the depression rate as other employees. I believe it. It’s basically a hazard of the job. And the reason it makes lawyers in to jerks in their professional lives is that we are trained to be combative and questioning. Many lawyers admit that they end up having trouble talking to their kids without deposing them. When they argue with their spouses it’s a cross examination. We are also trained to look for flaws and not be accepting of what someone else has to say. It’s part of what makes a great lawyer, but it also can turn them in to a terrible, unhappy person in their personal and professional life.
As a result of all of this, attorneys have a higher rate of drug use and alcoholism than the general public. We divorce at a higher rate too. On the flip side, we make more money than most people, but that doesn’t make lawyers happy.
So what happens is lawyers either retire early or leave the profession because they know it or they act miserable. If your attorney is acting like a jerk, you know why now, but I wouldn’t expect them to turn things around and start treating you well.
My .02 is that if you can’t take working with someone who doesn’t treat you like you deserve to be treated, look around to see if you can find someone better. In most cases you can switch attorneys without a penalty. You are the customer and while the reason lawyers end up acting this way is explainable, it doesn’t make it right.