Nov 26

Peer support comes in many forms, and one of them is on a professional/career level.  Those lawyers who work in law firms have a kind of built-in professional support – if they’re stuck on a case, out of action because of a medical problem, falling down on the job, etc. – there are partners/associates around to notice and to fill in.  Those in solo practice have no such back-up unless they find it on their own, and it’s generally a really good idea for them to “buddy up” with one or more colleagues.

Some of the potentially useful functions of your buddy (and of course, these functions are mutual and flow in both directions) are:  ▪ someone with whom to brainstorm around business and career challenges;  ▪ someone to offer an additional perspective on cases or tasks that present you with a sense of uncertainty; ▪ someone to take over for you in the event of illness or even death (see BBO article on this topic); ▪ someone to hold you accountable for following up on goals for improving your practice.

This last function for a buddy arises in LCL’s Solo Practitioners Group, for which we are about to have the last of six sessions on the subject of “Getting Things Done.”  [We do plan another 6-session round of groups in the near future, probably on a different but related set of issues facing solo practitioners, and will likely return to getting-things-done at a later point; if interested, email me at DrJeff@LCLMA.org.]

Jeff Fortgang, PhD

Nov 20

NO LONGER A “HAVE-NOT”
Halfway through my final year of law school I stumbled into the Milk Street office of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (“LCL”). I had been mysteriously tumbling down some slippery slope to the bottom. Bruised and battered and homeless after an alcohol-emblazoned domestic violence skirmish, I sat, hands folded neatly in my lap, explaining my crisis to the LCL counselor, Barbara Bowe: I had just awakened “the morning after” with no job, no home, no law degree, no way to finance my legal education, and absolutely zero dignity.
“My chief problem is that I am a HAVE NOT!” I wailed. “ALL of the other law students have family fortunes, or spousal incomes to get them through. MY family couldn’t contribute a dime – NOT A DIME! I SAY – towards my law degree.” Bewailing the fall from the heights of my professional aspirations, I cradled my heavy aching head in my hands and spewed it all out: the struggle to attend college sans parental involvement, the double dose of LSATs, and my crushing Chapter 7 filing. I looked through the ceiling and declared, “The only thing I ever wanted in my life was to be a lawyer!” What I didn’t realize in my haze of self-pity was that last night’s binge might be an itty bitty clue in understanding this avalanche of failure. Inexplicably, but for denial, I was perfectly poised to die a lonely alcoholic death.
Alcoholism and addiction do not discriminate between the illiterate and the post doc. Somewhere between the two, I managed throughout law school to avoid the ER, the detox, the sexual assault office, and jail, and clawed my way along the muddy bottom – until 8 months after that first fateful day at Barbara’s office, and 2 months after I sat for the Bar – when I finally surrendered to the AA program. A progressive 13-year drinking career, combined with law school stress resulted in my hitting the bottom hard, and I realized that I would never be the “one thing I ever wanted to be” unless I started taking care of my brain, my body, and my behavior.
A founding member of LCL introduced himself to me at the first AA meeting I attended. I was moved by his honesty, humility and 30-plus years of sobriety. Suddenly I realized I was not alone. That changed everything! Not that I hadn’t TRIED it before. But, being a rebel from an arch conservative Christian home, I found the whole mention of “God” in the halls of AA to be profoundly annoying. Among my thoughts towards the program was, “They PRAY?! Still just a drunk, but this time, being unequivocally broken, I was willing to try anything. That budding willingness eventually blossomed into FAITH.
Slogging through my first few months of sobriety with the patient guidance of my AA sponsor, I began to recover. A slow and testy immersion into the wash of AA’s 12 Steps brought something akin to relief, including relief from my incessant hollow cry of “not enough.” For the first 32 years of my life I had tried with insane determination to fill that hollow with a future professional identity as lawyer. Lo and behold! The only thing I ever really had was ME. And the only thing I could really change was ME. Attending meetings, working the steps with a sponsor, and fostering supportive relationships with other alcoholics gave me the courage to engage this process. Putting down the bottle and cutting up the credit cards was the first step towards understanding and accepting my emotional needs, which helped me to then begin to discover a truer and more authentic self.
My first year of sobriety was like dawn in the middle of mountains I had driven into at night, unable to see how big they were! I discovered that underneath all my bluffing and lawyerly bravado was a frightening inability to accept certain emotional and practical realities about myself and my life, among them, that earning a regular paycheck is a necessary step in providing for myself. Waking up from that 12-year emotional hangover exposed what appeared to be insurmountable professional obstacles. “Life on life’s terms” had dictated that I graduate law school during the worst employment crisis for new lawyers. I found I myself just another bozo on the student loan crisis bus, buried by fear and financial insecurity, with a student loan debt of $175K and a first year Associate position that paid about $12.00 an hour (before taxes).
LCL has helped me to address work challenges. Barbara connected me to the LOMAP program and Jarred Correia. DING, DING, DING went the bells in my heart! With LOMAP’s help and counsel, I have learned that I can propel myself into a legal practice without flying under someone’s overbearing or exploitive wing. LOMAP offers, in addition to much practical information, a most valuable (to me!) emphasis on self-esteem and personal confidence. Since working with LOMAP, I have tapped into the temporary contract market for new lawyers and am earning reasonable compensation while developing the greatest resource available to new lawyers – a professional network.
Making it as a lawyer in today’s climate requires much more than a J.D. and a license to practice. It demands consistency of purpose, patience, sacrifice, humility, and the ability to dodge disillusionment. I strive toward these objectives through a fellowship with other alcoholic lawyers, and by asking for help -A LOT! I am, of course, still committed to the one thing I always wanted to be, a lawyer.
Despite my missteps, LOMAP has given me the confidence to try. I embrace the process of professional development, and welcome the autonomy and personal responsibility it requires. Happily, Sobriety, and acceptance of my need and desire for healthy, supportive relationships enables me to understand that my life today is much more than just being a lawyer. It is, most importantly, the FAITH that I am not alone as I traverse the peaks and valleys of life “on life’s terms” as it stretches out before me, before all of us.

Nov 19

Naturally, we believe that psychologists and other therapists are key resources for lawyers who are having problems with mood or behavior, but in their new book, Psychology for Lawyers: Understanding the Human Factors in negotiation, Litigation, and Decision Making, psychologists Jennifer Robbennolt (of Universerity of Illinois College of Law) and Jean Sternlight (University of Nevada Boyd School of Law) make a case that “lawyers should not simply rely on received wisdom or experience, but think about how the findings of psychological research might have implications for how they go about their work.”  In an interview for the November issues of Monitor on Psychology, Robbennolt notes that psychological findings such as those reviewed in the book can offer tips, for example, on how to handle cases better by identifying and assessing clients’ emotions and how to help witnesses provide effective narratives.  Lawyering, after all, involves much more than accomplishing tasks; a key aspect of the work is managing relationships.

Jeff Fortgang, PhD

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