The Thoughtful Lawyer

Thoughtful. adj. 1. Absorbed in or involving thought. 2. Showing consideration for the needs of other people. 3. Showing careful consideration or attention.

“You think too much!” “Gosh, you’re always on. Do you ever turn off?”  “Have you tried relaxing?” Or my personal favorite while working through my umpteenth existential crisis for the year “I really don’t think it’s a big deal.”

First of all, yes it is.  To me.  Second of all, if I had a dollar for every time I’d been told one of those things, I could have paid for at least one credit at my exhorbitantly priced law school up front.

I accepted these lighthearted (ha!) comments as part of my life.  Something was clearly wrong with me.  But I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that.  I was special and this was just part of the package — “Flaws and All“.  I was a tortured soul, but there was as much bliss as distress.  Teetering between darkness and light I was creating something that almost looked like balance.

In hindsight I definitely should have learned to relax earlier in life. My “thoughtfulness” turned into full blown anxiety.  When I started having anxiety attacks about how I would fail (at life!) if I didn’t have my anxiety to motivate me I should have known something was not right.

I forgot that I hadn’t been particularly anxious as a child — although kind of shy and very careful.  I had been motivated by a thirst for knowledge and a clear sense of my own potential.  Twenty-twenty.

No one took the time to show me the distinctions between thinking hard and downward spiraling.  Conscientiousness and obsession.  No one told me that they were drawn to me, they kept me close, they enjoyed me because of all of my thinking.  Maybe those around me just didn’t have the words.  Maybe even the thoughtful souls I encountered were so used to a culture of looking down on this behavior that they had lost the ability to explain it to me or to accept it in themselves.

Imagine my surprise then, when a partner at my firm commented that he thought that I was exceptionally thoughtful and wondered if I had always been this way. The answer is, of course, yes.  His statement was such rare praise — particularly from a law firm partner.

If you bill hours or you’re smart, if you bring in clients or you’re a good writer, people will shower you with lawyerly praise.  But being thoughtful about the implications of your actions, about what things mean, about what may come? It doesn’t matter.  Even if people have thought it, no colleague ever praised me for this.

His statement reminded me of something Elaine Aron says in one of her Comfort Zone newsletters entitled “The Benefits of Being Highly Sensitive, for Ourselves and Our World.”  While discussing HSP benefits, she notes that HSPs (1) process deeply, (2) are unusually creative (thanks to the deep processing) and (3) are conscientious.  We’re thoughtful.  Wouldn’t the world be better if more lawyers were conscientious, she asks.  What if members of the learned professions took the time to think?

The challenges, it seems, are plentiful.  To benefit yourself, those closest to you and your world, you have to show up.  You have to find a way to bring your “self” to the table.  Sheryl Sandberg said it best. “Sit at the table.”  She meant as a young professional woman and I do too.  But I mean sit at the table as yourself.  Like Susan Cain you can learn to negotiate in your own way without pounding your fists.  Use your intuition to hear what is unsaid.  Listen and respond to what people really mean.

Aron also discusses the HSP as priestly-advisor to the warrior-kings.  I remember realizing in college that I was much better at truly running the show (i.e., setting things up behind the scenes, providing guidance, being a sounding board for ideas) than being the boss. Quite frankly, me as “bossypants” is usually me as self-loathing and fearful. I adopt this role because I feel, for some reason, that it is necessary for my safety or survival.  To me, being an advisor is a role of great power and value, a position capitalizing on my strengths.  Maybe this is one of the forgotten reasons why I became a lawyer.  To counsel.

The practice of law as it stands now, however, does not necessarily reward thoughtfulness — certainly not intentionally.  Further, the profession practically shuns the the HSP.  It seems that the only thing that the practice of law has in common with the HSP is its resistance to change.

I do believe, however, that there are many places in the law for the HSP.  Whether through advocacy for a cause that you believe in, or through a non-traditional post-J.D. career.  For me, it has been finding work that I believe in with clients who aren’t as demanding as your typical Wall Street banker. What also helped was going to a secondary market with more humane hours and reminding myself that I don’t have to do this forever.

Another way that the law can work for the HSP is taking advantage of one of the greatest benefits of working in a larger law firm: essentially setting your own hours — with caveats for junior lawyer facetime and partners who think you need to be there when they’re there.

As an HSP you will always have to find ways to make things work.  Often the question isn’t whether you can, it’s whether you want to.  If you want to, then you should make sure never to leave your thoughtful “self” at home.

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