Loneliness in the Law

By Marc E. Gustafson

As we’re all adjusting to this new normal, I’m quickly realizing that practicing law from home certainly isn’t without its issues. There are the technological issues of not having your files immediately at your fingertips, the inconvenience of not having multiple screens to compare documents and the reality of one’s unflattering appearance on Zoom.

Then there’s the very real problem of wanting to eat everything in the house, not just because of its ready availability but also the urge that stress prompts. And if you’re like me, you have the added pressure of trying to homeschool two young boys that have been stuck inside for large parts of the day without their school friends to help them burn off their seemingly endless energy. But above all that, there’s the loneliness, which seems odd given the constant comings and goings of my family through my makeshift office in the dining room.

No, I mean professional loneliness. Working from home, I miss my partners and our staff, our daily interactions and our academic debates. I miss the camaraderie of being in the trenches with workmates who are always willing to lend a helping hand. I miss the comfort of being able to walk next door or down the hall or to make a call and ask a colleague about a legal issue I probably know the answer to but need to hear from someone else. (Apparently, I’m not alone. Even before the coronavirus, according to a recent study, 61% of lawyers revealed they experience above average loneliness.)

Truth be told, this article isn’t the result of any realization that occurred while on home confinement. For some time now I’ve been thinking about how isolating our profession can be. I know loneliness in one’s chosen profession isn’t unique to lawyers. Doctors are notoriously lonely, and I remember my surprise when I first heard a CEO lament about how lonely it can be at the top. But that doesn’t make the isolation common in our profession any less daunting.

Some part of this isolation is a product of our legal system. Its adversarial structure inherently pits one side against the other. The words “plaintiffs” and “defendants” each have their own equal and opposite connotations. But this feeling of isolation isn’t limited to litigators. I’ve heard our corporate partners lament the frequently zero-sum nature of the transactions in which they are involved.

In my estimation, however, the solitary nature of law is largely of our own making. As we’ve become professionally distant from other lawyers due to the growing number of bar members, we’ve also become socially distant. We’ve all heard the breakdown of collegiality in our profession attributed to the lack of frequent interactions among practitioners. But we can’t blame the depth of isolation solely on a growing bar or the infrequency of courtroom interactions or repeat transactions between lawyers.

In my cases I’ve seen lawyers take up more and more combative positions that seemingly result from a view that zealous advocacy equates to all-out warfare. I’ve read letters that accuse lawyers of things the worst of us wouldn’t consider at our lowest point. And, more than once during mediation, I’ve sensed a negative feedback loop between lawyer and client that spins reconcilable differences into immovable positions.

Then there are the realities of modern legal practice—increasing electronic communication and fewer in-person and telephonic meetings, online research and document review that keep lawyers isolated in front of their computer monitors, economic pressure from clients and snowballing demands on personal time. Add these forces to those being exerted by other lawyers, and the inevitable results are lawyers driven inward and away from others. (Undoubtedly, this is one explanation for the prevalence of substance abuse among our profession.)

The practice of law doesn’t have to be so isolating. In fact, our own mental health demands that it isn’t. So, especially in this world that has recently been turned upside down, how do we overcome the solitary nature of our practice?

In my view, there are five ways to be less lonely in the practice of law: (1) at the risk of sounding overly sensitive, lawyers should be nicer to one another; (2) we should practice the skills we use during mediation throughout the life of a case; (3) as a profession, we should commit to changing the measure of what makes a lawyer successful; (4) law firms should find ways to encourage lawyers to work more like harmonious units and less like barbers in a barbershop; (5) we should commit to finding purpose outside the practice of law.

Kill them with Kindness

If nothing else, dealing with court closures, cancellations of in-person closings and virtual mediations should make us realize that we all deal with essentially the same issues. In this short time, it’s been great to see lawyers working together to reschedule hearings, deadlines and trials. We’ve treated each other reasonably, compassionately and with a shared understanding that life is not normal right now. But this doesn’t have to be limited to a pandemic.

During these interactions, I haven’t sensed a scintilla of evidence that anyone thought that these measures were a sign a weakness, a sacrifice of their clients positions or anything less than zealous advocacy. What if it were always this way?

Always Be Mediating

As I have mediated more and more cases, there are several lessons that I’ve learned that translate to my litigation practice. Primarily, I’ve observed that mediation seems to do a great job of distilling down the interactions of lawyers and clients. While these things generally appear to have been done previously, at mediation, the evaluation of each client’s position seems to be more realistic, the communication between lawyer and client seems to be more frank and the realization that lawsuits are never win-win situations seems to be more acute.

But why not practice this way throughout the course of litigation? Being willing to exercise closer amounts of giving and taking and expressing a willingness to not fight to be declared the winner in the end in the throes of litigation, I would argue, can be just as effective there as it is in mediation. In this less confrontational approach, the lawyers, the parties and the mediator all work toward a common goal—resolution of the case to the benefit of all parties involved—which seems more like a communal experience than an isolating one.

Let the Good Guys Win

Too many times our profession seems to laud the proverbial bulldog or the gunner, whether it’s through ascension through the law firm ranks, compensation or mere scuttlebutt. We reward those who bill the most hours or spend the most time in the office. We expect a tough veneer, knowing that it rarely reflects the internal reality. What if, instead, we placed more emphasis on those among us who dedicate themselves to community service, pro bono work or genuine leadership among our profession.

This isn’t to say that economics aren’t important. The months ahead of us are going to reveal some tough realities for many among us, but when given the chance to choose between the wolf and the sheep, the hoarder and the sharer, the chest thumper and the humble servant, shouldn’t we collectively favor the latter?

Get Social

During these crazy times, our firm has resorted to virtual happy hours via Zoom. But we’ve also started regular online practice group meetings, some attended by people in formal wear, and I’m sure even zanier things as home confinement begins to wear on us. Asked by one of my partners why we needed to meet with so much going on, I responded that these meetings are not meant as a burden but an opportunity to ask questions that have been bothering us, to vent frustrations, to get reassurances from our colleagues but also to increase socialization and to improve our chances of collaboration. I hope these practices will continue after the present crisis passes.

I think the need for lawyers to socialize is particularly true when it seems so many lawyers have been working toward practicing autonomy and independence. Sure, these things are great, but, by definition, they also lead to greater isolation. Certainly, it requires a balance, but by sacrificing some of this autonomy, I would hope that we can offset some of the isolation so many of us experience.

Get a Life

Not surprisingly, non-profit workers scored the lowest (the good end) on the loneliness scale. Besides evidence that income does not lead to a decrease in a sense of loneliness, it also shows that following a passion can create a sense of belonging. You don’t have to look far to find books touting the value of purpose-driven work to create a sense of meaning in life.

For lawyers, this should be low-hanging fruit. Pro bono opportunities abound. Particularly now, those with the greatest need will have issues with landlords, creditors and employers that could benefit from our services. Likewise, non-profits are likely going to be taxed to the point of survival dealing with the coronavirus and opportunities to get involved, and not just for our legal acumen, will certainly abound.

In the end, if we take on just a few of these things, maybe we can find more ways to work together, doing more of the things we truly enjoy. By doing so, we can increase the satisfaction of those around us and decrease the sense of loneliness that so negatively affects our profession.

Marc Gustafson is a partner at Bell Davis & Pitt in Charlotte. His practice focuses on complex commercial and employment litigation. Marc is also a certified mediator.