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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Bargain

Just before Thanksgiving, I caught up with a colleague and friend from New York where the topic turned to pretty heady discussion about “the bargain” that attorneys make. Not just attorneys, really all high-stress professions, but since we work exclusively with law firm partners and firm management our anecdotes focused on such.

She and I met several years ago through a mutual friend as he was looking to relocate to Florida to give his family a fresh start after burning through holidays, weekends, vacation time, even being picked up at Easter service and returned to the office to work on a big deal. Graduating near the top of the class from a top law school, he got on the track with the hopes of Partnership, financial success, and all of the bona fides of entering a room as a high profile partner at a major AM Law firm in the biggest legal market in the world.

When the self-medicating began, compromises were made, chances given, help offered. The next firm was a bit less tolerant deciding that the first 90 days offered the protections of parting ways. Then the next. This time his wife had had enough.

He would call me much earlier than that, often after 8 or 9 PM, talking about raising his kids in Florida. Giving them a different lifestyle, but couldn’t take certain reductions in pay or title because his book was growing, but not particularly portable. It was the bargain that he made to get what he wanted, until it wasn’t. Our mutual friend found him after an overdose in a one bedroom apartment in New Jersey.

Last year, one of the kindest attorneys that I knew, who by all accounts had all of the worldly success anyone could ask for was found in Miami after committing suicide.

Every few weeks, an article is written in one of the legal journals about addiction, suicide, or an attorney losing their minds and throwing an entire life’s work away.

Earlier this year, I had to testify in a murder trial of an Atlanta attorney that was found guilty of killing his wife. During the preceding days, he and I had been exchanging texts and emails. Emails that he wanted sent to her email because he did not have a personal email, and he wanted to show her that he was trying to improve his financial situation.

After one discussion that revolved more around politics, football, and setting up a meeting about a group merger, he walked into his wife’s office thirteen minutes later and got into a verbal altercation. If there was anything weighing on him, as an attorney who was paid a lot per hour to have the answers at his fingertips, he sure didn’t let on.

Needless to say, testifying now at a murder and a divorce, is a bit more that I bargained for.

More though is that something is happening out there. The center isn’t holding anymore.

Studies show that around 70% of attorneys are dealing with an addiction. Get your mind around the fact that if you have an office of 10 attorneys, roughly 7 are quietly fighting a battle that only a few, if any, know about.

Maybe it is the hyper-focus of having to always have the answers when your name is called in the ever smaller tribes that amass each persons echo chamber.

As a recruiter, conversations crossroad between personal and professional every day. The opportunities sought or not sought based on the status of firm, title, leverage of practice, success measured in dollars. Answers to how much is enough, with the casual just a little more.

The holding off on opportunity because of a new child, marriage, ailing parent, that is one part exciting, but for some the first change of a plan that they have harbored since they were 1L’s bringing a little resentment. Then a little something to forget about it. Then a decade of compromises made for “the greater good”, lubricated in many cases with different hidden vices, until they aren’t.

In the past two weeks, I have placed a 73-year-old litigator from an AM Law 20 firm that still plays rugby, married to the love of his life, and finds bliss in the law enough to want to practice another 10 years.

Another in her early 40’s that wants to work as hard as humanly possible until the age of 50 because she has no intention of ever being an attorney after 50 and candidly hates being a lawyer. The next 10 years pay off debt, get kids through college, sock away retirement, and set up an already busy travel itinerary. That is her bargain.

This tends to be the time of year where attorneys wait for the payoff for the bargain that they have made.

Please feel free to call or email me if you believe that you need better alignment between your personal and professional goals. My approach is to listen and consult, not fit square pegs into round holes and spray and pray your resume around town.

If you could make a different bargain, whether it’s a conversation that has been held off, forgiveness withheld to someone or even to yourself, seeking a change that surrounds you with people who enhance you personally and professionally, changes made that reduce the impact of financial liability, one more meal a week with someone that you haven’t shared a meal with in a while, calling an old friend, attending a religious service, saying yes to something that you have said no to for a while, saying no to something that you have said yes to too much.

I’d call that a bargain. Maybe the best you ever had.

Andrew Wilcox, President, Wilcox and Hackett, LLC, Andrew@Wilcox-legal.com, 850-274-7849

Yes...And

Through a variety of circumstances, one of the circles that was run in during college was with a band of gypsies that found what they hoped to be their lives calling in comedy.

Every couple of weeks there would be an improv night at some old theater in Coconut Grove, Boca Raton, or Hollywood, where people would come for the cheap wine and interactive dance without a net that is the audience-performer experience. After which, I would sit and listen to the budding comedians debrief the performances.

A central tenet of improv is what is known as Yes...And. It takes whatever is thrown out at face value and builds from it.

The more outlandish and creative the better, as the debriefs would be critical of jokes that were obvious, gratuitously vulgar, or didn’t keep the act going.

Like in business conversations, the better the listening, the better the result. Have you ever had a conversation with someone that is waiting to talk, rather than actively listening? If you would only be quiet, they are about to drop some serious knowledge on you about just how knowledgeable that they are...

Two things make or break Yes...And, failing to release the creativity, innovation, and whether further engagement is possible. “No,” and something completely unrelated and not based on what the other gave you. They really wanted to get that zinger in regardless of the setup.

Yes..And may bridge the two topics, but does so through active listening and keeps the back and forth in alignment.

To paraphrase from Seinfeld, “You can take the reservation, but can you keep the reservation?’ Anyone can get someone’s attention, but can you keep someone’s attention?” Because, really that is the most important thing.

Attorneys receive some variation of waiting to talk emails every day from recruiters: Dear insert name. You are the perfect candidate for an AM Law top 100 firm in insert city. They are a fast growing firm with multiple insert either national or international offices and a dynamic practice. The firm is only looking for superstars with over insert how much portable business needed. Please contact me at your earliest convenience to discuss this fantastic opportunity.

Chances are that if you do not know if you are the perfect candidate for that opportunity, neither do they.

The same can be said when you are trying to develop your client base. Are they the perfect client based on where they sit on the Fortune 500 list, type of sector that they are in, and where they have offices?

You can’t Google search what drives people. Why is someone a corporate attorney instead of a litigator? Have they had enough of big firms and are looking for something smaller? What about the practice of law is important to you? Is a successful move based on making more money, or is making more money a function of having a platform to reach your other goals with people that you enjoy working with?