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Watch out for lawyer creep

02 March 2018 - By Katie Cowan

One of the best ways to maintain mental health in your work is to have friends who are not lawyers and to see them a lot. That is because many of the skills it takes to be a good lawyer are not necessarily the skills it takes to be a good, healthy, happy person. The more time you spend with people who do not spend their days practising law, the more likely you are to avoid what I am calling lawyer creep.

Lawyer creep is the problem of your lawyer skills, and especially your lawyer ways of thinking, increasingly creeping beyond the bounds of legal work to set up camp in friendships, relationships, and especially how you relate to yourself.

There is a reason lawyers tend to be anxious perfectionists. And this is also why a lot of practitioners are depressed or need wine come five o’clock.

No matter what area of law you practise, you likely need to have an eye for detail, a need to be right, and an ability to see risk. If you practise in any areas of dispute, you also need to be able to argue against yourself in order to test your arguments. These are great skills, important skills, and strengthening them makes you better at your work.

Skills spread beyond the office

But when these skills, lucrative though they are, spread beyond the office, they can do a lot of damage. An eye for detail becomes not being able to let anything go; a need to be right becomes refusing to accept human flaws, mistakes and imperfections in others; an ability to see risk becomes losing the ability to take chances or see the good possibilities in life; and the ability to argue against yourself becomes full-blown, anxious self-doubt.

In the excellent TV series, The Good Place, everyone agrees that moral philosophers are the worst. But moral philosophers are not so far from lawyers, and there is a good reason why a lot of non-lawyers privately agree that lawyers are the worst (it is painful, but true). My diagnosis is lawyer creep: the skills required to be a good lawyer leaching into places where they hurt instead of help.

Legal practice can be a rabbit hole. Our brains think that what they see is all there is, so if your whole life becomes about working, spending time with colleagues and lawyer friends, maybe even marrying a lawyer, or even if you just see no reason to differentiate between how you approach work and how you approach everything else, there is a risk that these ways of thinking, so useful at work, become your default way of being.

This sounds very doomsday and extreme. It can get that way (if left unchecked lawyer creep will, well, creep), but there are ways to head it off at the pass.

A hat you put on at work

One is to think of your lawyer brain as a hat you put on at work. When you put it on your eyes focus, maybe you squint a little, and you critique the hell out of those draft contracts and those opposing submissions. You kick ass, you take names, you do little finger shooters as you walk past everyone’s offices. But then, at the end of the day, you take off your lawyer brain hat, feel your shoulders fall a little, and a gentle smile comes over your face as you think about all the fun things outside of work, and you let the hyper-critical, risk-averse, belligerently argumentative bits of you melt away.*

Of course, lawyer brain hat, my new invention, only works if you have fun non-lawyerly things to go to outside of work. That’s where non-lawyer friends come in, and improv classes, and sports teams, and weekend hikes, and noodling on the French horn, and cooking a big dinner for your teacher/nurse/artist/construction friends, and going on dates, and putting your phone on airplane mode so you can read your really good book about dragons.

These may sound like luxuries, but they are actually part of your work, and vital to a good life. Anxiety and depression make it harder to work and, more importantly, harder to live. They do not serve anyone. Keeping your lawyer brain hat on at all times? So much so that you absorb it into yourself? And it is no longer a hat, but instead just your brain? That way leads a dark life.

The alternative, where you get to let stuff go and talk about fun things and relax and speak kindly to yourself, that road is much more enjoyable – and it will make you a better lawyer.

*I know I say that like it’s so easy to change how you think on a dime; believe me I know it is not. My intention is to give permission to turn down the volume of lawyer brain when you are not working, not to scold you if you can’t always do that.


Katie Cowan katie@symphonylaw.co.nz is a former lawyer. She is now director of Symphony Law, a consulting practice for lawyers. Katie hosts The New Lawyer podcast, which can be found at thenewlawyer.co.nz.

Last updated on the 2nd March 2018