Six Things We Learned in Law School That We Shouldn’t Try at Home

There was once a lawyer in marriage counseling. His therapist asked him how he felt about what his wife had just said. “I think what she said is totally irrelevant to the issue at hand,” he said.

Patiently, the therapist responded “Actually, sentences answering, ‘How do you feel’ questions begin with ‘I feel.'”

“Oh,” triumphantly said the lawyer. “Then I feel like what she just said is totally irrelevant to the issue at hand.”

To which the therapist replied, “What you just said is actually a thought. Feeling words include ‘happy, sad, angry, afraid, etc.'”

I then said I didn’t know what I felt.

Yes, I once was that lawyer—only a few years out of the law school where I’d learned very well how to think like a lawyer. Yet after many years of Texas trial practice, teaching law, training as a couples therapist, and moving to San Francisco (which itself improves mental health), I’ve come to realize how much my lawyer competencies had made me an utterly incompetent husband. Unfortuantely, my practice has taught me I was not too different from many of my brethren. So in the interest of inoculating my adopted legal community to the dangers of bringing out lawyer personas home, here are six ways that being a lawyer can make us wayward lovers.

How to Win

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” said Vince Lombardi, Hall of Fame football coach. By its nature, the structure of the legal system is adversarial. It’s win/lose—just like football. But bringing that mindset home does not go well if we’re anything like Vince Lombardi: his wife said marrying him “was the greatest mistake of
her life.” (1)

To succeed in this win/lose system we begin with a meticulous marshaling of proof. From there, we inexorably attack the opposition, blame, and rationalize, all in an attempt to prove we’re right.

So how do these skills and this mindset play out at home? They lead us to argue, to default to what we know how to do best. And before you know it, we care more about being right than we care about being together. This means that upon hearing our partner’s point of view, we may immediately introduce a significantly different viewpoint if not one in total opposition.

My nine years of study and practice in Systems-Centered Therapy tells me that our personal receptivity to new information, our information “boundary,” becomes impermeable if that information is too different from what’s just been communicated. Moreover, it doesn’t take any fancy training to anticipate this argument isn’t going to end well. However, if instead of immediately becoming oppositional, we say something like, “why don’t we explore all the benefits of going with your viewpoint and then explore the benefits of other courses of action?” we can open the door to true collaboration.

A similar strategy is to say something like, “Let me see if I’m understanding what you’re saying,” then paraphrasing your partner’s thoughts, feelings, or wants, and asking if you’ve heard them right. Once your partner confirms you’ve gotten it, you might say, “I have a different idea about this. Are you open to hearing about it?” Either of these formulations will soften your partner’s boundary so that your own input is more likely to be actually heard, which, in turn, will lead to a more satisfying resolution.

By the time I see law students in their third year, much of whatever emotional awareness they had has been eradicated. Just like “there’s no crying in baseball,” there’s no feeling in law school. We’re taught that dispassionate analysis is the goal, made fun of for reacting emotionally when we complain in class that a court’s decision was unfair, and taught to not show our feelings to our opponents for (the legitimate) fear they’ll take advantage. We’ve got to be tough, to squash our longings for connection and support. !e problem with this is twofold. First, many of our partners want us to not just say we understand what they’re going through, but also to show we really get what they’re feeling. This is impossible if we’ve disowned our own similar feelings. Second, if we’ve disowned our own needs for warmth and tenderness, we may see such needs in our partners as weak and “whiny,” and rather than reacting with warmth and tenderness, we may become cold and judgmental. !is pattern can go on for years until the exasperated, left-wanting partner seeks therapy. But by then, the pattern may so entrenched that it can’t be undone short of divorce.

How to Solve Problems

Problem solving is a crucial attribute of the wellrounded lawyer. How many times have we been told that our clients want a lawyer who sees a matter not just as a case to be tried but as a problem to be solved. Yet this attribute, too, can get us in trouble at home. I can’t even name how many times I’ve heard spouses say that when they raise a complaint about the difficulties of life, they’re not looking for a solution but simply for an ear to hear or a shoulder to lean on. In this context, problem solving may come across as criticism, blaming, or, at least, misattunement. What’s needed is simple listening, with empathy.

How to Drink

(This skill may have been prelearned and “finely honed in law school.) Of the lawyer couples I see for whom substance abuse is an issue, the drinking partner is invariably triggered to imbibe in order to anesthetize painful emotions. And there are triggers aplenty—”financial pressure to get business; pressure to win; pressure to please our superiors and clients; the frustration of dealing with difficult opponents; fear of screwing up; fear of not being able to cut it; fear of embarrassment; fear of being bested by a particularly difficult opponent; fear of making mistakes or of their being discovered; feeling like a failure at home. Without alcohol, these feelings can become unbearable to some of us. With alcohol, these and other feelings become altered—so altered that nonusing partners often describe their drinking counterparts as “not there.” And, of course, most of us marry precisely because we want our beloveds to be there for us. So, given the choice of (1) having to bear unbearable emotions without substances or (2) turning to alcohol or other drugs and losing our spouses, what’s the beleaguered lawyer to do? The obvious answer is to “find ways to ameliorate the emotional pain without mind-altering substances. And this is where therapy comes in. Recent advances in neuroscience demonstrate that “talk therapy” actually “rewires” the brain to create new pathways that can help us cope with difficult emotions. And unlike medication, these positive changes persist even after discontinuation of the intervention.

How to Compromise

Really? Is even lawyerly compromising a problem in marriage? Sad, but true. The typical way we compromise in settlement negotiations is tit-for-tat bargaining: if you want me to give a little, you need to give a little. There is no generosity of spirit, much less attention to anyone’s feelings, but rather simply a contest of wills—extract concessions and wear the opponent down. The end result is continually rationalized by good mediators as being “a good settlement because both parties are unhappy.” This is not to suggest that compromise in marriage is a bad thing, but it’s not enough. During a recent session, a client of mine, close to giving up on her marriage, had just reached a tit-for-tat compromise with her husband. Whereupon, she turned to me in tears and said, “we’ve just settled this but why does it feel so awful?” The lesson here is to seek compromise from the standpoint of what is best for us as a couple, continually checking in with each other on how we’re feeling not only about the end result, but about our negotiation process as well.

How to Give Advice

As “learned counsel,” we’re paid handsome sums for our sage advice—and with good reason. We’re highly educated, highly skilled, and highly paid to offer just the right advice. We see ourselves as experts and often find ourselves thinking, if only our partners “would just listen to me, I “figured out what we needed to do an hour ago!” Only problem is our partners may see things differently. Even if they may ultimately agree, they may need to have their perspectives at least heard and respected before arriving at a conclusion. Given the constant practice of habits antithetical to achieving success at home, is there any hope for our intimate partnerships? We can begin with the recognition that intimacy is a wholly different context than lawyering. And within that different context come different goals. In contradistinction to the goals of litigation, the paramount goal of a romantic partnership is to grow the relationship, that is, to resolve our inevitable differences so as to enhance the feeling of connectedness—so that our differences can actually bring us closer.

A former Texas trial lawyer, Mark Perlmutter, M.A., J.D., now helps individuals and couples to have more satisfying business and intimate relationships. He also works with couples and families of people with substance abuse issues, mediates, and is an adjunct professor of law at UC Hastings College of the Law and the University of Texas School of Law.

(1) Maraniss, David. When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999, p. 74.