There’s no getting out of it: This is a column discussing a syndrome in which lawyers (I suspect mostly women lawyers) sometimes cry on the job in what are arguably inappropriate situations, and the often negative (and avoidable) fallout that results. 

Maybe I shouldn’t post this one. It’ll only get me into trouble. But what the heck – I’m here to talk about what I see and hear happening in the world of law, and darn it, this falls under that heading.

So here goes nothing:

My client had done what a lot of lawyers wind up doing at some point in their careers – tried to get herself fired.

That’s a phenomenon I see all the time in biglaw – the unconscious attempt to get yourself fired thing. You can’t rationally convince yourself to quit, but the irrational part of you knows it isn’t about to let you stay, either. So, in therapist speak, you “act out on unexamined feelings.” That manifests itself in stuff like complaining about your job a bit too loudly in places that are a bit too public. Or coming in late. Or not coming in. Or just acting weird at the office without owning the fact that people are going to notice and some of them aren’t going to like it.

I urge lawyers, if they have reached that point of no return (the place where you really cannot come back and work at your firm for one more day without losing your shit) then please, go ahead and own it, and make the decision to leave in a conscious way. It’s best to reframe all aspects of your life as conscious choices, including your career, and put your decision process into words someplace safe (like a psychotherapist’s office) so you can take back your autonomy and be the actor in your own life, instead of acting out on unconscious, unexplored emotions.

You’re allowed to quit. There will be consequences, especially if you don’t have another job lined up, or are saddled with a heap of school debt. But everything in life involves a cost/benefit calculus; this is just another one of those things.

The person who most needs to know what’s going on with you, so she can deal with it, is your boss. That way, instead of wondering what the heck is going on with that associate acting like a lunatic, she can process the news that you want out and, maybe even work together with you to find a solution.

My client freely admitted she’d been broadcasting her discontent to a lot of people – other associates, secretaries, paralegals, word processors, librarians, doc reviewers, you name it. In fact, if you were with her for more than a few moments, you probably heard how miserable she was, along with a stream of complaints and criticism about her firm.

Sure enough, a partner she worked with eventually took her aside and said, “I’ve been hearing you’re unhappy. Why don’t we set up a time to talk?” They agreed my client would come by her office the next morning.

And that’s when my client called me. 

In the fathomless sea of business school bromides, there are a couple chestnuts I deem worth heeding:

First, don’t bring me a problem without proposing a solution.

I learned that from my first boss when I worked as a marketing guy at a dot com (way back when start-ups were called “dot coms.”) They’re words to live by.

Second, don’t walk into a meeting without knowing what you want to accomplish before you leave.

Of the two, the second is the more essential, because it’s possible someone else will dream up a solution to a problem you identified, but if you don’t know what you want from a meeting, you’re either going to walk out operating on someone else’s agenda, or wasting everyone’s time.

I asked my client what she wanted to accomplish at this meeting in the partner’s office.

“Oh,” she replied distractedly, “I’ll probably just break down in tears.”

I took a moment for us both to process that. She waited.

“Do you think breaking down in tears is going to accomplish your broader goals?”

Now she sounded impatient. “My goal is to get out of there. I can’t stand it anymore. So yeah, who knows? I don’t care.”

“I get that,” I said, and I did. “But is breaking down in tears in front of this partner a sound strategy for arranging your departure from the firm?”

She rolled her eyes. Then she said, “In any case, I can’t help it. I hate it there.”

“So you don’t think you can manage not to cry?”

Another pause while she mulled that over. I was aware I might be coming across as slightly attacking, but I was making a valid point.

I explained to her that partners at law firms often desire to talk to associates who are leaving so they can arrange to place them in-house with their clients. That’s one of the best strategies partners at law firms have to generate new business – seeding existing clients with associates who have worked for them. I’ve talked to rainmaker after rainmaker, and they all swear by it, because it works. That associate you place with a client is grateful for the job, so she thinks, why not use my old firm on a deal, and help out the partner who helped me out? She returns a favor and sends the partner business. And in ten years time, that grateful associate might be associate general counsel at that client – heck, she might become GC or even CEO, and send the partner a few million in billables. 

That happens all the time. And it’s why most law firms (even the big scary ones) are surprisingly, almost weirdly, nice to associates who want to leave.

My client seemed intrigued. I got the strong impression she hadn’t received the memo on this aspect of law firm politics.

I further explained that law firms in general bend over backwards not to burn bridges when any attorney departs. At very least, they need to know why you’re leaving, in case there’s an issue they need to address that might affect other lawyers (or create liability down the line), and when you’re leaving, so they can plan for adequate coverage in your absence. And even if you’re departing to a competing firm, there’s a lot of lateral jumping from firm to firm (or from in-house position to in-house position) occurring nowadays, and people change jobs more often in general. It’s hard to predict where anyone will be in the near future, let alone a decade or more out. You could wind up as a client of your old firm, or across the table from them as opposing counsel. Or, while it might be hard to imagine right now, it’s at least possible your path could lead you back to your old firm’s threshold. People do return to their old firms. That happens, even when it seems impossible the day they leave. So best not to burn bridges.

Have you noticed that many firms (perhaps including yours) have started to behave like they’ve suddenly turned into universities, complete with “classes” and “alumni” and “reunions” – even sweatshirts with firm branding that you can wear while you jog around the reservoir. What next – a Cravath bumper sticker for the back window of your mom’s station wagon? Tail-gating at attorney touch football games? Just like universities, these firms are trying to generate a sense of loyalty to the place – and, just like universities, their motives aren’t entirely pure. These same firms go on to work their “alumni” for contacts to generate work. I’ve attended a couple of lavish alumni get-togethers hosted by my old firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, and they were unabashed schmoozefests, clearly dedicated to exploiting old working relationships with the goal of creating new business.

It might not feel like it right now, but for all you (or your current firm) know, you might be storming out of there in a huff today, only to return ten years later with a book of business worth millions. You can never tell. No one can.

This was also apparently news to my client.

“So you see,” I offered, “why breaking down in tears might not be the best way to handle this meeting.”

“I’m starting to see what you mean.”

It might seem to you, Dear Reader, that I (a therapist, no less) was simply hell-bent on tormenting this poor woman for crying (and don’t worry, she wasn’t actually a real client, merely a fictional composite of various clients, but still…).

If that were what I was doing, you’d have a point. Aren’t people allowed to get upset, to have their feelings, to cry if they need to? Isn’t it asking too much to demand that someone rein in their authentic feelings? And hasn’t every lawyer (including me) cried alone in his or her office late at night after a really bad day, or shed a tear or two over lunch with a trusted officemate?

Of course. In fact, a therapist’s office is a great place to let it all out – that’s why I keep boxes of tissues everywhere. As my old therapist used to tell me when I opened up the waterworks, “sometimes you need a good cry.” But that therapist encouraged me to “contain the feelings” in the moment, when I was at the law firm, then bring them to a safe place (i.e., her office or someplace like it) and try to express everything in words, so I could not only have my feelings, but also learn from them, and learn about them.

I approve of crying at the movies, too. My best friend, a wonderful French woman, always cried at movies and I think I learned it from her. It felt good to let down my guard, not care who was around, and indulge myself in my feelings. A nice cathartic three-hankie weeper at the local multiplex can hit the spot sometimes.

But breaking down in tears in a partner’s office at a biglaw firm? Not so much. Especially when the real reason you’re there, in that professional setting, is to try to accomplish a career goal.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that crying can express different things depending on the circumstances. Sure, tears can be a pure, authentic expression of sadness or upset. But they can also serve another purpose, representing (in therapy jargon) a regression into infantile helplessness.

Babies cry all the time. They have to, because if they have a need, there’s only one way to express it, and one way to best ensure that need is addressed. A helpless infant cannot provide for itself, so crying is strategy number one to accomplish pretty much anything.

Perhaps you recall that time when, at some early age, you first learned crying doesn’t always work. Maybe you tried to cry (as you always had before) but somehow things didn’t go as planned. Maybe the adults gave you a look that said you were getting a bit old for histrionics. Or you realized you could take care of whatever needed taking care of yourself. Or you couldn’t work yourself into tears the way you always could before – it began to feel forced.

Under stress – and my client was under a lot of stress – people tend to regress back into old patterns of behavior. In the case of breaking down in tears, it’s a very old, primitive behavior, wrapped up in a fantasy of collapsing into helplessness and thus signaling a desperate need for care.

At some level, my client decided that she, a lawyer (and therefore a pleaser) could not, as the mature, capable adult she really is, bear to fail, to let down and disappoint the partner, so instead she regressed into a helpless child who falls apart in tears, wailing until help arrives.

That’s crazy, but it’s also how people work sometimes.

This is an appropriate place to pause, and ask what I’m really saying here. It boils down to something like, sometimes lawyers – and I’ll just suggest, without proof, that it’s probably more often women than men lawyers – regress into tearful collapse at the workplace as an unconscious strategy in response to difficult situations. I’ll also observe that this probably isn’t a very good idea.

I am not saying that all female lawyers or only female lawyers do this. And I’m not sure if it makes any difference whether the “boss” being exposed to the tearful collapse is female or male. I’ll leave these points up for discussion.

I am not saying that men never cry, or never cry at work. I am saying that there seems to be a difference in the way men and women use tears at the workplace. One of my clients, in discussing this topic with me, pointed out that the men at her law firm seem to effortlessly manage to enforce boundaries – and thus they get the “better” work and avoid the messier, less strategic, less “important” but more “people-oriented” and “emotional” work. One example I’ve heard a few times is that a male associate gets invited to a litigation strategy meeting while a woman associate is left managing a roomful of doc reviewers. I asked how she thought male lawyers achieved that, and she admitted it was hard for her to enforce boundaries coolly and unemotionally without feeling like “a bitch.” Perhaps, I suggested, it was easier to collapse into tears than it was to stand up and say no to someone who would rather hear you say yes. She mulled that over, and that’s where we left it.

Here’s another interesting idea around this topic: Tears can be aggressive. That sounds odd, because what could seem more vulnerable and less aggressive than breaking down in tears? But therapists use words like “anger” and “aggression” a little differently than everyone else, and, in reality, when you come to think about it, there is a controlling, manipulative aspect to the whole tearful collapse into infantile helplessness construct.

I recently read a fascinating book on race relations, “White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to talk about Racism,” by Robin J. DiAngelo, and was struck by the author’s discussion of “white women’s tears.” Essentially, DiAngelo argues that when black people discuss their experiences of racism, white people often turn defensive and begin to feel that they are being attacked, accused of “being racist.” That hurts the white people’s feelings and they start insisting they aren’t racist, they treat everyone the same, they don’t even factor race into their dealings with people, etc., etc. Then, sometimes (especially, in DiAngelo’s experience as a person who conducts seminars about racism) the white women participating in this interaction burst into tears, resulting in a lot of everyone having to rush to their aid, offering comfort.

The reason bursting into tears in this context is rightly perceived as aggressive is that it seizes control of the entire conversation and manipulates it into being about the white woman and her hurt, her upset. The black person, who might have been benefitting from having a space (perhaps a rarely provided space) in which to talk about her or his experience of living in a racist society, has been effectively shunted aside while the white woman regresses into a crisis state of infantile need and her upset is addressed.

An adult conversation about the fact that our society as a whole is racist (simply in that it treats people differently based upon their race) and the related fact that this societal racism has profound adverse effects on black people is, in a flash, subsumed in a crisis over a white woman’s hurt feelings around her irrational fear that a discussion of societal racism is actually an attack on her for being white.

That’s a bit like what plays out at a law firm when you go into a meeting with a partner who wants to talk about your appearing to be unhappy and perhaps feel you out about whether you want to leave the firm, but that partner is instead roped into negotiating how to handle an associate in her office crying her eyes out. Once again, the tears highjack one discussion – an important one regarding your career and the workings of a law firm – for another, about trying, in effect, to comfort a screaming child.

I get it. I’ve been messy and unconscious in my time, too. And if women do more crying at law firms, then maybe men do more storming off and yelling and throwing stuff – I don’t know for certain what the statistics would be on this sort of thing.But, to pull these threads together in a conclusion: Whoever you are, male or female, if you suspect “bursting into tears” is likely to occur at an upcoming meeting with a supervisor, it might be time to pull out of that regression and examine this expectation with fully conscious, adult eyes. What you’ll likely conclude is that no, crying your eyes out isn’t going to help you leave that meeting having met your objectives – and, furthermore, no, it isn’t good cricket to back someone else into a position where they have little choice but to be reduced to comforting an adult behaving like a child. 


This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.

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Please check out The People’s Therapist’s legendary best-seller about the sad state of the legal profession: Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning

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And now there’s a new Sequel: Still Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: (The Sequel)

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My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy:Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

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I’ve also written a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls in love with a blue alien from outer space. I guarantee pure reading pleasure: Bad Therapist: A Romance