Balancing the Life of the Adversarial Lawyer
Keys for fighting the soul-sucking zero-sum pessimism at the center of modern legal practice.
Attorneys are adversarial. Their clients count on it.
And it doesn’t stay in the courtroom. Attorneys are more prone than other professionals to see their lives as a zero-sum game, where all others are opponents set against them.
This mindset wrecks professional relationships and devastates romantic and family ties, and it’s one reason for their astronomical rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
But in the latest Filevine Fireside interview, I glimpsed an antidote to the zero-sum mentality that plagues the legal profession and how an attorney could lead a more balanced life.
In the latest episode of the Filevine Fireside, I sat down with Utah Attorneys Cheryl Diaz and Joshua Madson. These two are personal and professional partners. They not only run a personal injury firm together, they’re also married and raising little lawyerly children (who are figuring out how to get their own way by raising cogent arguments).
Their practice has heart! Even their office, a repurposed historic home at the foot of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, feels cozy and calming.
What’s at the center of that feeling? Over and over they returned to a focus on teamwork and mutual respect.
Maybe that sounds like platitudes. But there’s a reason their answers caught my attention.
The trouble with the zero-sum mentality
In the year 2000, a law school dean teamed up with psychologists to explore a nagging question: why are lawyers so miserable?
They published their answer in the paper “Countering Lawyer Unhappiness: Pessimism, Decision Latitude, and the Zero-Sum Dilemma.” And it validates my feeling that attorneys face some unique emotional challenges.
The first is pessimism. Forget about the glass being empty or full: a “pessimistic explanatory style” interprets negative events as “pervasive, permanent and uncontrollable.” For contrast, those with an optimistic style view the same events as “local, temporary, and changeable.”
The authors explain that pessimists live hard lives. They make less money, have fewer relationships, and are even worse at sports. They conclude:
” . . . pessimists tend to be losers on many fronts. But there is one striking exception. Pessimists fare better in law.”
Lawyers need to be skeptical, cautious and see the potential pitfalls hidden in any situation. As the irreverent attorney who writes under the name Atticus Grinch puts it:
“I studied for years on how buying an iPhone, renting an apartment, getting married, or posting a comment online could lead to catastrophic injury, imprisonment, or bankruptcy.”
And a pessimistic view of others can sink attorneys deeper into another problem identified by researchers: a belief that all interactions are a zero-sum game, where someone only wins because someone else loses.
In Atticus Grinch’s words again:
“Unique among professionals ours is a zero-sum adversarial system. Scaring, devastating, surprising, misleading, and stressing out your enemy-colleague is part of winning. We’re trained to not trust anything they say and have everything confirmed in writing.”
All this is just best practice for an attorney. But it can seep deeper. Others outside of opposing counsel can become your adversaries. You can grow to see your own partners as competitors, seeking to make more money or take the corner office. Even your own clients can be viewed as trying to steal all your time and work you ragged.
And the emotional costs? The paper on “Countering Lawyer Unhappiness” concludes:
“Unfortunately what makes for a good lawyer may make for an unhappy human being. People cannot easily turn off their pessimism when they leave the office. Lawyers who can see acutely how bad things might be for clients are also burdened with the tendency to see how bad things might be for themselves. Pessimists are more likely than optimists to believe they will not make partner, that their profession is a racket, that their spouse is unfaithful or that the economy is headed for disaster. In this manner, pessimism that might be adaptive in the profession also carries the risk of a high toll of depression and anxiety in one’s personal life.”
These psychological challenges aren’t just incidental to being a lawyer. They’re lodged deep in the very nature of the practice, making it inherently difficult to uncover a balanced life. Even the most good-natured attorneys will confront them at some point.
And that’s why the work of Cheryl Diaz and Joshua Madsen caught my attention.
Reframing the Fight
I said that Cheryl and Joshua focus on teamwork and respect. This mindset starts with each other. Instead of viewing each other as adversaries in a competition for best office and highest pay, they described working together to make their firm (and family) succeed. They work together on each case, focusing on their strengths (Cheryl engages with clients and negotiates settlements, while Joshua usually litigates).
This close relationship means they can fill in for each other when it’s necessary. While it helps that the two of them have a strong emotional bond, Cheryl points out that building a working relationship is a requirement for partners of any law firm.
And the practice of focusing on teamwork instead of conflict extends to their clients. Attorneys trained in zero-sum thinking can begrudge their clients the time and attention they demand. But Joshua and Cheryl take a different perspective.
“A lot of my clients, at the end of the day, develop into more than just clients,” explains Cheryl. Joshua adds that they work to move beyond the transactional view of clients as “a dollar figure,” and focus on being full advocates of the communities they serve even outside the legal relationship.
Cheryl notes that as they build trust and friendship with their clients, the clients show respect in return. They don’t demand unreasonable things at ungodly hours. They were also more understanding when Cheryl needed to take time off to give birth to their three children. Joshua explains:
“Cheryl wasn’t just some far off attorney that they had only heard their name once or twice [while clients] talked to paralegals. They actually communicated with her and they knew she was pregnant and they knew this was part of her life. […] Because we had a relationship that was a little more in depth, and still do with clients, they respect us back in the same way, I believe, and are understanding when those things happen.”
Though Joshua and Cheryl are tough adversaries in the courtroom, my interview with them left me feeling that they had found a way to cordon off spaces away from the zero-sum mentality. They are fighters, but they’ve reframed the fight. They show the possibility that in relationships with each other and their clients, trust can replace suspicion, cooperation can replace competition, and a win-win mindset can replace the zero sum. These are the principles for building a balanced life, even for an adversarial lawyer.