People ask me for advice. A lot. Sometimes, it’s new lawyers seeking career advice. Other times, it’s lawyers looking for some advice on how to handle a case or a client. Still other times, it’s someone asking about advice on writing. But they reach out to me, and I try to help. It’s not that I’m just a swell guy; almost all lawyers I know are willing, if not happy, to help others.
But it’s not the same as it used to be. Nobody wants to be told that the reason they’re having a problem is that they suck at whatever it is they’re doing, and should give serious thought to applying for an assistant manager’s job at Dairy Queen. Even though that thought has passed through my mind more than once. Still, I try to be constructive under the assumption they’re not going to quit the law, so it would be best to help them not to be totally ruinous to other people’s lives.
Back then, advice such as work harder, stop trying to find a short cut, think harder, and suck it up was taken with equanimity, if not appreciation. You see, mentoring sometimes means that you’re told “no, you’re not doing a good job. You need to do better.”
No more. It’s not just that mentees want to argue the point. They always did that, at least to some extent. It’s that they now make it clear that they want an answer, even when the answer is that there is no answer, and they want an answer that doesn’t involve them breaking a sweat.
And if I can’t give it to them, they’re out of here and off to find someone who will tell them what they want to hear.
A few years back, Dan Hull and I wrote a piece for the ABA Journal on mentoring. When push came to shove, they decided not to run the article. It wasn’t affirming enough, I suppose. The lead article in this month’s ABA Journal magazine is “Meet 6 Lawyers Who Are Also Race Car Drivers.”
It’s not that they only publish articles about cool hobbies that lawyers enjoy. There are also articles about the practice of law, like “NYC lawyer turns to zombies, werewolves and cocker spaniels for his books about case law.” Who doesn’t love cocker spaniels? It’s not that one can blame the ABA Journal for publishing things that people want to read, and clearly zombies and race cars are far more fun than what you can do about not sucking so much as a lawyer, but it has become something of a hothouse for delicate flowers.
And it’s no longer a problem to be a lawyer as well as a delicate flower. Well, maybe it is to old lawyers who snarl in a curmudgeonly way, and maybe clients who thought you had the chops and interest to save their lives when they needed you, but just because you failed them miserably doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough, smart enough, and doggonnit, people like you.
There is often a discussion surrounding such problems that focuses on generational perceptions, how this one isn’t as good as the last one, and so on. To a significant extent, mine isn’t as good as the one that came before it. Mine is softer, less willing to sacrifice. I sat at the knee of lawyers who wore suits when mowing the lawn because that was how lawyers were supposed to dress. It was miserable, but they understood that public respect for the profession demanded that they be members of a learned profession all the time, not just when it was convenient.
Crazy stuff? Well, sure, in today’s light. But then, the public thinks lawyers are scum today. Maybe not as crazy as it seems, though we can use our mad rationalization skillz to explain away the ridiculous connection between our conducting ourselves as professionals at all times and the way in which our profession is perceived. Besides, the public is wrong, and they don’t know shit, right?
My approach toward mentoring is to tell the truth as I see it. It’s not that I’m necessarily right, and indeed, many will argue vociferously that I’m dead wrong, which is fine. But I can do no more than be as honest as I can if I’m to hold up my end of the mentoring continuum. I give praise sparingly, but when I do, I mean it. And it means something.
That’s not good enough anymore. The people who call want me to tell them it’s okay, they’re doing great, and anything that didn’t work out isn’t their fault. And while the years have passed, there has been a substantial contingent of lawyers and pseudo-lawyers who have recognized what others want, and have given it to them. In return, they receive the appreciation of others, are lauded for their kindness and empathy, and have millions of followers on Facebook.
That’s become the metric for quality, how many people like you. How many followers you have. How many tummy rubs are mutually distributed between faceless nyms on social media. And how many new lawyers feel the happy embrace of their predecessors, who comfort them in their moment of despair that they really aren’t up to the task.
You know how being exhausted is the cool new complaint? Everything is so exhausting, which serves as an excuse to dismiss whatever you no longer want to do? Well, I’ve decided that I too should avail myself of the “exhausting” excuse, and I’m exhausted by people who seek my mentorship and then want to argue with me about how they deserve to be comforted rather than be challenged.
For all my years in practice, I’ve tried to be there for anyone who sought my help. No more. If you want a tummy rub, then my mentoring biz is closed. Don’t ask. Don’t argue. Don’t rant about how I failed to show you the love and respect you’ve decided you deserve.
And I’m going to take the time I would otherwise spend mentoring new lawyers and use it to become a race car driver so I can finally get the ABA Journal to recognize how cool I am. Because I’m good enough, smart enough, and doggonnit, I already have a Healey. Just so you know, spending my time talking you through whatever emotional fiasco you were suffering wasn’t nearly as much fun for me as driving my Healey, but I did it anyway, because I believed that it’s my duty as a lawyer to help you.