chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
February 05, 2021 Feature

Is Being a Lawyer and Marriage Compatible?

Brentley Tanner

The alarm goes off early at 5:00 a.m., and you struggle to find the snooze button on your cell phone as you dream of just fifteen more minutes only to be reminded six minutes later that the snooze button cuts that dream short. You turn off the alarm on your phone only to see a litany of email messages that have come into your inbox overnight. Beside you is your spouse, who like you, is also an attorney in a busy law practice that neither time nor COVID-19 can stop. When your spouse wakes up with you, they are bombarded with the same barrage of demanding clients, never-ending tasks lists, and court deadlines that make the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno look like paradise.

the question for any couple that has one or both lawyer spouses is: “Is Marriage and Being a Lawyer Compatible?” The answer is: It depends.

the question for any couple that has one or both lawyer spouses is: “Is Marriage and Being a Lawyer Compatible?” The answer is: It depends.

Getty Images

And so begins another day, for another dollar, of a married couple who happen to both be attorneys. The embrace of a warm bed and the loving exchange between spouses is substituted with the immediacy of stress, anxiety, and the unending feeling of rotating around the circle of life that is a hybrid mixture of a hamster on a wheel and Bill Murray’s character Phil from the movie Groundhog Day. So the question for any couple that has one or both lawyer spouses is: “Is Marriage and Being a Lawyer Compatible?” Much like the response that is often repeated to clients, the answer is it depends.

Five Stressors That Destroy a Lawyer Marriage

1. Not Setting Boundaries with Clients

Lawyers have a multitude of clients, each with different facts, circumstances, and intricacies that will dictate the path in which each case will take from beginning to end. But to some clients, their case is the only case that matters. A select ensemble of clients expect that the lawyer give their undivided attention to the needs, wishes, and expectations of the client regardless of other clients, the lawyer’s personal life, or their well-being so long as the ends justify the means. For instance, the narcissist client for whom the celestial bodies circle can never accept anything but a yes that conforms to the narcissist’s belief on how the case should be conducted. When a lawyer has one or more clients like this and often finds themselves dropping everything to fulfill client whims, it can come at the detriment to self-care and other obligations, including one’s spouse. This is especially true if both spouses are lawyers who might be representing a demanding client together or if both spouses have a plethora of demanding clients in their own law practices.

When only one spouse is a lawyer, the nonlawyer spouse can have very little understanding of the time commitment and emotional toll involved in having a demanding client. That very important client call that occurs during the piano recital or the “emergency” matter that must be heard during the lawyer’s vacation can quickly cause even the most tender-hearted nonlawyer spouse to go into a frenzy. That frenzy, in turn, causes the lawyer spouse to have lukewarm feelings towards their nonattorney spouse, who clearly can never empathize with how it must feel to fulfill the endless void of client demands in order to make the living. In these situations, the chasm caused by clients can often create such a gaping hole in the marriage that the divide can never be converged and repaired.

2. Financial Stress

For most attorneys, the practice of law involves the hustle and constant business of getting—and keeping—clients who will pay the fees incurred, which will in turn pay the overhead, which includes the lawyer’s compensation, which ultimately covers the lawyer’s household financial expenses. Much like reading that sentence was exhausting, so is the constant “business part” of the practice of law. The hardships of maintaining a financially viable law practice can seep into the marriage of a lawyer. For example, the lawyer’s practice may be diminishing based on market forces, the downturn of the economy, or just the influx of self-help groups sponsored through salacious private enterprises and/or the government. In those moments, the lawyer can begin to feel the pressure of not fulfilling the monetary requisites that will enable the living accommodations to which their family has become accustomed. The pressure can be even greater when the couple lives extravagantly due to one or both spouses’ spending habits. A bad spell in business for those couples can cause a cataclysmic shift in the accord in the lawyer’s marriage. We know that clients are not immune from marital issues due to financial stress; we need to remember that attorneys are also not immune. If the lawyer and their spouse have not utilized financial literacy to control their household budgeting, the slightest of financial strains can serve as the tide that washes away the marital foundation built on sand.

3. Children, Pets, and Activities

I always joke that you can tell how old my children are by the number of swirls of grey hair that circle my head like the rings in a tree trunk. Of course, the two children that I have are some of the greatest embodiments of joy in my life. I have also had the fortunate luck of not having a moody teenager, but I digress. The extras in a marriage that children represent also come with their own hardships. When children are younger, parents usually lament about how hard it is to parent, but the reality is that when children are infants, they typically sleep and eat and require diaper changes. Aside from that, there are sizeable periods of time in which the spouses can have a date night even if it means ordering pizza and enjoying a collective activity together. As children get older, they get busy, and I mean really busy. Some children play sports, some do the arts, and some just require good old-fashioned play time that does not involve the endless cycles of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse reruns. In those moments of focus on children, there are likely periods in which one spouse does not fully interact or connect with the other spouse. If you have multiple children with different age gaps and interests, it can be even harder as the constraints of time and availability further pull spouses away while they usher the children to their activities. The end result of that pattern is a short five-minute discussion about what activities and schedules await the next day. And when you wake up the next day, so begins the repetitive cycle. It should be noted that the experience just described is not just an exclusive situation for lawyers. However, when you are already short strapped for time and availability due to clients, the crumbs of emotional connection are quickly being sucked away by the children and the things that involve the children. Pets can also cause the same stressors on married couples, especially if the pet has a series of demands for time, such as walks, parks, training, cleanup, and baths. Again, much like children, the disposable time that serves as leftovers from clients is quickly stolen by the needs of our pets. If you are in a family where you double down and have busy children and needy pets, your marriage quickly goes from running on fumes to stranded on the side of the road with cinder block tires.

4. Phones, Social Media, and the Dead Stare

Being the product of poverty and living in a trailer as a child, I recall what a rotary phone was and the angst I would feel when I made a mistake at the end of dialing a telephone number only to have to hit the button and redo the slow dialing process. In the era of smart phones, instant access to the internet, and the veiled version of false reality that people present on social media, I often find myself wishing it possible to hit that reset button on the rotary phone and remove the ills that come with the smart phones and the applications that come with it. The next time you are in a restaurant, do this experiment. Stop and look around to observe how many couples are enthralled with their phones instead of each other, how many children are begging for their parents attention as they are too busy catching the latest on social media, the teenager who is too preoccupied with TikTok to have a much-needed conversation with the parent, and the absolute look of melancholy and sadness that befalls every face that is sponged to that screen. And therein lies the problem that hits every couple. For married lawyers, it is not just that social media page of a “friend” that you are concerned with; it is also the litany of emails that come in from aforesaid clients, the calendar reminder of the child’s activity that you just remembered, or the endless scroll through the websites that only offer discord, disunity, and the disillusion of life in general. After absorbing all that negative mantra from the smartphone, you look at your spouse with that dead stare . . . the one of exhaustion, of emotional depletion, and the subtle longing of something simpler, which you cannot seem to find on that smart phone. Again, this is not just pervasive in lawyers’ marriages, but it is exacerbated by the fact that, unlike a lot of professions, you do not have to—and usually do not—escape work once you break the plane of the work/office door. Doctors cannot operate on a cell phone, and dentists cannot play golf through the cell phone (we all have made the joke, based in truth, that dentists do their best work on the golf course, especially on afternoons and Fridays), but lawyers can always be available with the simple swipe and click of the phone. Truth be told, we often forget about the weekends as well.

5. The Unexpected Hard

Marriage vows, at least the canned ones, go something along the lines of that you will love your spouse through better or worse, richer or poorer, in good health or sickness, and until death do you part. Nowadays, social media teaches us that everyone’s life is painted with rose-colored glasses that only has moments of bliss, easiness, and the staving away of all the hardships of life. But, in reality, everyone faces a degree of unexpected hardships in life. That truth even applies to the aristocrats, the politically powerful, and the celebrities who sell an image of grandeur. And in those moments for lawyers who are married, the trust test of marital mettle presents itself and separates those couples with the fortitude to endure and those whose relationship was build on a foundation of sand. What do these hardships look like? Well, strikingly similar to what our clients face as family law attorneys: Financial difficulties, deceit, infidelity, substance abuse issues, a child or parent who becomes sick when the day before he or she was completely healthy in appearance, and personal ailments, both mental and physical, for either the individual or the spouse. And if we had a filter on Snapchat to peel back the realities of marriages and relationships and reveal the actual truth, we would find that most marriages that have one or both attorneys are sometimes on the cusp of a breakdown due to those unexpected hardships. Of course, as attorneys we often do not want to admit weakness even if it involves our own personal relationships since we are a profession often built on strength, positioning, posturing, and self-promotion regardless of whether that framework distorts the veracity of life.

Three Pathways to Strength in a Lawyer’s Marriage

That being said, there is a better way for a married lawyer to build a strong marriage that will endure the long-game and will create a relationship that is grounded in fidelity, sincerity, and humility. The factors listed above can cause a small fracture in a fragile marriage to become a chasm that is too far a gap to meet back at the middle. That is, unless you are willing to put in the work, both individually and collectively, to bridge that divide.

1. Make Connection, Not Rejection

The best relationships are built not on the big moments or the big things but rather on the collective moments of small things that make a constant connection. For example, a husband who brings flowers to his wife only on Valentine’s Day is making a gesture but one that is based on the expectations of commercialized holidays, not to make a true intimate connection. Likewise, a husband who buys flowers everyday or in a predictable pattern, often has the same issue because the presentment of flowers is more on habit, and less on relationship development. Now, compare that with a husband who buys his wife flowers on random intervals or during periods of stress for the wife. In those moments, you have shown that you are attentive, present, and possibly empathetic to the spouses’ concerns and needs. Married people should also carve out specific time each week to be together without those stressors above in the mix as much as possible. Much like the Geico insurance commercial slogans, 15 minutes could save you from 15 percent of your marital issues. And those periods of connection should not always involve money, children, parents, or complaints about the other. Instead, utilize a list of questions that center around getting the know your spouse and to understand the things that drive their passions, their interests, and their vision as it relates to the future together. There are some phone apps that are available for this, but I would recommend that you refrain from using any electronic device, if possible, because those devices are often the sparks that have the distractions (client/opposing counsel emails for attorneys) that will completely destroy any opportunity to have that moment of connection.

2. Therapy

As attorneys, we often feel chagrined when discussing mental health issues, the need for therapy, and the implicit admission of “weakness” if you require any sort of counseling for issues in your personal life. The truth is that inability to cope with the underlying issues and to admit that professional help may be needed for therapeutic reasons is the real weakness. And it is the denial of that need that often prevents restoration of marital issues for lawyers. For example, a lawyer who tends to be a narcissist will likely have a hard time developing a mutually rewarding relationship with a spouse unless the spouse has a personality type that accommodates the pleasantries of the narcissistic spouse. If the lawyer is battling some form of depression, that melancholy demeanor again does not foster a healthy marriage unless again, the other spouse has a personality that weathers the storm of the lawyer spouse’s depression. Candidly, the usual truth of struggling marriages, even with lawyers, is that sometimes both spouses are suffering from some sort of mental health issue that causes an unfortunate festering of the marital difficulties. For instance, a lawyer may have had an affair and the other spouse has situational depression caused by that other spouse’s ill-conceived choice. In another example, you may have a nonlawyer spouse who is spendthrift, and the lawyer spouse battles depression and anxiety over the premise that there is an endless vacuum of debt accumulated by the other spouse. Perhaps one of the spouses dealt with abuse as a child and has never addressed the resonating effects, including the effects on the spouse’s marriage. Whatever the underlying problem might be, the central nexus is that attorneys are often late to the game in getting therapy, be it mental health therapy, family therapy, or marriage counseling, in order to work through the mental health issues that come from the stressors of life.

3. Quit the Pace and Remove the Poison Associated with a Law Practice

In law school, a professor once quoted to my class that “the law is a jealous mistress.” If that adage is true, then that relationship should come to an end. As lawyers, we are often trained to be competitive as part of the adversarial system. That training, in part, creates an undying devotion to the practice of law that, as stated above, seeps into the personal lives and very existence of the attorney. However, there can be a better way to quit the harsh pace of law while still practicing it. One such way is to create those boundaries that were mentioned above so that the lawyer spouse can devote time and energy towards their spouse. Another is to reduce the volume of clients so that every breathing moment is not filled with deadlines and client needs. Moreover, it is important that both the lawyer spouse and the other spouse be in unison on the changes needed on a permanent basis to drive away that jealous mistress. And perhaps most beneficial, the lawyer spouse should take the time for self-care because the fatigue caused by the stressors on marriage can only be resolved if the lawyer spouse has their own internal house in order. Otherwise, any attempts to slow the pace and antidote the poison of the legal practice will be only be a superficial gloss over of an otherwise decayed existence.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Brentley Tanner is a partner with Parker Bryan Family Law in Raleigh, North Carolina. Brentley is known both statewide and nationally as an expert in military member family law matters. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Family Advocate and co-issue editor of this issue.