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Litigation Journal

Spring 2023: Presentation

Work and Play

Kenneth P Nolan


  • Lawyers shouldn’t minimize the stress of our jobs.
  • Achieving balance isn't easy, with travel, deadlines, unreasonable judges, and trials.
  • Career is important, of course, but so is life.
Work and Play
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Happiness has never been my goal. Sure, I want to laugh with family and friends while wolfing down a big, fat bacon cheeseburger, but I never believed anyone could be truly and eternally happy. Most of life is worry, drudgery, toil. At best, annoyance; at worst, agony. Of course, there are births and weddings and Christmas, but most of the time it’s who’s battling breast cancer, who’s in physical therapy, whose kid is moving to Florida—no state income tax, you know.

I never even considered if I was happy until a young lawyer, overwhelmed by the relentless crush of our profession, asked with exasperation, “Are you happy?” “I never thought about it,” I responded truthfully. I was 50ish at the time.

Just recently, I was discussing my career as a plaintiff’s lawyer, representing those lost in plane crashes, victims of medical malpractice, those maimed in construction or auto accidents, including 125 families who lost husbands, wives, children on 9/11. “That’s incredible,” he said. “That’s a lot of tragedy. Did you go to therapy for your mental health?” “No,” I said quickly and then blurted out, “Maybe I should have.”

I’m finally realizing that introspection is not one of my virtues. Maybe it’s the streets of Brooklyn, which resounded with “stop crying, you baby. . . . What are you complaining about? . . . You want sympathy, look it up in the dictionary.” Maybe it’s my family and how anguish, sorrow, sacrifice were never mentioned. Not by my maternal grandparents, who at 18 and 22 left Ireland alone, never to return, never to see or speak with their parents, family, friends again. Not even a photo. Not by my paternal grandmother, who lost her father when she was 11 with the resulting poverty, then her brother, 22, then her husband when he was 50. Not by my father of his three years and three months fighting Hitler in Africa and Europe.

Maybe it’s just me, and how I avoid contemplation, how I never just sit quietly and think. If I don’t dwell on loss, pain, fault, do they really exist? Perhaps I take after my grandmother, who always regaled us with stories of her joyful and carefree childhood as if she was raised in privilege and comfort instead of tragedy and destitution in a tenement on the Lower East Side.

And we all have similar stories, most much worse than mine. I’m on the board of a nonprofit, once an orphanage, which now deals with foster children, abandoned or taken from their families due to abuse, addiction, and worse. Their tales are truly horrific—physical and emotional cruelty. Yet, they persevere and, fortunately, most succeed.

Don’t Minimize Your Stress

We’re lawyers, not frightened 12-year-olds tossed onto the streets and told never to return. Our lives are mostly middle-class comfortable with few of the fears and hardships of our ancestors. Yet, our work is demanding, with long hours, relentless deadlines, and unrealistic expectations of success. Even though we’re not desperate migrants struggling from Venezuela to our land of opportunity, we shouldn’t minimize the stress of our jobs.

A bright, personable woman, working crazy hours trying to make partner, confided to my wife that she feels terribly guilty for not being there for her two small children. A young friend was just told that his dream of partnership will remain a dream. His normally happy face filled with disappointment and despair. A long-time buddy is starting a three-week trial, and I could detect the anxiety through his emails.

I’m not the ideal candidate to provide advice on how to cope since I was always searching for another case—after all, there are 24 hours in a day. I never took a day here or there, discussed feelings, spent time in therapy. My parents were Depression-scarred—my father had to quit high school for work—so taking a day off was an alien and absurd notion. “Work hard all the time, save every penny” echoed on my streets and in my schools. We rejoiced when we turned 16 so we could obtain “working papers,” and a real job, rather than delivering newspapers or groceries and other odd jobs, which we did from age 11 or 12.

Perhaps I should have known better. Perhaps I should have emulated my late friend, Jake Stein, who closed his door each day and spent an uninterrupted hour or so alone just thinking, reading. He realized that working nonstop forever is not success. A lawyer with varied interests, an engaging personality, and a healthy body and mind will win at trial. And Jake did.

There’s no doubt that unhappiness and melancholy have infiltrated our majestic courtrooms and sun lit offices. The suicide of Pennsylvania trial lawyer Slade McLaughlin is one heartbreaking example. By all accounts, he had it all—family, success, respect. Always too much work, too little time, maddening clients, and an inefficient and Rube Goldberg–like judicial system. A client screws up and faces the loss of $250,000, which you miraculously save. Finally, you’re a hero deserving of praise, gratitude, maybe a bottle of Dom Perignon. Instead, all you receive are complaints about the size of your fee.

Take care of yourself. Sounds simple, right? Except it’s not. Especially for women, who have to defeat a motion for summary judgment while taking Penny to the doctor and picking up Lincoln from day care. I see this not only with my three daughters, but also when I pick up my grandkids. Frazzled women rush from one place to another. All this child care stuff should be borne equally, but it’s not. And if an elderly parent begins to forget, we know that women usually take charge.

Demands of family and career clash. Ask Tom Brady. Easy to advocate to spend more time with your children, but depositions, trials won’t be adjourned so you can push little Harry on the swing. You can’t wake at 5 a.m. to prepare for that day’s trial and feed baby Betty at the same time. Insist that employers are aware of these conflicts and provide flexibility and support. You should be able to work from home when necessary, child care should be available at large firms, and extended maternity/paternity leave should be routine. Not that hard. Not that expensive.

Easy to advise to quit Big Law and work civil service with its human hours and decent benefits, but the days of buying a starter home for $51,200 like I did are long past. The working-class row house where I was raised with its tiny rooms is now $2.5 million. And I don’t even ask what my children pay for day care. Work, family, and financial issues strain even ideal relationships. Find someone—spouse, friend, therapist—to vent, to ask for guidance, to listen. Anger and resentment build if problems are not confronted and communicated.

In law, addiction is rampant—drugs, alcohol, money, power. Seeking assistance or entering rehab should be applauded. Staring into a colleague’s eyes while detailing his destructive behavior could lose a friend but may save a life. We know too many good, loving people who have died from the scourge of fentanyl. Don’t ever believe we’re immune simply because we’re Ivy League educated.

I’ve never had much therapy, but you should. We all have fears, challenges in our professional and personal lives. I’m not advocating that every firm have an in-house shrink, like in Billions, but treatment for mental health should be included in every medical plan. And utilized. Yeah, it doesn’t always work, but it can’t hurt.

The Benefits of the Office

I’ve calculated that I’ve spent at least two years—that’s right, 365 days, 24 hours per—on the smelly New York City subways. Even though I would have loved to work from home occasionally, isolation, for me, is torture. I need to stroll into a colleague’s office to ask advice, discuss strategy, moan how the Mets will never win another World Series. I crave interaction and support. When I screwed up, my colleagues were there to make sure I didn’t jump out my 34th-floor window.

Young lawyers need the socialization and camaraderie that the office provides. They need to talk in person—enough with the silly texts—with others for encouragement, laughs. Nothing better than having a beer with colleagues at the end of a tough week while complaining about the arrogant a**holes that run the firm. Revealing fears and discussing problems help. If you’re a hermit in your room, you’ll never become an effective trial lawyer. Learn how to interact with people. I received a PhD in persuasion just by trying to have court clerks check my papers.

A French intern in our office was ecstatic when the French government lowered the work week to 35 hours. “How are you going to compete,” I asked, “with China, Germany, the U.S.?” She looked at me like I was a moron. Her goal was to live comfortably and happily, balancing work, family, and fun. And if she didn’t become a Fortune 500 CEO, well, so what? The young want to be there when Hannah hits a homer, when Emmett, in his green Gekko costume, goes trick-or-treating. If you wish to hire and retain intelligent, effective attorneys, adapt to this new reality.

Achieving balance won’t be easy. Travel, deadlines, unreasonable judges, trials cause havoc. But persevere. It’s worth it. And if you need proof, just look at the photo from October 2022 of Michael McGuire, the Kentucky coal miner who raced from work, face and clothes covered in coal dust, so he could take his son to a University of Kentucky basketball game. Career is important, of course, but so is life.