Five Things to Know About Dating an Attorney
The key to this, and really any dating and relationships article, is that it is a generalization. Of course, everyone is individual and all circumstances are unique. Nothing can replace an open dialogue with your partner about your relationship. Hopefully this article will spur a few questions to ask early in your relationship to help you navigate together.
Lesson 1: Ego
Law school attracts type A personalities who are used to success and high achievement. Add to that the competitive confines of three years with other type A personalities who are also used to success and you have a recipe for a hot mess of ego. No one graduates from law school and doesn't want to win. It is not an environment that encourages gray areas. There are winners and losers. Which one do you think your attorney wants to be? What do you think their future clients want?
Practicing law only makes this worse. Lawyers who aren't confident are quickly overshadowed by the rest of the narcassistic population of climbers in their offices and courtrooms. Attorneys quickly learn to speak up or get used to doing research on Westlaw while their colleagues advance. There's incentive to enhance the type A-ness many attorneys are naturally born with at every stage of the game.
There's also a certain amount of status that comes, rightly or wrongly, with being a lawyer. Lawyers are a "traditional" profession. When your attorney says he or she is an attorney, everyone gets the image of their favorite criminal justice or primetime legal show in their heads. They know what attorneys do. They respect attorneys (and likely loathe them, too). So that ego your attorney was already predisposed to and every aspect of their legal career, from law school to their every breath at the office? It just gets bigger.
That's not to say every job is cut-throat or that every attorney is full of hot air and herself (or himself). There are always exceptions and the growing displeasure within the profession in general is certainly encouraging younger attorneys to buck the trend. Still, it's an old profession dominated by established egoticians. Just be aware.
Have an ego yourself? Ego clashes are unlikely to ever stop if you're paired with an attorney. They want to win, remember? Some couples thrive on this sort of tension; others perish. Tolerance levels entirely depend on couples. My significant other and I have adapted by learning each others' microtriggers. Clear communication is the key to overcoming this challenge in your relationship.
Lesson 2: Making the Case
Along with the ego and the unending desire to win, many people are attracted to law because they enjoy debate and/or argument. Heathly debate is essential to a relationship: what neighborhood to live in, child-rearing decisions, lifestyle choices, even where to go for dinner. Never having an opinion is rarely attractive to anyone. But sometimes, attorneys get in the habit of arguing just for the thrill of the win. Other times, like many other professions, the stress of the day follows them home and argument and debate have become a crutch they also packed. When debate crosses the line between healthy and non-value added, clear communication is vital.
If you dislike conflict, make sure your partner is aware of it and point out to them when they are making you uncomfortable.There is no substitute for clear communication. You have to know what your partner and your relationship thrive on and how to signal enough is enough.
Side Bar: Depression, Suicide and Chemical Dependency
If you are dating or thinking about dating a lawyer, possibly the most important lesson is one not unique to lawyers, but incredibly more prevenent in the legal community than in other professions. The combination of high stress, lack of work-life balance, and competition, along surely with other factors that can't all be listed here, make lawyers:
- THREE times more likely to suffer from depression than other professions;
- SIX times more likely to commit suicide than the general population;
- Studies estimate that the percentage of the legal profession who is chemically dependent or alcohol-dependent may be as high as 20%. That's one of every five.
The legal profession has responded by forming "lawyer assistance programs," or "LAPs" in almost every state. LAPs are designed to help attorneys navigate chemical abuse, alcoholism, depression and other issues discretely and with minimal or no impact to their professional career (all that I know of do not disclose participation in LAP programs to anyone outside of the LAP). More information on the program for you state can be found by Googling "lawyers assistance programs" in your state or calling your state's Board of Professional Responsibility.
If you care about a lawyer, dating or otherwise, please watch for signs of problems and encourage them to seek professional help early.
Source: Abnormal Abuse (with links to more studies).
Lesson 3: Work Life Imbalance
Very few lawyers can even give you a reasonable definition of work-life balance. They know it's something to aspire to, but since they probably don't know anyone who has it personally, it's like a mythical creature. Why describe a mythical creature? There's work to do!
Attorneys in private practice are often forced to attain nearly impossible minimum "billable hours" each year and/or manage insurmountable caseloads. Attorneys working for non-profits and government are dealing with shrinking headcounts and swelling caseloads. Like most jobs today, there is plenty of work to do and not enough people being paid to do it. Plus, the attorney heard about this person who graduated with them who billed a billion hours last year! If they can do it, so can your attorney! The competition never ends.
I was once asked on a job interview what work-life balance meant for me. My answer? I didn't believe it existed. The partner was thrilled. I didn't take the job, but many attorneys would have.
Make sure you communicate with your partner what time together and events are important to you and agree on an action plan to make it happen. If you fail at this communication, the odds are they will work right through that dinner you planned as a surprise or have a last minute motion to finish before the school play.
While last minute things do come up in legal practice, it's rare that an attorney gets these things so unexpectedly that they can't plan ahead. That mounting pile of cases? It's not going anywhere. Remind your attorney why he or she is working so hard in the first place: to enjoy a life, not just win!
Lesson 4: The Social Network
Attorneys flock together and speak clingon. Law school is a crucible during which great friendships are formed. Coupled with the relatively small legal communities in most cities, you have a recipe for the greatest inbred group of friends you can imagine.
Years after law school, even if they stop practicing, attorneys will still be friends with a lot of other attorneys. They also speak in strange inside jokes, gossip about old law school classmates that you probably don't know, and speculate about local elections. Do you really want to be present for all of this? Trust me, you don't. Give them their time with their colleagues.
Lesson 5: Have Fun
Should you be silly or lucky enough to actually love an attorney and stick with it despite the challenges above, remember to have fun when you're together. So often, couples get caught up in the day-to-day of kids, groceries and jobs. Don't stress each other out with the day-to-day all of the time. Make time to have fun, like you did when you just met.
Remembering to have fun together will keep you both happy and remind you of why you love each other in the first place. Modern life is stressful and the life of an attorney often even moreso. The fun will remind you of why it's all worthwhile.