The Angriest Lawyer in Town

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By Jay Reeves

If you want to boost your bottom line, make wellness your number one priority.

Nothing else – not billable hours, SEO or the latest miracle software – will add greater purpose, profits or peace of mind to your practice.

This is not something I learned in law school. In fact, I came out believing just the opposite: that by working like a dog, sacrificing family time and consuming nerve-jangling quantities of coffee, I could prove my mettle as a lawyer and might one day “make it.”

Make what, you ask? Make myself miserable.

Luckily, the gravitational pull of marriage and four miniature human beings called children – combined with years of experience in private practice and as risk manager for a legal malpractice carrier – jolted me out of that orbit.

That and having the good fortune of representing The Angriest Lawyer in Town.

Net Worth is Not Self-Worth
This was back when I practiced solo in Chapel Hill, in a brick building on Franklin Street, where I represented attorneys in State Bar disciplinary and licensing cases. 

The Angriest Lawyer in Town was well-known. He appeared on billboards and television advertisements for his busy personal injury practice. He had a shiny car and big house. He wore gold cufflinks. 

But man, was he angry. He seemed incapable of enjoying his success. He scowled at strangers and bellowed at judges. Colleagues would sprint through heavy traffic to avoid passing him on the sidewalk. 

So you can imagine my trepidation when one morning he called for an appointment. 

“You do State Bar cases?” 

“Yes,” I said. 

“You any good?” 

Here I should point out that lawyers – especially those whose law license is in danger – are not your garden-variety client, unless you mean the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. 

“Never mind,” he said. “When can I see you?” 

We Have Met the Enemy, and It Is Us
True to form, The Angriest Lawyer in Town arrived at my office angry. But his wrath was not directed at me. He raged instead at the client who had reported him to the State Bar, and at the Bar for doing its job, and – surprisingly – at himself.

“I should never have taken this case,” he said, as he slammed a thick file on the conference room table. “I’m still mad at myself.”

Within seconds of opening the folder, I had made a preliminary diagnosis.

“Well,” I said. “I’ve found your first problem right here.”

I was holding a stack of letters from the State Bar Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Some had been sent by certified mail months earlier. Not a single one had been opened.

I should add that at this point in my career – unlike when I started out in the 1980s and had pretty much all the answers – I had become less convinced of my omniscience. But still, I was fairly sure of two things: (a) bad news rarely improves by ignoring it, and (b) it’s hard to answer a letter without taking it out of the envelope and reading it first.

For a while, the Angriest Lawyer in Town just glared at me. His face turned red. He refused to even glance down at the awful, unopened correspondence lying there in plain view.

And then, unexpectedly, he closed his eyes, sank back into his chair and appeared to shrink in size, like a balloon that had sprung a leak.

Choose Acceptance Over Denial
Nobody likes to examine the shadows, scars and scary things that scurry around inside us. But they’re there, whether we choose to look or not.

And the funny thing is, once we drag the dark stuff out into the sunlight – which is best done gently, with respect for our essential worthiness, and perhaps with the help of a trained professional – it tends to lose its power. Solutions emerge. We grow stronger by facing our demons.

The sad irony for The Angriest Lawyer in Town was that the underlying State Bar grievance was not a fatal error. The damage was containable, at least in the beginning. But now he was in deeper trouble for dissing the State Bar, which was a separate – and more serious – ethical violation.

“How do we explain this?” he wanted to know.

“Well,” I said. “We could always tell the truth.”

And shockingly, this advice did not trigger his fury. He simply nodded. He seemed almost relieved.

As Within, So Without
My psychiatrist friend Andrea says anger can be a symptom of buried problems, sometimes from childhood trauma we are not even consciously aware of.

So it was with The Angriest Lawyer in Town. From the moment he was born, his life had been somewhat less than a joyous romp. As an adult he worsened matters through self-sabotaging behavior. He smoked and drank too much. He worked continuously and exercised rarely. He had two broken marriages, estranged children and no close friends.

With that much gunk in his internal engine, it’s no wonder his pistons knocked so badly.

And though it might seem surprising that a person who could strike fear in the hearts of opposing counsel and reduce an adverse witness to a quivering puddle was himself terrified of opening a small white envelope, it shouldn’t be.

Those State Bar letters threatened to take away the one thing in his life – his identity as a lawyer – that seemed to be working. The operative word being seemed, because of course it wasn’t working, not really.

Full Spectrum Health: Mental, Physical, Emotional, Spiritual
Practicing law is hard enough as it is. We make it even harder when we don’t take care of ourselves.

But take heart. Sunshine follows even the cloudiest day. The Angriest Lawyer in Town reached a settlement with the State Bar and managed to keep his law license. He signed up with the Lawyer Assistance Program, joined a peer support group and began seeing a counselor.

Years passed before I happened to run into him at a Durham Bulls game. He was with his adult daughter and her family. He did not look one bit angry. He looked great.

He said he was sober and had lost weight. He was working less and working out more. In fact he had just returned from a camping trip to Craters of the Moon National Park in Idaho.

“Last week I was standing on a lava field that’s 10,000 years old,” he said, beaming. “Isn’t that amazing?”

“Yes,” I said, smiling back at this brave, happy survivor – a hero, in my book – who had taken the place of The Angriest Lawyer in Town. “That’s truly amazing.”

Note: This article first appeared in the August 2018 edition of ABA Law Practice Today.

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Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. During the course of his 37-year career, he was a solo practitioner, corporate lawyer, Lawyers Weekly Legal Editor, Legal Aid attorney, insurance Vice President, risk manager, coffeeshop owner, softball coach and father of four. He is the founder of Your Law Life, where he and his team help lawyers take their practice to the next level.


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