Being Mindful of and Fighting the Hazards of “The Three Ps”

Some of us will choose to embrace the Three Ps, and we may become very successful lawyers but may find that we have sacrificed more than we bargained on in the process.

Jack H. (Nick) McCall

Retired Senior Attorney; Tennessee Valley Authority

Recently, I was discussing some of the challenges that often make the practice of law so vexing and grueling with my longtime friend Rodd Barckhoff (a UT Law adjunct professor and fellow Ritchie, Fels & Dillard clerkship colleague from law school days). As we talked, Professor Barckhoff and I discussed three of the most treacherous traits that arise for many lawyers and law students (and perhaps judges, as well) as we experience the legal profession. “Have we ever talked about ‘the Three Ps?’” Rodd asked.

Those three Ps? Perfectionism. Paranoia. Pessimism. The three Ps make for a potent and, if unchecked, deadly cocktail that can affect the outlooks, personalities, and psychological well-being of so many lawyers. Unfortunately, aspects of the legal profession tend to summon forth and reinforce each of these attributes in many – if not most – of us.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously wrote that “the law sharpens the mind by narrowing it.” Following this analogy: if law sharpens the mind like one sharpens a pencil, what is left after this process is completed can often be hard, pointed, and sharp. As part of the processes of forming the lawyer’s mind and stripping away what’s unessential, the Three Ps begin to take over our thoughts and outlooks subtly – even for those of us lacking a predisposition to them – while we are law students. Like so many things that are good, even necessary (in reasonable doses), the attributes behind the Three Ps can become too much of a good thing if allowed to flourish without checks or restraint. In short: the Three Ps are truly two-edged swords: powerful tools for focusing the lawyer’s thoughts, yet fully capable of causing self-harm.

Consider each of those powerful words and their effects. How can we cope with them – better yet, how can we modify them – so that these aspects of the lawyerly mind, which guide our development and implementation of sound legal thinking, neither overwhelm us nor drive us or others crazy? Set forth below are a few observations on the perils of the Three Ps, followed by some related reflections.

Perfectionism: For so many of us, the quest for perfection begins with law school – arguably before it – as we strive for the highest scores on our LSATs to secure our place in the law school of our dreams. Naturally, the “paper chase” of high class rankings and grades further fuels the drive. If we have not gotten a range of law professors and classmates speaking of perfection or vying for it in our academic lives, we get a full measure of it as young lawyers and associates. From partners’ interrogations of, “Is this work perfect? Don’t turn it in to me until it is perfect – but you have to get this done by the time I get back to the office,” to our zealous desire to measure up to the canons and rules of professional responsibility to those little professors and mini-partners that live in our heads and critique us every day, perfectionism is ever-present. Our own high standards – resulting in the drive for perfection – are highly admirable and necessary to push us towards greatness. In the process, though, we become perfectionists. Catch the nuance here between the search for perfection and actually becoming a perfectionist. The first is an aspiration, a goal; as to the second, if a thing is not perfect, it is devalued. And, on those days (and, those days do happen to us all) when we fail to satisfy the little professors and mini-partners in our heads, we can devalue ourselves all too easily.

Pessimism: We all learn from childhood that, in the United States, people are presumed innocent until their guilt is proved. Yet, we quickly learn to flip this presumption once we become lawyers! It is so very difficult not to do so. Many of us become lawyers because we are already risk-averse, and the life of the law only enhances the traits that can go along with this outlook. While we do not often think in these ways, much of learning the law focuses us on risks and risk management. We soon learn in law classes that we must spot legal risks at every turn and quickly identify those risks to advise our clients of courses of action.

Combine that with the bleakness, greed, negativity, anger, and impatience we often see in our cases and legal matters. Lawyers undoubtedly face as much of the worst of the human condition as any profession (and fortunately also are exposed to some of the highest aspects, on occasion). Moreover, as many a criminal defense lawyer or plaintiff’s lawyer might say to themselves: “Your client always lies.” All this is a potent recipe for turning one into a pessimist.

Paranoia: Paranoia readily travels hand-in-glove with pessimism. Being trained to search for risks and dangers behind every corner – an exploding package on the track of a daily commuters’ train (think: Palsgraf) or a banana peel on the floor every time one goes shopping at the supermarket – is a tough way to live life. Then again, many a lawyer can also relate to the truth of the saying: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t some [one/other lawyer/irritated client/ex-client/angry supervisor] out there trying to get you.”

Is it any wonder why the legal profession suffers from high rates of depression, substance abuse (perhaps as self-medication), thoughts of self-harm, and other challenges to one’s mental well-being when so many of us are often driven by the Three Ps from the time we started law school?

Frankly, I am not sure that there are easy answers when it comes to curbing the powerful and pernicious effects of the Three Ps on members of the legal profession. This is easily a lifelong challenge for all of us, and of necessity, how one copes with it must vary from person to person. Some of us will choose to embrace the Three Ps, and we may become very successful lawyers but may find that we have sacrificed more than we bargained on in the process. Some of us may find counseling beneficial, as we learn that too much of the Three Ps can not only challenge our relationships with others but also actually drive us to exhaustion. Personally, I have observed that being able to unplug – and I mean really unplug – from the law for a while can help greatly. Seek those things that help you keep balance and equilibrium. Whether that is exercise, yoga and meditation, hiking, running, or reading for pleasure, each of us needs to find that nugget of joy that helps us to retain our personality and what we love outside the law.

As lawyer-leaders and managers, we must not only stay attuned to the Three Ps as they work on ourselves, but we also must stay heedful and observant of their effects on others with whom we work and whom we lead. Being mindful of what the Three Ps can do to us – and how they can cause us to act out on others – is only the very start.

A former UT law professor often said, “The law is a jealous mistress.” The life of the law is demanding, it is challenging, and it can push us to extremes. We, however, and we alone, have to be the ones to set the ground rules and keep that jealous partner – and those little professors and mini-law partners living in our heads – from taking over our lives, our loves, and our outlooks on life.

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