I first came to the realization that I might have made a poor career choice during a casual chat with my colleagues at a social event. It was the usual Thursday night litigation drinks held in one of the boardrooms on the 43rd floor at my former firm. I do not recall what we were discussing, but at some point, I said, “I just really hate conflict”. Another associate turned to me with a quizzical look on his face, “You hate conflict? Aren’t you a litigator?”
It may sound obvious, but that was really the first time I put two and two together. I was able to recognize the source of the prickly-icky feeling that I had about being a litigator. I hated conflict but I was in a conflict-filled job.
The thing was though, for the most part, I enjoyed being a litigator. There were so many aspects that I found exciting and invigorating. I loved trying to find the perfect case to support my client’s position. I loved analyzing the law and crafting a strong argument. I loved starting with a blank screen and finishing with a well-written and persuasive factum. I loved the feeling of making an amazing argument in court. All these things gave me little adrenaline highs (still do).
But there were aspects of my job that kept me up at night.
Contentious correspondence with opposing counsel caused me so much anxiety. The ‘gamespersonship’, the tactical maneuvering, the surprise strategic motion when I thought we were on track to settle, the “gotcha” new case handed over the morning of the court appearance…all made my heart pound. I could not breathe. Panic would set in. Every time I received a snarky email or even one that was just sternly worded, I would want to vomit. I would cry over opposing counsel being aggressive in settlement negotiations (after I left the room, thankfully) because the conflict it created made me so sad. I just wanted to scream: “Life’s too short! Let’s all get along. Let’s figure this out together. Why must we fight?!”
My mentors and other lawyers told me I was “too sensitive”. I have been told this my whole life. I am so sick of hearing those words. My grade school teachers, professors, ex-boyfriends, friends, employers, partners at firms, opposing counsel: “You are too sensitive, Erin. Toughen up, grow a thick skin, and you will be fine”. For too long I was ashamed of my sensitivity and tried my best to hide my emotions. But that is so hard to do when you feel everything. When I walk into a room I just sense what others are feeling and absorb those feelings as my own. When you are in a high-conflict situation those feelings are intense. And I feel every single one of them.
I know exactly where my dislike of conflict and my sensitivity comes from. I learned from an early age to walk on eggshells, to not rock the boat, to not cause any conflict that might set someone off. Figuring out a person’s mood, sensing if they were ready to blow, and keeping the peace, were all important if I did not want to get hurt, both physically and emotionally. Between my DNA and my childhood circumstances I am wired the way I am.
When I told my mother that I was going to law school, she told me I was “too nice to be a lawyer”. At the time it annoyed me a little, but looking back now I realize she knew the true me. The real Erin was a highly sensitive person who might not fare well in the conflict filled world of litigation. Mothers know best.
In my seventh year of practice, when I switched from corporate commercial litigation to estate litigation, things only got worse. I know, I know. Clearly there would be more conflict and emotions in estate litigation, but I am always one who is up for a challenge. I thought I could just put mind over matter and force myself to just “deal with it”. I thought I could beat my sensitivity.
I lasted 7 months.
The conflict and the anger and the sadness in estate litigation were too much. I absorbed them like a sponge and took those feelings home with me every night. My days were filled with brothers and sisters intensely hating each other; aggressive counsel (some bordering on sharp practice); angry correspondence; clients either crying on the phone to me or swearing at me. I felt like I had this constant orb of anxiety around my body 24/7. On my way to work I would hope to be hit by a car. Not injured badly, just enough that I would have to go to the hospital and not work for a few days. Things were not good. Eventually, I learned I was pregnant, and my obstetrician told me that the stress I was under was affecting my health. It was only then that I gave myself permission to admit defeat. I was never going to “toughen up”. I was never going to build that emotional protective shell around me. I was never going to grow that thick skin.
And that was okay.
I quit the next day. I have not been a “regular” litigator since.
I started my own practice as a freelance lawyer. I support litigators behind the scenes doing all the work that I love to do, drafting pleadings and factums, conducting legal research, writing legal opinions, etc. I never have to deal with opposing counsel. I never have to deal with emotional and distraught clients. It is the perfect practice for me.
But some days I feel like a quitter.
I see lawyers my age winning prestigious litigation awards and on the cover of newspapers working on headline grabbing cases. I went to law school to take on these cases and to help people. I went to law school to be a real litigator and I am not. Should I have stuck it out? Could I have learned to deal with conflict? I know I was really good at my job. I know I am an excellent litigator. Should I have toughened up and become less sensitive?
Is it possible to be a litigator who hates conflict? Is there a secret I never learned?
I have no answers. I will just go on with my day being my sensitive self, feeling all the feels, and doing my best behind the scenes to resolve as much conflict in this world that I can.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance lawyer, entrepreneur, legal career consultant researcher & writer, and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.