I'm drowning in the law!

I've been thinking straight for so long I can no longer think straight.

Published September 30, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a litigation attorney at one of the largest law firms in the world. I am in my early 30s, have been practicing law for six years, and consistently get positive reviews and evaluations of my work.

The problem is I don't enjoy my work at all. It's not the people or the subject matter, and the more I think about it, the more I think there is no other line of work that I would enjoy more because my issue seems to be fairly universal.

I can't relax. No, it's more than that. I am anxious. I am anxious all the time, because there is always something that I have to do tomorrow. I don't mean that I procrastinate, because I don't. I give myself time to complete tasks and do a good job (although sometimes my workload demands that I sacrifice some quality to meet deadlines, but I have never dropped a ball). Rather, I am constantly worried about what I have to do next. And, there is always something I have to do next. I work seven days a week because the alternative -- taking time off -- is less appealing.

If I am, say, hiking with my husband and the dog, part of me is enjoying the warm pleasant day, and the rest of me, the majority of me, is mildly freaking out because the next day I will have to call an agency and request information or the partner will be returning a draft with comments that I will need to incorporate.

These aren't things that I would be able to take care of if I weren't hiking -- they require information from other people. And yet, I can't get them out of my mind.

I find my job oppressive and crushing.

But, even worse, it's bleeding over into my life. Yesterday, I worked in the morning and devoted the afternoon to household tasks. I put laundry in the washer and curled up with the Sunday paper. I soon realized I wanted to take a nap. But, the rush of anxiety so familiar to me from work hit me as I lay on the couch: I could not fall asleep until the clothes that were in the washer were in the dryer. Because what if I didn't wake up and put them in the dryer?!

Well, first of all -- so what? Why do I care? Will the earth stop rotating if I leave wet clothes in my washer? I explained this dilemma to my husband (also an attorney, whose actual work is more stressful than mine), and he looked at me as though I had lost my mind.

He suggested I force myself to leave the clothes in the washer. I couldn't. Then he suggested that I delegate the task of transferring them to the dryer to him, thereby absolving myself of responsibility. I agreed, but much like when I delegate at work, that was worse. Then I was convinced that he would not do it and it would be my fault and I should have done it myself. Needless to stay there was no Sunday afternoon nap for me.

As I read this, I think I might be crazy. Do I seem crazy to you? Is this any way to live? Am I not meant to be a lawyer?

Can't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Dear Future-Focused,

You have got to get the law out of your laundry room. It has crept in through the pipes and come up in your washing machine because your groundwater is flooded. You are drowning in the law. It has taken over everything. In your interviews at one of the world's largest law firms, they didn't tell you that would happen, did they? They didn't lean across the shiny desk and tell you that once you had worked in the law for a few years you would find it rising outside your home and eventually you and your husband who is also an attorney would be floating around in it in your pajamas as you try to take a nap, your law books knocking you in the head with their soggy but still firm Westlaw covers, your recently issued summonses floating by just out of reach, discovery motions and interrogatories and duces tecums and incompetent judges and unscrupulous adversaries and demanding senior partners all floating around in your house day and night in 6 feet of murky water, infuriatingly benign in their demeanor even as they suck the very marrow from your bones.

They didn't tell you that, did they? They didn't say, OK, just affix your soul to this contract, we'll lock it up in this wall safe and away we go! What they say is, If you work hard you'll make partner. They don't say that the law will eventually fill your cupboards and your closets and your garage and even the trunk of your car until there's not one inch of lawless space where you can hide and say to hell with the clothes in the dryer.

Why don't they tell you this? Why should they? Some people eagerly practice the monastic intellectual rite of ritual justice their whole lives with no visible ill effects. Besides, as a lawyer you get lots of stuff and a parking spot, so what could be the cost?

What indeed? What is that alarming rustling deep in the night outside your window? What is that little voice in your head? That's your soul pushing up through parched ground like a pine seedling seeking the sun. That's your delirious, pleasure-drenched soul trying to get your attention.

Through the perfect and virtuous practice of the law, you finally reach the point where order becomes its opposite; without a little disorder, the perfect system collapses. Without a little laundry left damp and mildewy in the Maytag, the universe grows brittle with perfection. By covering every contingency, you have left no room for the largest contingency of all, the fact that life is a law unto itself, unruly and mysterious at the quantum level, perverse and comical in the domestic sphere, outrageous and humbling and baffling in its daily decisions, respecting kings, beggars, judges and drunks alike.

So what to do? Find your purpose. Reclaim your life. Take a long vacation. Consider your soul. Consider your purpose on earth. Meanwhile, as the jury deliberates, you have the right to take a deep breath and go roller skating. Be it so ordered.

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