6 Things We Learned in Law School that Shouldn’t Be Tried at Home

We are very excited to welcome Mark Perlmutter to Trebuchet for a six-part series on law school lessons that are not advisable for a healthy home life. Mark is a Texas trial lawyer turned counselor who helps individuals (many of whom are former lawyers) have better relationships. Welcome, Mark! 

Once, there was a lawyer in marriage counseling. His therapist asked him how he felt about what his wife had just said. “I think what she just said is totally irrelevant to the issue at hand,” he said. Patiently, the therapist responded, “Actually, sentences answering ‘How do you feel’ questions begin with ‘I feel.’” “Oh,” triumphantly said the lawyer. “Then I feel like what she just said is totally irrelevant to the issue at hand.” To which the therapist replied, “What you just said is actually a thought. Feeling words include ‘happy, sad, angry, afraid, etc.’” I then said I didn’t know what I felt.

Yes, I once was that lawyer—only a few years out of law school where I’d learned very well how to think like a lawyer. Yet after many years of Texas trial practice, teaching law, training as a couples therapist, and moving to San Francisco (which itself improves mental health), I’ve come to realize how much my lawyer competencies had helped to make me an utterly incompetent husband. Unfortunately, my therapy practice has taught me I was not too different from many of my brethren. So in the interest of inoculating those who might otherwise follow in my painful footsteps to the dangers of bringing our lawyer personas home, here is the first of a six-part series on ways that being a lawyer can make us wayward lovers.

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”—Vince Lombardi, Hall of Fame football coach

By its nature, the structure of the legal system is adversarial. It’s win/lose—just like football. But bringing that mindset home does not go well if we’re anything like Vince Lombardi: his wife said marrying him “was the greatest mistake of her life.”*

To succeed in this win/lose system we begin with a meticulous marshaling of proof. From there, we inexorably attack the opposition, blame, and rationalize, all in an attempt to prove we’re right.

So how do these skills and this mindset play out at home?

They lead us to argue, to default to what we know how to do best. And before you know it, we care more about being right than we care about being together. This means that upon hearing our partner’s point of view, we may immediately introduce a significantly different viewpoint if not one in total opposition.

My nine years of study and practice in Systems Centered Therapy® tells me that our personal receptivity to new information, our information “boundary,” becomes impermeable if that information is too different from what’s just been communicated. Moreover, it doesn’t take any fancy training to anticipate this argument isn’t going to end well.

On the other hand, if instead of immediately becoming oppositional, we say something like, “why don’t we explore all the benefits of going with your viewpoint and then explore the benefits of other courses of action,” we can open the door to true collaboration. A similar strategy is to say something like:

“Let me see if I’m understanding what you’re saying.”

Then paraphrasing your partners thoughts, feeling or wants, and asking if you’ve heard them right. Once your partner confirms you’ve gotten it, you might say, “I have a different idea about this. Are you open to hearing about it?” Either of these formulations will soften your partner’s boundary so that your own input is more likely to be actually heard which, in turn, will lead to a more satisfying resolution.

*Maraniss, David. When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi , p. 74 (1999) New York, Simon & Schuster

Thanks, Mark. Great advice!

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A former Texas Trial Lawyer, Mark Perlmutter, MA, JD now helps individuals and couples to have more satisfying business and intimate relationships. He also works with couples and families of people with substance abuse issues, mediates, and is an Adjunct Professor of Law at UC Hastings and the University of Texas School of Law. He can be contacted via email or phone at 415-857-4065.