The Lonely Worker

lonely office

In four years, my law firm went from me and my laptop to $800,000 and climbing, and suddenly we were twelve of us in newly decked out offices complete with $100,000 in telecommunications and electronics upgrades.

Obviously we’d hit a sweet spot, and we were having fun. We laughed a lot. We ate together, visited each other’s homes. We took firm ski days and watched the Rockies at Coors Field. We had crazy non-policies like “take as much vacation as you need to come to work refreshed.” We had the coolest Christmas event ever. And we did kick-ass legal work.

But then the numbers got bigger and I got serious. An accountant said our vacation policy was unsustainable — we needed one, in a real live employee manual. I wrote one but never had the heart to show it to anyone. We sat in meetings with consultants formulating heartless strategic plans we all ignored. We had an employee retreat that was just plain weird.

The worst thing I took seriously was myself. I totally blew the lesson basketball Hall-of-Famer and Orlando Magic founder Pat William put in the title of his book Humility:  The Secret Ingredient of Success. Time and chance had favored us — I’d stumbled  into doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. Work had often been a rollicking, happy social occasion. But then I decided I must  have been responsible for it, and paved Paradise, put up a parking lot, and didn’t know what we had ‘til it was gone.

We’d been in our new offices one week. My wife and I had flown  back the day before from a cushy five-day CLE at a resort in San Diego, and I was heading out to visit our new satellite office when the phone rang. It was the associate-soon-to-be-partner  we’d put in charge. “There’s something going on you need to know about,” he said.

The date was September 11th. The second plane had just hit the second tower.

Our clients — mostly small businesses — got hammered in the mini-recession that followed. As a result, so did we. I sought advice from two Denver law firm icons. They were sympathetic — they’d done that, too — expanded too much too quickly and paid for it in a downturn. A couple other people said you have to let people go — I followed their advice and let one person go — a move I mourn to this day. That’s when I decided we’ll survive or go down, but we’re doing it together.

We limped along until January 2004, when the new leader of our major referral source called to say they were “moving in a new direction” and March 31st would be the date we were officially toast. For the next three months I wrote job recommendations, we gave people their furniture and computers, sold the rest, archived files….

When I went to the office on April 1st (April Fool’s Day), the place echoed. I’d never felt so lonely in my life. Rotten timing, victim of circumstance, happens to everyone… yeah maybe, but all I could think was I miss my friends.

We don’t usually associate loneliness with work. We ought to, says Emily Esfahani-Smith in her book The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters. She cites findings that 20% consider loneliness a “major source of unhappiness in their lives,” that 1/3 of Americans 45 of older say they’re lonely, and that close relationships at work are a major source of meaning. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murphy agrees and then some:

“There is good reason to be concerned about social connection in our current world. Loneliness is a growing health epidemic.

“Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.

“In the workplace, many employees — and half of CEOs — report feeling lonely in their roles.

“At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.

“And even working at an office doesn’t guarantee meaningful connections: People sit in an office full of coworkers, even in open-plan workspaces, but everyone is staring at a computer or attending task-oriented meetings where opportunities to connect on a human level are scarce.

“Happy hours, coffee breaks, and team-building exercises are designed to build connections between colleagues, but do they really help people develop deep relationships? On average, we spend more waking hours with our coworkers than we do with our families. But do they know what we really care about? Do they understand our values? Do they share in our triumphs and pains?

“These aren’t just rhetorical questions; from a biological perspective, we evolved to be social creatures. Over thousands of years, the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that the absence of such a protective force creates a stress state in the body.”

Work And The Loneliness Epidemic: Reducing Isolation At Work Is Good For Business, Harvard Business Review (2017)

He offers these remedies:

  • Evaluate the current state of connections in your workplace.
  • Build understanding of high-quality relationships.
  • Make strengthening social connections a strategic priority in your organization.
  • Create opportunities to learn about your colleagues’ personal lives.

And, he might have added, you might want to rethink your stingy vacation policy.

For more, see Work Loneliness and Employee Performance, Academy of Management Proceedings (2011).

If you like this blog, you might enjoy the new Iconoclast.blog, which explores several themes that have appeared in this blog over the years, such as how belief creates culture and culture creates behavior, and why growth and change are difficult but doable. You can also follow Iconoclast.blog on Facebook,

The Culture of Law (17):  Culture and Meaning

Iain McGilchrist has guided our consideration of brain-based culture. Let’s hear from him one last time:

“Despite the brittle optimism constantly proclaimed by advertising, and not infrequently by government spokesmen, the defining mood of the modern era is one of disappointment. That is not just my opinion; it’s as near a fact as such things can be. People are measurably less happy today than they were fifty years ago, when we first started measuring, despite staggering improvements in material well-being. There is much to feel proud of, of course, advances in conquering disease being just one example, and we live longer — but prompting the question, for what?” From The Divided Brain And The Search For Meaning

“For what?” is a question about meaning. According to McGilchrist, how we answer depends which side of the brain prevails. If the left side, we will focus on being reasonable and rational, on working out utilitarian solutions. If the right, we’ll broaden the discussion to the pursuit of meaning, which has much to do with our own happiness.

Of course, we could avoid the cultural debate altogether, and let cultural evolution take care of it, meanwhile continuing to embrace without examination the cultural norms that make law culture “recognizable as such to both members and non-members” — including behaviors they label alternately as “admirable” and “distasteful.

We could be sedated into thoughtlessness and soullessness by the “staggering improvements in material well-being” our professional offers us in our show me the money moments. Or we could take a contrarian monetary outlook, and embrace the don’t show me the money alternative.

We could argue and debate, and feel righteous about the positions we take, even though what we’re actually doing is defending our neuro-cultural status quo for the sake of our own neurological peace of mind.  Or we could argue “on the other hand” and advocate hacking (in either its outlaw or gentrified character) the law into something more suited to our preferred cultural imperative.

In other words, we could act like lawyers, working one side of the table, then the other. Nothing wrong with lawyers acting like lawyers, especially in matters of the law. But on the topic of law culture, we might want to broaden our inquiry, and entertain the “for what?” question from the fullness of what it means for us to be human, lawyers or not. To make that choice is to end detachment and instead engage ourselves with the meta-issues of our profession. As McGilchrist declares in his wrap up:

“Meaning emerges from engagement with the world
not from abstract contemplation of it.”

The stakes of engagement are higher, and the effort required of us more demanding, than the stakes and effort of detachment. Ultimately what’s at issue is not merely the future context in which law will be practiced by those in the profession — including the entrepreneurial newcomers — or how the profession will be regarded by the public it serves, but the happiness of us all.

We will find meaning in the law for ourselves by creating it through the neuro-cultural collective agreements we wish the other members of the culture to reciprocate. And once those agreements have found their places in our neural pathways, they will go on shaping our culture and us with it, creating meaning in our lives which we will demonstrate through our behavior as lawyers until we become “recognizable  as such to both members and non-members” in our newly re-created profession.

Cultural evolution can’t and won’t give us our future of choice. We can only give that to ourselves by deliberate, focused action which may at times clash with the traditions of our cultural genetic coding.

Engaging with shaping the culture of law will lead us into the search for meaning… if we dare.

Those who dare will make brave choices and commitments, and they and those closest to them will invariably suffer as we and our law culture are neurologically re-shaped. All the while, we will continue to  try cases, negotiate and close transactions, and do all the other things our profession requires all day (and all night) long, but ultimately, we won’t do better for ourselves or others than to create meaning in our law culture, beginning with the meaning we create inside our own skins and skulls.

Those who dare will shape law culture for themselves, their colleagues, and ultimately the world that needs the law to be a living, dynamic, in-spirited agency of human happiness.

Not a bad notion to keep in mind as the holidays are upon us.