Shattering the Doom Loop

Quieting our internal chatter to break the cycle of ruin

June 05, 2024 Photo

Several months ago, the head of litigation at Walmart, Kerri Ruttenberg, retired—at age 47. She said she looked forward to her retirement because it gave her a “second shot at life.” Her LinkedIn post about this decision received nearly 50,000 impressions.

What is it about litigation that drives individuals like Ruttenberg out of one of the most esteemed and respected jobs in the legal profession? If you polled my law school classmates, 90% would have chewed broken glass to end up in a job like that.

I’ve never met Ruttenberg. I can only pretend to understand some of the nuances and complexities in her decision-making, and this article will attempt no such psychoanalysis or judgment.

I am, however, deeply interested in two aspects of Ruttenberg’s decision. First, the idea that a person at the top of her field retires at the top of her game (if not still ascending). Quick aside—Jerry Seinfeld retired from “Seinfeld” at age 44. So there is a precedence for such decisions.

Second, and even more perplexing: the 50,000 impressions Ruttenberg’s LinkedIn post received. One can only assume the “second shot at life” comment resonated with people across various professions. How many of us would do the same when freed from financial or professional burdens and given a straightforward, hassle-free exit strategy?

The Doom Loop

Doom loop theory is defined as “when one negative event triggers another, which triggers a new bad event or worsens the first.” You’ve likely read about this concept in the context of large metropolitan cities. A fundamental and general application of the doom loop theory in this context would start with increased crime in an urban area. The increase in crime leads to businesses shuttering within that metropolitan area. That, in turn, causes other companies to close or relocate from urban areas. When enough businesses leave or relocate, there is a spike in unemployment and a loss in commercial rent. This would eventually lead to a loss in tax revenue for the urban area. When tax revenue is lost, budget cuts will follow (including, among other things, policing and other locally funded programs). The result is right where things began—an increase in crime. And the cycle starts all over again.

We have our professional doom loops in the form of negative, cyclical behavior that loops around. Assume you have just been assigned a claim with a plaintiff’s lawyer you loathe. You want to avoid giving this lawyer a dime because he’s been known to pursue frivolous cases. You immediately take a tough stance and do not initiate settlement discussions. The plaintiff’s attorney grows frustrated because he wants to settle this claim quickly. So, he files his complaint. The claims examiner has to assign defense counsel, and after some initial discussions, the decision is made early on that this case is earmarked for trial (i.e., no early settlements). The loop continues case after case. Defense counsel files a motion to dismiss. Enraged, the plaintiff’s attorney starts to pepper everyone with interrogatories, document requests, and requests for admissions. Incensed at overdoing discovery on “frivolous claims,” defense counsel notices a dozen depositions. All the while, both sides’ costs are going up, and the hatred builds. You end up in the same place as you started—loathing the other side and not wanting to settle.

These are just some of the myriad realities of a fraught litigation cycle. We all know about the practical cost, but what about the emotional one?

Great Expectations

In a recent survey of Massachusetts lawyers, 77% reported experiencing “work-related burnout” and nearly 50% of respondents had either left or contemplated leaving legal practice. Those numbers track with other broader, more expansive studies, with numbers of burnout hovering somewhere between 50% and 70%.

Hidden in that study of Massachusetts lawyers was another exciting number. Despite the burnout and thoughts of leaving the law behind, 66% of respondents reported overall satisfaction with their lives. A similar national study had job satisfaction at 68%. Why the discrepancies? Can both be true—lawyers are burned out and want to leave but are still satisfied with their lives or careers? What gives?

These results have broader implications beyond Massachusetts. Lawyer dissatisfaction has been examined for years, and you will find strikingly similar results across multiple surveys taken over the last 10 years.

The numbers reveal a larger truth if you wrap your mind around them: The job is mundane, stress-inducing, and confrontational aspects (particularly in the litigation sector) are likely a key source of dissatisfaction. As we know, not all lawyers or law firms are the same. The legal caste system has its pecking order, and myriad factors influence any lawyer’s feelings or responses to satisfaction surveys. The larger truth, however, remains—despite all the negatives, people still like being lawyers.

This seems paradoxical. On the one hand, segments of the lawyer population are running for the hills (or, at the very least, dreaming about doing so). At the same time, there is also the sense that lawyers would do it all over again despite what they know and have experienced.

The answer likely lies in expectations. What lawyers have, despite all of the bad blood and doom loop traps, is the reality that there is no salary cap for our profession—there may be for a particular job, but not the profession. It is an endless sea of possibilities, and I’d venture to guess that when answering these surveys, despite all the negativity and job frustration we may feel, there is a glimmer of hope out there of a better, more accessible, more productive professional life that is so elusive to so many.

The question is, can we capitalize on it?

Quieting the Chatter

In 2021, Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, published a book entitled, “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It,” wherein he examined the inner voice all of us possess and how negative self-talk (which he cleverly refers to as chatter) can derail us. All of us have experienced this in one form or another—that little internal voice that is constantly running. Whether driven by ego, fear, greed, or competition, our chatter often sets the tone for the soundtrack of our lives.

Using personal and data-driven examples, Kross illustrates how negative self-talk is destructive and unproductive, and what tools we can use to quiet the voice and harness it to our advantage. These tools include, among others, distanced self-talk, changing one’s perspective, journaling, limiting venting, performing rituals to provide order and calm our minds, and indulging in nature and awe-inspiring events. Some of these seem like common sense, but how often are we doing any of them?

One tool worth a closer look at for defense lawyers and claims professionals is distanced self-talk. Here, Kross advocates talking to yourself in the third person and avoiding the words “I” and “me” to get some literal distance from your problem. Likewise, he suggests adopting a fly-on[1]the-wall approach where you should imagine you are a fly on the wall of your own experience; a distant observer to whatever negative self-talk loop or crisis you face. He further suggests adopting the perspective of counseling a friend facing the same issue—how would you do it? Each approach involves stepping outside the problem, even for a few seconds, and creating space for clearer thinking and improved decision-making.

A conversation with a colleague a few years ago illuminated how useful the application of distanced self-talk would have been had it been applied. More specifically, this particular attorney represented a plaintiff and had the rarest of unicorns—a case with clear liability. The attorney worked up the case and proceeded to mediation. After much internal discussion and polling inside the attorney’s law firm, a valuation was reached, and the corresponding demand was provided in advance to the mediator.

Another rare event soon followed—the mediator was quickly on board with the plaintiff’s case and arguments, and her valuation was nearly identical to the plaintiff’s attorney.

What could go wrong? The obvious, of course. The attorney ran into the battering ram combination of an obstinate adjustor and a defense attorney who appeared not to have been leveling with the insurer about just how bad the case was for their side. The plaintiff’s attorney and mediator were stonewalled from start to finish.

The mediator, at one point, indicated to the plaintiff’s attorney that based on the defense’s offer, they were “out of their damned minds” and “not living in reality.”

We’ve all lived this scenario dozens or hundreds of times. It is, therefore, essential to ask, have we ever failed to acknowledge the weakness in a case because of our pride, our failings, a lack of preparation, or our negative self-talk or preconceived biases? And is that getting in the way of representing the best interests of our clients and perpetuating doom loop after doom loop?

We must speak the truth to our insurance partners because, regardless of how much we justify the arguments to ourselves, we must present the realities of the cases assigned—warts and all.

Distanced self-talk may have gone a long way here in resolving this dispute. Rather than yielding to the chatter about how terrible plaintiffs’ lawyers are and how they’re all billboard-happy ambulance chasers, imagine how the mediation may have gone if the defense lawyer and the adjustor were explaining this same case to a trusted friend. Would they have remained as obstinate? As indignant of reality? Or would they have wisely counseled the friend to respond appropriately—without judgment or emotion—to resolve a case fraught with risk to their side?

When I asked how it all turned out, the plaintiff’s lawyer ended with this: “We’re still fighting—several years in. We’ll spend over a hundred grand getting this case through trial; the other side will spend two or three times that between billable hours and experts, and you know what? The case will settle for the same amount it could have at mediation.”

Multiply this example by a couple of thousand claims across the country, and perhaps we’ll gain a better insight into why lawyers—from novice associates to the corporate juggernauts—love telling their friends and families that they’re attorneys but yet still end up fleeing for the hills for the so-called better life.

About The Authors
Matthew Cianflone

Matthew Cianflone is general counsel at Gold Medal Bakery, Inc.

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