They Care… in Their Spare Time

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

By Murray Gottheil | September 6, 2023

The other day my wife, Maureen, told me about a friend who was complaining that his busy adult children do not call him very often. Her friend asked Maureen, “Don’t they care about their dad?”  To which Maureen replied, “They care… in their spare time.”

Maureen had it exactly right. Busy people focus on the issues in their life that require immediate attention. They put the things that they can take for granted aside to worry about when they find the time.

Some law firm partners are like that. There is never enough time to worry about everything. They have to prioritize. It is not that they do not care about teaching, training, coaching, and mentoring their associates.  It is just that they have stuff that must be done first, such as billing hours, bringing in business, administering their practices, and perhaps spending some time with their life partner and children.

They care in their spare time. Or more precisely, if they ever find any spare time, they will start caring.

Nothing in the world is going to change this in traditional law firms. I have heard of a few non-traditional law firms that are trying to build a different culture where people come first and money comes second, and I am intrigued to see if they will be able to pull it off.

I asked Tristan Mohamed, who first practiced law and then went back to school to qualify as a psychotherapist, to tell me what he would advise a lawyer who is trying to establish a culture which puts people before money. Here is a simplified version of the advice that Tristan gave me:

  1. We must start by looking at our relationship with money;
  2. We have mirror neurons in our brains that light up when we see someone else experiencing an emotion, anything from joy to sorrow. These neurons trigger a similar emotional response in us and elicit empathy and connection;
  3. We don’t have mirror neurons that light up when we see dollar signs;
  4. You would think that if helping others is more satisfying than making money, we would do more of that. However, life experiences that cause us to associate profits with meeting our needs can socialize us to value profits over people;
  5. So, we have to understand our life experience, and in particular, the areas in which our needs were not met growing up;
  6. When we understand which of our psychological needs were unmet, we can better understand the value we place on money, and how we sometimes, in an effort to get those needs met, lose sight of our and others’ humanity;
  7. We work ourselves into sickness, divorce, isolation, and addiction because we think of ourselves, our minds and our bodies as tools for achieving the value we place on money;
  8. Tristan gave me an example of how he saw money as a refuge from the discrimination he faced growing up and thought that if he could just get a prestigious enough position and earn enough money, people would respect him. Of course, that never took away the pain of discrimination, and never truly met his need for acceptance;
  9. The more we turn to these painful parts of ourselves and see the ways that we might be motivated unconsciously to replicate core needs around safety, acceptance, affection, love, connection, and intimacy, the more equipped we will be to create cultures that recognize people over profits;
  10. Rather than trying to seek out a certain income level because we think it will meet those core needs, we can grow out of enslavement to the idea that a certain number on a paycheck will meet our core needs.
  11. This type of self-inquiry holds the potential to reshape the way we relate to work. If we can understand our core needs and the ways in which they were not met, we can understand that other people have the same core needs that we do. We can then create a culture that values people over money. The tendency to dehumanize employees by treating them as objects to reach our desired outcomes falls away when we abandon the idea that money will address all of our core needs;
  12. Once we achieve this realization, we can stop pretending that our employees, colleagues, partners, and family are nothing more than tools designed to get us to the profits which we hope will make us happy.  We will no longer try to place a big fat dollar shaped band-aid over our emotional scars, but instead see value in nurturing collegial relationships predicated on openness, honesty, and vulnerability. This translates to compassionate conversations, policies, and practices, because we are willing to give ourselves that same compassion. In this way, we become a mirror image of the culture we’re seeking to create; and
  13. Rather than expecting the legal world to change first, we have to change first.

Tristan suggested the following questions to ask yourself by way of exploring your core needs:

  1. What aspect of your needs brings feelings of tension or discomfort?
  2. Do you feel comfortable asking for support? For praise? Affection? Responsibility? Trust? What does the idea of directly asking for these things bring up in you?
  3. How do you relate to money? What narratives and spoken or unspoken rules existed in your family of origin around money? Was money a taboo subject?
  4. Did one person hold more financial power in the family? How did that impact you?
  5. What value does money bring you?
  6. If you woke up tomorrow and money was no longer a concern, what would be different in your life? How would others recognize that money was no longer a concern for you?

The bottom line is that if we want to build firms that are not all about money, we have to understand our own relationship with money. A bunch of lawyers are not going to do this on their own. It is time to spend some of that extra money that we have been making on shrinks.

Murray is a happily retired lawyer who lives in the country, drives a pick-up truck, writes, teaches and mentors. You can reach him at [email protected] or see what he is up to at


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