A Lighthearted Look at Sociopaths-at-Law (and a Sondheim Recommendation)

Sociopaths from Home Alone, Batman, Dexter, and Silence of the Lambs

Frankly, all but the kid on the left are WAY too obvious for real life. By the way, “Assassins,” the charming Stephen Sondheim musical about quintessential American sociopathology, is playing right now at the Mysterium in North Tustin. Check out the review in the box at the end of this piece — and then maybe the musical itself!  Would it kill you?

A pair of stories from my old friend and colleague Elie Mystal, who blogs for the piquant and cheeky (and sometimes righteously furious) legal website “Above the Law.”

Precipitating story from Psychology Today:

I loved getting high marks in school; it meant I could get away with things other students couldn’t. When I was young, what thrilled me was the risk of figuring out just how little I could study and still pull off the A. It was the same for being an attorney. During the California bar exam, people were crying from the stress. The convention center where the exam took place looked like a disaster relief center; people made desperate attempts to recall everything they had memorized over the prior eight weeks—weeks that I spent vacationing in Mexico. Despite being woefully ill-prepared by many standards, I was able to maintain calm and focus enough to maximize the knowledge I did have. I passed while others failed.

Regardless of my laziness and general lack of interest, I was actually a great lawyer when I was trying. At one point, I worked as a prosecutor in the misdemeanor department of the district attorney’s office. My sociopathic traits make me a particularly excellent trial lawyer. I’m cool under pressure. I feel no guilt or compunction, which is handy in such a dirty business. Misdemeanor prosecutors almost always have to walk into a trial with cases they’ve never worked on before. All you can do is bluff and hope that you’ll be able to scramble through it. The thing with sociopaths is that we are largely unaffected by fear. Besides, the nature of the crime is of no moral concern to me; I am interested only in winning the legal game.

And later:

When I was at one law firm, I was assigned to work for a senior associate named Jane. I was based in one of the firm’s satellite offices, so I saw her once every few weeks. In law firms, you are supposed to treat your senior associate as if she is the ultimate authority, and Jane took this hierarchy seriously. You could tell that she never enjoyed such power in any other social sphere. Her pale skin mottled with age, poor diet, and middling hygiene was evidence of a lifetime spent outside the social elite. She wanted to wear her power well, but she was clumsy with it — heavy-handed in certain circumstances and a pushover in others. She was an entertaining blend of power and self-doubt.

I was not her best associate, and Jane believed that I was undeserving of all that I had accomplished. She put much effort into dressing appropriately, while I wore flip-flops and T-shirts at every semi-reasonable opportunity. While she billed as many hours as humanly possible, I exploited the nonexistent vacation policy by taking three-day weekends and weeks-long holidays.

From Above the Law’s first story on the above:

Have you ever thought that your law professor was a sadistic bastard? Have you ever felt like the prosecutor across the table was an emotional black hole? Would it freak you out if you turned out to be clinically right? … [T]oday we’ve come across a truly chilling article from a law professor who admits that she’s a sociopath and writes about how law is the perfect field for people like her.

The sociopathtic attorney is apparently barred somewhere in California. She’s a law professor and has been a prosecutor and an associate of some kind. She also teaches Sunday school at a Mormon Church, because apparently “[t]he Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a sociopath’s dream.”

The woman has decided to keep herself anonymous — for somewhat obvious reasons — and I’m not particularly interested in figuring out where she works. She says that she’s non-violent and has never physically hurt anybody (not that she’s never thought about it), but I don’t exactly want to test her.

You have to read the rest at that link.  I mean it.  You have to.

From the follow-up story (from which I have excised the name of the accused):

A student of professor S_____’s contacted us to say that he believed his former professor to be the one who authored the article. From the student:

She was generally known as the IP law professor with big tits (she only taught trademarks and copyrights because she had no science background) and there were A LOT of guys (and girls) that were infatuated with her. The sociopathic part that people were able to pick up on was the stare – that blank, empty, uncaring stare. I met with her in office hours once. I wasn’t sure if she wanted to f**k me or eat me. I’m assuming now that it was likely both.

Enter another Above the Law source. This source says that S____ did indeed intend to leave [current law school]  for… BYU Law. Again, if you read yesterday’s article you know that the author crowed about how “[t]he Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a sociopath’s dream.” From our tipster:

She was set to become a law professor at BYU Law School. The Dean there is “getting his legal ducks in a row” in order to fire her. Can’t say I blame them, but kind of an ugly result nonetheless. She was courting that result, though: so many unusual biographical disclosures that pointed her way (Mormon female law professor barred in CA reduces it to a class of one, I think).

So, in short order, Elie bags his quarry.  (I received no reply when requesting comment from a friend who worked in IP at Irell’s LA office at about the same time.)

As an attorney, I’m not supposed to say things that bring the profession into disrepute, or something like that, so I’m not supposed to say anything like “the profession is full of sociopaths.”  (I can, however, quote someone from Elie’s article: “Sociopaths are a nice a break from the swarming narcissists that currently dominate the profession.”  In fact, I know plenty of lawyers, and while a fair proportion of them seem a bit dismal, I’m not sure that that proportion is higher than that for salespeople or politicians or university professors.  The problem is that the profession sometimes demands something that is awfully hard to distinguish from sociopathy.  (It’s among my least favorite aspects of the profession, being a naturally empathetic mofo myself.)

The problem is that clients often want sociopathic behavior from attorneys.  By that, I don’t mean illegal: a prototypical sociopath — and yes, I know that that’s not a technical term of art in psychology anymore — may be very careful to follow the law … in situations where whether they did so is likely to be discovered.  I mean amoral.  Completely, unblinkingly, absolutely amoral.  Vince “winning is the only thing” Lombandi working for Al “just win, baby” Davis level amoral.

Part of this is, in turn, the effect of the corporate form itself, when it is interpreted as a mandate — not just permission, but a mandate — to maximize value for shareholders.  In other words, if you can get away with something, the argument is that you have a mandate to do it.  If the penalties you will face (scaled down by their chance of not happening) for a given action are less than the expected benefits you would gain, you are supposed to do it.  A $1,000,000 fine (including one’s legal costs) for dumping poisons (literally or metaphorically) into a literal or metaphoric river that would have cost $1,100,000 to prevent is a win.

So, even if this person is not actually a sociopath — and I’m with Elie in going with “narcissistic personality disorder” (or maybe “borderline”) as my armchair diagnosis — it’s easy enough to imagine that she could be one, and could be entirely welcome within legal culture.  And that is not even primarily the fault of our lawyers, but of the demands made of them — and that, in turn, is a problem with our laws and their (lack of) enforcement.

In other words, it’s a problem of politics.  (Hmm … why so serious?  Now for that theater review!)

Review of Assassins at the Mysterium


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)