My patient, a senior associate doing IP litigation at a downtown firm, brought me the bad news.
“I got a terrible review last week.”
She seemed calm about it, considering. That’s because she knows how law firms work.
“I’m expensive, and they’re preparing for lay-offs. So they told me I’m terrible. It was ridiculous. They made stuff up off the top of their heads.”
I had to hand it to her. I wish I could have been so cool when the same thing happened to me.
My first year review at Sullivan & Cromwell went fine. Mostly, they didn’t seem to notice me. I wasn’t important enough to review.
Then, in the second year, it was suddenly a horror show. Nothing I did was right. The partners didn’t fool around at S&C – they give it to you with a sledgehammer.
Even then, I remember wondering about that one partner who seemed to like me. Of course, he wasn’t mentioned at the review.
Years later, after I’d given up on a legal career, I realized the truth. They’d probably given identical reviews to ten or fifteen percent of my class that year. We were the ones who left. It was a lay-off. Those terrible reviews were the partners’ way of creating a paper trail in preparation for letting us go – covering their tracks in case we sued.
My patient – an experienced senior associate at her second law firm job – knew how to handle this sort of thing. You don’t let them throw you.
She admitted to feeling shaken when she walked out of that office, and for a few days she didn’t tell anyone about it – just kept the feelings inside. It was painful, after all the late nights and hard work, to hear them say terrible things about her, and initially it triggered feelings of shame. But she caught herself, and managed to snap out of it. She called me up for a therapy appointment, opened up about the ordeal, and decided then and there that she would call a headhunter and begin setting up interviews. She was resolved to get out of that place ASAP and go somewhere else where she could be appreciated for the work she did.
Unfortunately, for every cool customer like that patient, there are about a dozen weeping young over-achievers who show up at my psychotherapy office utterly devastated by this sort of review. They’ve spent their entire lives at the top of their classes in school, bringing apples to delighted teachers – and suddenly they fail to please.
A few months ago I listened sympathetically to a fourth-year associate who’d received the review from hell. He was bemoaning his inadequacy as a human being, when I decided I’d heard enough and spoke up:
“You went to Yale. You were in the top fifth of your class. You did litigation at Cravath before you even showed up at this firm. You’re a brilliant classical pianist and smart, interesting, terrific guy. When did you suddenly become incapable?”
Something started to creep back into his face. It looked like self-respect. All I’d done was remind him who he was.
Don’t fall for the bad review routine. It’s a crock. And it can hurt you. When you are beaten up like that, but don’t feel you can fight back, the anger can turn inward and devastate your self-esteem, resulting in depression. That can lead to self-punitive behavior and even suicidal thoughts.
Stop that process before it begins. Enforce a self-barrier, a piece of emotional insulation between you and those evil partners. You might not always be right – but aren’t always wrong, either.
A balanced review is just that – balanced. It is the job of managers to motivate you by pointing out your positives as well as your areas of weakness.
If they don’t – you have to fall back on your own self-knowledge, and belief in who you are. Never lose hold of that.
You know who you are. You know what you can do.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)