You pass through a stage when you’re about two years old – the famous “terrible twos.” It’s marked by stubborn refusals to obey orders, and sometimes downright tantrums. The infant is growing into a person. For the first time, he wants control over his own life.
It’s called personal autonomy. You go where you want to go, do what you want to do, and refuse to do what you don’t want to do. A crucial phase of human psychological development, it marks the inception of an independent identity, a sense of purpose – and a sense of self.
This week I worked with a young second year from a big firm. She related a hellish story of law firm life.
This past Saturday morning she was at the airport in line with a boarding pass, heading to her best friend’s wedding, when her cellphone rang. It was a partner. He needed her in right away.
She explained that she was about to step on a plane.
He asked, “Well, are you actually in the wedding?”
She said no.
“Then you don’t have to be there.”
You’ve heard stories like this. One of my clients admitted to a partner that it was actually his step-grandmother’s funeral he was leaving the office to attend. This old woman had been married to his grandfather for 30 years and was the only grandmother he’d ever known, but he lost on a technicality. He couldn’t be at that funeral because she wasn’t family. Some court filing was more important.
Young attorneys at big firms don’t have personal autonomy.
Even for a two-year old, it is degrading to be treated like an infant. But at least a two year old can throw a tantrum. You don’t have that option. You have to contain all that anger, and often it gets turned inward, triggering low self-esteem and depression.
You know this problem exists – we all do. The question becomes what to do about it.
I have two suggestions:
First, lawyers can treat one another like adults instead of infants.
Virtually nothing that has to be done by Monday really has to be done by Monday. That is a law firm myth.
I remember, in the business world, my boss demanding that a contract be re-drafted by our outside counsel for Monday morning. It was Friday afternoon. I interrupted the call to say I wanted to take a look at the current draft before then, and that I’d get it to the outside counsel by Monday morning so she could sign off on my changes.
I was lying. But I could almost hear her body collapse in relief. I knew the outside counsel. She was 27 years old and had been planning to go skiing that weekend with her boyfriend. I’d worked as a lawyer at a big law firm. I knew she would be devastated if we trashed her weekend. I also knew it wasn’t that important – so I did what I had to.
I approached my boss, a Vice President of Marketing, a few days later, and talked to him about it.
“Don’t you realize how much they bill us an hour for her time?” He said. “She should work on weekends.”
When money is made more important than people, someone always suffers. I didn’t care what they billed us for her hours. I was worried about her. She was a person.
I’m making a plea here for lawyers who have had their weekends ruined to do whatever it takes to make sure someone else’s weekend isn’t ruined, too.
That means partners can try to make things more transparent, so associates have a heads-up sooner.
That means instead of pulling in some poor junior who’s going to his grandmother’s funeral, call in a paralegal, who’d probably love the over-time and can do most of the same work anyway.
That means realizing that other people are people, too, and they deserve to have some control over their lives.
My second suggestion is to you lawyers out there whose autonomy is being taken from you.
Don’t sink into helplessness and depression. At very least, re-frame this set-up as a choice. You are probably doing this big-firm thing for a few years to achieve a goal. Either you want to get senior so you have more say in things, or change firms or go in-house or maybe just pay off the loans and get out of law. This job is a step on the way to somewhere else. Never lose track of that. You have at least that much control.
Take care of yourself, too. Go visit a therapist, and complain a little. It helps to have a place where you’re in charge, and can say whatever you want.
You might even stand up a little for yourself at the office.
At the end of my stay at Sullivan & Cromwell, when I already had another job lined up and was about to announce my resignation, I happened to receive “the call” from a partner late on a Friday afternoon. He wanted some memo turned around ASAP.
Just for the heck of it, I behaved like a grown-up instead of a frightened child.
“Realistically, Bob, what’s the deadline on this?” I asked. “Could I have it for you Monday night or Tuesday morning.”
There was silence for about a count of five. Then he started screaming.
“How about right now?! What about you do it right now!?”
I answered calmly.
“Okay – not a problem. I just wanted to make sure the timetable was realistic. You see, I had weekend plans.”
There was an awkward silence on the other end of the line. He wasn’t used to this.
And then I hung up.
It wasn’t much. But, like a two year old insisting he wanted to walk over there and play with that toy right now, I’d carved out a zone of self-respect.
I’d made a point.
I was a person too.
[This piece is part of a series of columns created 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.