There’s a scene in John Waters’ classic film, “Female Trouble” in which Edith Massey, playing Aunt Ida, begs her nephew, Gator, to give the gay lifestyle a chance.
Gator, poor thing, refuses, which sends Ida into pleading desperation.
Here’s the dialog –
Gator: Ain’t no way; I’m straight. I like a lot of queers, but I don’t dig their equipment, you know? I like women.
Ida: But you could change! Queers are just better. I’d be so proud if you was a fag, and had a nice beautician boyfriend… I’d never have to worry.
Gator: There ain’t nothing to worry about.
Ida: I worry that you’ll work in an office! Have children! Celebrate wedding anniversaries! The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life!
Sometimes I feel that way about the world of law.
For the record, I’m not trying to change anyone’s sexual orientation here, or even suggest that it could be changed – that’s not what this scene is about. The absurd humor in Gator and Ida’s exchange derives from Waters’ inversion of the normal situation: parents are supposed to nag you to be straight, not to be gay. Just like they’re supposed to nag you to get a job and work hard and act like an adult and get serious about your life and go to law school.
But a lot of the time I feel like Aunt Ida – pleading with lawyers not to get serious and buckle down, but precisely the opposite – to give something – anything – wacky and fun and subversive – or merely indecorous – a chance. That’s because, if you’re not careful, slaving away at a big law firm can drain all the spark out of life, leaving things looking…well…sick and boring.
Now and then, after I receive a new referral, I succumb to the temptation to Google that person’s name. The first few times I did this, it was to find out whether he or she was male or female. That happens sometimes – you get an email from “Pat” or “Jamie” or “Oyedele,” and set up an appointment, then aren’t sure what to expect.
The inevitable result of an online search, in the case of a lawyer, is a page from a law firm directory. You get a passport-size photo capturing the flannel-suited subject with a slightly shocked deer-in-the-headlight expression, then the inevitable list of schools attended, bar admissions and a capsule summary of obscure “practice areas,” all rendered in lawfirm-ese: “General Practice Group,” “Corporate Capital Markets Restructuring,” “Derivatives Litigation and Regulation.”
There’s no sense of an actual person in those pages – only a scary apparition from the world of the serious and very grown-up.
I still recoil, looking at those bland, comically formal law firm directory pages – just as I wince looking at my old photo in the Sullivan & Cromwell facebook.
In the case of a new client referral, that passport photo comes to life a few days later in my office, in the form of an unhappy person confessing his loathing for his firm, bemoaning the steady stream of abuse, the sterile, alienating culture, crippling hours – the usual lawyer misery.
I wonder how ordinary people can be split in two like that, transformed simultaneously into the miserable, suffering human being sitting in my office, while the outward appearance is meticulously maintained – that official law firm image of a ring wraith from the world of the humorless.
Then I remember how S&C worked its magic on me, embalming me in its parallel dimension of un-fun.
It begins with the physical plant. Like so many big law firms, you enter S&C through an ugly Mies-ian knock-off modernist skyscraper, only to emerge from the elevator in an Ethan Allen showroom. The removal of all color from your world can have a subtle, but powerful effect – and S&C fetishized colorlessness. Beige wall-to-wall carpet drowned all sound. The walls were lined with a featureless beige muslin that further muffled vital signs. And then there were the ubiquitous hunting prints – someone must have raided every antique shop in Connecticut, acquiring en masse a thousand dull watercolors of someone or other “running the hounds.”
The lunchroom conversation was stunningly narcotic, too. If you sat with partners, you had a choice of topics. There were the relative merits of leasing or renting your Jaguar/Land Rover/BMW. There was the eternal furor over Scarsdale property taxes. If you got lucky, you might be privileged with cryptic references to sports events, interspersed with mumbled shop talk.
Seated with the associates, if you were unlucky, you could get trapped in one of those conversations about hours. I spectated at a few of these pissing contests, in which so-and-so bravely admitted he’d billed 30,000 hours that month alone, and such-and-such countered with how that was nothing, he’d billed 50,000 hours that very week, habitually sleeping in his office, eating each and every meal at his desk.
To this day, I have refused to bother calculating how many hours per day a thousand or two thousand or three thousand hours per month or year or whatever it is actually works out to. My sense is that people should either work for someone else from around 9 to around 5 – or they should work for themselves, whenever they want. Anything else is sort of nuts.
How sick and boring did things get at S&C? I remember debating with my boyfriend whether it would be too “risky” for me to wear a blue shirt to work – rather than a more conservative white one. That, of course, to accompany one of my two Brooks Brothers’ suits and a feeble collection of striped ties.
The first step for many of my clients is restoring their personalities from the long, deep sleep of law firm anesthesia. It’s fun to watch.
Suddenly, that woman in the charcoal grey suit shows up in a t-shirt and jeans – and confesses a crush on L.L. Cool J. That permanently spooked-looking guy begins to relax and rhapsodize about his early days at U. Mich, drinking chianti, talking philosophy and playing banjo.
It’s like the door to the crypt slides open, and out emerges…an actual living, breathing person.
If you’re going to work at one of those big law firms, you can at least refuse to drink the Kool-Aid and remember who you are. It took me weeks, after realizing I would be leaving S&C, for warm blood to creep back into my veins. It helped to play a cd of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier over and over in my office for a few weeks. There was something about ethereal music that worked like a cross in one of those exorcist movies – the sick and the boring fled in its path.
You might have to find your own brand of garlic to hang over your office door to repel the soul-vampires. But you’ll need something.
Listen to Aunt Ida. Lighten up, break some rules – have a little fun. Otherwise, you could find yourself leading a sick and boring life.
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.)