Things take a nosedive when you get to a firm. That’s when you start hating life.
Maybe we should take a look at this phenomenon, and ask ourselves why this might be the case.
There are a few prominent disparities between the experience of law school and that at a big law firm.
First – in law school when you work hard, you get a reward. There is an “incentive” for “doing your best.”
I remember a guy in my class at NYU who used to grow an exam beard every semester. He’d stop shaving a couple of weeks before exams. The beard would start to get scraggly – then, after the last bluebook was filled with scribble, he’d shave it off and everyone would hit a bar to celebrate.
It was silly, light-hearted fun, designed to focus attention on completing a goal.
Contrast that to a law firm, where nothing is silly, light-hearted or fun – and there is no such thing as completing a goal.
At a firm, you don’t “complete goals.” Thanks to your massive student loans, you are now someone’s property, and you work to avoid punishment. That means you work until midnight, then go in on the weekend. Rinse. Repeat. There is no end of semester. There is no end of the week. There is no end of anything. There is no vacation. There is no end.
Your reward for working harder than you’ve ever worked in your life? If you do a good job, no one complains – and you get more work.
That is, unless there isn’t any work, in which case you’re in trouble, because that means you’re not going to make your billables, which means you’re a parasite and a useless drain on the firm and you should feel terrible about yourself and fear for your job.
It’s also possible that you didn’t do a very good job on whatever it was you were working on harder than you’ve worked on anything in your entire life. That might be because you’ve been working eighty hour weeks with no vacation and receiving a steady stream of criticism, all the while fearing for your job, which is a problem because you have a wife who wants to have a kid and you’re $180,000 in debt. The Zoloft and Klonopin your shrink prescribed don’t seem to be doing the trick. Nor does the Adderall you’re popping with alarming frequency – the left-over Adderall from the first shrink, who diagnosed you with ADHD before the second one decided it was actually depression and anxiety.
It might be that all the other work you did for the past six months at the firm was good, or even very good – until you handed in this latest assignment, which wasn’t good. However, at a law firm, if you do something that isn’t good, it doesn’t matter if you did one hundred other things that were good. You did something that wasn’t good, which means you are bad.
The reason this thing wasn’t good might be that you had no idea what you were doing because they gave you something unbelievably, insanely, laughably complicated to do over the weekend with a totally inadequate explanation.
That brings me to a second way in which law firms are not like law school.
In law school when something’s complicated, you study it slowly until you understand it. The professor will point out that the Erie Rules, for example, are tricky, and note that it may take a few weeks – or most of a semester – to navigate these treacherous waters of legal doctrine.
That doesn’t happen at a law firm. The only time anyone takes a good long time to explain something to you at a law firm is during one of those CLE classes, where they kill half a day on the same “legal ethics” material you learned back in law school, when it was painfully obvious and boring the first time around. That, they spend hours on.
Then you return to your desk, where there’s a voice message from a partner, who wants a lengthy research memo done over the weekend on the tax consequences of the securitization of synthetic reverse-flip butterfly warrant-backed double interest-rate insurance SWAP options denominated in Italian Lire, if held, pre-fiscal 2004, under a dual-indemnified Barbados limited partnership irrevocable charitable trust.
Actually, he’d like something emailed to him by Sunday, so he’ll have time to look at it before he meets with the client on Monday morning. This is a client you’ve never met and never will meet. In fact, you’re not sure who the client is, since you don’t usually work for this partner. You’re not even sure what this deal is about. You’re not even sure if you remember exactly what a “derivative” is, especially since it’s Friday at 6 pm, and you are officially supposed to be a first-year real estate associate except that, due to the financial collapse, there no longer is a real estate department. Before you do anything you have to cancel your trip home this weekend for your little sister’s bat-mitzvah and listen to your mother deliver a guilt trip. Then you have to stay up all night in the library, sorting through financial arcanalia about a deal you don’t understand. Then, relying heavily upon the miracle of Adderall, you have to apply recondite legal principles to a hazy fact pattern while trying not to fall asleep or burst into tears.
In law school, answering this research question would constitute a semester’s work in an advanced seminar and probably result in a journal article. You would be a super-stud if you got a B in the course.
At the firm, pretty much whatever you hand in – even if written in your own blood – will be viewed with disdain as “not up to snuff” and “poor work product” and you will be asked if this is really the best you can do and it will be hinted that “maybe you aren’t cut out for this place.” If you are fired, you will never be quite certain if it is because of this assignment or simply because the firm is imploding and you’re being cut along with half the other associates and three partners, who were originally supposed to work in the now non-existent real estate department.
In short, if law school is a pleaser’s vision of heaven – then law firms are the pleaser version of Hades. Instead of kindly law professors handing out A’s at the end of the semester, there’s a partner who considers you a chattel. He’s not handing out anything, unless you screw up, in which case you will get your ass handed to you.
The “semester” ends when you’re laid off, fired or suffer a mental and/or physical breakdown.
You’ve seen the look on the first years’ faces when a month or two goes by, it’s no longer the summer program, and they start to realize they’re in it for real.
They’re not in Kansas anymore.
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.)