There comes a time as a lawyer when you split in two – an angel and a devil.
The angel wants to do well – as I never tire of explaining, lawyers are pleasers. You want to make partner, earn a million bucks and be the best attorney in the world. To the angel, the firm is like your high school football team – go Skadden! Rah rah rah!!
The devil, on the other hand, would burn the place to the ground while he toasted marshmallows and sang campfire songs.
The irony is that it’s the law firm itself that turns little angels into devils – just by telling you that’s who you are.
A junior partner at a big firm told me how they did it to him. Two senior partners marched into his office and announced he was slacking off and taking advantage of the firm. It was a mistake, they told him, to make him partner.
In reality, this guy was a pleaser’s pleaser. He worked his ass off to make partner, and talked in all sincerity about his “gratitude to the firm for that honor.” He was as rah-rah as it got.
Unfortunately, none of that meant anything, because the economy sucked, and he wasn’t bringing in billables. According to firm logic, that meant he wasn’t trying, he didn’t care – he was a bad guy.
By the end of his grilling, all he wanted to do was slack off and go home.
They’d done it – turned an angel into the freeloading devil they told him he was.
A few weeks later, he’s still having trouble finding his groove, and feels tempted to fudge his hours, pad his expenses, and kick off early. It seems reasonable, all of a sudden, to glance at a document and hand it off to an associate to review instead of staying that extra couple hours at the office.
There are few things quite as frustrating as having someone question whether you are acting in good faith. It’s like one of those Hitchcock movies where they collar the wrong guy for a crime he didn’t commit and no one believes him when he insists he’s innocent.
Law firms do it all the time.
At Sullivan & Cromwell, it got to feeling like a roller coaster. I arrived at the firm fresh-faced and innocent, totally committed to doing my best. I know how absurdly naïve it sounds now, but I really did think I had a chance of making partner.
You couldn’t get more angel than me. I spent three years earning A’s in law school, pleasing professors, drinking the Kool-Aid, writing a journal article, drinking more Kool-Aid, talking about my commitment to “the profession” – all the while whipping up molten Kool-Aid gateau served with mint-rosemary Kool-Aid coulis.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I’m so bitter now – why lawyers are all bitter – because we bought in utterly at the start of things. We really were angels.
It’s a long, hard fall to the shadowland of Hades.
My expectations for Sullivan & Cromwell were ridiculous, in retrospect. I perceived the partners to be wise, caring mentors who would guide me to “excellence.” I bragged to everyone I met about where I worked, employing words like “collegial” to describe my vision of the firm. No kidding – “collegial.”
My plunge to the land of shadows only truly arrived when they ignored all that and accused me of being a slacker. It was their telling me I didn’t take my work seriously that somehow made it a reality.
There’s something about working your ass off only to be told you’re a slacker that actually turns you into a slacker. Suddenly padding your hours and avoiding work become the prime objective. Let the other little junior – Mr. Eagerness – handle things for a change.
A few days later, I’d snap out of it and remember why I was at S&C. It was the best, most prestigious law firm in the world! I wanted to make partner! I was going to make them happy, do my absolute best, and be a success!
Then I’d get stomped on by some senior associate telling me I didn’t even seem to care…and the process would begin again.
At some point, you go numb. (Even lawyers have their limits.)
Finally, you stop cycling back and forth. You want out.
I worked with a burned out third year associate from a mid-sized Mid-Western firm who told me she was quitting her job. I urged her to reconsider. It looked like the firm was going to fire her anyway. The head partner kept threatening to let her go if she missed their insane billable hour requirements. She’d been denied vacation for nine months and was on the verge of mental and physical collapse. They kept telling her she wasn’t committed to the firm’s success and was slacking off and avoiding her responsibilities.
I proposed a classic slacker strategy to milk the firm for money:
“Why don’t you hang on a bit more,” I implored her. “You can take all that vacation they owe you at once. If they refuse to let you have it, you can make a scene – or stop working hard. One way or the other they’ll fire you. Then you can collect unemployment insurance, which would help you keep up your loan payments while you move in with your parents and look for another job.”
“That’s not how I want to go out.”
She explained that she’d never – not once – tried to take advantage of that place. She operated in good faith from day one, and did her very best. She’d done well in law school and never worked so hard in her life once she arrived at the firm. She always played by the rules, and wanted to leave still playing by the rules. She doubted they’d fire her – they’d probably just dump work on her, then criticize her for it (“your work-product is not up to our expectations…”), announce she hadn’t made her hours, then dump more work on her, and use her poor reviews as an excuse to once again postpone her raise. Standard procedure. No one lasted more than three years. Now she knew why.
“I can’t walk back into that office. I hate it too much. I hate them too much. I’m leaving.”
It was useless to argue. She’d had enough. She’d tried to be the angel. She’d battled the urge to become the devil, even when that was who they told her she was – and practically forced her to be.
Now she was fed up, burned-out, numb.
She’s looking into a career as a literary agent.
Enough is enough.
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.)