There comes a time in every big law firm lawyer’s career when things take a turn for the deeply serious. After two or three years, someone turns to you and says “okay – you own this,” and suddenly you’re no longer a glorified secretary or paralegal or guy/gal Friday – you’re an actual lawyer.
That’s when most biglaw attorneys think seriously about fleeing for their lives.
For me, the moment of truth arrived after a meeting near the top floor of the skyscraper at 70 Pine Street in Lower Manhattan, one of New York City’s iconic spires.
Nowadays we all know AIG as a smoking crater owned by the US government, but back then it felt pretty good to get waived past the guard in their Art Deco lobby and take the special elevator all the way up to the executive suite, stroll into the boardroom and help myself to a cheese danish.
My job that morning, as I understood it, was to play the part of a little second year along for the ride. I was accompanying an of-counsel from S&C, who actually knew what was going on. I worked hard to look the part, act serious and important and try my best to figure out what they were talking about.
The meeting lasted a couple hours – something to do with deciding on a structure for a deal involving the purchase and simultaneous sale of some smaller companies in the insurance business. The guy doing most of the talking was Howie Smith, AIG’s CFO. I smiled and played along.
Afterwards, we admired the view out the window – eighty-five floors up – traded gossip about Hank Greenberg’s palatial mansion, and chatted with Howie Smith’s son, Mikey, who was visiting the office and wanted to become a lawyer. Then we stepped back into the fancy elevator for the ride back down.
As the doors closed, I felt a chill. The of-counsel handed me a heap of papers.
“Okay, she snapped. “You own this deal.”
I gaped at her, uncomprehending. Didn’t she realize I was a mere child? A babe in the woods? Totally unprepared for such weighty responsibilities?
“Uh…really?” I sputtered.
She was already gazing at the flashing lights indicating descending floors, unaware of my existence.
That was that. I was screwed.
I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
It’s one thing to be a first or even a second year corporate attorney. Pretty much anyone can handle setting up closing tables and “running changes” and setting up meetings and “taking a stab” at drafting this or that. But then someone turns to you in an Art Deco elevator and hands over the whole mess.
Generally speaking, that’s your clue to run for the hills.
I know – you still have loans, and each and every paycheck is one more step towards freedom, but let’s get serious – you either are one of those people who can turn into a biglaw senior associate, or god forbid, a partner – or you’re not. You can’t fake it – and someone in a position of power is going to figure it out eventually.
I don’t know what the precise equivalent of that elevator ride is for litigators. Maybe it’s “owning this deposition” or “owning this brief.” I honestly have no idea. But you’ll know it when you see it. Whatever it is, if you’re not really one of them, and you’ve been faking to get by – well, that’s your clue to hit the highway.
Of course, it’s always possible you are one of them.
I knew a guy at Sullivan & Cromwell, a few years ahead of me, who clearly fit the bill. After our first day working together, it was apparent I was in for hell, but when he didn’t seem to need me at 7:30 pm, I slipped out of the office and made it home. I was walking my dog in a mood of mournful introspection when the cell phone rang. An icy trickle of sarcasm leaked from the receiver.
Yep, it was him.
“Umm…Will? You comin’ back?”
And back I went. We stayed up the entire night while he ran around like a speed freak, mumbling to himself and ordering me to alter documents, print them out and fax the whole mess to Bahrain, London, Beverly Hills, Budapest, Paramus, wherever.
This was a fourth year associate, “running his own deal.”
Nowadays this guy’s a partner, and from the reports I’ve received, even at S&C he’s considered a little nuts.
For me, it was that night – and the long unbroken chain of nights like it that followed – that drove home the reality I’d never be someone who “ran my own deals.”
To become a senior associate, you have to drink a fair amount of Kool-Aid. It means taking the plunge – going in deep, and actually assuming responsibility for very very serious things. You turn into the person who calls terrified first-years and sarcastically tells them to get their asses back in for another all-nighter. You become the person who curses everyone else for being useless and not working hard enough. You become the guy faxing side agreements to Bahrain at 5 a.m.
Eventually, if lightning strikes – at least in the old days when lightning still struck – you turn into the partner who terrorizes everyone around you. You enter the heart of the beast.
But that probably won’t happen.
My point is this – at some juncture you realize these people really are big firm lawyers – they’re in it for real. You also realize – probably – that you’re not.
You don’t make partner at a place like S&C just because you’re smart and you work hard. You make partner because you’re one of those people.
If you’re like most of us, you’ll know deep down that there’s never going to be a day when you are in any way, shape or form prepared to “run your own deal.”
That’s the moment when you acquire “the stink of death.” The stink of death is unmistakeable, cannot be masked by any perfume, and permeates the entire firm. You are marked for slaughter.
I acquired the stink of death at the end of my second year when that lady in the elevator told me I “owned” her deal and we both realized I had no intention of owning anything except my profound desire to get the hell out of Sullivan & Cromwell.
I was in over my head, not so much because I wasn’t smart or motivated or whatever. It was mostly a matter of my not giving a damn about that deal, or the firm, or staying up all night, every night, doing something immensely complicated that made my head hurt for clients who, even in those days, seemed as deeply sinister as they were unimaginably rich.
My sole desire at that stage in my legal career – which is to say, riding in that elevator – was to pay off my loans, go home, and play with my dog.
If you want to be the guy who sticks around for years three, four, five, six, seven and on into eternity, you need a little more fire in the belly than that.
You might have to be kinda nuts.
Okay – maybe that’s unfair. Not all senior associates and partners at big law firms are nuts.
But you might as well wrap your head around the reality that you probably will not turn out to be one of those people – and that not being one of those people might not be such a bad thing.
Maybe, like most of us, you’d rather not “own this deal.”
You’d rather run for your 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.)