My client was sitting at her desk, drafting a complicated, rushed memo. The topic was an obscure derivative. She’d worked all weekend, then come in again early. Her head hurt. It was due at 5 pm. She could barely focus and was feeling panicked. It was 4 pm.
The phone rang. Not thinking, she picked up and barked her last name, sharply, the way the partner she worked for did.
It was her ninety-two-year-old grandmother.
“How are you, Sweetheart?”
My client couldn’t stop crying.
“All she did was ask how I was,” she told me. “That’s all it took. I fell apart.”
When you enter the world of biglaw, you pass through a ritual of initiation – LSAT, law school, bar exam, interviews.
Then you enter the bubble.
On the inside, propositions that seem insane in the outside world are taken for granted:
- Two hundred thousand dollars in student loans is within the normal range.
- You have to earn six figures or you are a failure.
- You can’t take a vacation just because you “have” a vacation. It must be “convenient.”
- Leaving the office at 5 pm shows a serious failure of commitment.
- Taking a weekend off shows a serious failure of commitment.
- Working night and day and doing your best shows a serious failure of commitment.
Last week, another client’s mother was rushed to the hospital. He got a call from the emergency room, then sprinted to the train station to buy a ticket home. It was serious – a perforated appendix that could have killed her. He spent the weekend by her side. Once she was back in her own bedroom, recovering, he found himself tucking her plastic hospital id bracelet into his briefcase.
“I know, it sounds crazy, but I didn’t think they’d believe me.”
“They’d think you were lying about your mother being rushed to the hospital?”
He rolled his eyes. “I know. I know. But they’re like that. No one trusts anyone. An excuse to leave for a long weekend? Someone might try it.”
The rules are different in the bubble. The worst distortion? Money becomes more important than people.
When my client’s ninety-two-year-old grandmother called to ask how she was, it reminded her this old woman is a precious treasure – and she’s elderly, and frail. She won’t be here forever.
When you work at a law firm, things keep coming up. My client hasn’t seen her grandmother in more than a year. That’s part of the reason she was crying. The rules inside the bubble take over. You forget who you are. Then an old woman calls and reminds you.
As the author of this column, I’m asked the same question all the time – how do I survive this?
The answer might be: by not forgetting who you are.
That starts with remembering what every child knows: people are more important than money.
My client knew she could concoct some way to take a day off and visit her grandmom. If she had to make up a story, then fine, she’d make one up. Her grandmother was more important than an assignment – or a job, if that’s what it came to.
A partner could tell her it’s not convenient and she has to cancel.
She could tell the partner sorry, that’s not possible.
To keep people more important than money inside the bubble, you have to enforce boundaries. That might be risky, but it’s worth it.
The first person worth more than money is you.
I used to take the elevator down from Sullivan & Cromwell once in a while. To the ground level. Then I’d go outside.
I looked at trees. That’s it. To remind myself they exist.
It’s just a job.
Trees matter. Nature matters. Art matters. Friends matter.
If things get that bad at a firm, you can leave. To hell with loans and “career” and all that. If this place is killing you, you can depart. You are more important than any other consideration. If this environment is toxic for you, you need to get out.
People matter. You matter.
If you’re going to enter the world of biglaw, remember what it is, a bubble.
Don’t forget to visit your grandmother.
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.
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