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Archive for March, 2011

My tenure at Sullivan & Cromwell ended – along with my legal career – in a smoking crater. Picture scorched earth. Nuclear armageddon. The fat lady sang.

That said, I actually got off to a pretty good start. At least for the first couple weeks.

I was assigned to a rather jolly partner, fresh back from running an office in Asia. He didn’t seem a bad sort, and I was feeling on top of the world, commencing my career after a month’s vacation. Off I scrambled to the library to write a memo on a detail of securities law. The topic was complex, but I kept my cool, summarized what I found – with a touch of wit – and called it a day.

Things went swimmingly. The partner loved the memo. He deemed it clever and refreshing and pretty close to accurate. Apparently, I’d managed to lighten the mood at a key moment in a tough deal. I decided I loved him.

The next week we did the deal closing. As a first year, I arranged for execution of the documents (a trickier proposition in those antediluvian days of fax machines and actual, non-cell, phones.)

To my amazement – remember, I’d been there all of two weeks – the jolly partner had a full-on melt-down the night before closing. I found him pacing back and forth outside the conference room, waving documents and shouting that the senior associate was “going to wreck this deal!”

I hurried over to him – again, I was new, I didn’t know any better – and tried to calm him down.

“It’s going to be okay,” I said. “The senior’s a nice guy, and he’s doing his best – we’re all doing our best. We’ll stay focused. The closing will either happen tomorrow or it won’t, but it’ll happen sooner or later, and everything will be okay.”

The partner took a deep breath, and calmed down.

I may have crawled away in disgrace two years later, but that partner at S&C appreciated what I did, and he always liked me. I still think of him fondly.

Why did he like me? Not because I was anything like a competent lawyer. I rarely did more than stand around and send faxes.

He liked me because I kept my cool. I was the calm center.

Sometimes, when the world assumes crisis status, being the calm center gets the job done. Politicians know this. Awful as it sounds, a crisis like 9/11 presents an opportunity to look good. When everyone else is freaking out, you present yourself as the calm center – even if you’re not doing anything.

Biglaw attorneys crave a calm center because they face constant crisis. In an ordinary job, if you work a late night or a weekend, it means something major is happening. Afterward, you take a break and recover. But every day is a crisis at a big law firm – and there’s no recovery. Even if you are “granted” a vacation, there’s the blackberry – and they won’t hesitate to use it.

There’s the nature of the work itself, too. Litigation lurches from crisis to crisis – it’s a zero-sum game, two combatants fighting to the death, searching for a dirty trick, trying to catch the other out on a technicality. Some of my Canadian lawyer clients tell me it’s better north of the border, where people don’t bring law suits on a whim, simply to create delay or cost, and lawyers hesitate to torture prisoners and burn villages to the ground. That might sound wussy to an American litigator, but if you’re looking for a calm center, maybe Canada’s your place.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine serene, tranquil M&A deals, even in Ottawa.

Towards the end of my time at S&C, when I was too frazzled to form sentences, I managed to locate two calm centers at the firm. I stumbled upon them by accident, but they did wonders towards preserving my sanity.

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I asked a client how things were going at work – or not-going. She’s a junior at a big firm where it’s been dead slow for the whole year she’s been there and partners are starting to flee.

Not horrible,” she said.

That’s a not-uncommon sentiment from to people in her position. As a junior, you’re asking for not-much. You’ve realized law school was a mistake – and the thought of your loans makes you queasy. If you get through the day without being criticized or given some god-awful assignment, you can go home and try to sleep. That’s a good day.

Not-horrible means not-unbearable, even if you hate what you’re doing, see no way out and cry alone in your office.

Not-horrible is not-unemployed. Better to not-complain.

One junior associate client has a corporate headhunter friend, who asked him to write something down and commit it to memory:

There. Are. No. Jobs.”

Okay. Got it.

Another client spoke for thousands when he said he hates the thought of waking up and facing another day at his firm, but with two hundred grand in loans, how can he leave a job where he isn’t working that hard and earns $160k?

The partner’s a psychopath – don’t get me wrong. He expects me to answer the blackberry at 2 am and criticizes every move I make. But he’s paying me a fortune to take this crap, right?”

Hey, it’s not horrible.

The week before Thanksgiving, my client reminded this partner he’d be away for the actual day of the holiday – Thanksgiving Day – to visit his wife’s family.

The partner looked shocked at this effrontery. “Will you be available remotely?” He asked.

I’ll be available anally, if that helps,” were the words my client struggled not to utter. Because that would have gotten him fired.

Of course,” is what he actually said.

Hey, it’s not horrible.

At a big law firm, it’s hard to imagine a life containing meaning or pleasure. This is a legal career: You exchange human misery for money, which pays loans.

One client’s firm has a “free market” policy, so each associate competes for work. That way, if you admit you don’t have any work to another junior, it invites him to look relieved and announce he does. My client isn’t sure which is worse – not having work and having nothing to do or having work and having to do it. Mostly, she does nothing, and suspects the others do, too.

It’s not horrible.

I hear this one from lawyers all the time: “It’s no better anywhere else, is it?”

But you know it is. Outside of law. The entire world isn’t as bad as a law firm just because you’re stuck in one. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous – it’s simple, but it’s not easy. To escape not-horrible you just have to escape law. That’s the not-easy part.

Not-horrible is a holding pattern – you might be stuck there for a while. That’s what the loans are for. In the old days they used chains.

Does not-horrible ever end?

Yes. Here’s why: they’ll get rid of you.

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In law, if you’re making big money, you’re working for the bad guys. That’s the sad truth.

I’m not talking about defending vicious criminals. I mean tougher cases – like representing the 1% of the world who own everything.

Deep in the recesses of big law, you might not realize who you’re working for. From where you’re standing, your boss is the firm. Juniors report to seniors. Seniors report to partners. Partners report to God.

In reality, up, over the partner’s head, there’s someone called “the client” – a possessor of vast wealth. Normal people don’t hire biglaw – the owners-of-everything do, and they don’t get uber-rich being nice. Things only get worse when they’re dealing with lawyers.

If and when you actually meet “the client,” you might feel like an Imperial Stormtrooper aboard the Death Star:

Lord Vader? Great to meet you, Sir. Yes, absolutely, the torture chamber is under control. Yes sir, we just checked the planetary death ray this morning. One hundred percent ready to go. My pleasure, Sir.

Then the client walks away, and you play that same argument in your head: You have one hundred and seventy grand in school loans. They’re going to blow the planet up anyway. You’re not torturing anyone personally.

Some lawyers learn to embrace the evil – to “go with it.” I knew a guy in law school who left to work for a firm that did nothing – NOTHING – but defend Big Tobacco. We ribbed him about it. In fact, we regarded him as a stinking pile of vomit. His response was to chain-smoke and brag about money. He disappeared to a hateful red state to work black voodoo, and by now he’s no doubt worth millions. Loathed by millions, too.

My first taste of evil came early at Sullivan & Cromwell. It was a deal for Goldman Sachs with an amusing codename: “Project Rolex.” At the closing I finally encountered the client – and the wry humor of i-bankers: He wore the largest gold wristwatch ever made.

I developed a fascination with Mr. Rolex. His name was all over documents I’d been staring at for weeks. The deal – a securitization of mortgages on a package of investment properties in the Mid-West – suburban strip malls and cheap hotels on interstates – was worth half a billion dollars. As I generated documents, I took guesses at his net worth. If it wasn’t a billion, it was darn close. A guy who met Bill Gates at a technology convention wrote a piece admitting all he could think about while they shook hands was “$500 per second. $500 per second. $500 per second.” Same thing with this client: I couldn’t believe how much money he had.

After weeks of late nights, the partner asked me to arrange catering for the closing. The choice was the standard Sullivan & Cromwell breakfast with rolls and bagels or the “deluxe” breakfast, with lox. For Mr. Rolex, I pulled out the stops and ordered deluxe.

He stormed into the room the next morning, sporting a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and the giant gleaming timepiece. I was awestruck.

But Mr. Rolex was not in a good mood. He turned to the partner:

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I receive a steady stream of disaffected lawyers who want to change careers. They come to me for “the answer.”

The question is “how do I get out of law and do something different?”

What gets under my skin is the expectation this is going to be easy. It isn’t.

Remaining in law and looking for something better poses challenges. You realize by now you can’t call a headhunter and go to a “lifestyle firm” – they only exist in the imaginations of fee-hungry “staffing professionals.” Hyphenated jobs, like “environmental-law” or “entertainment-law” are misnomers. Choose anything fun and attach the word “law” to it – “food-law,” “sex-law” – and it’s still law. More realistic “remain-in-law” solutions, like an in-house position or a government job, are hard to find because everyone’s thought of them. You can get there with sufficient determination – but it’s tough and I can’t make it not-tough. No one can.

Getting out of law completely poses a new level of challenge – you have to figure out what you truly want to do with your life. I am indeed wise and all-knowing, but I cannot tell you what your purpose is on Earth. This is your journey – and you have to find your own destination. The process isn’t like opting for a legal career, where you hop on a train and go where they take you. I cannot talk to you for an hour and concoct some sensible, well-paying, fun, creative job, with status and money, that will make your heart sing and all your problems go away. Remember the last time someone promised that? Look where it got you.

I’m skeptical of “career coaches” and “out-placement counselors,” too. They can help you learn to interview and hone your networking skills – which is useful as you explore options. But you can Myers-Briggs yourself into a coma and still not know your true work. The task is tougher than getting “coached” or “aptitude tested.” There is no easy answer. It requires time, and a good deal of soul-searching.

You might need to flounder. That’s what people who aren’t “K through JD” do during their 20’s. As an adult child of the law, you may flounder a little later in the game than everyone else. But if you need to flounder and find yourself, don’t pretend it’s anything other than that. Saying you’ve “decided to write” doesn’t fool anyone. Taking classes in something creative might be a step on a path forward, but it’s only a step. Getting fed up with being a lawyer, and telling everyone you’re “writing” is like wandering around a cocktail party after you graduate from college telling people you’re working on a novel. Everyone will roll their eyes, and for good reason. They’ll assume you’re floundering – trying to find a new path. They may or may not respect your struggle, but they’ll know you have a ways to go before you can claim a hard-won title of respect, like “writer.”

Here’s my best advice for what to do if you’re a lawyer, hate it and want to do something else:

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This month on “The Alternative” we honored that under-appreciated month – March – by sending some appreciation to those under-appreciated members of the queer community, the bisexuals.  Terry was back to host the show (with his charming and lovely technician and sidekick, Andrew Holinsky.)

You can listen to the show here. My segment starts about 10 minutes in, but as always, it’s worth sticking around to the end. To find out more about Terry and “The Alternative” on LA Talk Radio, check out Terry’s website and the show’s website. And be sure to catch Terry’s new show “Journey to Recovery” which deals specifically with substance abuse and recovery issues.

If you enjoy his shows, you can become a Terry LeGrand “fan” on Facebook here. Thanks, Terry! See you next month.

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Check out The People’s Therapist’s new book: “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

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There’s a terrific opening scene in Stephen King’s novel, “Pet Sematary.”

I don’t read a lot of Stephen King novels. That’s not because I dismiss his skill as a writer. It’s because they scare the hell out of me.

In this one, the main character is a young doctor. He’s on his first day at a hospital when a college kid is rushed into the ER. The kid was hit by a car, so he’s all smashed up, his neck broken, blood all over the place, one eyeball hanging out – whatever. Just as the doctor is concluding he’s dead, an arm shoots out, grabs the doctor by the collar and the dead kid stares at him (with his working eyeball.)

“Stay away from the Pet Cemetery!” he intones.

In a flash, it’s over. The kid is stone cold, and the doctor wonders if he was hallucinating.

The suggestion to stay away from the pet cemetery, however, is a sensible one. Like most sensible suggestions, it goes entirely unheeded.

I don’t want to give away the ending (and I only read the first 20 pages because I got scared) but I suspect, if he stays away from the pet cemetery, flesh-eating zombies won’t become an issue.

But he doesn’t listen!

Lawyers are the same way. They just don’t listen!

Here’s another scary story. My client was in law school. With a big smile, she announced to her journalist boyfriend she was accepting a job at the big, prestigious law firm where she’d summered the year before.

He grabbed her by the collar, his face etched with horror, and intoned: “But you hated that place. It totally weirded you out. You said you were pursuing public interest. Why would you go back there?”

She didn’t listen. Now their relationship is over, and she’s hating her job and her life and weeping in my office.

“Why didn’t I listen?”

But she’s not the only one. You had moments like that, too – didn’t you? When someone tried to warn you?

My Pet Sematary moment came the summer before I started law school.

I was visiting home, went to a party and ran into an old friend – a guy I’d known since I was about twelve years old. I casually related the big news – I was going to law school! I expected one of several possible reactions:

  • an expression, feigned or otherwise, of happiness that I was finding my way forward in the world;
  • a tinge of jealousy that he was still a burn-out art student while I was on my way to wielding staggering corporate power; or
  • curiosity about law school and how he might follow in my tracks.

I didn’t get any of those reactions. I got disappointment and concern.

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