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:
“This is no good. I can’t sign all this shit. I’ll be here all day, you fucking asshole.”
Apologies were mumbled. It was a lot of paperwork. On the other hand, the client was mortgaging about 400 commercial properties, most worth millions. We’d been generating paperwork day and night for weeks.
Rolex eventually relented, mumbling obscenities, and started signing. He whipped out the largest gold pen ever made and circled the tables, shouting into a cell phone.
Here’s what a man worth half a billion dollars shouts while he signs documents earning himself another half a billion dollars:
“Brenda. Tell that fucking pilot at Teterboro to hold the fucking plane. Don’t be a fucking idiot, just do it. Tell him I don’t fucking care. And put the right fucking food on. I can’t eat that shit. Assholes. I’ll tell you what to do about Jeff. Put his fucking shit out on the lawn and take his fucking keys. Dan, too. Lock them out of the fucking building. Fuck their families. They’re fucking fired. I don’t know when I’ll be fucking back. What are you, retarded? These fuckers are wasting my fucking life. This is bullshit. No – he’s fired, too. I don’t give a crap….”
It took our client less than an hour to “execute” the documents. He shouted “fuck” three dozen times, fired five people, then stormed out of the room.
We stood in silence. I began helping the paralegals gather up the papers. We ate the deluxe breakfast.
The next day, the partner told me never to order the deluxe breakfast again without prior clearance. The client refused to pay the extra hundred and fifty bucks.
There can be no doubt Mr. Rolex left his mother’s womb screaming abuse into a cell phone. There is no possibility he was ever a nice person. He made me feel sorry for the partner – who, himself, was not a nice person.
Your client might not be floridly evil like Mr. Rolex. He might be boringly, namelessly evil. Most litigators tell me their clients are anonymous banks suing or being sued over anonymous ill-fated investments. They know perfectly well these banks are run by bankers who merrily screw their clients because all they care about is making money for themselves. If these litigators drilled deeper, to find out who owned the anonymous banks, they’d find Mr. Rolex sputtering into a cell phone – but they don’t want to go there.
One of the joys of earning less money at law is working for the good guys, or the less-bad guys. You get to help people who actually need it.
I worked with a biglaw lawyer who recently left for the SEC, thrilled to be protecting investors instead of i-banks. On the other hand, I worked with a guy who left the FTC for biglaw, and found himself defending the same sleazy supplement manufacturers he used to prosecute. Needless to say, the first lawyer was happier – but working for evil pays better.
It’s a trade-off. Everything’s a trade-off. But it’s worth something to know you’re on the side of the good guys. Maybe that’s a luxury, if you’ve got loans to pay. But it’s also a goal to shoot for while keeping your eyes on the ultimate prize: doing work that means something to you.
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.)