“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.
If it’s not-horrible, you’re probably not-busy, because if you were busy, it would be horrible. You’re also probably not into it. If you were into it, you’d be trying to make partner, which would be horrible, but you wouldn’t be saying it’s horrible. You probably wouldn’t be saying it’s not-horrible, either.
So, if you’re not into it, and it’s not busy, you’re not going to last more than two years. The general rule is, if you’re sitting around not-doing anything and not-billing an hour for about four months, you will not get laid off. If it’s that slow, the firm is not-stable and they’re not-worried about you – they’re not-noticing your existence. Not-keeping you only draws attention to the larger problem of their not-flourishing as a going enterprise.
But if you’re not-expecting to be fired, you will be. Suddenly. When you most not-expect it.
In any case, you’re not going to last more than two or maybe three years, because at some point, if things are not-horrible, you’re not-there. If you stay at a firm for two or three years and things are not-horrible and you are not-there, then you are not-learning, or learning mostly not-law. (This blog is an example of not-law.) Not-learning means reaching third-year knowing as much as a first-year. You wind up a not-lawyer.
You “ran changes” in documents. You “did doc review.” You wrote a memo. It was not-read.
You sat around, mostly, trying to not-communicate that you’re freaking out.
They’ll get rid of you. It’s a matter of time.
So the question becomes – what do you do then, when you wake from the long stupor of not-horrible and sit up, dazed, uncomprehending – a not-employed not-lawyer?
You’ll find something else to do.
In the meantime, it’s not horrible. Every month you send money to pay off the loans – an amount you calculate and recalculate for hours each day while not-working, figuring out exactly how close each month gets you to not-slavery – about five years if you stayed at the firm another five years, but that’ll not-happen, so probably fifteen or twenty years in the real world – or at least, that’s your best guess. It’s not-clear how you’re supposed to pay off loans each month if you’re not-earning, but for the time being you’ve decided to not-worry.
One client told me being a lawyer was like being a plumber. Someone has a shitty job and they hire you and you have to do it. So you do it, and you charge them a fortune because no one else wants to do it. And that’s that. It’s not horrible.
Not-horrible is also getting what you asked for. You did this for the money, remember? The $160k per year? You weren’t deaf and blind – you heard the warnings about the hours and the soullessness and all that and you thought – screw it, I can handle this.
Not horrible is limbo. Purgatory. The doldrums.
Not horrible, as one client told me recently, is “meh.”
Hey, it’s not horrible.
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.)