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Archive for March 30th, 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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