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.
The first was a trainer at the firm’s gym, down in the sub-sub-basement of our building. I’m a fan of physical exercise, and recommend some sort of workout for everyone. But when you’re at the bitter end of your time at a law firm, avoiding work and floating in and out of the place like a ghost – the gym is the place to be. You can spend two hours down there at lunchtime, and even the nastiest, most sadistic senior partner, when he comes looking for you, will back off when he hears you’re working out. He should be down there too, and he knows it, but he hasn’t seen the place in months, if not years. And he’s fat. You’re untouchable.
I was spending a lot of time down at the gym, and eventually one of the staff walked over and introduced himself. He offered to train me, for free. He wasn’t supposed to charge us anyway, and he was looking for something to keep him from losing his mind down there in the sub-sub-basement.
I don’t remember his name, but this magnificent man combined the finest qualities of Yoda, Mr. Spock, Merce Cunningham and Lou Ferrigno. He was a chess master and philosophy major, who paid for college with football scholarships – the law firm gig was paying his rent before he started a PhD. Under his supervision, weight-training was transformed into a yogic discipline blended with modern dance. In a matter of weeks I was unrecognizable. I lost thirty-five pounds, and learned the basics of anatomy and movement. His cryptic utterances – “Think from within your body,” “surprise the muscle,” “start from the core,” stay with me a decade later – and I still work out daily with better-than-competent form.
Weight-trainer guru from the S&C gym, wherever you are, thank you. You were my calm center.
There was one other contributor to my not throwing myself off the roof of 125 Broad Street that year – a paralegal from Beijing. I remember he was named Wei Guo, because the lawyers would shout out “wei to guo!” when they saw him in the hallway. It produced no discernible response from Wei, who was more Confucian scholar-prince than S&C paralegal.
Wei was deep. He had that curious Chinese ability to appear profoundly unamused without communicating the slightest disrespect. I can’t remember exactly why he was a paralegal at the New York office. He had a wife and small child, and was sent from the Beijing office, probably to perfect his English, which – like most things about Wei, was already immaculate.
In my final year at S&C, I took to eating dinner in the staff dining room instead of the “lawyer’s dining room.” It was more relaxed – like a college cafeteria, instead of the Yale Club. One night I sat across from Wei, hoping to break the ice. He grunted a greeting, then buried himself deeper in a thick, book-like Chinese magazine.
I ate. Wei read. Finally, I dared to ask what the article was about. He froze, then looked up, radiating profound un-amusement. Our eyes met, and he returned to his magazine.
Feeling like I was talking too loud in the Sistine Chapel, I pressed the question:
“C’mon – I’m curious.”
He didn’t look up again, merely answered in a monotone: “It is a study of the musical debate between the followers of Wagner and Brahms.”
I cracked a smile. “Cool.”
I’d like to wind up this story by describing how Wei and I became the tightest of friends, etc. etc., but that didn’t happen. He looked profoundly unamused and kept reading.
Nonetheless, I’d made a friend. Wei was awesome. My hunch was correct – we shared a lot in common. Wei had no interest in S&C or its stupid lawyers (including me) and their nonsensical concerns. He was an intellectual from Beijing University, laying low, posing as a mild-mannered, brusquely competent paralegal – and the whole firm fell for it. That is, except me – I’d found him out. We both knew who Wagner and Brahms were. That was a rare thing at S&C, at least so far as I could discern from talking to anyone other than Wei Guo.
It was calming, knowing Wei was there, wandering the beige hallways with their awful hunting prints. He was another subversive element, a center of near-mystical, Eastern serenity, buried deep in the heart of the beast.
Find a calm center. It might preserve your sanity, too.
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
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