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Archive for April, 2011

I raced downstairs to break the news: I’m leaving. I got a new, non-legal job at a major online book-seller.

The reception at the firm gym wasn’t what I expected. My favorite trainer looked pensive, mumbled “good for you, man,” then gave me a half-hearted fist bump. The other two trainers, both women, exchanged looks. One grimaced, and quipped to the other, “see, I told you – the nice ones always leave.” She caught my glance, and turned serious. “Hey, it’s good news. We’ll miss you, that’s all.”

The nice ones always leave.

My client ran into this phenomenon recently. She’s a first year, assigned to a major case with two senior associates. The partner’s missing in action, so she and the two seniors are running the show.

The good news is the seniors are great guys – and, as a result, she’s been one of the few not-unhappy lawyers I’ve seen all year.

“They’re just plain nice,” she told me. “The hours suck, the work itself is kind of boring, but nothing’s that bad if you’re working with people you like. Sometimes, we even have fun.”

One guy was super thoughtful, and bent over backwards to take time to explain things and create a sense of teamwork. The other was a bit of a kook, with a goofy sense of humor and a light-hearted way of defusing crises.

Then, Monday last week, the firm distributed bonuses. On Tuesday the first senior associate gave his notice. On Wednesday the other said he’s leaving, too.

Neither of the seniors said why they were taking off. Maybe it was the demanding, ungrateful client – maybe the partner, who never acknowledged their hard work. Maybe they were just burnt out in general.

As a result of their departure, an office that used to be fun has turned grim. It’s like watching a friendly college dorm turn overnight into der Führerbunker. The partner is melting down. He pulled in another senior associate, an anal-retentive who doesn’t know what he’s doing. People are hiding in their offices. The atmosphere among the paralegals is funereal. Even the contract attorneys look more depressed than usual, if that’s possible.

“It’s a shit storm,” my client said. “And from my perspective, a lose-lose proposition. The partner’s overwhelmed, the new senior is clueless and I don’t know whether to try to help – and get yelled at – or lay low and hide – and get yelled at.”

There’s no winning, and it’s no fun.

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Every guy with a family feels the urge to pack a bag, get in the car and drive. At least, sometimes.

A client told me that – a straight guy with kids. I don’t think it’s a straight thing, though. It might not be a guy thing, either. It can be a lawyer thing. Any lawyer with loans experiences the impulse to hit the highway.

When you’re “The Provider,” you do constant battle with the itch to hightail it out of town.

Who’s “The Provider”? It’s someone you morph into. A character from an Updike novel…or maybe it’s Cheever. Maybe it’s Mad Men. You become a cliché from 1950’s or early 60’s tv shows: Dad, who arrives home, pecks the wife on the cheek, tousles the kids’ hair, then collapses into a La-Z-Boy and reads the paper while the golden retriever fetches your bedroom slippers.

…Except it sucks bad enough that you’re feeling the urge to pack a bag, get in the car and drive.

I’m not saying getting married and having kids is terrible. That’s how you got into this mess – you want the wife and the kids. As one of my clients bemoaned, “I want to be a good father. I want to be a good husband. I just can’t pull it off with this job, and it’s killing me.”

The problem is trying to be a lawyer and The Provider at the same time. That’s the part that doesn’t work.

The basic principle, when you’re The Provider, is simple: you pay for everything. This has a certain seductive quality. Many lawyers get into this work because they want to be The Provider. Maybe your father didn’t earn much, and mom had to work and hated it. Or there simply wasn’t enough money to go around. Or you’re the first in your family to go to college or grad school – or earn six figures. It’s a thrill, making it up there, conquering a new plateau of stability and social achievement. You want to bring everyone else up with you.

Or maybe this is what everyone’s always expected of you because it’s what they expected of themselves. You’ll be like dad, or your father-in-law. They were The Providers in their day. They pulled it off. Why can’t you?

It’s easy to get sucked in. You’ll have a big house, a few kids – maybe some leftover cash to lavish on mom and dad. “Let me fill your tank,” you’ll offer, without a care. “You deserve it.”

The Provider wants to “have it all,” “live the dream.” That stuff.

If you try to be The Provider, you could wind up standing next to my client on the train platform at 7 am in a fat cat town like Greenwich or Stamford or Bronxville, clutching a briefcase, waiting for the express to Grand Central and your mid-town office.

That’s okay. You want that, too.

It’s later on, when things turn sour.

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I was kidding around with some of the guys at my gym, tossing around the question – would you fight Mike Tyson for $3 million?

One of them joked – I think he heard this on Howard Stern – that he’d fellate Mike Tyson for $3 million. He could spend the first $1 million on mouthwash and retire on the rest.

Then another guy spoke up, a sometime professional heavyweight boxer. (I’m not making this up, he really has boxed, for big money, not too long ago – and has plans to do so again.)

“It’s not worth it. Mike would destroy you. There would be no retirement.”

He went on to explain what he meant. He knew from experience – this guy had been in the ring. You’d have more than bruises – you’d have concussions, brain injuries, damaged bones and joints. You’d never be the same – and it wouldn’t be worth it. You’re better off not having $3 million but appreciating the finer things, like being able to walk and talk and think.

I saw his point.

Biglaw is also not worth it, even for big money. That’s because it, too, destroys you – just like Iron Mike.

A lawyer client, a fifth year at a big firm on the West Coast, mused to me the other day – “This job wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t end up crying alone in my office so much.”

“You mean, it wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t suck?”

“Yeah,” she said. “That’s pretty much it. Imagine doing this for ordinary money. No one would consider doing this for ordinary money.”

No one would consider fighting Mike Tyson for ordinary money, either. And it’s not worth it for $3 million. Big law isn’t even worth it for $160k a year.

Don’t believe it? Allow me to elaborate.

The process begins with sleep deprivation – plain, simple sleep deprivation. Not sleeping. Staying up all night and facing sarcasm if you plan to take the following day off.

One of my clients brought a pillow into work, so she could put her face down on her desk and sleep for an hour at a time. Her officemate saw her, and told her what a good idea it was. Then she brought in a pillow, too. Only at a law firm.

You might not think sleep deprivation is a big deal. Hell, you’re a machine. You don’t need sleep. All-nighters? No sweat.

Sleep deprivation is like binge drinking. There’s a machismo around staying up all night, night after night – like doing ten shots of tequila. You’re tough. Not a problem.

Later, as you puke your guts out and pray for sweet release, you realize you were being an idiot.

Read a few scientific studies on sleep deprivation and you will understand it fries your brain and leaves you an emotional wreck. You can’t think straight, your immune system crashes, you fall apart. As one of my senior associate clients put it, “I thought I was unflappable when I got here. I’m flapped.”

Naturally, if you aren’t sleeping, you’re also not having a life. So relationships dissolve, friendships fade, your pet starts living with your parents. And you start thinking about boinking that guy from the anti-trust group, even if he isn’t much to look at.

Okay. So why is there sleep deprivation at big law firms?

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Two guys from my high school. One year apart.

Hipster…and Lawyer.

Hipster plays in jazz band with Lawyer. They have the same academic advisor, and fall into a casual friendship.

Hipster has trouble in school. He plays drums and guitar, but struggles to maintain the grades. It’s nothing to do with behavior – everyone likes him. The academic advisor does his best, but after failing a few courses, Hipster’s expelled. He ends up bouncing from school to school, and manages to graduate, then heads to a halfway-decent state university known for partying. He spends most of his year there jamming with his buddies and soon drops out. They start a rock band, smoke dope, wear tie-dye, collect Grateful Dead tapes and call each other “dude.”

Lawyer thinks it’s a shame Hipster got kicked out of school. His own grades are A’s. He wins academic prizes, a scholarship to study in England, and advanced placement at Harvard, where he graduates magna cum laude. He heads to a first-tier law school, and places near the top of his class. An offer arrives from a white shoe firm.

Stop the tape.

We know what happens next:

Hipster grows a beer belly, loses the tie-dye and winds up working in a call center. He moves into his old bedroom at home and turns morose. His parents mumble excuses about dyslexia.

Lawyer makes partner and earns a million six. He purchases a loft in SoHo, a little country place upstate and a vintage Porsche. His parents seek opportunities to smugly mention his doings to their friends, who hate them for it.

Here’s what actually happens:

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