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?
The billable hour, obviously – but also the plain fact that partners and associates are in direct opposition. There is no “team” or “spirit” at big law firms because partners and associates are there to achieve conflicting ends. One is there to destroy the other. The other is there to try to survive. It’s like Mike Tyson and you in the ring. He seeks to crush you. You cling to life – by trying to focus on the money you’re earning.
I had a partner client tell it to my face: “My firm is about partner profits. That’s it, pure and simple.”
That’s the norm. Partners are in it for the money – just like you. They are under pressure to bring in clients and produce billable hours bearing their name. A partner has no incentive to do law. Once he’s landed the fish, he hands the work to associates. Ideally, they slave away day and night, around the clock, including weekends, generating delicious, tasty, yummy, scrum-dilly-icious billable hours that funnel easy money into the partner’s pocket – and elevate him to star status at the next partners’ meeting. The more you work – the more he earns.
Some firms pay lip service to “lifestyle.” One senior associate client received a lecture on how she has to get her hours – over 3,000 last year – down to something sensible, like 2,600. Then bonuses came out, and associates who billed over 2,800 got twice the money. If you think this sends a mixed message, you are correct.
The only problem with this marvelous money-making system, according to partners (and yes, they tell me this all the time) – is that associates are incompetent, unmotivated idiots. They aren’t meticulous or thorough, and they act like they don’t even care half the time. It’s a nuisance. You have to double-check everything on Friday and re-double-check it, then send them changes over the weekend so they don’t embarrass you in front of the client. You spend half your time cursing them out for being stupid and missing things.
Why are associates such a problem? Because they don’t care half the time. Why should they? An associate – like a partner – is also in it for the money. And he gets paid whether he works or not.
What, other than money, might make an associate work? There’s the occasional crumb of praise – “nice work, kid” – but you don’t hear it often and it doesn’t mean much coming from the guy who procrastinated until midnight on Sunday to send you the changes to a brief due 9 am Monday morning.
There’s the desire to please. That lasts a little while. But again – it’s impossible to please people who view you essentially as a commodity. They are pleased when you produce money for them. Then they throw you out and get another associate.
There’s bonuses. But lawyer bonuses – even “big” lawyer bonuses – are little more than anemic hand-outs intended to keep you thinking about money instead of contemplating your personal destruction. What law firms refer to as “bonuses” would be considered “tips” in the banking or corporate executive world, where they actually have bonuses – profit-sharing arrangements, linked to real achievement, that amount to a major portion of their compensation.
There used to be a thing called “making partner.” You worked for about 6 or 7 years and did really well and learned a lot and then they anointed you one of them and you made a million dollars. But there are too many lawyers and there’s not enough work. They only made more partners when it earned them more money. They aren’t making more partners.
The bottom line: Mike Tyson will destroy you in the ring because that’s what he does. He’s a heavy-weight champion and they destroy people in the ring.
A big law firm is just like Mike: it will destroy you because that’s what it does. It is designed to incentivize partners to bring in as much work as possible and assign as much of that work as possible to stressed associates and work them as hard as possible to make as much money as possible for the partners. That destroys people.
Associates rarely storm out of firms. Like Anne Rice says in one of her vampire novels: Old vampires never die, they’re eternal – they fade away. Associates stop trying at some point. You acquire that “marked for death” look – the fatigue, the resignation. You’re not even making an effort. You don’t even care about reaching the ultimate lawyer dream: paying off the loans and achieving zero net worth. The only priority left at this point is avoiding work, not receiving the dreaded next assignment. You don’t wait for the bad review – you long for it. Bring it already. Get it over with.
Law firm money finally stops coming in, and (forgive me one more fantasy novel allusion) – like Gollum losing the One Ring, you will lose the purpose behind your existence. My precioussss!!! And then it’s gone….You crawl away, miserable, broken in mind, body and spirit.
Another associate, identical to you in every way, takes your place within hours.
For those who ask me why I’m so angry and bitter and why I think all big law firm lawyers are unhappy and all big law firms bad places – I invite you to take the $3 million challenge. Go ahead – step into the ring with The Baddest Man on the Planet. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be happy there. It might all turn out okay. I might be overly negative. You know – it’s only the unhappy lawyers who see The People’s Therapist. Self-selection, that’s all.
Be my guest. Jump in the ropes and prove me wrong. Maybe Mike’s different now. He’s vegan. He loves pigeons. It can’t be that bad. Think what you’ll do with all that money…
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.)