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.
I went through the same thing at Sullivan & Cromwell. The only senior associates I enjoyed working with were Gil Cornblum and one other guy, and they both quit within a few months. (For what happened to Gil after that, read “When the Emptiness Swallows you Whole.”)
Both times, it profoundly sucked.
The nice ones always leave. That’s the general rule.
Sometimes they don’t even have to leave – they just fade away. That’s what’s happened to another client of mine. He’s a naturally terrific guy – smart, witty, charming. If he hadn’t fallen into law, he’d be a comedy writer (and still might be.) He’ll have the whole room cracking up in five minutes flat.
When this guy arrived at his firm, he did what he always does – make friends and entertain people. Everyone knew right away he was one of the nice ones.
This week, he turned a corner.
“I got a call from a partner,” he told me. “He said he needed to see me in his office, and I thought, this is it – I’m getting laid off.”
Business was slow. He hadn’t billed more than 100 hours the last few months. He hated pulling overnighters the first couple years at the firm. Now he was bored and frazzled from the downtime – and waiting for the nudge.
“So I get to the partner’s office, and he looks up from his desk and says, ‘The firm is distributing bonuses, and you will be receiving x dollars. Congratulations.’
“That was it. All I could think was damn, I thought this would be the nudge – I’d finally be out of there. Then I realized how much I was hoping this would be the nudge.”
That’s when he knew he needed to leave. But his loans are over $100k.
He decided to do the slow fade.
“I’m a ghost,” he told me. “I barely exist. I used to entertain everyone at lunch, go to the office parties, take the summer associates out – all that stuff. Now I go to the gym at lunchtime, keep my office door closed, and never say anything to anyone. I’m there, but I’m not there.”
That’s the slow fade.
I remember slowly fading at S&C. I was a lively, amusing presence initially. Then I crashed and turned into a basket case. Finally I pulled back, and started to disappear, until I was barely a presence at all. Then I left.
I watched other “nice ones” go through the process, fading, then departing, one after another.
Those who remained – un-faded and more ubiquitous than before – weren’t “the nice ones.” They were the lawtistic jerks with chips on their shoulders, the obsessive workaholics, the control freaks, the psycho screamers, the unconscious neurotics broadcasting their misery with sloppy clothes, eccentric personal hygiene or weird physical tics.
The bright, interesting ones? That thoughtful guy you met during the summer program and used to talk books with during the opening months of first year? Long gone.
Then there are the ones who never, ever leave: the “deeply un-nice” ones. Every firm has at least a few guys like that. They tend to get nicknames. You know, “the beast,” “the machine,” “the evil” – that guy, the guy everyone in the building hates, the one even the paralegals and the secretaries and the librarian and the cleaning staff and the guard downstairs in the lobby hope will somehow go away. That guy. The one who doesn’t merely drink the Kool-ade, he brews it.
That guy will stick around – in fact, he’ll make partner. It’s as certain as death and taxes. If everyone – every single sane person – is praying to stop it happening, even the atheists are imploring their higher powers to intercede and foil the obscenity of that creep making partner… I guarantee you, he’s a shoo-in. He’ll be managing partner. A name partner. Emeritus partner. A legend at the firm, with a portrait hanging in the reception area. In the distant future, a computer-generated hologram of that creep will reach out to shake hands with each and every visitor to the firm each and every day, for all eternity.
The nice ones always leave.
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.)