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Archive for May, 2011

To judge by the accoutrements of “the profession,” lawyers, as a group, maintain an inflated self-image. They think they’re all that. It’s easy to get sucked into this mind-set – especially fresh out of law school. Perhaps, when you’re not “thinking like a lawyer,” you’ve spent a few minutes admiring the little “Esq.” printed after your name on an envelope from school or a law firm – or some company in Parsippany trying to sell you a genuine mahogany and brass pen holder featuring a statue of “blind justice” for only $59.99 with free shipping.

Back when I passed the bar, I was offered the option by New York State to purchase a printed document – “suitable for hanging” – to memorialize the event. I figured what the heck and blew the twenty-five bucks. The “parchment” arrived in a cardboard tube, and it was huge – like a royal proclamation. I felt ridiculous, rolled it back up and stuck it in a closet, where it remains.

It’s hard to imagine accountants (who often make more than lawyers), or bankers (who always make more than lawyers) laying on the pretension to quite the degree lawyers take for granted.

My father was a physician, and in his early days, he fell for the professional ostentation thing, too. After he graduated from medical school, he ordered “MD” plates for his car. Sure enough, the next time he took the rusty old Mercury Marquis in for a repair, the mechanics charged him double. That was enough – he sent back the plates.

At least doctors are highly regarded in our society. My father was a psychiatrist, not a brain surgeon, but there was grudging respect for the fact of his MD. If you were in a car accident or had a heart attack on a plane, theoretically my dad could save your life. That meant something.

With lawyers, self-esteem outpaces public acclaim. That’s because, for the most part, non-lawyers view lawyers as worthless parasites – or at least, as existing on the more worthless, parasitical end of the esteem spectrum.

I’ll never forget the time I asked a Wall Street-er what he actually thought about lawyers.

I’d received the nudge from Sullivan & Cromwell, which meant I had six months to find another job. A head-hunter somehow or other set me up with an interview to be a bond trader at JP Morgan.

I considered the whole idea misguided – I was a lawyer from one of the top firms in the world, and far above working as a trader. I thought of bond traders as slick goombahs with Staten Island accents shouting into a phone all day. I was an attorney, with a degree from Hahvard. I showed up at Morgan as a courtesy to the headhunter. I radiated disdain.

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Associates at big law firms don’t normally burn out right away. They arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, raring to go. This is their moment! Grasp the golden ring!

If you look closely, though, you’ll notice a few poor souls who burn out immediately – sometimes within a few weeks. These folks look awful almost from Day One, dread coming to work, don’t talk to the others, can’t sleep and wonder how to get out – like, immediately.

That’s because they’ve been sexually harassed.

Oh…that.

Right. That.

I know. Sexual harassment is a drag of a topic, the stuff of tedious lectures by gender theorists and “Human Resource professionals.” Nothing new to say, just standard material: wince-inducing scenarios, tired platitudes about respect and crossing the line and what’s appropriate in a workplace blah blah blah…boring, scary, boring.

I hear about sexual harassment all the time from my clients, so it’s a little less boring for me, and a lot more real. There is stuff worth talking about. But I’ll keep it quick.

First, to be clear, I’m not talking about law firm sex in general. I’m as sex-positive as the next guy, and this isn’t about sex. And I’m not naïve. I’ve heard all about the “hanky-panky” – ill-advised and otherwise – that goes on at firms. Associates get it on in their offices. Partners seduce young summers. Some of those partners are married. So are some of the summers. And it’s not just a straight thing – gay associates and partners get caught up in this stuff, too.

When you’re working together around the clock at a big law firm, there’s a lot of pent-up sexual energy, so there’s oodles of sleaze. Stuff happens. That stuff might be fun, or un-fun, no big deal or something you’ll regret for a while. That’s not our topic.

Harassment is never fun or okay. It’s unwanted, unasked-for, undesired, unexciting, unpleasant, unsexy, unattractive, uncool sexual attention.

I have a theory that everything is more interesting if you stick the word “extreme” in front of it. Barbecue is okay. Extreme barbecue is way better. The same thing goes with sex. It intensifies things. Cool becomes super-cool if you add sex. Likewise, bummer turns into super-bummer if it’s sexual. Harassment is a bummer, and sexual harassment is a super-bummer.

Here’s what sexual harassment looks like:

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Some big law firms are like the mob. They do ugly things, but prefer to avoid “ugliness.” The partners, like the capos of major crime families, have delicate constitutions.

Ugliness could result from ill-considered communication. For that reason, a capo – or a partner – isn’t going to tell you what he really thinks. That would be indelicate. It could lead to misunderstandings.

You, in turn, shouldn’t tell a partner what you really think. That could lead to sleeping with the fishes.

My client recently received a lesson in partner communication.

The firm was dead slow, and she was dedicating her time to a big pro bono case. An email suddenly arrived announcing a new policy: you now needed special permission to bill over 250 pro bono hours annually. In two months, she’d billed 220, and the case was coming to trial.

She called the pro bono partner.

“You’re close to the limit,” he noted.

Last week, there was no limit, she explained. This is an important case, coming to trial.

“You’ve nearly exceeded the cap on hours,” he helpfully re-noted.

She inhaled deeply, and re-explained the situation.

He ingeniously pointed out that the 250 hours cap was the firm’s new policy…

…at which point she snapped, and did the unthinkable: she said what she really thought.

“I didn’t know there was a new policy. No one communicates at this place. And what is the point of this crap? Look at my hours – it’s not like I have anything else to do!”

There was a lengthy pause.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the partner.

He hung up – and she began to harbor second thoughts.

I’m sorry to hear that.

Behold, a singularly dreaded phrase. It is not good news, at a law firm, when you hear “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Generally speaking, when you hear “I’m sorry to hear that,” at a law firm, it means “you will soon be fired.”

There is something worse you could hear – worse than “I’m sorry to hear that.”

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I spent the second year of my social work internship working at a community center, which offered one of the top smoking cessation programs in the country.

One fine spring day I was sprawled, sunning myself, on a bench in the courtyard of the center when a fellow intern lit up a cigarette. I proposed she give the cessation program a try.

“No one likes a quitter,” she quipped, exhaling a cloud of toxins.

Uh…huh. Except there’s a proviso in that statement – a “carve-out” in the contract language – covering the quitting of something self-destructive. Like smoking.

Or a pointless march through law school.

I’d like to speak in defense of quitting, and quitters.

Quitting can be about more than stopping whatever you’re doing. It can be about waking up and asking yourself if what you’re doing makes sense and is worth continuing.

If you’re plugging away dutifully through the legal education process with no real idea why – it might be time to quit.

Does this mean I’m seriously advising young law students all over the country to give up and drop out – simply abandon their legal education mid-way through?

Yes.

I am prescribing a mass exodus from law schools. A semi-mass exodus might do the trick.

Tune in. Turn on. Drop out.

If you don’t know why you’re there – and you’re not sure what you’re getting yourself into – if you’re not at a top school, or even if you are, and your grades are a little iffy, and likely to stay that way – then please, get out. Today. Before you spend another cent.

The legal education scam works because it follows two key rules of all successful Ponzi schemes:

First, it plays to your greed. You dig your own hole because you’re in it for the money.

Second, it keeps you distracted. You never realize you’re getting fleeced.

The process is like a cattle chute. From the LSAT to the bar exam, you never look up because you’re moving too fast, racing to compete against the others…right up to the bolt gun in the forehead. Even if you awakened midway and realized you weren’t having fun and wanted to flee, there’s no obvious route of escape. That’s how it’s designed.

Along the way, you sign documents to borrow the purchase price of a Rolls Royce Corniche with nothing to show for it but a piece of paper saying you’re theoretically prepared for a job you know nothing about.

You end up $200k in debt and either stuck in a field you never understood and don’t like – or unemployed (the unemployed part isn’t the problem since it turns out you really want to be a jazz drummer anyway, not a lawyer.)

But that $200k in debt is there to say – sorry, you work for us now. In fact, we own you – own your future. Just like that cow on the feedlot.

You don’t have to go out like that.

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