At some point you have to get out of here. The question is when – and whither.
A vacation might help, if you could achieve the impossible and take one. My client pulled off a week – seven whole days! – at a Caribbean resort, only to return feeling like a condemned prisoner.
“It made things worse,” she lamented. “Now I remember the outside world.”
Sometimes it’s better to live without that distraction.
You’re in it for the money. Biglaw creates money to toss into the maw of a bank. But no one can stand this abuse forever. Change – any change – might be good, right? How about another firm? Working in a different building – working with different people – different acoustic ceiling tiles, different vertical blinds, different sound-absorbent beige carpeting, different cheap wood veneer bookshelves, different anonymous windows to stare out… Anything different counts as change, doesn’t it?
The omnipresent worry: out of the frying pan, into…someplace worse.
Could anyplace be worse?
Isn’t that what you said about law school?
Another client took the leap and fled his firm – couldn’t take it any more. Guess what? It was worse. Two months later he was begging to return to the frying pan.
Yes – it actually happened. He returned to his old firm, proving forever there are places worse than the-frying-pan-you-know. There’s the-frying-pan-you-don’t-know.
This guy was a fifth year groping for an exit from hell. Nights and weekends of endless grind congealed into a determination – no más. Anything was better than this. This – whatever this was – was killing him.
An escape hatch appeared in the form of a nearby firm (five blocks away) celebrated for “associate satisfaction.”
(He didn’t realize at the time that “associate satisfaction surveys” actually measure relative levels of associate intimidation – intimidation with regard to filling out “associate satisfaction” surveys. A melted cheese sandwich provides “satisfaction.” Working in biglaw typically does not.)
My client was in the throes of acute law-induced discomfort, and the switch sounded feasible. A partner from his current firm was now working at the new place, talking it up. He took the leap.
Literally within minutes of switching firms, my client knew he’d made a mistake. They didn’t even pretend – there was no question of being taken out for lunch. The piling on of work began the first hour. Other associates avoided his eyes when he passed them in the hall. He worked straight through the first weekend, then every weekend that followed. Eventually, he missed his best friend’s wedding – partner’s orders – to spend all day taking notes at a meeting that partner couldn’t be bothered to attend.
That was the breaking point. He called a partner at his old firm – swallowed what he laughingly referred to as his “dignity” – and pleaded for his job back.
Two weeks later, he’s in his former office, at his former desk – more certain than ever there’s no escape.
At least at this hellhole – the original hellhole – he works for a partner who isn’t an especially bad person (in biglaw terms.) Sure, the work is piled on without mercy, but there isn’t as much arbitrary torment. That’s a fine distinction, but it can be crucial – the gulf between working for (1) an egotist who never gives your existence a second thought; or (2) a sadist who makes sport of inflicting pain. Option (1) is the “lifestyle” job.
My client still works fourteen hour days and nearly every weekend. He still hates what he does. But now he appreciates his “lifestyle” job.
So what next? Stay in the frying pan? Try another frying pan? The legal profession provides an array of frying pans to choose from (or it used to, back when jobs existed. At this point, you should probably shut up and be glad you have a frying pan so you can keep making loan payments.)
A client at a big Midwest firm says she’s losing her mind. One day she looked around the table at the assembled staff of the “Securities Litigation Group” and thought: I don’t like these people. I don’t want to work with these people. I don’t want a life containing these people.
She’s got a clerkship coming up. But then what? How do you stay and “build a career” when you don’t like anyone you work with? She refers to them as “those douchebags.”
She could leave Chicago and move back to New York. That was the plan, until, while researching New York City firms, she stumbled upon a passage, on one firm’s website, extolling their “emergency child care services.” The concept made her queasy.
Because what – really – are “emergency child care services”? “Child care services” would mean a friendly, convenient daycare center downstairs – but this is America, and friendly, convenient daycare centers are an evil plot hatched by wild-eyed European socialists, right? No firm would ever pay for actual childcare. Only “emergency” childcare. Well, the most common “emergency” at a law firm is the weekly “emergency” of being kept all-night or all-weekend working for some lunatic. That would be when the “emergency childcare” swings into action.
She imagined someone driving out to her house to stay with her kids. That was scary enough, until she asked herself the next question: Who? Who does a law firm choose to provide “emergency” childcare? A sweet older Jamaican lady from an agency? In her dreams. More likely, a hard-bitten, moonlighting secretary from Staten Island, or a heavily indebted twenty-something hipster taking a break from doc review. She pondered the scene: “Hey, kids. Your mom will be pulling another unplanned double all-nighter. I’ll be staying with you again this weekend. Who wants to hear a bedtime story?”
Maybe it’d be better to stay in Chicago with the douchebags. The frying pan she knows…
Yet lawyer after lawyer tells me the same story: they don’t want the frying pan they know. Any frying pan – even an equally bad frying pan – would suffice. Just, please – make it a different frying pan (and maybe give me a week or two off – a week or two without a Blackberry, a week or two without partners, a week or two without law – before I hop into the next frying pan.)
One client concocted creative, near-convincing rationales to prefer another firm – it’s smaller and supposedly gentler (although smaller means fewer partners so she might get stuck working for a beast – and might not be able to go back to a big prestige firm after leaving to a smaller firm), the hours might be better (although they’ll probably be the same), and they take smaller cases, so there won’t be as much document production (although there’ll still be document production, with fewer people to help out.)
She knows that’s window dressing. The truth? If she stays where she is, she’ll lose her shit. Then she’ll get fired.
It is an indisputable fact that a new place – any new place – is not the old place. You have to do something. At very least, you have to try.
Of course you know the actual problem isn’t this place. It’s biglaw.
A client surprised me the other day. Last year, she fled a nightmare firm – a legendary sweatshop – for a new place. So far, things are marginally better. They give her work and ignore her. She keeps a low profile and (so far) can work evenings to avoid weekends. So far as she’s concerned, this amounts to “satisfaction.”
But now it’s getting slow. She recognizes the signs, and wonders how much longer they’ll keep her around.
I expected to talk with her about networking, headhunters, changing cities – the stuff she talked about last time she needed to flee a frying pan. She didn’t.
“If this job falls through, I’m through,” she announced.
“Meaning, what? You’ll look for something at another firm?”
“No. I mean that’s it for law.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to. She’d had enough. I don’t know what that means, in practical terms – I don’t think she does, either. She’s batting around the idea of becoming a headhunter or taking some sort of job at an e-discovery contractor.
There comes a point when you review all your options – all your options.
Frying pan. Frying pan. Frying pan. Fire.
Given the state of frying pan, “fire” might be worth a shot.
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 can also heartily recommend my first book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)