Someone posted the following astonishing comment in response to one of my columns a few months back:
“I’ve never worked in a biglaw firm, but what happens if an associate just says no, I am busy this weekend, or no, I am on vacation that week, so I won’t be able to do that project. Do you immediately get fired? If that’s true, then you must not really have much to offer to the firm in the first place. In a situation where the associate had some real value to offer to the firm, I do not see why the firm would fire someone for that. Am I hopelessly naive?”
Go ahead – laugh. Get it out of your system. You know perfectly well your guffaws wear thin, right about when that twinge of poignancy creeps in. You, too, once mulled the notion of rising above the fray – going all Bartleby the Scrivener and muttering “I’d prefer not to” when asked – oops, I mean told – to work and work and work and work and work.
This “pure fool” of a comment-writer has raised a troubling issue (and that, by the way, was a combined Parsifal and Magic Mountain reference…this will be one of those classy columns larded with literary allusions.) Cower behind your carapace of cynicism, but sooner or later you’ll admit you weren’t always like this. You weren’t always a broken, cynical wreck who jumps at the slightest command. You used to be Bartleby The Scrivener, too. You imagined you were valued as a unique, complex individual. You imagined you held some sway over your own existence – some “preferences.”
I know it’s no fun trying to remember the stuff you read in college, but please attempt to keep up. Even if you weren’t an undergraduate English major, you might recall that the narrator of “Bartleby the Scrivener” was called “The Lawyer.” That’s right: “The Lawyer.” The whole thing takes place in a law firm! And remember what a scrivener did? It was the worst job in the firm – probably one of the worst jobs of all time. You sat at a desk copying legal documents – handwriting them – for hours. Reminiscent of doc review, or due diligence, or “running changes” – scrivening was mindless and, if you kept at it for too long, guaranteed to drive you bat-shit. You – and everyone else – would obviously “prefer not to.”
And yet, somehow or other, our narrator – “The Lawyer” (i.e., a partner at the firm) – is astonished when Bartleby, after being asked politely to scriven something, even more politely states in return: “I’d prefer not to.” The Lawyer explains his astonishment at Bartleby’s resistance by pointing out how he, as a partner – even in 1853! – possesses a “natural expectancy of instant compliance.”
You know all about that, right? The “natural expectancy of instant compliance”? Sure you do.
The “natural expectancy of instant compliance” is why you don’t say “I’d prefer not to” in biglaw. It’s why you instead “shut the fuck up.” The “natural expectancy of instant compliance” flows in the veins and arteries of biglaw partners. It fills those hollows where blood would otherwise go.
If you stop and unpack Bartleby’s mantra – and examine what it really means to say “I’d prefer not to” – you might not last long in this racket.
For starters, stating “I’d prefer not to” means telling the truth about your job. Of course you’d prefer not to – we’d all prefer not to work in biglaw. But saying “I’d prefer not to” also means perpetuating a lie – because you know perfectly well you have no choice whether to work or not. Pretending you have a choice is playing along with the official fiction that “an associate has real value to offer the firm.” The truth, which no one – least of all, you – wants to admit, is that the only value an associate has is as a slave. You are owned – your ass is bought and paid for – and because you are owned, you no longer have any choice in the matter of offering or not offering – or preferring or not preferring – or doing or not doing. You simply do what they tell you. Because they own you.
Behold the awesome power of $240k in school loans – coupled with a moribund job market.
Everyone knows what happens if you announce you’d “prefer not to” at a law firm: You get fired. The deed may occur in myriad ways, depending on how swiftly the holders of power opt to peel away the veil of self-deception surrounding biglaw employment.
Permit me to aid in the peeling process. Standing up to a partner at a law firm and going all Bartleby on him is akin to standing up to Simon Legree (literary allusion alert!) and averring the following:
“I am an African man, stolen from my family, dragged on-board a slave ship in chains, sold at auction to the highest bidder and forced to labor in these fields. Thank goodness I’ve encountered you, Sir. You look like a decent sort of person, and I know you cannot wish me ill, since I have done you none myself. Therefore, I humbly implore you release me at once and aid me in my return to my homeland!”
You might also try asking Mitt Romney for your job back. Not going to happen.
If I know Legree like I think I know Legree, he will snarl, crack his whip and shout some rather shocking, politically incorrect epithets – which will be your cue to return to picking cotton.
Why? Because, when push comes to shove, a slave – to Simon Legree – is nothing more than a way to make money – just like a worker is nothing more than a way to make money to Mitt Romney, and an associate is nothing more than a way to make money to a biglaw partner. As long as you labor, they earn (many, many, many times what you do.) That’s why they (barely) tolerate your nauseous presence in their lives.
Money is the only thing that matters to them.
Melville’s story takes place not only at a law firm, but at a Wall Street law firm (remember the subtitle – “A Story of Wall Street”?) Yes – it’s about biglaw. And biglaw is a storied world of monied elites: patrician, white-shoe, WASP-y and privileged.
Surely these are not the sort of people who crack whips and imprison human slaves?
Of course they are. Don’t fall for the powdered wigs and French manners. Who do you think owned the slaves – and profited from their trade? Our “founding fathers” were up to their ears in human trafficking, including those patrician, upper-crust, white-shoe New England types, who financed the voyages of the slave ships. Fancy people with lots of money – who wish to earn even more – can do terrible things. They simply do their best to avoid being present when the visuals take a turn for the indecorous.
Back to my comment writer – and his question: What’s it look like when the gloves come off in biglaw – when you attempt to relate as equals, or even near-equals, and the Bartleby hits the fan?
I got my first taste of the answer one dismal night in a Sullivan & Cromwell conference room.
My second or third assignment at S&C had me reporting to a senior associate in the real estate group. I’ll never forget this guy (he haunts my dreams, and appears in several of these columns) – an obese, greasy-haired ogre with yellowed fingernails perpetually clutching a smoldering Marlboro.
On our first evening together, it became apparent we were the only attorneys assigned to this deal… and we were in for a late night. We ordered food – I remember an aluminum foil take-out container of eggplant parmesan – and were sitting in a conference room together, with said victuals, at around ten p.m. At which juncture I chose to deliver the following oration:
“It looks like we’ll be spending a lot of time together on this deal – so we might as well get to know one another. I never thought I’d end up on a real estate deal, but I guess why not? Anyway, I’m originally from New Jersey, grew up in the suburbs. You might hear a lot of jazz and classical music coming out of my office – those are my big passions. What are your hobbies in the outside world?”
The real estate ogre cut me off with a riposte as ingenious in its precision as it was elegant in its profanity.
“Do you think I give a fucking shit who you are or any of your bullcrap? Shut the fuck up.”
And so I did. I shut the fuck up.
Voila! We understood one another – and I assimilated an essential lesson of biglaw, with especial regard to my place within it. As we fed in silence, cherished notions of “collegiality,”“white shoe tradition,” “patrician institutions,” “practicing law,” “the profession of law,” “the Sullivan & Cromwell way” – and other such bullcrap and associated bullcrap of a similar nature miraculously fell by the wayside. I became, as they say in Scientology, “clear.”
I was a slave. I was owned. I did what he told me to do. I didn’t pretend he was my friend, or even a close acquaintance, or that he “gave a fucking shit about me or any of my bullcrap.” No one there did. That isn’t how S&C works.
I now address myself directly to the comment writer: Permit me to assure you, Dear Sir, without hesitation, that should you “just say no” to all-nighters and weekends – or suggest in the mildest way that you “would prefer not to,” they – the powers that be – will indeed fire your ass. Your “value to the firm” is your working hours – for which they bill many, many, many times what they pay you. If you are not working, they will fire you. If you refuse to work – or state your preference not to work – they will also fire you. If you attempt to make conversation over dinner, they may well fire you, too.
They might wait a bit, and first arrange for you to receive a bad review. They might give you three months severance (a quaint, dying tradition.) They might tell you to go fuck yourself. But your ass will be fired as surely as each morning the sun’s bright chariot scales the arc of the heavens only to descend once again each night.
Pardon me as I adopt the standard, accepted biglaw vernacular:
Get this through your head, Fucktard – the patrician graybeards who own your ass when you work at a big law firm are not, for the most part, nice people. It is not, for the most part, a nice place. They work for corporate America and the billionaires who own it – the Mitt Romneys of the world – who are, once again, for the most part, not nice people. They don’t get rich worrying about whether the common man has decent healthcare. Their attitude is simple – they love money, they don’t want to pay taxes, and you can go fuck yourself.
One of my clients reminded me recently of this state of affairs. She was interviewed by a major newspaper regarding the topic of a journal article she wrote in law school. She vetted everything by her firm’s PR department, so it was entirely kosher. And it was impressive – a feather in her cap.
Not one person at the firm congratulated her. Not one. It was as though it never happened.
Did she really think they gave a fucking shit about her or any of her bullcrap?
No. And that’s because they don’t. She’s looking for a job at another firm right now – any other firm – in the vague hope it might be different there. She knows better, but hope springs eternal.
Once again, for emphasis: They own you – and for whatever reason, owning you doesn’t inspire them to a concern for your welfare.
With regard to how it is you came to be owned – another client had a revelation this week after being accosted by a homeless guy for money. He gave the homeless guy a dollar, which apparently wasn’t sufficient, because the homeless guy screamed: “Fuck you, one-percenter dirtbag!”
In reality, my client explained to me, in strictly economic terms that homeless guy was the wealthier of the two of them. That’s because the homeless guy didn’t choose to go to law school, so he doesn’t owe a bank two hundred and forty grand. In fact, my client’s out-of-work, alcoholic brother-in-law who smokes Indo and slams forties all day is also wealthier than my client. Most people are wealthier than my client. It isn’t a difficult status to achieve.
Perhaps, my client mused, he should be the one running after the homeless guy and yelling at him on the sidewalk. But, of course, my client can’t afford to run, yelling, after anyone on the sidewalk – he can’t afford to lose his job. He is forced to behave himself, because he is a slave.
You are too, Mr. Naïve Lawyer. You are owned. They own you. So you have to behave, too.
There’s a point where even Simon Legree grows impatient and blurts it out:
“Don’t you get it, fuckhead? You’re a human slave. I exploit your labor for money. Your health or welfare don’t matter to me.”
Mitt Romney himself, at some juncture, could lose it and spit out the truth: “I leveraged your company with massive debt so I could grab a pile of cash. I’m not your daddy. I don’t give a shit if you lose your job and get sick and need a doctor. That’s not my problem.”
At least with Romney you can open your eyes and realize – much as you may long to be him – voting for him won’t make it so. Toadying up to biglaw partners isn’t going to transform you into one of them, either – though it might delay your being fired.
It’s about money – and power.
Yeah. They own you. That’s why you’re there. They’re not nice people and they don’t “value you.” That’s reality.
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.)