If you’re a lawyer appearing at my doorstep, and you work in biglaw, there’s a good chance you’re seeking a way out. You don’t know what you want to do next, but the status quo is insupportable. That’s the standard set-up.
If you’re a lawyer appearing at my doorstep and you work in biglaw, we’ll likely talk about the challenges ahead. Trapped in the bathysphere of biglaw, it’s hard to see out let alone get out. You’ve heard rumors about human beings who enjoy their jobs. In your experience, big firm attorneys loathe their chosen profession the way other people breathe air.
If you’re a lawyer appearing at my doorstep, and you work in biglaw, we’ll probably talk about a sideways shuffle I call the “crab-walk.” You can’t transfer from a big law firm directly to a tolerable work environment in one leap – the chasm between biglaw and anywhere anyone would want to be is too great. Crab-walking is the next best thing, based on the indisputable principle that a tiny step in the direction of somewhere else amounts to an improvement. Take a reduced schedule at your current firm (if such a thing exists in theory or practice.) Give a “kinder, gentler” mid-law shop a shake. Go in-house at a bank. Dial for dollars as a headhunter. Switch to consulting and live in a hotel in Indianapolis all week writing reports recommending the firing of middle managers. Get a sales and support position at WestLaw teaching summers to concoct search terms. Small crab-walk-y steps remove you one centimeter at a time from where you are right now. That, by definition, is good.
If you’re a lawyer appearing at my doorstep and you work in biglaw, you probably want out, and have since your first taste of the Kool-Aid. You need to hear you’re not crazy or alone, and that there are others who long for a job without constant anxiety attacks, where Sunday nights aren’t a horror show, where a partner won’t tell you without a trace of irony to “go ahead and take the weekend off,” where it isn’t considered an easy night to get home at 11 pm.
These generalities hold true for about 96% of the lawyers appearing at my doorstep who work in biglaw. They do not, however, apply to everyone.
I don’t want to exaggerate the phenomenon, but there are folks who actually “fit in” in biglaw. They actually like it there. These are the “odd ducks,” and from time to time some of them also appear at my door.
Odd ducks are a rare breed, because the vast majority of biglaw attorneys are miserable. My client population likely self-selects for career dissatisfaction – although I suspect the effect is less prominent that is often assumed. Whatever the case may be, I’ve worked with hundreds of miserable biglaw lawyers – and they, in turn, have brought me abundant tales of many more. I also receive mail from miserable biglaw lawyers who read this column – and, let’s not forget I was a miserable lawyer myself once, lost in the umbrous recesses of Sullivan & Cromwell, and I’ve stayed in touch with many similarly miserable former colleagues from that world. Judging from all available evidence, it’s fair to conclude the vast majority of biglaw lawyers hate it and willingly report that their colleagues hate it, too. This is not a conspiracy to disrespect biglaw – the situation is real, and it is ghastly enough without over-statement.
It is not, however, the complete picture. That’s because of the odd ducks.
For the most part, odd ducks lay low. There’s a taboo surrounding their status, which makes sense, as it seems rude, on the face of it, in a world populated by legions of wretchedly unhappy lawyers, to trumpet your own contentment. The least you can do is pretend to be as miserable as everyone else. That’s why, if you suspect you might be an odd duck, there’s a strong impulse to keep your outlandish proclivities to yourself.
That means, if you’re an odd duck and appear at my doorstep, you’ll rarely identify yourself as such at the onset of our work. It’s simpler to say as little about your job as possible, with the implication that you feel the same way everyone else does.
The dead giveaway of un canard bizarre arrives when you admit to receiving consistent good reviews. That’s almost embarrassing, because no one gets consistent good reviews in biglaw. Then it leaks out you aren’t really miserable. The hours aren’t that big a deal. You kind of get along with the partner. You kind of love the money.
It’s no surprise odd ducks are the ones who make it to the top in biglaw – who else would? What’s stranger is that, from dizzying heights of power, odd ducks still hesitate to declare themselves.
I worked with a managing partner of a biglaw outfit who earned millions of dollars a year, but we spent our first few weeks talking about how his job was killing him. That was because he seldom got home before 11 pm, and often had to bring work home on the weekends. His wife, who didn’t work, beat him up for never being around for the kids. If he would only stop being so selfish and money-obsessed and quit his horrible job – this was the accepted wisdom – the family could be happy.
It took me a while to realize what was going on – that I was dealing with an odd duck.
“What if,” I hazarded one evening in the course of a session, “you were able to take pride in the fact that you’ve risen to the top of your field? What if your wife acknowledged that it took a lot of hard work to get where you are – a respected authority in your area, speaking to entire conferences as an expert? What if she were to acknowledge that the apartment in the city and the home in the country and the two expensive automobiles and the frequent luxury vacations and her ability to stay home and not have a job are also the fruit of your hard work and success?”
He stared, agape. But it was true. He was always home by 11 pm, latest, never went to the office on weekends, and took regular posh vacations with the family. Those were luxuries he’d earned as a managing partner. It was an intense job, but by this point he’d gained a level of control over his own hours.
“But running this law firm is killing me, and it takes a terrible toll on the family.”
That sounded a bit tentative.
“Are those really your words? And is it really killing you? Isn’t that a bit strong? Don’t you spend nearly every weekend and some evenings home with your family? And isn’t it possible that this job is also something you find satisfying and which brings enormous benefits as well as sacrifices?”
He looked stunned. I’d enunciated the unthinkable. He’d been outed. I kept going.
“Isn’t it possible some people have a right to choose to work hard and make sacrifices for their careers? What if you were a writer, or a scientist or a diplomat, and worked long hours? Would you get torn into in the same way, blamed for your dedication to what you do?”
He acknowledged my point.
This man was a classic odd duck. He might not be skipping and dancing to the office each morning, but deep down, the trade-offs of biglaw seem worth it to him. He maybe even sort of likes it.
Not all odd ducks are top partners. I worked recently with a biglaw senior associate who didn’t seem like an odd duck at first sight, but the more we traded experiences about the terrible hours and the cruelties of biglaw, the more something didn’t feel right. So I took the plunge and posed the forbidden question: For him, at least, was the status quo was really so terrible?
He looked shocked.
“Well, this is biglaw. I mean, all my friends at the large firms are miserable. Of the four of us who were close in law school, three have already left the profession and are either unemployed or doing something else. They all say they could never go back.”
“Yeah – but you’re a different person.”
A wave of relief washed over his features.
“I guess. But it seems weird, and arbitrary, doesn’t it? Why would I do better than everyone else?”
“Maybe it is weird and arbitrary. But you have a right to be different. Maybe you’re one of those rare birds who actually thrives in biglaw.”
To judge from his face, this was the first time in his life he’d felt understood.
After working with a few odd ducks, I’ve begun to note distinguishing features:
First – the true odd ducks are good at law – not just theoretical law as taught in law schools, but day to day actual law as actually practiced by big law firms. I’ve never met an odd duck who didn’t get good reviews. That’s an extremely rare thing in biglaw, where dismantling associate self-confidence and consigning their self-esteem to the flames of oblivion is an accepted norm. Yet odd ducks invariably receive good reviews, in part because…
Second – they’re actually cut out for this work. They like it. It’s not about being fascinated by Constitutional Law or wanting to defend civil rights (because that’s not what real lawyers do). It’s more mundane than that – and to be candid, dorky and nerdy. Odd ducks have the special knack that permits someone to sit up all night reviewing a purchase agreement and grow absorbed by the provisions of an indemnity clause. Or they relish the combat of litigation – that world of motions and discovery and settlement agreements and rushing to make deadlines and faking out your opponent with an unexpected dirty trick. They honestly find civ pro fascinating. It’s even, well, fun for them, the same way some people savor a game of Dungeons & Dragons or a long discussion of baseball statistics. Some odd ducks are simply low key, capable attorneys with a knack for winning clients and bringing in business. One way or another, they possess key real-life lawyering skills, and that means…
Third – they fit in with the partners, who can quickly spot a kindred spirit. Partners need associates who are good at the work and fit in and just…do it. No drama. When they find one of these rare creatures, they take them under their wing. The shelter afforded by a partner’s wing may spare you the worst of the crazy work hours and sudden surprises commonly delivered at 6 pm on Friday evenings.
Before I continue, I want to clarify that I am not giving advice here. This is not a column about “how to succeed in biglaw” or “how to make biglaw work for you” or – god forbid – “how to be a happy lawyer.” In my experience, any advice along the lines of “how to succeed in a career in which you don’t belong” broadcasts its uselessness long before the first platitude plops earthward with a fetid plash.
I can’t make you an odd duck: Odd ducks are born, not trained. This is the realm of nature, not nurture. You’re either cut out for biglaw, or you’re not. The vast majority of people who pursue law and end up at big firms have no business attempting to survive there. That’s why the bulk of any class of biglaw associates lasts no more than two years prior to complete mastication and subsequent expectoration, eructation or regurgitation.
But some stick it out and some even like it, which, when you stop to think about it, is pretty much why biglaw still exists. Someone has to belong there, even if those someones are few and far between and perhaps a bit…odd.
As another odd duck client confessed to me recently: “I don’t know why, but I guess I’m just okay with it. They seem to appreciate me. They give me good reviews. One partner admitted he didn’t want to use another associate on his projects – he needed my work because he had confidence in my abilities. That felt nice.”
“So why do I sense you hesitating to admit it?” I asked.
He looked thoughtful. “Because everyone else hates that place – and I don’t always love it either. The hours are brutal. But I enjoy litigation and the money’s great and I guess I’m just okay with it. I sleep at night. I don’t mind going in. It’s just, well, work for me.”
That’s what it’s come to. Biglaw is so universally detested that the few people for whom it’s a fit are ashamed to admit it. But the fact remains: Some people do fine in even the scariest biglaw firms – and they have a right to.
Before I start sounding too Pollyannaish, let me remind you that life as an odd duck is not all unicorns and rainbows. The oddest of odd ducks wishes he had more time for himself – and experiences bad days, or bad weeks, or bad months at the office. Or his firm implodes and he finds himself facing a brutal job hunt. Being made partner doesn’t guarantee permanent odd duck status, either. You might crack under the pressure of bringing in more clients and billables, or wind up working under a sadistic senior rainmaker. Plenty of people who think they’re odd ducks as associates wind up discovering they only like “doing” law, not marketing and bringing in clients, and there’s little room for service partners in today’s biglaw. Being pushed out of a firm, or stuck as a permanent senior associate with no hope of ascending, might discourage even the pluckiest waterfowl.
There are two final points I want to make about odd ducks. First of all, if you really are an odd duck, it’s okay to come out from hiding. I know you’re out there. You can stop apologizing. You’re allowed to admit you’re doing okay – and that biglaw works for you. Just because it nearly killed me – and has damaged the lives of tens of thousands of others – doesn’t mean there’s no room for a few odd ducks in even the most chthonic habitat. Enjoying something everyone else seems to despise is what being an odd duck is all about.
My second point is more relevant to the average reader of this column: Please don’t assume you’re an odd duck, or that biglaw is going to be your particular cup of tea. The overwhelming odds are that it won’t – and that biglaw will be a disaster for both your financial and mental health.
Odd ducks are a rare breed by definition, just like natural-born lawyers. The fact that this country is up to its ears in people calling themselves “attorneys” can be explained by so many regular ducks assuming they’re odd – or that they can get away with pretending to be.
We can all agree it requires a singular vocation to become a dentist. For that reason, my dentist friends are, in their own way, odd ducks. But imagine a world in which everyone assumed they were somehow put on this Earth to be a dentist. Imagine the dental schools playing along, telling anyone who will listen that they can attend a few lectures, “learn to think like a dentist” – et voila! – open wider and turn towards me…
You’d end up with a lot of unhappy non-dentists wondering why they can’t relax and enjoy performing root canals.
That’s what’s happening in law.
If you can’t think of anything else to do, don’t take it for granted you’re a biglaw lawyer, because working at a big law firm sure as hell isn’t for everyone. Real biglaw lawyers – true, honest to god biglaw lawyers who were put on this Earth to practice at megafirms – are some very odd ducks indeed.
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.
My new book is a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls in love with a blue alien from outer space. It’s called Bad Therapist: A Romance I guarantee pure reading pleasure…
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s book about the sad state of the legal profession, Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy: Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
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