Here’s what you never hear anyone say at a Biglaw firm – followed by a discussion of why you never hear anyone say it.
Here we go…
Let’s work on this together. It’ll be more fun.
People write me all the time, complaining I’m too down on Biglaw. Nothing new there, but one guy, recently, expanded on the topic, adding that he works at a firm where everyone, so far as he knows, is happy – enjoying a rewarding career in a supportive, non-exploitative environment.
Perhaps you can see this coming: It turns out this guy owns the firm – and specializes in oral arguments before federal appellate courts. Prior to becoming managing partner, he attended top Ivy League schools.
By way of a reply, I opined: “Your experience might be considered atypical.”
In reality, his experience should be considered ridiculously atypical. Redonkulously atypical. Yet this presumably brilliant legal mind couldn’t manage to grasp that reality from where he was standing – at the top of the heap.
This man claims, without irony, that every lawyer at his firm is happy. But, that little voice in the back of your head begins to counter, before you’re even aware of having the thought: it’s your firm.
They work for you. Of course they act happy, just as the maid cleaning your hotel room – the one without a green card, with a family to feed, smiles and acts delighted to see you when you pop in to grab your extra iPad mini and she’s on her knees scrubbing the shower.
Presumably, someone else, some possibly unhappy little person at this guy’s law firm, is doing the work he would rather not think about – the work that has to be done. Maybe it’s a junior he’s never met. And I’d bet good money that other guy’s doing it all by himself, probably late at night or on a weekend.
I was naïve when I started at Sullivan & Cromwell. I’d been told to expect late nights and weekends. Somehow or other, though, I harbored the daft notion it would be okay because we’d be in it together. There’d be an esprit de corps, a collegial sense of loyalty to one another, and to the firm. We’d divvy up the assignments based on seniority and expertise, then plug away as a team – and maybe share a pizza and a few laughs in a conference room during breaks.
Instead, I found out what it felt like to have work dumped on me, without apology or explanation – work I had no idea how to do and barely understand (let alone cared about.) I learned what it felt like to endure weekend after weekend and night after night sitting utterly alone, alternately weepy and panicky, in an empty office tower, aching to return home, crawl into bed, and go to sleep, but knowing I couldn’t because that would get me fired, and I had loans, and no one else gave a damn about me or my misery because I didn’t matter one iota to their bottom line, which was money.
Here, I’ll show you how to do this.
In Biglaw, they love it when you know how to do something – that means they can give you a lot of it and you do it instead of them.
They hate it if you don’t know how to do something. They’ll still dump it on you – a lot of it – but when you don’t do it perfectly, the necessity arises to criticize your level of ability, express doubts about your intelligence and condemn your lack of dedication, which they’ll somewhat rashly attribute to acedia.
The unceasing captiousness, the exasperated eye-rolling that telegraphs “you are a complete idiot with no aptitude for this work,” is what passes for “motivation-building” under Biglaw management philosophy. The aim is to destroy your self-confidence – that way, you can perform at your very best.
No one will ever, ever, ever show you how to do it. That would be unthinkable. That would violate an axiom of legal physics. You’re just supposed to somehow know.
Remember law school – where something was elucidated for you before it was assumed you understood it? Those days are over.
Sometimes, you aren’t sure how to do the assignment because you aren’t sure what the assigning person wants. They want it right away (they always want it right away – usually over the weekend), but the assignment is vague or unfamiliar. If you ask for an explanation or, heaven forfend, some background, you are sneered at. The implication is you’re an idiot and should already know the answer. Meanwhile, whatever you hand in will be deemed beneath their expectations. Just accept. There is no other way.
It stands to reason someone above your head has a deeper understanding of what’s going on – has met the client, was there from the beginning (or at least closer to the beginning), has been practicing this area of law for years, has done it before. But that person will horde his secrets like so many precious gemstones. The greatest secret – how to do the assignment he’s asking you to do – he’ll guard like a national secret. It shall never be revealed.
Instead, the work gets dropped on your desk, with a withering glance meant to convey exasperation with your inadequacy. And that’s it.
“Just do it!” they scream – which implies: “Don’t ask questions.”
So you don’t ask questions. Instead, you “take a stab at it.” And sure enough, your resultant “work product” isn’t “up to expectations.” Thus it is strongly implied you are very stupid and not even trying.
The game is rigged, and you’re set up to fail. Everyone is.
Run home, get some rest. We’ll start fresh in the morning.
My client is working on pro bono matters for a junior, “service” partner who has no actual, billable work. This guy is killing her, piling it on – endless, unnecessary research – then snapping at her over nonsense, emailing her late at night, calling her in on weekends, the whole schtick. All for non-billable, pro bono work she could handle in a few hours on her own during the week.
She assumes he’s trying to distract her from his absence of real work by burying her in distraction. That sounds plausible. If she’s running around looking busy, maybe that makes him look busy, too – at least in his febrile, panicked mind. Because that’s how everyone is supposed to look at a Biglaw firm – tense, harried and working all the time. That the culture. Ironically, because things are so slow at my client’s firm, there is no other work for her to do, so she’s stuck toiling for this guy, scrambling frantically like there’s actually something worth doing…all because there’s nothing to do.
Would it be so awful just to own the fact that it’s slow? We could, you know, all pull together and do what we can about it, which might not be much, but at least admit to what’s going on and maybe tackle the situation together? And maybe, in the meantime, stop running in circles?
No – that will never happen. Not at a law firm.
Don’t kill yourself, this can wait.
People have differing work patterns – some procrastinate, some don’t. That makes working as a collective to complete lengthy written assignments on a tight deadline next to impossible. But that’s what lawyers do.
It’s like one of those “group projects” in high school or college. Even if you prepare everything in advance – outline it all, break down the tasks, ask the others to choose their assignments – even go so far as to volunteer to tackle the least popular bit yourself – someone else will procrastinate, and pen his contribution in a mad rush the night before it’s due, then hand it in late. And so, of necessity, you’ll all end up rushing around the night before, and, by extension, hand it in late, too.
As an associate in Biglaw, you’re always the guy at the end of the line waiting for someone else to sign off on something. That’s the real reason you receive assignments on Friday afternoon – some idiot wasted his week procrastinating, unconcerned by the fact that, as a result, you’ll work all weekend.
One answer to procrastination is to set false deadlines. I knew a partner who fabricated deadlines – simply made them up – a few weeks before any assignment was actually due. It got to where no one ever knew when anything really needed to be done. For better or worse, that didn’t make much difference to the associates: In Biglaw everything needs to be done immediately. Always. Even if it doesn’t. And they’ve got all week to procrastinate…so you’ve got all weekend to work.
How are you doing – I mean, how are you really doing?
I keep hearing the same complaint from my clients: law doesn’t have to suck this much. It could be cool. You could take on an interesting case, research it, frame arguments and write a thoughtful brief for someone who needs it. That could be cool.
Does anyone practice that kind of law? I’m not sure it exists anymore. Perhaps if you obtained one of those hard-to-obtain indigent criminal defense jobs that pays nothing and lands you in a crime-ridden neighborhood where you’re afraid to walk home at night.
Most lawyers – at best – hammer out pointless motions to win obscure points for banks that screw their clients by issuing worthless derivatives. Or maybe you’re managing a gargantuan document review in a product liability suit. Or a meritless, drawn-out patent battle. Or grinding out the paperwork for a zillionaire private equity dude’s off-shore tax avoidance scheme.
Not necessarily food for the soul. It would be nice if that fact could be acknowledged at the firms: Most of what lawyers do isn’t interesting or fun.
You, like everyone else, are miserable, just like everyone else. And you’re stuck there, just like them.
How are you doing? Don’t ask. You don’t want to know. And so no one ever asks, because no one ever really wants to know. Besides which, we’re competing for work, so I don’t trust you enough to tell you how miserable I am even though you probably already know I’m miserable because heaven knows I can tell you’re miserable from the look on your face every morning.
The best esprit de corps at law firms arises among contract attorneys doing doc review. At least at that level, no one’s pretending commitment to a “profession” – it’s purely about paying loans. An “all in the same boat” feeling lightens the mood and renders it all almost bearable … at least until the work dries up. Then it’s back to every-man-for-himself.
One of my clients told me she could remain at her firm long enough to to pay off most of her loans and achieve the dream (zero net worth) if she could only manage to bottle up the person she is and stifle her authentic self for one more year. That was it – one year of erasing her personality and replacing it with a mute, doleful drudge.
That’s harder to do than it sounds.
“It’s sort of ironic, too, isn’t it?” She added. “What I need is a job where expressing myself is the key to success. In Biglaw erasing myself is the only way to survive.”
Take a vacation! You’ve earned it.
Law firms exploit every hour of your waking life. They also insist upon wasting your time when it doesn’t earn them a dime.
A client complained about an up-coming firm outing. There was a debate beforehand over whether to welcome children to the event.
“If my four-year-old son can’t make it – I’m not going,” she fumed.
Then she had a eureka moment.
“How about, instead of consuming the last remaining free moments in my life by carting me off to a country club, they let me go home, to spend time with my family? Talk about a peer bonding experience – I could get to know my husband!”
Biglaw lawyers don’t have lives because they spend every waking hour in a law office, surrounded by lawyers. And it’s no secret you’re not supposed to take those “vacation days.” Go ahead, put in for a week or two of “accumulated vacation days.” See what happens. I have a feeling you’ll hear “this isn’t a good time.” It never is.
And then there’s face time – an essential component of Biglaw. Just because there’s no work to do doesn’t mean you’re not required to be sitting at your desk, pretending to do it. You know the tricks – tell your secretary to open your office door when she gets in, and turn on your light, so it looks like you’re there. Set your email to send in the middle of the night, so the timestamp will say 2:37 a.m. Keep an empty Fedex box in your office, so you can stuff your overcoat into it – that way, when you sneak out at 7 p.m., it will look like you’re just popping out to mail something. And, of course, you’ll need two overcoats – one always carelessly tossed over the back of a chair in your office to imply you’re permanently “in residence.”
One of my clients literally lived across the street from his firm, and suffered from chronic health issues. So, if there was nothing to do, he’d go across the street and maybe even lie down. He was ten minutes away by foot. He had a phone and computer and checked email constantly. And there was no work to do anyway – whole days without a billable hour. But that wasn’t enough.
The partner would call and it would sound like this:
“Oh, you’re not at your desk. I had something I needed done quickly.”
“I have a computer here – or I could walk across the street and be there in ten minutes.”
“No, that’s okay, I’ll do it myself. I thought you were supposed to be in the office.”
“I’m across the street.”
“That’s okay. But we should talk about these absences.”
“I obtained permission from the managing partner – this is an agreed upon accommodation for a physical disability. I sent a memo explaining I had some physical issues and would be working from home but could come back to the office on ten minutes notice at any time.”
“I have to go.”
Great to see you!
The clearest sign of late-stage law firm burn-out is dreading entering the building. I used to hate those steps up to 125 Broad Street. I still avoid that building, that whole neighborhood. It’s a physical aversion, like a skin allergy that gets me all red and itchy.
As a lawyer, I used to crave the luxury of wanting to go to work. I imagined a workplace like the sandwich shop where I earned my spending money in high school – where, at the end of the day, after wiping down the counters, vacuuming and putting up the chairs, I could drink a couple beers with my boss, listen to music and talk about life.
Try to find that at a law firm. You won’t. Miserable people aren’t happy to see anyone – they just want to go home.
Hey, don’t worry about it – we all make mistakes.
A law of entropy governs complex systems, and chaos theory applies in this realm – with sufficient complexity, it’s statistically impossible there will NOT be a mistake.
Law is complex, by definition. There are a million jurisdictions. Each has a clerk. Each has a set of rules and deadlines and unfathomable filing weirdness.
Someone is going to miss a deadline. Someone is going to send it out the wrong way or to the wrong place and it won’t get filed on time. It’s going to happen.
Why spend a whole meeting passing the blame, trying to duck the blame – just plain blaming? It’s like the official sport at law firms – blaming. Someone must find him or herself residing in that narrow, dark, uncomfortable space located beneath the bus.
My client’s new motto: “Every day, in every way, I get bitter and bitter.”
Things are really slow. I’m worried too.
Can we all sit down together and say it? The legal profession is in a crisis. Hungry for tuition dollars, law schools flooded the market with too many lawyers. As a result, firms are slow.
Senior partner – stop giving the junior partner a hard time. He knows you’ll ask him to leave if he doesn’t bring in work and he’s already been de-equitized and is plenty stressed out and barely functioning. Admit it – you’re slow, too. If you could bring in more work, the junior would be busy.
Associates – stop hanging out by the junior partner’s office looking like you’re angry at him for not assigning you anything. It’s not that you’re no good. Or maybe it is. Mostly – and you can figure this out – it’s because he doesn’t have any work to give you. Leave him alone.
Can we all sit down and talk – and stop freaking each other out? It’s slow – accept that reality. It’s slow. There, I said it. Who cares if the clients find out? They already know. Everyone already knows. It’s no secret there are too many lawyers and not enough to do.
We might be making some cuts – I’m letting you know, so you can prepare.
Why must the firm perform the “bad review” ritual each time someone has to leave? When a dozen associates are getting the ax at the same time, it’s obviously the economy, not performance. That’s called a lay-off, not getting fired. The world won’t stop spinning if they just admit: “Look, you’re terrific, but we’re slow.”
But that’s unthinkable, because it would let the cat out of the bag – the big secret that the profession’s in crisis.
These are the myths everyone is supposed to buy into:
No client will ever hire a firm that’s slow, because that means they’re no good.
If a firm is slow and lays you off, they must maintain at all times that you are being fired because you are no good.
After they fire you, no other firm will ever hire you because you will have logged more than thirty consecutive minutes of unaccounted-for time on your resume – i.e., the kiss of death.
Thus the world will come to an end and you will never work again and starve to death in a box behind a dumpster in the parking lot at a strip mall.
Trust me, that won’t happen, so stop freaking out. The emperor is standing there naked, for all to see.
Thanks! Nice job!
Ultimately, what you don’t hear at one Biglaw firm is pretty much what you don’t hear at every Biglaw firm: Honesty, consideration…and kindness. There is a decided absence of kindness. The milk of human kindness in Biglaw has dried to a trickle. Not even a trickle. There simply is no milk of human kindness in Biglaw.
I don’t know why that’s the case. It just is. I suspect it might have something to do with trying to make as much money as possible in a world with too many lawyers.
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. I guarantee pure reading pleasure: Bad Therapist: A Romance
Please also check out The People’s Therapist’s legendary best-seller 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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