Readers of my blog express surprise when they discover that all my clients aren’t lawyers – indeed, a small but sizable percentage of my clientele consists of ordinary civilians, non-combatants, plain folk who have nothing whatsoever to do with law. But the people surprised by this situation are mostly biglaw lawyers – and what really surprises them is not that I work with non-lawyers, but that I work with non-lawyers employed in biglaw – secretaries, law librarians, human resources folks, paralegals and so on. In other words, what surprises them is that I work with those people, those other people.
You know…the Little People.
Before you pile, on accusing me of snobbery, let me point out that I’m the one who’s treating these card-carrying members of the hoi polloi, and often for sliding fees. Let’s also admit that a rigid social hierarchy exists at law firms – in fact, a very rigid social hierarchy, something akin to the caste system under the Raj.
At Shearman & Sterling, where I summered one year, and at Sullivan & Cromwell, where I worked after blowing off Shearman & Sterling because it wasn’t (sniff sniff) quite up to snuff (yes, that’s a social hierarchy, too), I distinctly remember encountering what were referred to as “attorney dining rooms.” These were private dining rooms – partners and associates only. The very existence of these exclusive (as in, everyone except lawyers was excluded) dining chambers sent something of a…uh…message. The lawyers at the firm didn’t require separate water fountains, but message-wise, the effect was along the same lines.
Granted, back in the days when I worked in biglaw, partners arrived at the office in horse-drawn broughams and sported top hats and tails. I fondly remember Old Caesar, the darkie who toiled cheerfully in the S&C stables, and Irish Polly, the scullery drab – and who could forget wee Pip, the cripple foundling lad who maintained the fire in my office, always stoking it high with coal on a cold winter’s morning to earn his ha’penny and an affectionate pat on his cinder-begrimed cap as he hobbled off on his homemade crutches. Those were merry times.
But I shouldn’t permit misty nostalgia for another era to distract from my serious message: No kidding, there really were dining rooms reserved for the lawyers (and for all I know, there still are) and the message around them was clear: No Little People allowed.
If you’re an associate currently slaving away in biglaw, you’re probably bouncing in your seat at this very moment, with your hand in the air, sputtering with indignation. Yes, honey, I know. No, you’re hardly at the top of the heap, are you? There’s nothing supercilious about your role in things. You’re not invited to partner meetings (perish the thought!) And yes, the partners (taken as a group) mostly treat you like something stuck to the soles of their wingtips. Speaking of the top of the heap – at Sullivan & Cromwell, at least, there was (and inevitably still is) something called “the Committee” which was a group of half a dozen or so über-partners whose privilege it was to treat the rest of the partners like something stuck to the soles of their brogues. And I’m sure there existed even among the Committee members some special chieftain (Rodge, was that you?) anointed to treat the other über-partners like something stuck to the soles of his cap toes. Everywhere you look in biglaw, there’s hierarchy. So you can bet your life the chieftain’s clients treat him like something stuck to the soles of their blüchers.
When you’re not even so much as a lawyer amid this vast food chain – no J.D., no bar admission, and no admission to the attorney dining room… well, you can start to develop an inferiority complex. All too often, that inferiority complex can lead to something far worse, in the form of (you guessed it)… more lawyers.
Because that’s what happens when the bowing and scraping routine starts getting old. It’s bad enough, as a Little Person, tipping your cap to the partners, Her Lord and Her Ladyship, but there you are, trying to dust the damned mantelpiece in the third upstairs snooker room in the East Wing when little Lord Whosit and Lady Whatsit – no older than you, and certainly no better – start puttin’ on airs, asking for this document and that accordion folder and that deal binder and pretty soon you’re at wits end, running up and down the back stairs from the servants’ quarters to the scullery to the pantry to the dairy to the orangerie back and forth like a shuttle on a loom at their beck and call, a slave to their whim…
You get the picture. Remember that old tv show, “Upstairs, Downstairs”? I know, it was on about a million years ago and I never watched it either, but in that case Downton Abbey is essentially the same thing and everyone watches that. The point is, either you’re living upstairs, all la-di-dah, dainty as you please, dabbing truffle oil from your lips with linen serviettes in the attorney dining room…or you’re no better ‘n a cockney chimney sweep, crawled out from under a bridge, then, innit?
And so, before long, even that cockney chimney sweep can’t help but begin aspiring – dreamin’ your littl’ dreams of attainin’ some cultivated manners. Why, Guv’na, I could be a lawyer, too, just like one-a them fancy folks what’s livin’ upstairs! I could head off to law school and three short years later, come back here a lawyer, an attorney, struttin’ about like a peacock in my top hat and tails. Wouldn’t that be a lark!
There is, alas, a problem with pursuing this dream, fond though it may be. I hate as much as the next guy to be the bringer of bad news, but in my experience, when one of you biglaw Little People attempts to usurp the place of your betters, at least by trying to become one of them, it only blows up in your face.
I know that sounds awful, but you probably haven’t listened – as I have – to innumerable former paralegals/current lawyers wistfully reflecting back on their good old days as Little People. A typical case sat in my office a few hours ago (as I write these words) sighing: “I should have stayed a paralegal. I’d be a lot better off than I am right now.”
Why? Why would anyone want to remain a lowly paralegal, polishing the silver, when they could ascend to be an exalted member of the bar, the esteemed legal profession, blithely ordering Duck à l’Orange and Tournedos Rossini in the attorney dining room?
For starters, this ex-paralegal – like most ex-paralegals – doesn’t earn much more now, as a lawyer, than he did before law school. And now he has $200,000 in debt to pay off, which kind of erases, right at the starting gate, any possible benefit of whatever marginal salary increase he’s culled from his educational investment. What’s more – and he, like most of his kind, would never have believed it – he’s actually treated worse now than he was back then as a Little Person!
Now, okay, there is a carve-out here (there’s always a carve-out in law): Maybe, if you’re a super legal eagle, merely killing a couple years paralegaling as an integral part of your master plan to attend Yale or Harvard, then fine and good. But in that case, you were never really a paralegal anyway – just a young member of the aristocracy doing a bit of slumming. And perhaps you really are one of those odd ducks who deep down in your heart desires nothing more than to become a lawyer. So, if that’s really the case, go for it. If you gain entry to Yale or Harvard, more power to you. It’s possible you have a long, contented career ahead, laboring around the clock to draft legal documents between stolen moments grazing the abundance of the attorney dining room.
However, most biglaw Little People – the librarians and secretaries and paras – who head off to law school, are ordinary folks who do it for the wrong reasons – and it usually ends in disaster. They naively believe a law degree will fast-track them to instant promotion and status. Instead, it shanghais them to debt, unemployment and worse treatment than before. That’s because a large percentage of the jobs lawyers are doing nowadays are really nothing more than glorified legal staff positions, with the extra burden of shame that comes with doing this stuff as a lawyer. In other words, you’re doing pretty much the same tedious rote work you always did as a Little Person, but now there’s a cloud over your head, ornamented with the words: “You’re a lawyer and you’re doing this?” There’s also the expectation that, since you’re now a lawyer, up to your ears in debt and helpless to protect yourself from total exploitation, there’s no reason for the management to hold back one iota (as they might with a mere Little Person) on the inhumane hours, verbal abuse, and…well…the whole godawful biglaw nightmare (as previously described in these columns in meticulous detail.)
Of course – all this assumes that, once you emerge from your over-priced and insufferable second-tier -or-slightly-better-school-but-in-the-lower-half-of-your-class legal education experience, you even manage to obtain a job at a biglaw firm, let alone one with a fancy attorney dining room. I’m assuming it’s fair to assume that you’ll wind up in a second tier school – or maybe a slightly better school, but in the lower half of your class, because that’s what happens to most people. I know – no one thinks they’re “average,” and you’re certainly not. However, pretty much by definition, the average person is fairly average by definition. So there are at least average odds that you are, by and large, in certain respects, average. And even if you are one of the select few above-average people who manages to run the gauntlet and cross the finish line of entry at a biglaw firm, you’ll probably be there in the humble capacity of a “contract attorney” (which is some sort of cross between a temp and a galley slave) and no, that doesn’t count as “lawyer” for purposes of entrance privileges to exclusive attorney dining rooms.
It’s important at this juncture to reiterate that, despite appearances from the perspective of a Little Person, being a lawyer isn’t all that. If you open your eyes and look around you and listen to some of the stories (or read my collected writings), you might discover it’s rather a drag. There are downsides. Bar fees, for example. One of my clients was complaining the other day about bar fees. Yeah, remember bar fees? It isn’t just about struggling to pass all those exams and graduate from law school; you then have to pass the bar. The bar exam, by the way, costs a fortune – and bar prep costs an arm and a leg, too. It was all very well in my day, at Sullivan & Cromwell, when they made all those nasty little expenses magically melt, thaw and resolve themselves into a dew. But if, like most kids nowadays, you’re graduating without a job, you have to pay for all that stuff yourself. And then you have to take the exam. And then pass it. And then you start paying hundreds of dollars per year in bar fees – in addition to the cost of CLE courses, those pointless, boring videos you have to watch, clicking a button to prove you’re still awake. Sure, in my day, at S&C, our CLE requirement was a piece of cake – some partner droned on about obscure points of securities law while we munched sandwiches in a conference room. That might have been boring and pointless (in fact, it was), but we didn’t have to pay for it. You, on the other hand, might have to lay out hundreds of dollars each year to watch boring videos. You may also face a mandatory pro bono requirement, which might feed your soul, but sure as hell ain’t putting food on your table or paying loans.
To really bring home my point regarding the not-all-that-ness of being a lawyer, it’s worth taking a look at some of the other legal employment opportunities (in addition to the glorified temp-slavery of being a contract attorney) that are likely to greet you as a recent law school grad. I’ve been talking to loads of former paralegals/now attorneys who’ve gone into insurance defense, a popular low-prestige area of law which usually pays about $60,000 – $85,000 with essentially no bonus and billable hours requirements that will chain you to your desk at least ten hours per day as well as nights and weekends. There are nuances I don’t fully comprehend between doing no-fault insurance defense and worker’s comp stuff but it all seems to amount to more or less the same thing – a high-volume, low fee grind. One of my clients worked for a solo practitioner doing employment work and that was a similar trip – it didn’t pay much, and the hours were awful. Immigration law sounds like more fun, but in reality it, too, can boil down to the same routine – dozens upon dozens of cases, oodles of details, and deadlines galore (in other words, it’s complicated, dull and very easy to make a mistake) coupled with the usual low pay.
A measure of the awfulness of these low-end legal gigs is that most people, so far as I can tell, don’t last at any of these firms longer than about a year or two. In fact, plenty of folks quit after four or five months, and lasting two years would make you an old-timer. I spoke with a client last week who says he’s quitting his insurance defense job after eight months – the hours have destroyed him and he wants to see his wife and kid once in a while. He was earning $65,000. He can work fewer hours as a doc reviewer, but still survive financially. And while, as an hourly employee, he’ll miss getting help paying for health insurance (he told me, sobbing in my office), he just doesn’t care anymore – he hates the whole lawyer exploitation routine, and wishes he’d stayed a paralegal, or simply left law altogether and gone into something – anything – else. He even looked into paralegal jobs – going back where he started, and was amazed to find paralegal postings with language along the lines of “JD’s need not apply.” The idea is that they don’t want to hire lawyers to do paralegal work because lawyers might not stay if they could eventually find real lawyer jobs. Yes, it’s come to that.
Trust me, being a low-paid, overworked lawyer doing something like insurance defense is definitely not a step up from being a Little Person. It’s a step down, from the kitchen of the manor house to the bottom reaches of a coal vein.
For the vast majority of you Little People, if you really hate the caste system in biglaw, the best way out might be to hop a ship and emigrate to friendlier and more democratic shores. There are a lot of industries where you don’t need to blow $200,000 on a degree – and where the billable hour isn’t the end-all and be-all – and where there isn’t a huge bubble resulting from schools who profit from producing far too many people for the available jobs.
Staying put in biglaw might be a better option than it sounds. A senior paralegal can earn a decent living. I remember a para at S&C – maybe he’s still there? – who was so senior he strolled among us junior associates as a sage among neophytes and chatted with the partners like they were golfing buddies. This guy had paralegalled for well over a decade, and had amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of securities disclosure. He was in a different whole category from any of us juniors, and most of the senior associates, as well. I once asked a partner at S&C why this senior paralegal guy didn’t just go to law school and get it over with. The partner flashed a sly smile and replied: “What would be the point? He’s earning more than you are, with better hours.” I remember thinking of this guy as an outlier, but I’ve heard similar stories since. There are plenty of paras out there who’ve stayed put and done quite well for themselves. It isn’t only paras, either. There are specialists in doc review, e-discovery – computer database types, and other folks of a technical ilk – who become legal support contractors, providing services to law firms that you don’t have to be a lawyer to get wrapped up in. They do quite well for themselves, too, thank you.
Please, dear Little Person, think outside the box. You are going to have to be a bit smarter about it if you’re going to successfully overthrow the ruling elite. A JD won’t buy you class – it’ll likely drop you down a couple rungs on the totem pole. We all want to overthrow the junta and seize power for ourselves. But heading off to a JD degree mill that calls itself a law school isn’t rebelling against your betters – it’s walking into a trap they’ve laid for you.
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.
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My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy: Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy