The verb “to gaslight” comes from a 1938 stage play (which was then made into two movies, one starring Ingrid Bergman.) The plot is super-creepy, especially for 1938. In it, an evil husband tricks his young wife into believing she’s losing her mind by staging bizarre occurrences in their house, then pretending only she’s seeing and hearing them (yes, he’s after her money.) His favorite trick is dimming the gas lights in her room before clomping around upstairs or making strange sounds emanate from the walls. Soon she’s freaking out whenever the lights dim, expecting another bad trip. After each freak-out, once she’s good and melted down, he rushes to her aid, feigning concern.
It seems like a lifetime before she catches on – but she does. Things click as she (more or less) walks in on him rattling chains in the attic.
Law firms gaslight young lawyers – they create a world where nothing makes sense, then studiously pretend it does. You should catch on, too. You’re probably not the one who’s crazy.
Here’s how it works:
When you first get to the firm, it feels like summering all over again. Work is slow, and when assignments come, they’re low-priority research for marketing or pro bono. Here and there, you get a week of mindless doc review, which actually comes as a relief, since it’s easy and counts as billable hours. Mostly, you’re sitting at your desk, reading blogs. Your officemate is present half the time, not present half the time, but he doesn’t seem eager to explain what he’s up to any of the time, so you follow his lead and attempt to look serious and busy and involved in something, whatever that might be. You begin to wonder if there’s something wrong, but since you haven’t had a chance to do anything yet, it seems unlikely it’s something you’ve done. You build up the resolve to ask around and check if everyone else is dead, too – but they look busy enough, sitting at their desks, determinedly staring at their computers, so you chicken out. Just calm down, do what they’re doing – pretend there’s work. A week later, you pass the bar. You still haven’t really done anything, but it’s a step forward, right?
Assignments start coming in, which is a relief. You tell yourself it’s typical first-year stuff – no problem. Draft a reply to a document request: It’s confusing, and boring, and you’ve never done it before, but this is a milestone. In a few weeks you’ll probably whip one off in three hours. Right now, it’s taking sixteen. Then things die again – no work for a few weeks, and it’s back to reading blogs and wondering if there was something about that last assignment they’re not telling you – because they didn’t actually tell you anything.
Then one day you get another reply to a document request, a longer, more confusing, more boring one. You’re not really “getting it” yet, but whatever. No biggie. You consider asking for help from the senior associate on that case, but there’s something about the way he drops the work on you that seems to foreclose that possibility. He doesn’t look like the type to offer help – it’s more like he never wants to see you again, and you just about never do see him again.
More assignments – there’s a privilege log in connection with a massive document production. You aren’t sure what that would look like, so you ask for a precedent, and it’s 75 pages long. Ominous, but you’ll use common sense and assemble something serviceable.
Everything goes on hold – another vast sea of doc review eats up two weeks, night and day and weekends. And then it’s over. During it, and then after, you’re not sure how you’re supposed to act – bothered by this work that’s beneath you? Intensely involved in it, as if it were intensely involving? Everyone else seems to be deeply involved, or pretending to be, or something.
You’re pulled into another case – a behemoth securities litigation in its early stages. The senior associate wants a first draft of a memorandum in support of a motion to dismiss. This is smarter stuff, and you’re determined to impress. But you start the research and it’s potentially endless. There are a dozen issues. You spend the weekend on it, but complications breed new complications – issues of scienter and issues around standing. You try to remember your civil procedure class, but there’s a lot coming at you. You tuck away that nagging thought – that you don’t really like this work, that you don’t really like law, that you didn’t really like law school, that you never really wanted to do this in the first place. But after you finished first year, and did okay, the consensus was that you should finish since you’ve come this far. So here you are again, and you might as well finish this, too, since you owe a bank two hundred thousand dollars.
On Monday the other stuff needs doing. You put the complicated securities assignment aside and focus on the request for discovery reply thing, which is a time-hole.
There’s an email from the senior litigation associate on the securities litigation – the partner needs the first draft of the memorandum by the end of next week. You put down the phone and realize you have an hour before a conference call the privilege log partner asked you to join. Can you work on the securities stuff for an hour? That would be pointless. You get back to work on the reply to the request thing, then glance at your email and remember a two-day intensive training on taking depositions starting in another week or so. Should you cancel the training? It’s only a training, and who knows if you’ll ever take a deposition. But the privilege log partner asked you to go, so maybe the firm makes a big deal out of trainings. On the other hand, if you do go, you’ll never get the securities stuff done.
You notice you’re tapping your foot against your chair.
You dial into the conference call. For the next ninety minutes you try to listen closely – but you’re not sure what you’re listening to. There are acronyms and references to people’s names you’ve never heard before and meetings you didn’t attend. It’s disorienting, listening to nearly a dozen disembodied, unfamiliar voices. They all seem to know one another and be continuing a conversation begun ages ago. After twenty minutes, your mind wanders to a vague recollection of an episode from the original Star Trek, in which glowing brains float in glass tanks in an underground chamber and communicate to one another telepathically. That’s what this feels like – strange voices, emanating from nowhere.
The conference call abruptly ends. You’re left in a daze, suddenly snapped back to reality.
That call couldn’t have been important – the partner never got on – or did he? It dawns on you he probably expected you to take notes. You start jotting down a few token words – but it’s hopeless. He never told you what the call was about. You never asked. When he requested that you be on it, he was super casual about it, like an afterthought. It seemed like you were there to absorb atmosphere, “background” yourself, that sort of thing – like when they brought you to a meeting but it was clear you didn’t really have to do anything because you were decorative, another lawyer in the room. But maybe this wasn’t like that. Maybe you were actually the only one on this conference call from your entire firm. Maybe you were supposed to be on top of it, somehow. Maybe it was all on you.
Your throat is constricting – you realize you’re panting for breath. Abruptly, you decide to let the whole “what was that conference call about” issue go. Worry about it later.
Right now, you’ll email the securities litigation partner and ask if there’s flexibility with the due date on the motion to dismiss draft, since you’re busy with another case.
His reply comes almost immediately. It’s one line: “There is some front-end flexibility, but be aware that lessens our flexibility on the back-end.”
That’s a scary email. Not exactly reassuring. In fact, it’s not clear what that means, except mostly, no, he’d really like it at the end of next week, or at least, if he doesn’t get it by the end of next week, whatever comes next might be worse than it otherwise would be…but okay. Think. You can do this.
You start on the endless response to the document request thing, working late nights, coming in all weekend. At some point, a senior associate comes by asking how it’s going with the securities research outline thing. You explain you asked for more time, since you’re swamped. It looks good to be swamped, right? They like that.
The senior associate frowns.
“Gosh, swamped, huh?”
You change gears. She doesn’t seem impressed, more like concerned. You sense a sympathetic soul, and hint you’re feeling pressured. She sits down next to your desk and listens attentively for a few minutes, with a gentle expression on her face.
You always thought she was kind of a joke – overweight, with weird bangs, ugly suits and those blouses with the ribbon things that look like she bought them at JC Penney. But maybe she isn’t so bad after all. Since when are you fat-phobic? She seems really nice, and you need nice right now. You realize your voice is breaking and tears are starting to come. Someone seems to care – this senior associate – and it’s dredging up unexpected emotions.
The senior associate abruptly stands up and advises you to speak right away with your partner mentor.
A moment later you are sitting alone in your office, wishing you hadn’t looked like you were about to cry in front of an overweight, badly dressed senior associate you hardly know. You have to pull it together. Now you look like an idiot. Swamped! You’re not supposed to admit you’re swamped! They’ll think you can’t handle pressure.
You start back in on the reply to the request for discovery, and realize you’re having an anxiety attack. You’ll take a few deep breaths, then get back to work and it will be okay.
But there’s that nagging fact: your “partner mentor” is the same guy who sent you the scary email. He’s also the guy at the end of the hall who leaves his office dark in the evening, with just his desk light on…which is super-weird. You remember the time, a few months ago, when you came by his door hinting you could use some work. He regarded you like you were an annoying object cluttering his office, and you realized it was a mistake to “drop by” at all. “I’ll keep you posted,” was all he muttered, and it seemed clear you’d committed a faux pas. You made a mental note: If it can possibly be avoided, don’t bother this guy.
You’re not going to lose it.
You recall the rumor about the junior associate who committed suicide at this firm – how someone leaked a dozen emails from the partners accusing one another of over-working him. Where did you hear that story? An online blog? Someone at law school?
A week later, the phone rings. You glance at the display – it’s your partner mentor.
Shit. The fat senior associate with the ribbons talked to him. Now you’ll be labeled a freak and a suicide risk for breaking down in front of her. How could you be so stupid!
But the partner mentor doesn’t seem to know anything, and he’s in a hurry. He called to make sure you signed up for the deposition workshop. So that must be important. You don’t mention you were thinking about canceling.
Back to the privilege log. But you can’t concentrate. The securities thing – there’s no way you can get it done by next week with all this other stuff.
Then you slow down and process another thought that’s been haunting you for a couple weeks. Are they seriously counting on you – a first year – to write up a draft for this motion? It can’t be all on you, can it? It’s a hazing – they’re putting a scare into you.
Maybe you’re supposed to play along – you know, “take a stab at it.” Don’t give anything away. Keep your cool, hand something in, and act like you know what you’re doing. It’ll be like that other research assignment, a month or two back. When you handed it in (after sweating over it for two weeks), the senior associate only grunted, and you never heard about it again. It seemed awkward to ask, later on, if he’d liked it. So it simply went away – you never heard another thing about it. Maybe this will be like that. But maybe that wasn’t a good thing. Maybe that was a bad thing, but they didn’t say anything because that’s how they do things here.
A grunt, and not much more, seems to be the standard reception your work receives. Sometimes you get an eye roll, or simply a weary sigh and it’s stuck on a heap of paper. It appears, mostly, like they’re merely receiving something they have little choice about and so they take it from you and make a mental note to look at it later and that’s that.
To be on the safe side, you decide to talk to another senior associate who’s working on the case and ask for guidance.
That associate seems friendly, although she’s weirdly thin, always wears a worn-out cardigan with holes in the elbows and tennis shoes and gives off a high-strung vibe that’s kind of off the charts. She cheerily offers to take on one of the issues, to lighten your load. But then she picks the easiest one – a statute of limitations non-issue that will occupy half a paragraph. She fails to suggest in any way that this is a set-up. As far as you can determine, you actually are assigned to a multi-million dollar case and you’re doing most of the work, at least for the time being, and that partner really is expecting a draft of a motion on the most complicated thing you’ve ever done in your life, probably next week.
You return to flipping through the 75 page privilege log and try to figure out how you’re going to recreate something like it, but you can’t concentrate and give up.
You’re biting your nails again – a nervous tick you haven’t succumbed to in ages. At home that night, you stare into space for a long time, then burst into tears. You turn to your cat for comfort, but he only scowls at you, clearly pissed off you’re never home. You can’t do it. You can’t return to the firm in the morning. But there’s no way out; your loans are massive.
Why are you thinking this way? You have to pull yourself together. It’s been five months since you arrived at this firm. You’re losing it.
You call your therapist. It’s been three months since you cancelled on him and never rescheduled. You explain you got caught up in work, your schedule’s been unpredictable.
I tell you to come in and we’ll talk.
The bright, confident young attorney from a few months ago is a frazzled wreck sobbing in my office. You tell me you can’t do anything right. You can’t sleep. You’re afraid to go to back to the firm. You’re doing a lousy job and they know it. Why can’t you handle it, when everyone else is doing fine? You can’t tell if they really expect you to do all this work – if this is normal. Maybe it’s some kind of mistake. No one tells you anything. You can’t trust anyone in the office. You haven’t had a weekend off in six weeks.
All you wanted was to do your best, make them happy, give them whatever they asked for – and earn money to pay loans. Now you think you’re starting to lose your mind.
Law firms gaslight associates. They might as well flicker the lights and rattle chains in the attic.
I suggest the obvious – talk to your partner mentor and review your work assignments. There needs to be a check-in.
You immediately object, and I don’t refute your concerns. Yes, the firm might think you’re over-reacting or a slacker or simply no good at law. They might stop giving you work. They might push you out the door with a bad review and a please-be-gone-in-three-months speech. They might simply not care. Or they might realize you’re overwhelmed and reduce your workload or slow down and explain what they expect from you (although I wouldn’t count on it.) Heck, the entire firm could implode tomorrow and lay everyone off – that’s happened to people. You’d never see it coming, because biglaw is an opaque world. And anything is possible at a law firm. One thing I’m adamant about: I seriously doubt this is all in your head – or that the other juniors are doing fine and you’re the only one freaking out.
My over-riding concern with this scenario is that you have no idea what’s going on, and you think that’s your fault. That’s the gas-lighting.
Let’s consider some of the things about biglaw that we all know to be true:
- You shouldn’t ask for help – people have no time for that. Take the initiative and do it on your own.
- You should ask for help – don’t waste time trying to do it on your own.
- The partners value you. They’re invested in your career development.
- The partners don’t know you exist. Eighty percent of your class will be gone by fifth year.
- Locate a mentor early on – build relationships at the firm.
- There is no such thing as a mentor. Don’t pester people for advice.
- Ask for work. You’re expected to take the initiative.
- Don’t ask for work – it annoys the partners. They know you’re there.
- Ask for feedback – stay on top of your reputation.
- Don’t ask for feedback, it’s annoying and puts the partner in an impossible position.
- If you don’t get work, you’re in trouble. Be proactive and address the problem.
- If you don’t get work, it doesn’t mean you’re in trouble. It’s just slow. Don’t be a nuisance – play it cool and wait.
- For every piece of advice you’ll hear about surviving in biglaw, there is an equally valid-sounding piece of contradictory advice.
- For every piece of advice you’ll hear about surviving in biglaw, there is an equally valid-sounding piece of contradictory advice.
Get the picture? Law firms gaslight associates, mostly by saying one thing and doing another, leaving you faced with a mass of contradictory impressions. They hold out the hope of a collegial, supportive workplace with mentors and professional training – then toss you into a sweatshop where the billable hour is all that matters, no one tells anyone anything, and young associates are reduced to a fungible commodity.
The economics are hard to argue with: They bill you out for hundreds of dollars per hour, and pay you (depending on how hard they work you) a small fraction of that. Even if you only work a few months per year, you’re more than paid for. After that, whatever you bill is gravy – pure profit in their pockets. In essence, you are a little machine that generates money for someone sitting in an office down the hall ignoring you. And if you “don’t work out”….well, there are plenty more where you came from. If things ever really got slow, as in an economic downturn, you can bet a whole bunch of associates would suddenly be receiving bad reviews based on a sudden need to generate bad reviews and get people out the door in a hurry.
The fact is, most associates in biglaw never last long enough for a partner to bother getting to know, and even if the partners tried to offer succor to the victims of this treatment, how many weeping 25 year olds can you really attempt to comfort before you run out of patience? It’s easier to wait for the natural culling process to thin the herd.
The effect, from a junior associate’s point of view (especially the point of view of that weeping 25 year old), is of being locked in a madhouse, and made to think you’re the one who’s crazy. I don’t know why big law firms do things this way (although “money” is a fair guess for why they do everything – just like it’s money that motivates the evil husband in “Gaslight”.) I’m not sure if there’s any way to stop it. At very least, you can talk to your therapist, and receive a reminder you’re not alone.
At a deeper level, you have to ask yourself if you’re really being driven crazy, or merely driving yourself crazy trying to avoid a forbidden truth. You don’t want to face it – and they don’t want to tell you (and your law school certainly wasn’t going to tell you while you were paying them so much) – but you might not belong in law. Plenty of people don’t. It’s safe to speculate that law is the one profession on Earth most over-populated with people who don’t belong there. That’s why so many folks don’t last very long, and why so many of them feel like they’re losing their minds in the process of trying to fit into a world where they don’t belong. One of the lessons of that old movie, “Gaslight,” was that you shouldn’t stay married to someone you don’t belong with and who isn’t treating you very well. He might put on a caring facade, but that’s all it is, and meanwhile he’s driving you nuts.
If you’re feeling like your marriage to biglaw wasn’t made in heaven – that, in fact, your firm is exploiting you and placing your sanity in jeopardy – it might be time to escape the loony bin before you lose your marbles. It worked for Ingrid Bergman.
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.
Please 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
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