This one really happened – and it happened to yours truly (as opposed to the usual disguised anecdote loosely based on a factually altered tale from one or more carefully anonymized clients.)
One night, (or morning, or sometime between night and morning, since we were working an all-nighter) shortly after my arrival at Sullivan & Cromwell, a fairly senior partner at the firm took a moment to lean back in his desk chair and impart the following to little junior associate moi:
“You hang on by your fingertips, kid.” He raised his hands and bent his fingers, as if to demonstrate. “Till it starts to seem normal. Just dangle there and wonder how long you can last – or what happens if you let go.”
Apparently that was all he had to relate on the topic, as he snapped back to focus on reviewing a purchase agreement. I recall wondering if he, after (presumably) a zillion sleepless nights just like this one, felt as bleary-eyed, sweaty and slightly sick to his stomach as I did. I’ll never know the answer to that question. Maybe partners don’t need sleep – maybe that’s their secret.
I also recall wondering if this guy was exaggerating with that whole “dangling by your fingers” routine to impress me – or if he was a little bonkers. In retrospect I think he simply meant it.
Working in biglaw is a straight-forward exercise: You’re paid a lot of money to sit at a desk and work long hours. Someone provides the work, and you do it. That typically means arriving at around 10 am, working on something complicated, with a short break (maybe) for lunch, and then (maybe) for dinner, until about 10 or 11 pm, every day. You also sometimes work all night and sometimes weekends and sometimes all night on weekends.
To review: You arrive in the morning, you sit at a desk, you work until late night. Then you do it again the next day.
An additional factor is that the work is hard. Not rocket science hard, but not stuffing cotton into little bottles either. Initially, there’s a lot of “running changes,” “creating a chart,” “putting it into a table,” “checking cites,” and that sort of thing. Even that stuff can freak you out when nothing you give them is ever what they want and they keep handing you more. “Firm culture” can take getting used to, as well. A junior associate client of mine closed her office door one night, as was her habit, so she could break down and have a good cry, only to realize (through the paper thin walls) that someone else was also weeping, in the office next door. There’s nothing like feeling part of a team.
As time progresses at a law firm, the work gets harder, fast, and they want it done faster. Another client, an HR staffer in biglaw, revealed to me her firm’s secret to culling junior associate deadwood: If a junior bills twelve hours for something that should have taken four, they give you the shove. That’s it. If you’re dragging ass, or lost and panicking, and billing a bunch of hours to something so you’ll look busy…buh-bye. They can tell, and if and when they decide it saves them money to have fewer juniors, well, that’s all she wrote.
Biglaw firms are run by realists. They understand an associate is a machine that does work for them, for which they bill. If the associate is a well-oiled machine and continues working without pause at a steady rate, they’re happy. The inputs are complicated intellectual puzzles that need to be digested and processed. The output is briefs, motions, contracts, memoranda and all the stuff of law – mountains of paper covered with abstruse words no one would ever volunteer to read, or fully understand if they did.
So what’s the problem? The money is good. You do the work, if you don’t blow it, and they hand over the funds, which go to loans. Just do your part, and they’ll do theirs and in six or eight years you might have your loans paid down and never have to do law again: Everybody’s happy.
The problem, in a nutshell, is this: You are not a machine. You are a human being. Even a partner at a biglaw firm technically counts as a human being.
So? Well, the problem might not arise for a while. You might go years working at that desk, processing ideas and spitting out documents, thinking: This is do-able. The money is good. I could be out of debt within a decade.
Then one night you get home at 11 pm – not bad, really. You ate at the firm, and took a black car to your place, so now all you have to do is take a shower and hit the sack. There was a time, years ago, when you had friends, or a significant other, but now you’re a lawyer, so there’s no time for any of that “other people in your life” nonsense. Now you only need to take a shower, brush your teeth, hop in bed and get some sleep so you can be back up and at your desk polishing that motion to dismiss by 10 am. With sufficient sleep, you might even heal those cold sores you keep developing in your mouth and stop (for a short time) perpetually feeling on the brink of coming down with the flu.
And yet, somehow, on that night, you don’t get in bed. You don’t go to sleep. Instead, if you’re like many of my clients, to your own amazement, you find yourself:
- watching one episode after another of Breaking Bad for nine straight hours
- playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 for nine straight hours
- staring at, and uh…consuming online porn for nine straight hours
- drinking Jim Bean, while cruising Tinder, for nine straight hours
- doing hits of marijuana from a vape pen, drinking Jim Bean, consuming porn and cruising Tinder for nine straight hours
- doing hits of marijuana from a vape pen, drinking Jim Bean, eating a pint of Cherry Garcia frozen yogurt, consuming porn, cruising Tinder and playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 for nine straight hours
- doing hits of marijuana from a vape pen, drinking Jim Bean, eating a pint of Cherry Garcia frozen yogurt, consuming porn, cruising Tinder, watching old episodes of Breaking Bad and playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 for fourteen straight hours.
The real problems begin in the morning, when you realize it is morning – the light outside constitutes your first clue – and suddenly you do want to sleep. A lot. In technical terms, you are functionally asleep. Additionally, you are not at your law firm. You are not at your desk. It is morning, but you are not working. This is without precedent.
So what? A mental health day. You’ll show up at your office by four in the afternoon, shrug it off, make up the work, no big deal. You blew off a little steam.
Except it keeps happening.
In the mornings, when you come to from the long trance-like revels of the night before, it begins to feel like that awful moment at an after-hours club, back when you were 23 and raving on ecstasy, when the techno stopped pulsing, a bouncer cracked the door in the back of the club and blinded you and the other stragglers with bright, sunlit streets populated with people, normal people, scurrying about going to work . Just as you did back then, you feel slightly sick again now, from the mere thought: I probably ought to be going to work, too.
But you can’t seem to get to work, at least, not any more. Even when you get there, to the office, it’s as though someone switched off your mind. You stare at the computer screen, stare at your phone, stare at the window, the bookshelf, the stacks of paper, the wall. Something that used to work doesn’t seem to anymore, and it was something important, inside your head, like, maybe your brain.
The simple answer to this predicament? Knock it off! Snap out of it! You’re not that sort of person. If you were a procrastinator, a true-blue die-hard procrastinator, then you should have hit the skids in school and been a drop-out loser and never made it anywhere near biglaw. The fact that you have this job verifies beyond quibble that you are a “sit at a desk and get your work done” kind of guy.
Until you suddenly aren’t. Until you abruptly arrive at the realization there’s no end to the work – that, if you get it all done, the reward is more work. And it’s all hard. And it’s all complicated. And it’s all on deadline. And it’s about nothing you care about, at all. And it never ends.
Have you ever noticed how no one at a biglaw firm ever seems to know what day it is? That’s because they work so many weekends there comes a point where there really is no such thing as a weekend. I remember thinking that working late, or working a weekend was no big deal. You go in, sacrifice a day or two, and get caught up. It’s a laid back vibe, on a weekend. You can wear jeans, shut your office door and be left alone to plow through the pile on your desk.
But there’s no end to the pile on your desk. And if you work Saturday and Sunday, Monday doesn’t feel like Monday – it feels like any other day. That’s when you start not knowing what day it is because they’re all the same, just like the work on your desk is all the same. It’s not as if the firm gives you a day off, or even a half-day, to make up for working all weekend. No way. Even if there’s nothing whatsoever to do, you have to be there all day Monday, if only for appearance’s sake. That is absolutely critical. Any compromise would be anathema to the laws of…well, law.
It got to the point, at S&C, where I would glance out a window – an anonymous, tinted, sealed-shut skyscraper window – at downtown Manhattan from 39 floors up, just to see if it was light or dark out there, in the outside world. That’s because, otherwise, if you asked me, pop quiz! What time of day is it? my answer would have amounted to speculation. I wasn’t sure what season it was. Spring? Fall? Anybody’s guess.
The final piece of the puzzle, the final reason you’re sitting in your apartment, stoned, staring at a video game, contemplating the arrival of morning, is that you haven’t had a vacation in… aha! – another mystery… a year? Eighteen months? Two years?
One of my clients recently gave up on ever taking a vacation. His group at the firm were heading into a huge IPO and the partner announced no evenings off, no weekends off, no nothing, until they got it done. He’s resigned to his fate – he figures he’s only there for the money, so he might as well grab all he can. The firm will probably pay him for an extra week or two at the end of the year, to make up for lost vacation days. He’ll hurl all that cash down the endless drain of his school loans, like all the other money he’s earned over the years. And then he’ll quit. His debt is under six digits, a rare and enviable achievement. Now it’s time to go, before he winds up staring at a video game in the middle of the night and realizing he’s lost his mind as well as several years of his life.
In biglaw, a vacation isn’t an earned benefit of employment. It’s more along the lines of a moral failing, a weakness, something faintly distasteful. Taking a vacation is like belching at a dinner party – it happens, but that’s no reason not to feel deeply ashamed afterward and promise yourself it won’t happen again.
It’s certainly not something you should count on, or look forward to, or invest hope in. One mid-level litigator was instructed to turn off his computer at 5 pm on a Tuesday night and not touch it again until the morning. The firm’s IT geeks were upgrading the system software overnight.
It took a while to process the ramifications of this unexpected development. Could this be a dream? Could this constitute a license to do the unthinkable: leave the office at 5 pm?
Naturally, he alerted his wife, who immediately started making plans. It would be a second honeymoon, they decided. They’d live it up – dinner out, at a normal hour, on a weeknight, like normal, non-lawyers do!
I needn’t foreshadow the inevitable denouement: They made it as far as the sidewalk outside a restaurant when his iPhone buzzed.
“Within an hour I had emails relating to every matter I was working on.”
The result wasn’t so much a dinner as a chance to sit in a restaurant staring at his iPhone for two hours. His wife headed home, in despair, while he finished typing reply after reply, at a table, alone.
Biglaw’s ultimate achievement, in terms of psychological terror, would be convincing you you’re working, even when (at least in a non-purely-existential sense) you’re not. A third year corporate associate recounted an anecdote to illustrate the subtleties of this baleful phenomenon:
It was a Monday holiday, and she’d been working around the clock on a deal that just closed. She felt excited – almost scarily excited – at the prospect of a Monday off. She was going to sleep until 11 am, take a long, leisurely bubble bath, then crawl back into bed with a romance novel and snuggle with her kitty. That was the plan.
At 10 am the phone went off. A partner needed a piece of research – right away, bit of an emergency. “Shouldn’t take more than an hour.”
The email went to two associates. The other associate responded almost immediately:
“In transit til 4 pm. After that, available remotely.”
Well played. Now it was my client’s turn – she was home, running water for a bubble bath.
“I can do it,” she wrote, as her feline cast her an accusing stare. It wasn’t as if she had much choice. There was no escaping reality – her day was ruined.
The assignment was something to do with securities law, along the lines of “find out if Rule 7(a)(iv) applies to a broker-dealer if they’re using an off-shore tax-favored shell entity for a mixed stock and asset reverse lease transfer.” Or whatever. If you’ve done securities work, you know the drill. It was a nightmare – she’d have to go into the office and spend hours just figuring out what it was she was figuring out. Rule 7(a)(iv) of what? Then the defined terms – “broker-dealer,” “shell entity,” “stock and asset reverse lease transfer.” This wasn’t her usual area – she’d never worked for this partner before, had no background on the deal or the issues or the context – and, of course, he’d said it “shouldn’t take more than an hour,” which meant she shouldn’t bill the time it actually would take.
This was the standard set-up, in which she was set up to fail. No matter what happened, she’d be deemed to have taken too long and done a bad job – and whatever she handed in would be greeted with a frown, a sigh and an eye roll. She’d take forever to figure out something the partner could have researched in half an hour. Why couldn’t he just do it himself? That was unthinkable. Why couldn’t he comprehend that she was new to all this and it would be more difficult for her than it would be for him? Also unthinkable – as unthinkable as his offering to help her with it.
She’d been plucked out of her bubble bath – before it even began – and assigned to a Borgesian nightmare.
The bigger issue was that her planned Monday holiday was shredded. She could no longer work up the oomph to take the bath, so instead she took a shower, put on clothes, sat and waited, anxiously, phone in hand, for the partner to respond.
He didn’t. She wrote again, saying “I’m here and ready.” No response.
Four hours passed. She waited. Stared into space. Fretted over the misery to come.
At 2 pm, she sent another message: “Checking on that research assignment. I’m here if you need me.”
No answer. She waited some more. Paced the living room. Tried to read. Couldn’t.
At 4 pm, he replied. “Nevermind. We figured it out. Thanks anyway.”
That was that.
It could be the partner left her hanging because he wanted, at some level, for someone else to suffer, to join in the collective suffering that is a law firm’s fundamental work product. “I’m suffering, so you should be suffering too” isn’t an entirely novel thought in biglaw. More likely, he wasn’t thinking at all.
On the face of it, my client had nothing to complain about. She had her day off, and even got paid for it. The research assignment was a false alarm – it never happened. She spent the whole day at home, as planned, by herself.
But if you know anything about biglaw, you know she didn’t have a day off. A day spent waiting in anticipation of returning to the office to tackle a miserable research assignment that you know will only result in your appearing to be and being treated like an idiot, is not a day off worthy of the name. There’s no sense of release, of escape, of manumission, of, for one blissful 24-hour period, not being owned by someone else, living at their beck and call, susceptible to their whim.
There’s something about being a human being, as opposed to a machine, that resists working around the clock, days, nights and weekends, without a break. As a non-machine, you are likely to awaken one day to the realization that you’re hanging by your fingertips and that sooner or later – it’s inevitable, really – you’ll have to let go. That’s when you realize you kinda want to let go, even wonder, a bit, what it would feel like. Maybe letting go would restore balance, restore all those hours you sacrificed to someone else. You’ve given them everything. Now here’s something for you.
Then you find you have let go. You’re sitting in your living room, with the sun rising outside the window, staring at a game of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, wondering if you’ll ever go back into that place, sit at that desk, again.
Don’t look at me – this is your call.
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