I just turned fifty, so I can tell you about old. Old isn’t merely the words “Mission: Impossible” conjuring memories of a show you watched as a kid in 1973 on a “color console tv set” the size of a freezer chest. Old transcends. Old abides. Old pushes through to not caring if everyone else’s memories zip directly to a movie with Tom Cruise hanging off a cliff. Old concedes Jean-Luc Picard a place in the pantheon beside Kirk and Spock, but remains firm in its belief Peter Graves and the miniature reel-to-reel tape player that self-destructed after five seconds were the height of awesome, Tom Cruise or no Tom Cruise. Old is about “values.” Old doesn’t haggle over this stuff.
What made the original Mission: Impossible show so much fun (other than its co-starring Martin Landau, which already made it fun) was the bizarrely improbable nature of the missions. They were supposed to be “impossible” to carry out, but in reality that was the least of the issues. The “mission” generally took place in some made-up Eastern European country with a name like “Vladistan” with a grey, oppressive capital city (“Vodkagrad” sounds good) and there was always an evil dictator holding a good, democratic leader guy captive in Vodkagrad (not that I remember details – I was seven years old, chomping a peanut butter and jelly sandwich during much of the action.) I mostly recall that a couple of the IMF (“Impossible Mission Force”) agents hung out in equipment rooms tapping phone lines and fiddling with electronic gadgets, glancing nervously at their watches, while the others (including Martin Landau!) wore disguises so convincing you only realized who they were when they peeled off plastic masks. How cool was that?
But my point – and I do (despite advancing age) have a point – is that I’ve recently, in my role of psychotherapist to the lawyers, been assigned “missions” by biglaw firms, requests for my services, that leave me feeling like Mr. Phelps watching wisps of smoke rise from the little reel-to-reel. I’m a publicity whore, like any author who ever sold a book (or tried to) and yes, I might be termed a whore-whore as well, in some respects, like any public speaker who ever pocketed a fee. Points conceded. But on those occasions when I’ve managed to get hired to speak at conferences and panels and industry events and even at law schools, everything has come off if not without a hitch, then at least without a major conflagration. Invite me over, serve me lunch, treat me nice, and I’m a total pro, no trouble at all.
Yet, somehow, when it’s a biglaw firm that comes calling for my services, everything goes all pear-shaped. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and be your own Mr. Phelps – check out a couple “impossible missions” that came my way recently, and decide for yourself whether you’d “choose to accept” them. I’m still scratching my head, long after the tape self-destructed. To wit:
Impossible Mission #1: Death
We’ll start with the easy one. A biglaw firm leaves a voice message saying they’ve experienced a suicide recently – a partner at the firm – and they want to talk about how you might…well, what they want you to do is left vague, but they ask that you please call back to discuss. You’re thinking maybe they expect some sort of presentation or a grief group. Who knows? That’s what being a “public speaker/presenter/personality” is like sometimes – you’re left to figure out how to give them what they want, and maybe get paid (or at least receive a bit of glory) for your efforts.
So you call, and ask for the name in the voice message, only to be made aware with a dismissive cluck that the woman you’ve asked for is busy, but the person on the phone (some sort of assistant) will deign to “screen” you herself. This lady sounds bored and faintly disgusted by the task of talking to you, and you realize things have taken a sudden and unexpected turn for the tense and biglaw-ish.
You’re grilled about how long you’ve practiced, specifics regarding your licensure – all very formal and stiff, like an interrogation. When you point out (in your defense, or at least it feels that way) that you’re a good match to work with them (for whatever it is they want…) since you used to be a biglaw attorney, she snaps “yes, I know – that’s how we got your name.” You can picture her rolling her eyes in exasperation, like a mean girl in high school.
At some juncture, you stop to wonder why you’re putting up with this treatment and it dawns on you: Oh, right, it’s biglaw, so they might be offering serious money – as in biglaw money – for whatever they want you to do. Serious money sounds good. On the other hand, it being biglaw, everything has already, as it must, turned weird and stiff and cold and a bit surreal (this whole business started with a partner committing suicide) and they will assume they can treat you like a disfavored member of their janitorial staff. It also dawns on you that being on the payroll of a biglaw firm will essentially translate into its being understood that you can’t say anything bad about them, not even something mildly provocative or obliquely or tangentially hinting at the subversive, since this implied proviso comes (you intuit) with zero wiggle room. This realization flags itself as “an issue,” although (on the other hand) you’re wondering how providing some sort of counseling following a partner’s suicide could generate anything provocative or subversive to say. You’re not sure what it would generate. Vast, existential questions, if we’re being honest, but you know perfectly well we’re not being honest. This is biglaw – it has its own rules, and one of them is no, of course we’re not being honest.
There is a side of you that grows annoyed. You don’t intend to come across as a bigger queen than you actually are, but you are used to being “asked” to speak at events by very nice people who, even if they are proposing to remunerate you, still at least play out the formalities of behaving nicely, acting grateful, laying on a bit of flattery and so forth. Some small measure of customary obeisance is typically paid. This is more like being hired to man the grill at Burger King after leaving juvie with a particularly unpalatable neck tattoo.
It is decided – by her – that she might or might not call you back. If she does, she will then schedule a time for you to talk to the person you originally thought you were calling to talk to.
You must be in luck, because the assistant lady calls back the next day and leaves a message that the head lady can speak to you at the following time, which is when you would ordinarily go to the gym, but what the heck. And you think – they better be paying serious money for this (whatever it is) because they are starting to get on your nerves.
So you call back and get “put through” to the head lady, and she sounds impatient, skeptical, a little bored and like she can’t believe she’s wasting time talking to some therapist.
The long and the short of it, she says, is there was this partner who committed suicide and so they might need you.
It occurs to you that you already knew that much.
“So…in what context?” You ask, clearly fishing for something to give this conversation direction. “I mean, were you thinking about a presentation on the grieving process, maybe with an open discussion to follow? My personal preference would be a grief process group of some sort in a setting where we could sit in a circle and share feelings.”
“No, nothing like that,” she snaps. “You’d be in a conference room for a day or two. I have to tell you right from the start, in [another city] she wasn’t used much.”
What does that mean? Oh, the other therapist, in the other city? Wasn’t used much how? You’re groping in the dark. You’d be doing what in a conference room for a day or two? What do they want?
You try to sound casual, like this is all par for the course for you, the senior, experienced, heavily-credentialed, seen-everything-a-million-times therapist, while you try to figure out what they’re talking about.
“I was wondering about that business with the different cities. I mean, this partner was located in [another city] right? Would the people in this, the [my city] office, have worked closely enough with him, or even known him well enough to be experiencing personal grief at his loss?”
That’s when you can’t help having the thought: we’re talking about a partner at a biglaw firm. Not only was he in a different city at a different office, but even if he had worked at the [my city] office, it’s not like everyone there is profoundly emotionally attached to all of the partners at their firm – attached enough to be overcome with grief when one of them dies. I’d guess there would be a few “whatever, who cares” reactions, and maybe a smattering of “one down, it’s a start” reactions, as well. I’m just saying. Someone, maybe even a few someones, whether they owned up to it or not, might have had that (admittedly very bad) thought. Of course, on the other hand, a few people might be feeling sincere grief at his loss. But others might not. Some might mostly be freaked out that he offed himself. What I’m saying is, it’s reasonable to expect a range of responses.
Back on the call, you can’t hear anything, but you know there is another spectacular eye roll taking place. Oh, right. It’s none of your business how people feel about this guy committing suicide. You – a mere therapist – work for the firm. That is, if they deign to hire you.
Professional. Act professional. Ignore the creeping sense of surreality enveloping your existence, and try to pull it together.
“I’m only asking in order to determine what would be most useful for you in this context.” It occurs to you that you sound (at least to yourself) like a funeral director.
Now comes what clearly sounds like a sigh of impatience. It is not your job to tell her what would be useful. You – a therapist – work on her terms. Stop being dense.
It’s poor form to compare people to Adolf Hitler, but strictly in terms of personality, the person you’re on the phone with strikes you as a bit like Adolf Hitler, and to the extent she strikes you that way, you don’t like her very much.
Enough of this – that call was an agony, but there’s no reason you, Dear Reader, should have to endure it, too. I’ll cut to the chase: They were hiring a “grief counselor.” That’s what, it turns out, a biglaw firm does in these situations. If an associate kills himself, one imagines they cover things up and pretend it never happened. But a partner is hard to sweep under the rug, so they hire a grief counselor who sits in a conference room, paid by the hour, to “be available.”
You know, they know, we all know, that no one will ever visit that grief counselor. You can take it a step further and admit there’s something doomed and weird and misguided about the whole set-up, and you know, if you were a lawyer, or staff, at that firm, you’d never go into that conference room, and furthermore, would wonder who would, or even who would do a job like that, grief counseling at a biglaw firm. Well, apparently this is how the people who do that job get hired.
So a partner killed himself and the firm stuck this woman with the job of hiring a grief counselor to sit in a conference room for two days and be available despite the fact that everyone knows no one would ever use a grief counselor under those circumstances because the whole idea is awkward and uncomfortable, suggesting, as it does, the prospect of opening up and getting emotional in the last place on Earth where you’d feel at ease and comfortable opening up and getting emotional.
It’s no secret this exercise is rooted in avoiding liability. The managing committee fears someone working at the firm might either: 1) be totally freaked out by the partner committing suicide; or 2) willing to pretend to be totally freaked out by the partner committing suicide, either way, resulting in a claim for mental harm because the firm callously failed to provide a grief counselor.
The threat of a lawsuit is enough to result in the hiring of said grief counselor. So who can they hire to do the job? A priest or rabbi would hardly do in our secular (or at least non-denominational) times (it would probably only inspire another law suit.) How about a therapist who is a former lawyer? Voila! That was why they called you. It also explains why the task of discussing this gig was handled in the vaguest possible terms and with the implication throughout that you smelled funny. They aren’t used to calling therapists – it takes something like this to force them to (ever so reluctantly) make that call.
Don’t worry – you’re off the hook. It’s clear from the tone of the voice on the other end of the line that she’s decided The People’s Therapist isn’t getting hired, either because you’re incredibly slow on the uptake or because someone googled your name and read a column like this one. You reflect on the fact that this might have been a sweet deal – $200 per hour for two days of doing nothing. On the other hand, it would have been utterly weird, wrong and unpleasant and no, you didn’t want this gig.
So that was your mission, if you decided to accept it. But you decided not to. In any case, it wasn’t really yours, because you blew the intake process by requiring them to spell it out for you, and it never would have worked anyhow, since they’d have figured out who you were. An impossible mission – almost as impossible as this next little adventure…
Impossible Mission #2: Racism
This time you get an email from a biglaw firm’s “diversity coordinator” announcing she’s organizing a “diversity day” event for the firm’s first year uh, diverse associates – as in, specifically the diverse ones. How does she phrase it? “Associates of color and/or queer?” No. “Associates of diverseness”? No. You can’t remember what she wrote, maybe she just implied what was going on and you caught her drift. On the other hand – hey, you’re a gay man, and your “life partner” (or whatever, you never actually got married, but you’ve been together for thirteen years) is originally from Hong Kong, which makes him “Chinese-American” and so you’re diverse, and that means you’re good to go – or you should be unless they’ve changed the rules.
To make things more intriguing, in the email she drops the name of another lawyer writer journalist pundit person you know, and so you think – hey, finally a biglaw mission that maybe you can decide to accept (along with, perhaps, some of that sweet sweet serious biglaw money.)
You call her back, trying to be as open and big-hearted and friendly and enthusiastic and gregarious and upbeat (and diverse) as you can legitimately pull off and lose no time dropping the name of that other law writer journalist pundit guy (who is black) and say something like:
“Yeah, I love that guy. Any opportunity to get together with [him] is excuse enough for me to show up.”
To your surprise, her response is cool, as in, aloof, icy, authoritative, condescending and, well, maybe even bitchy.
That word – bitchy – might sound misogynistic, but it really isn’t, at least in this context. The logic is that, if you’re gay – and let’s just say you are – then you’re typically allowed to tell gay jokes. Just like if you’re Jewish, you can tell Jewish jokes (or even discuss Israeli politics) and not get called “anti-Semitic.” By extension, if you’re gay, you’re also allowed to be queeny and even call someone “bitchy” carefully putting it in italics (or scare quotes) and then it’s not misogynistic. Au contraire, Miss Thing, it’s sort of cute, in a Will & Grace kind of way. Like, gay guys call each other bitchy in italics (or scare quotes) all the time. It’s a gay thing, so it’s diverse, and that makes it okay.
Maybe. But that’s the least of your problems, because you have just tapped into the mother load of political correctness – political correctness that defies any attempt at rational discourse. A freaking tsunami of political correctness (with apologies, of course, for any unintentional insensitivity to victims of tsunamis.)
The next forty minutes – forty minutes – consist of your being lectured to about race from someone who knows – i.e., this lady. She sounds young, and you’re not, so that’s annoying (ageism!) You sort of have to assume she’s black – she’s a “diversity coordinator” and “diversity coordinators” are usually black, aren’t they? She also sounds like she’s read a bunch of books in college (most of which you also read in college) and now wants to tell you all about them. And she sounds like she wasn’t considering inviting you to appear at her event because she believes you might bring wit and insight and fresh thinking – she isn’t about wit or insight or fresh thinking. If there’s any thinking to be done, she’ll be the one doing it, thank you, and if you try doing any of your own, she’ll hurry to disabuse you of the misconception that you have any right to start spouting off with any of your racist, retrograde, misguided old white dude ideas, etc., etc. She’s also incredibly condescending to the young diverse lawyers she’s tasked with diversely coordinating, referring to them as “my babies” several times, which makes you wince.
At some point in this “conversation” you take a stab at humor, or, well, discussion, or conversation or – well, at talking – and say something like “gosh, the challenges of working in the environment of a biglaw firm are such that…I mean…whether you’re black, white, yellow or purple, you’re still going to have a hard time billing three thousand hours per year and staying up all night with no sleep, you know?”
To which she replies (tersely): “There are no purple people.”
To which you bite your tongue hard not to retort: “Uh…Miss Thing? Hello? Prince?”
It also becomes exceedingly clear, over the forty minutes of listening to her lecture you on the meaning of diversity (and you just know, from the way she does it that she grew up with some money and went to a fancy Ivy League or the equivalent school, the same sort of place you went) that this is another impossible mission, as in, there’s no way she’s going to use you for it, so you’re wasting your time even being on the phone.
You take one final stab at trying to sound like you could offer something to her event, even as you’re realizing you wouldn’t touch this gig with a ten-foot pole:
“Well, I could certainly address the issues surrounding being queer in biglaw, or simply how being different might add to the…uh…general misery of the whole situation…”
She clears her throat with a sound that conjures, for whatever reason, the swish one imagines the blade of a guillotine making on its way to your neck waiting below. And with that sound, you become instantly aware of the fact that, after your last remark, no biglaw firm hiring a public speaker is going to touch you with a ten-foot pole.
She announces: “I don’t need you to talk about diversity. I would need you to provide ways, as a mental health professional, for these young attorneys to self-care and flourish within this environment. I would need you to provide techniques for managing the challenges they face.”
Oh, you reflect to yourself, so she needs magic, elixirs, miracles, or perhaps some kind of time machine that lets junior associates simultaneously sleep while billing eighteen hours per day. You don’t have that sort of product on offer. She denies the existence of purple people, despite His Purple Reign. You, by way of compensation for that outrage, deny the existence of quantum parallelism in the life of biglaw associates.
So, you get off the phone, as quickly as you can manage – she’s still lecturing you about “covering” and that law professor guy, Kenji whats-his-name (whose theories never made sense to you, but then you never focussed on that article about him in the New York Review of Books because it seemed boring) and then you hang up.
And then you email her the name of a friend, another lawyer writer journalist pundit person, a diverse one, who teaches lawyers meditation techniques to try to get them to relax a little. What the heck – help out a friend. And that’s probably all this lady really wanted anyway, someone who could try to get her diverse little associates-of-diversity to try to relax a bit while the pressure builds that will force eighty percent of them to flee the firm in five years or less, while most of them remain buried in staggering levels of school debt.
Yeah. Talk about an impossible mission.
As always, should you or any of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck!
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
And now there’s a new Sequel: Still Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: (The Sequel)
My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy:Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
I’ve also written 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