Isolation is a popular topic with my lawyer clients. There are so many varieties of biglaw loneliness I hardly know where to start explicating the phenomenon. One client summed up his particular variant:
“They stuck me on a matter that had gotten lost in the shuffle – some rainmaker too busy bringing in business neglected it, so we lost a critical preliminary motion. After that, everyone knew the case was hopeless, and since I was low man on the totem pole, it became mine. Now everything that’s already gone wrong is officially my fault, and no one’s around to help – as in, if you ask for ideas, you hear crickets. I sit in my office, staring at documents, unable to motivate. A calendar on my wall at home has hundreds of tiny boxes I check off each day until November 12th, 2018. That’s when I pay off my last loan – my final day in law.”
To add to the festive ambience, this guy’s firm is in the midst of endless renovations, which they’re taking in stages, floor by floor. Some floors are left mostly-renovated, others barely-renovated, and the stragglers still untouched. My client was assigned to a half-renovated half-floor, nearly empty except for some staff attorneys who toil down the hall in an un-renovated former conference room.
It’s creepy. And according to firm gossip, theirs is one of those “sick buildings” where the ductwork is clogged with black mold or toxic dust or something insalubrious, especially on the as-yet-not-renovated floors. Those could be unfounded rumors. Or not. He hunches beneath fluorescent lights and stained acoustic ceiling panels, trying to breath through his nose.
Law firms are lonely places by design, or at least biglaw firms are, since they’re typically located on multiple floors of sterile glass towers. One partner client was assigned to her office renovation committee. The new philosophy, she says, encourages walls of glass, to bring light in and cheer the place up. So now, as a biglaw attorney, you work in a fish bowl, with everyone looking in as you pretend to review something while surreptitiously playing Candy Crush, or merely ride out an anxiety attack. In a “modern” glass-walled law office, lawyers retreat to the bathroom if they need to cry.
A relatively recent factor contributing to biglaw alienation derives from the fact that biglaw firms aren’t really “firms” anymore – they’re closer to conglomerates or loose federations.
A modern biglaw operation resembles the cosmetics floor at Macy’s. When you’re there, you’re aware of being at a giant department store. And yet, somehow, the vibe is more along the lines of a bazaar, with a dozen different merchants – Clinique, Estee Lauder, Dermalogica, et al, – competing for your business. Because that’s exactly what it is. Each seller of cosmetics holds a separate lease for their bit of sales floor, and each fights with the others for business. Officially it’s all one big store and the products are unique. But the reality is what it appears to be: vicious competition for the same customers.
It’s the same thing in biglaw. Obviously, partners are only partners in any meaningful sense if they bring in business – everyone else is a glorified associate. A book of business is so critical to status, and so valuable, that if you possess one, you are, for all intents and purposes at this point in time, your own law firm. The “firm” itself amounts to little more than overhead – rented office space and a word-processing department. One of my clients has worked at three “law firms” in the past six years. In reality she was always with the same firm, i.e., the same partner – she just followed a single rainmaker as he decamped from one building to another. From her point of view, there was little or no noticeable change from one bivouac to the next; she handled all the partner’s legal matters while he schmoozed clients and worked the phone.
“It doesn’t seem important where we are,” she told me. “It’s understood we work for him. He runs a team of twelve lawyers and we come as a package.”
The effects of moving with a nomadic caravan from firm to firm? You guessed it: further alienation from any sort of “community” or sense of “collegiality.” You’re always the new arrival. The other lawyers at the “firm” where you’ve settled for the time being shrug and accept your existence, and you might even get to know a few of them during the two or three years your rainmaker spends at one firm before he spots greener pastures (i.e., more money) elsewhere. But then, soon enough, you’re tying up your office in a bindle once more to scurry off to a new destination.
For the partners, the sense of isolation is ever worse, in the sense that it’s every man for himself. It’s not just that you spend all your time “marketing” – i.e., fighting for clients. The real problem is that you’re competing for clients against the partners at your own firm. Nowadays, a partner at a biglaw firm will happily poach another partner’s clients, which means the term “partner” doesn’t carry much more meaning than the term “law firm.” One partner client of mine was advised by a friend to go ahead and begin a conflict check on a potential client she was wooing. She objected, saying it was premature – she hadn’t even signed the client up. Her friend explained the conflict check was strategic, to establish a paper trail if she found herself battling with another partner at her firm over origination. As soon as word got out she was cultivating this client, other, more senior partners would spring into action, attempting to poach him away.
These tactics don’t foster a mood of conviviality at a law office. They do add to the feeling of isolation. As a biglaw partner, you can convince yourself you’re sitting in your office each day surrounded by ruthless competitors – because in many ways, you are.
At other times, it’s the work itself – the day to day stuff of being a lawyer – that contributes to isolation. Sitting in an anonymous skyscraper in an anonymous office with anonymous acoustic tiles on the ceiling and anonymous bookshelves on the wall and stacks of anonymous binders and anonymous papers heaped on the anonymous wall-to-wall carpeting can start to feel like prison time. You can find yourself alone for hour upon hour in that nondescript setting, (e.g., “marking up” your umpteenth credit agreement (i.e., penciling in changes that favor your client even if you know perfectly well the other side will refuse them (or, alternatively, you might pass hour after hour reviewing their changes, favoring their client, which, of course, you will refuse (the idea is that “run it past legal” has to mean something, so you play these petty games, day after day, even if you just you wind up reverting to standard language (you have to bill for something, alone in that office.))))) It can all start to make you a bit crazy.
I used to gaze out my window at Sullivan & Cromwell, pondering what went on in the real world outside, where people met friends for dinner, or whiled away their evenings in restaurants deciding between lasagne al pesto and spaghetti alle vongole. Lawyers don’t leave work early enough to meet friends for dinner.
In New York City, as evening declines into the wee hours, lights in the tall buildings start to click off. I used to watch whole chunks of skyscrapers go dark, floor by floor, as banks of fluorescents were doused. At some point the space behind my window collected sufficient darkness for me to comprehend I was staring into my own face reflected in the pane, hair needing a cut (who has the time?) tie loosened to reveal a sweat-stained collar, eyes haunted. I would come to, blinking, and realize once more I was alone in an office thirty-nine floors over Lower Manhattan, gazing at my own reflection – and I should get back to work. There’s always work. The great lawyer truth is that there’s always work, something to bill for. Except when there isn’t, which is when you might lose your job.
It gets lonely. It can get kind of weird, too.
Of course, lawyers do their best to locate companionship – which explains why “hooking up” happens so much at biglaw firms. If you haven’t seen your husband in weeks, or at least not while he was awake, you might convince yourself making out with that senior tax associate after the firm cocktail party doesn’t count as cheating.
I wasn’t surprised when a client confessed to handholding and a bit of snogging with another associate (a married guy) at her firm. When she eventually told her husband, I was equally unsurprised that he confessed to the same thing at his office. In their defense, they hadn’t spent a day together for months. They’d both sought human contact, nothing more.
One client left biglaw for a smaller firm, where the hours were better – 2,000 instead of 3,000 per year. To her amazement, she could get home by 7 or 8 pm. Unfortunately, that didn’t cure her loneliness, as her husband, still in biglaw, didn’t get out until 1 am. She spent nights watching television with her cat, eating take-out, before falling asleep alone on the couch.
If this were a piece of “popular journalism” there’d be some juncture where I type “Does this sound like you?” followed by a list of scenarios of this ilk. Then I’d propose solutions: “Top 10 things every lawyer should do to prevent loneliness.” I don’t have it in me to write that particular listicle.
For what it’s worth, here’s my pitch for doing psychotherapy: It might be so long since you’ve communicated thoughts and feelings to another person (shouting abuse into a speaker phone doesn’t count) that you’ve forgotten its benefits. Therapy might appear a self-indulgent waste of time, especially when you’re paying for the experience. But it helps to talk. And at least while you’re sitting in a room with another living, breathing human being, you might feel less lonely.
The other night, my therapy group wandered onto the topic of isolation (we had new members among us, including a few lawyers) and we shared about how it felt, the loneliness, the emptiness and deprivation of a life spent working at the expense of everything else. I was pleased to see, in the course of the evening, the hint of a smile spread across the room, a sense developing that maybe, for a few moments, we were all a bit less alone.
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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