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downward drift image
“I never thought I’d end up working as a contract attorney doing doc review in a windowless basement,” my client bemoaned. “But then I read that piece about the lawyer who’s working as a clerk at WalMart. At least I’ve still got it over him in terms of job prestige.”

Well, you know how obsessed lawyers are with job prestige.

There’s a phrase, “The Downward Drift,” that crops up in discussions of serious mental health diagnoses like schizophrenia, and/or chronic substance abuse. The idea is that you are afflicted with serious mental illness, or become addicted to a harmful substance, which in turn leads to a slow, inevitable slide downward in terms of social class. Before long, the wealthy, Upper East Side business executive suffering from schizophrenia and/or severe alcoholism finds himself jobless, friendless and eventually even homeless, sleeping in shelters and begging for change.

Weirdly, the same phenomenon – the Downward Drift – affects people who acquire Juris Doctor degrees. It sort of makes sense, since – at least nowadays, with people like me bellowing jeremiads on every street corner, it would be evidence of utter madness – textbook psychosis, perhaps – for anyone to head in the direction of law school, at least unless that law school is one of the top three in the country and someone else is footing the bill. But try to persuade a kid with a high LSAT score not to apply to law school – it’s nearly as tough as persuading a kid who’s gotten into a “top-500” (or whatever) law school into not attending (especially if he’s “won” one of those risible $20,000 so-called “scholarships” they hand out like pushers showering crack vials on newbie users.) If that task sounds Herculean (or Sisyphean), try talking a kid who’s blown $80,000 on his first year of law school out of “finishing up” the other two (useless) years – even if he’s hated every moment of the experience so far. This is where the parallel with addiction comes in because I guarantee you it’s no easier than convincing a chronic alcoholic that ten martinis is really enough. Even my own much-vaunted powers of persuasion come up short at that juncture. Because it’s impossible. An addict will keep drinking and drugging until he passes out face down in a puddle on the sidewalk. And a law student will blow that additional $160,000 to finish those two more pointless years. It’s a sure thing – just like zombies like eating flesh, the sun likes rising in the morning and Pat Robertson likes blaming bad weather on the homosexual agenda.

So how does the “Downward Drift” work, at least for lawyers?

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conferenceLike most of you, I whiled away last Friday in New York City at the ultra-posh Yale Club, in attendance at an Above The Law-sponsored conference bearing the charming sobriquet:  “Attorney@blog”.

If you failed to make an appearance, rest assured all was precisely as one would expect – celebrities galore, lavish swag, caviar in heaps, champagne flowing in torrents – all capped by innumerable late-night parties in painfully-hip underground destinations, guarded with zeal by the voluptuous ATL crew: Elie “The Beast” Mystal, Staci “Bootylicious” Zaretsky and the boss-man, David “Dr. Lovin'” Lat.

It was, in a word, legendary.  I was in my element.

So.  Here’s a music video of what we now laughing refer to as “the event,” although it was, in truth, more along the lines of a downtown “happening”  à la Andy Warhol:

Thank you, wireLawyer, for recording history in the making. I’m pleased to report the camera caught my good side.

A special shout-out to my co-panelists, the simply-too-divine Vivia Chen and ever-hypnotic Jesse Kornberg.

See you next year.

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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

Please also 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

(In addition to Amazon.com, my books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)

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ear trumpetHere’s what you never hear anyone say at a Biglaw firm – followed by a discussion of why you never hear anyone say it.

Here we go…

Let’s work on this together. It’ll be more fun.

People write me all the time, complaining I’m too down on Biglaw. Nothing new there, but one guy, recently, expanded on the topic, adding that he works at a firm where everyone, so far as he knows, is happy – enjoying a rewarding career in a supportive, non-exploitative environment.

Perhaps you can see this coming: It turns out this guy owns the firm – and specializes in oral arguments before federal appellate courts. Prior to becoming managing partner, he attended top Ivy League schools.

By way of a reply, I opined:  “Your experience might be considered atypical.”

In reality, his experience should be considered ridiculously atypical. Redonkulously atypical. Yet this presumably brilliant legal mind couldn’t manage to grasp that reality from where he was standing – at the top of the heap.

This man claims, without irony, that every lawyer at his firm is happy. But, that little voice in the back of your head begins to counter, before you’re even aware of having the thought: it’s your firm.

They work for you. Of course they act happy, just as the maid cleaning your hotel room – the one without a green card, with a family to feed, smiles and acts delighted to see you when you pop in to grab your extra iPad mini and she’s on her knees scrubbing the shower.

Presumably, someone else, some possibly unhappy little person at this guy’s law firm, is doing the work he would rather not think about – the work that has to be done. Maybe it’s a junior he’s never met. And I’d bet good money that other guy’s doing it all by himself, probably late at night or on a weekend.

I was naïve when I started at Sullivan & Cromwell. I’d been told to expect late nights and weekends. Somehow or other, though, I harbored the daft notion it would be okay because we’d be in it together. There’d be an esprit de corps, a collegial sense of loyalty to one another, and to the firm. We’d divvy up the assignments based on seniority and expertise, then plug away as a team – and maybe share a pizza and a few laughs in a conference room during breaks.

Instead, I found out what it felt like to have work dumped on me, without apology or explanation – work I had no idea how to do and barely understand (let alone cared about.) I learned what it felt like to endure weekend after weekend and night after night sitting utterly alone, alternately weepy and panicky, in an empty office tower, aching to return home, crawl into bed, and go to sleep, but knowing I couldn’t because that would get me fired, and I had loans, and no one else gave a damn about me or my misery because I didn’t matter one iota to their bottom line, which was money.

Here, I’ll show you how to do this.

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AngryVishnuSpectating upon the atom bomb ignition at the Trinity test site in New Mexico, Robert Oppenheimer was reminded of a scene from the Bhagavad-Gita – an encounter between the prince and Vishnu, the latter apparently in a cranky frame of mind. The scene culminates in Vishnu, who is attempting to persuade the prince to do his duty, assuming a multi-armed form and intoning:

I have become death, destroyer of worlds.

There are lawyers out there who remind me of Vishnu in his multi-armed form. No, they don’t sprout extra limbs, or destroy entire worlds. These Biglaw-inspired incarnations of Vishnu merely assume the form of senior female attorneys to become career-death, destroyer of junior associates.

Behold the Biglaw Vishnus! (And trust me, within their personal sphere of destruction they give the real thing a run for his money.)

One of my clients fell victim to a Biglaw Vishnu – and his story is, as they say, far from atypical and so merits recounting.

He went, if not to a first-tier school, then to a first-and-a-half tier school, and by some rare stroke of fortune managed to locate a job, (if not at a first-tier firm, then at a first-and-a-half tier firm.)

It’s fair to say this guy was riding high – and gloating appropriately – when he happened to notice a problem: The firm had no work. His response was the same as everyone else’s around him – he twiddled his thumbs, wondering if he somehow smelled funny, or if, in fact (as it appeared) everyone else was twiddling their thumbs too (all while studiously pretending to be busy busy busy.) That situation endured for a year and a half, until my client was rudely stirred from this idyll by a partner, who delivered to him an awful review of the obviously-staged variety. (My client can’t remember if the problem they identified was that he asked for help too often instead of showing initiative or asked for help too rarely and wasted time by being too independent. He hadn’t billed an hour for months so he could hardly blame them for making something up.) As they say in California, “whatevers.” There was, however, a modicum of “fall-out.” Icarus-like, my client found himself plummeting in the unmistakable direction of every lawyer’s ultimate nightmare (at least officially): Unemployment. We all know the rules of this profession – five minutes of unaccounted-for time on your resume and it’s game over; you’ll never work as a lawyer again (well, maybe a staff attorney or doc reviewer but that hardly counts, does it?)

My client had three months to drum up a miracle. Following the world’s most intense job hunt, something came through at the eleventh hour. But there was a catch: He had to work for Vishnu.

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susan b anthony
It’s time to go back to 1972 or so and start the Women’s Liberation movement up all over again. We need it.

A client, who was sexually harassed at her old firm, tells me a new fear haunts her – that her “reputation” will be transported via gossip to wherever she goes next. I asked what that “reputation” would be – I mean, how do you get a reputation for being harassed by some clown at a law firm?

“Well, they might think I’m difficult, or unstable, or a trouble-maker,” she explained.

That makes me want to scream – particularly because she might be right: Some sort of reputation along those lines might stick to her, and it might get around at her new firm. When you’re a woman at a law firm – or a woman, period – there are times when it seems you just can’t win.

Another client – a young partner at a biglaw firm – told me she’d been harassed, but stated flatly, “you can’t report it – they’ll just push you out.” I asked her what she did instead. “Oh, you’re supposed to be able to handle it. Tell him to fuck off, or whatever.”

That was upsetting to hear. She delivered it with gusto – and I wanted to believe she really meant it, had the fortitude to say “fuck off” to the guy slipping his hand up her thigh, then briskly smooth her skirt, and move on. But is it really that easy?

Therapists love empathy exercises – it’s kind of our business, in a nutshell. So let’s go ahead and imagine the reality of sexual harassment – having someone you have no interest in sexually or otherwise, someone you work with or work for, pawing over your body at a firm function. My guess is it would unsettle me more than I’d like to admit. And how about going into the office the next day and trying to work with the guy – especially if he’s senior? Could you just “handle it”? Or would the whole unpleasant business get under your skin, leave you seething, angry and humiliated and wanting someone to listen to what happened to you and do something about it? And what would you do with the thought that he’s probably doing this to other people, and getting away with that, too?

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daffyIf you’re a lawyer appearing at my doorstep, and you work in biglaw, there’s a good chance you’re seeking a way out. You don’t know what you want to do next, but the status quo is insupportable. That’s the standard set-up.

If you’re a lawyer appearing at my doorstep and you work in biglaw, we’ll likely talk about the challenges ahead. Trapped in the bathysphere of biglaw, it’s hard to see out let alone get out. You’ve heard rumors about human beings who enjoy their jobs. In your experience, big firm attorneys loathe their chosen profession the way other people breathe air.

If you’re a lawyer appearing at my doorstep, and you work in biglaw, we’ll probably talk about a sideways shuffle I call the “crab-walk.” You can’t transfer from a big law firm directly to a tolerable work environment in one leap – the chasm between biglaw and anywhere anyone would want to be is too great. Crab-walking is the next best thing, based on the indisputable principle that a tiny step in the direction of somewhere else amounts to an improvement. Take a reduced schedule at your current firm (if such a thing exists in theory or practice.)  Give a “kinder, gentler” mid-law shop a shake. Go in-house at a bank. Dial for dollars as a headhunter. Switch to consulting and live in a hotel in Indianapolis all week writing reports recommending the firing of middle managers. Get a sales and support position at WestLaw teaching summers to concoct search terms. Small crab-walk-y steps remove you one centimeter at a time from where you are right now. That, by definition, is good.

If you’re a lawyer appearing at my doorstep and you work in biglaw, you probably want out, and have since your first taste of the Kool-Aid. You need to hear you’re not crazy or alone, and that there are others who long for a job without constant anxiety attacks, where Sunday nights aren’t a horror show, where a partner won’t tell you without a trace of irony to “go ahead and take the weekend off,” where it isn’t considered an easy night to get home at 11 pm.

These generalities hold true for about 96% of the lawyers appearing at my doorstep who work in biglaw. They do not, however, apply to everyone.

I don’t want to exaggerate the phenomenon, but there are folks who actually “fit in” in biglaw. They actually like it there. These are the “odd ducks,” and from time to time some of them also appear at my door.

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MightyMouseandGirlIf law students are annoying, then pre-law students are twice as annoying. There’s something about observing these lemmings scrabble their way into the maws of ruthless law schools, despite dire warnings and appeals to common sense, that just…gets under my skin.

Even after so much effort has been expended for their benefit – i.e., which part of “Way Worse Than Being a Dentist” didn’t you understand? – these piteous creatures patiently queue up for their punishment, hungry to “learn to think like a lawyer.” If your resolve weakens, and pity prevails over contempt, you might mistakenly engage one in conversation. For your trouble, you’ll receive an earful of a clueless pipsqueak’s master plan to save the world. Because – you hadn’t heard? – that’s why he’s going to law school: The betterment of humanity.

Because that’s what the world so desperately needs:  Another lawyer.

Somehow or other, these automata get it into their programming that, if they actually did want to save the world, becoming a lawyer would be a sensible way to do it. They are unaware of how imbecilic their words sound to anyone not entirely befuddled by the miasma of law school propaganda.

Law schools inundate proto-lawyers with ‘lawyers save the world’ nonsense, cramming their crania with musty tales of Brown v Board of Ed. That’s because the schools are well aware of the likely effect of such indoctrination: Greasing the rails to the killing floor. If a kid can tell himself he’s going to “change the world” – as opposed to, say, “make a lot of money and feel like a big deal” – then he’ll line up that extra bit more smugly for the $160k/year that makes his eyes roll up into his head and a little string of drool form at the corner of his mouth.

It’s simple: If you can tell yourself you’re doing it for the good of humankind, you won’t feel so guilty selling out in the most soulless, stereotypical way imaginable.

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Someone posted the following astonishing comment in response to one of my columns a few months back:

“I’ve never worked in a biglaw firm, but what happens if an associate just says no, I am busy this weekend, or no, I am on vacation that week, so I won’t be able to do that project. Do you immediately get fired? If that’s true, then you must not really have much to offer to the firm in the first place. In a situation where the associate had some real value to offer to the firm, I do not see why the firm would fire someone for that. Am I hopelessly naive?”

Go ahead – laugh. Get it out of your system. You know perfectly well your guffaws wear thin, right about when that twinge of poignancy creeps in. You, too, once mulled the notion of rising above the fray – going all Bartleby the Scrivener and muttering “I’d prefer not to” when asked – oops, I mean told – to work and work and work and work and work.

This “pure fool” of a comment-writer has raised a troubling issue (and that, by the way, was a combined Parsifal and Magic Mountain reference…this will be one of those classy columns larded with literary allusions.) Cower behind your carapace of cynicism, but sooner or later you’ll admit you weren’t always like this. You weren’t always a broken, cynical wreck who jumps at the slightest command. You used to be Bartleby The Scrivener, too. You imagined you were valued as a unique, complex individual. You imagined you held some sway over your own existence – some “preferences.”

I know it’s no fun trying to remember the stuff you read in college, but please attempt to keep up. Even if you weren’t an undergraduate English major, you might recall that the narrator of “Bartleby the Scrivener” was called “The Lawyer.” That’s right: “The Lawyer.” The whole thing takes place in a law firm! And remember what a scrivener did? It was the worst job in the firm – probably one of the worst jobs of all time. You sat at a desk copying legal documents – handwriting them – for hours. Reminiscent of doc review, or due diligence, or “running changes” – scrivening was mindless and, if you kept at it for too long, guaranteed to drive you bat-shit. You – and everyone else – would obviously “prefer not to.”

And yet, somehow or other, our narrator – “The Lawyer” (i.e., a partner at the firm) – is astonished when Bartleby, after being asked politely to scriven something, even more politely states in return: “I’d prefer not to.” The Lawyer explains his astonishment at Bartleby’s resistance by pointing out how he, as a partner – even in 1853! – possesses a “natural expectancy of instant compliance.”

You know all about that, right? The “natural expectancy of instant compliance”? Sure you do.

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First – yes, this blog, and my columns on AboveTheLaw.com, are coming back to life – or will be shortly. I’m just waiting for the new book to come out (and no, the new book is not what you’re expecting.)

More immediately, for all my Hong Kong readers, here’s a fun event coming up on the evening of November 20th, 2012, featuring wine and canapes:

I look forward to the opportunity to meet more of my readers and share a few thoughts about the madness of biglaw. Hope you can make it.

Will

PS: If you’re in NYC On October 26th, 2012 and would like to hear me opine upon the divine absurdities attendant to biglaw, please come to the 2012 Fall Symposium of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC), where I’ll be a featured speaker – information is available here.

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If you’re interested in the scientific and philosophical underpinnings of psychotherapy, you might enjoy my first book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

My second book takes a humorous look at the current state of the legal profession, Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning

(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.) 

For information on my private practice, click here.

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I participated recently in a panel discussion at a conference, speaking with other lawyer/blogger types in front of an audience consisting largely of people from law firms and law schools.

After we finished, I did the decent thing and sat and listened to the panel that followed mine. I happened to choose an empty seat next to a woman who introduced herself to me later as a Dean at a law school, in charge of career placement, or whatever the euphemism is for trying to find students non-existent jobs. The law school was obscure – one of those dreaded “third tier” places.

She confronted me afterwards. “I guess I’m the bad guy, huh?”

I was startled by her candor, but knew what she meant. This was one of those people from a third tier law school – the greedy cynical fraudsters signing kids up for worthless degrees, then leaving them high and dry – unemployed and deeply in debt.

Despite her participation in crimes against humanity, I had to admit she didn’t seem so bad, in person.

Then I snapped back to my senses – and went on the attack, assuming my sacred role as The People’s burning spear of vengeance.

“At very least, you have to admit the tuition is too high,” I vituperated.

“Don’t talk to me about tuition,” she rejoined. “It’s the tenured faculty – that’s where that money’s going.”

She took a step closer and lowered her voice, taking me into her evil confidence.

“I’ll tell you what I’m looking at. I’ve got to find kids jobs – that’s it, my assignment. Here’s how bad it’s gotten. Someone called the other day and said ‘I’m getting evicted – you have to find me something, anything.’”

Her face looked dead serious. She wanted The People’s burning spear of vengeance to hear this.

“I called in every favor – I called everyone I knew. What more can I do?”

I acknowledged her point, grudgingly. Maybe this was a lesser villain. Perhaps some vestige of good remained in her corrupted, blackened soul.

“The best thing,” she continued, “and it’s going to happen – will be a bunch of schools shrink their class sizes or close down completely.”

She paused while we mutually processed the implications – namely, that she’d lose her job.

“That would be the best thing,” she repeated for emphasis, as though daring me to believe her. I did.

I left the conference chewing over the big question: If that lady I’d just met, and chatted with, was Lucifer herself – then she failed to convince. In which case, who’s left? Who is the Great Satan?

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Remember Green Acres, that fish-out-of-water comedy wherein Eddie Albert drags Eva Gabor out to live on some tumbledown farm in the middle of nowhere? She’s a Park Avenue socialite, but he’s the husband and the penis-haver and it’s the 1960’s – so what he says, goes. If he’s jonesing for fresh air and farm living, she has no choice.

I don’t remember much more than the theme song and opening credits, but the concept – giving it all up, packing your bags and fleeing for the sticks, spouse (and maybe kids) in hand – resonates with my lawyer clients. Some are beginning to sound like aspiring Eddie Alberts.

I’d like to say there’s a great lawyer return to the land on the way – driven by a love for nature and the outdoors. To some extent that’s true. But mostly, it’s a product of desperation. The big themes are escaping biglaw misery, seeking adventure, looking for a healthier lifestyle… and fleeing school loans.
One client’s story weaves these themes into a magical tapestry of personal growth, spiritual awakening and debt avoidance.

He was suffering modestly at a big law firm in L.A. Then he got posted to an office in Asia, where he happened to speak the language. There he discovered how bad bad can be. The US office dished out standard-issue biglaw brutality. Nothing could have prepared him for the Asia office. The cruelties committed by the local staff and attorneys would make Hieronymus Bosch wince. In their laser-beam-like focus on punishing my client for speaking their language and attempting to work in their homeland, they achieved new plateaux of sadism on a weekly basis. He developed insomnia, migraines, then panic attacks – and was fired a year later, without comment.

That’s when the Green Acres theme began playing in his head.

I’m not sure where he got the idea, but for whatever reason, he bought a 500 square foot cabin in the middle of nowhere, snug against the 49th parallel. Then he wrote a blog about woodcarving. And that’s about all he did – that, and shovel snow.

Ten months later he remembered the $150k he owed in school loans and back taxes from his Asian debacle, packed his bags and caught a ride to New York City – and doc review. Foreign language doc review pays better than regular doc review, but it’s still doc review. Working with the burnt-out remnants of lawyers is refreshing after working with actual lawyers – and at first it was amusing to get paid to peruse an Asian businessman’s emails to his mistress, then click “relevant” “incriminating” and “privileged.” But even assuming steady work, he didn’t see how he could pay off his loans within a decade.

His solution? Hitch a ride back to The Great White North – and his rustic cabin. There, he could find public defender work in the local courthouse – and wait tables. He calculated that $30k per year would be enough to cover food and fuel – but insufficient to attract the attention of his creditors. Not even a bank addicted to the lifeblood of youth can squeeze that blood from a stone. In his free time – which is most of the time, at this point – he wood-carves. For whatever reason, he finds that more exciting than doc review.

Voila. All you weeping, tooth-gnashing, garment-rending lawyers out there who constantly ask me – what can I do now? Here’s a solution. Green Acres is the place to be!

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When I launched The People’s Therapist, my intent was to get stuff off my chest – process a smidgen of psychic trauma. I’d write a column or two, exorcise the odd demon, piss off Sullivan & Cromwell and call it a day.

It never occurred to me I’d be deluged with lawyers as clients.

It never, ever occurred to me I’d be deluged with partners as clients.

It never so much as crossed my mind they’d be so unhappy.

It turns out being a partner can be…not all that. For many of my clients, the job boils down to evil middle management.

Permit me to explain.

Biglaw associates resemble the low-level evil henchman in James Bond movies – those omnipresent guys in jumpsuits who all look the same and do what they’re told. They drive around evil headquarters in little golf carts, manipulate dials in the control room, shoot at James Bond (always missing) – then get shot themselves. Presumably – like biglaw associates – they’re mostly in it for the money, rather than a genuine penchant for evil.

I felt like an impostor at S&C – only pretending to be a genuine low-level evil henchman. I was more like James Bond after he bonks the real low-level evil henchman on the head, then reemerges strolling through evil headquarters sporting that guy’s jumpsuit.

I was an impostor – trying to look like I drank the Kool-Aid, going through the motions. I wasn’t even a clandestine agent, battling evil, like 007. The plan to blow up the moon wasn’t my problem. I just wanted a way out of that crummy job – one not involving a fatal dunk in the evil piranha tank. Somewhere in that evil-lair-secreted-in-a-hollowed-out-volcano there had to be a door marked exit.

Most of the partners I work with are looking for the same thing. The difference is, as a partner, you’re not an impostor pretending to be a low-level evil henchman – you’re an impostor pretending to be evil middle management.

“Preposterous!” you sputter, outraged. “Partners never condescend to be middle anything! They crouch, smugly, at the pinnacle of the evil pyramid! With one wiggle of their evil little finger…they manipulate human life!”

It can look that way from the bottom rung, whence a partner appears as far removed from a low-level evil henchman as a junior associate from a positive bank balance.

From the vantage of the pyramid’s sub-sub-basement, all partners appear interchangeable – the unifying feature being their utter dissimilarity from anyone like you. A partner’s one of them – evil incarnate, possessing his own evil headquarters – his own creepy evil white cat (for stroking purposes) – and his own weird evil European accent (with which to mutter, “Come now, Mr. Bond…”) A partner doesn’t have to drink the Kool-Aid – an iv bag of the stuff dangles by his bedside.

If only that were true. After getting all up-close and personal with a bevy of partners, I’ve caught wind of a terrifying reality: All partners are not the same. Most are nothing more than evil middle managers.

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My client is finishing her 1L year. She’s bored.

“I study. Then I study some more. Then I go to sleep. Then I get up and study again. It’s the same for everyone.”

At least, I proposed, the subject matter was interesting.

She demurred. “Yeah, I guess…but – really? I mean…Property law? Contracts? Torts?”

Her demurrer was sustained. She had a point.

Maybe it’s your turn to demur. The subject matter of law school – law itself – not interesting!?? That’s unthinkable. It has to be the school’s fault – my client must be attending some fourth-tier degree mill, with sub-par teaching and a dull-witted student body…

But the school’s not at issue here. She’s attending one of the top places in the country. Not that it would make much difference, since every law school essentially teaches the same thing, first-tier or fourth-tier.

Then it must be her fault. If she doesn’t appreciate the study of law – if this Philistine isn’t drawn to the greatness of legal scholarship – she doesn’t deserve her seat at an exalted institution.

I’m not convinced. This young woman projects intelligence, and turns heart-felt-y and passionate discussing her real interest – international human rights law. Unlike most law students, she did an internship and reads books, so she knows what international human rights law is (even if, like most law students, she vastly over-estimates its significance.)

It’s possible things will get better next year, when she takes a course on international human rights law. On the other hand, law school courses have a way of making topics less interesting than they were before you took them.

Maybe the fault doesn’t lie with any particular school, or any particular student. Maybe it lies with the myths surrounding law school itself.

Let’s gather for a moment, and contemplate the inconceivable: Maybe law school is just…well…not that big a deal. Maybe it isn’t engrossing or life-altering or – much of anything. Maybe the whole schtick – law school as the turning point in a young lawyer’s existence – is oversold. The legal industry itself is a bubble recently popped. Perhaps the mystique surrounding law school is due for puncture.

Ask yourself – is the subject matter taught in law schools really so engrossing? Or were you taught to believe the subject matter taught in law schools is really so engrossing?

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You’re different. You disdain the crass blandishments of biglaw. You have a soul. Let the giant firms seduce your naïve classmates with their shameless wheedling. You’re made of sterner stuff.

Your ultimate goal? Something better. A place where you might actually do good. Few lawyers receive that opportunity. Many, exposed to goodness, would burst into flames.

That’s why you’re taking the high road, escaping the pervasive cynicism and greed. You’ve got your sights set on a not-for-profit institution, dedicated to the promise of a better tomorrow.

Will it work? Can a lawyer escape pervasive cynicism and greed?

Seems unlikely.

Let’s talk about the the not-for-profit track – its ups, downs and in-betweens.

Right off the bat, we have to discuss salary. I know – you want to escape all that – the obsession with filthy lucre. But there’s a stark reality you must grasp before reporting for duty at a not-for-profit: You will earn bupkis.

Maybe that’s okay with you – like Hebrew National, you answer to a higher authority. On the other hand, if – like most young lawyers – you’re sitting on a zillion dollars in bankruptcy-proof loans, an extended period of earning zilch could prove…inconvenient.

This aforesaid stark reality also explains one of the dirty little secrets of the not-for-profit world: It’s a magnet for rich kids. If Mom and Dad have already paid off the $200k you blew on an undergraduate degree and law school, then bought you the cutest little one-bedroom in Chelsea and a brand new Prius…well, the logical next step is to save the world. It’ll be fun!

Not-for-profits are bursting at the seams with eager-beaver trust-afarians – and it doesn’t stop there. Sometimes Mom and Dad (and their friends) sit on the board. Sometimes the charismatic founder and Executive Director is a grinning, twenty-something former college lacrosse star, just back from Burning Man. You can’t hold it against him if he wants to donate a snippet of grandaddy’s styrofoam factory fortune to making the world a better place. But his white-boy dread locks and penchant for calling you “bro” in the hallway make you wince.

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A visit to my office has evolved into something akin to the road to Lourdes. Pilgrims arrive red-eyed and defeated, faces etched with misery, searching for a way out of a trap.

The standard story is some variant of the following: You are either out of work or loathe your work. You have $180k in loans. You have either no income or an impermanent income paid to you in exchange for any joy life might offer. You see no hope.

Let me spell out the critical element here: You are one hundred and eighty thousand dollars in debt.

Just to fully drive the point home: that’s bankruptcy-proof debt.

You’ve yelled at your parents, but it’s not really their fault. You’ve wept and wailed and gotten drunk and stoned and consumed a script of Xanax. You’ve tried sleeping and pretending you don’t have to wake up.

Then comes the pilgrimage. Perhaps I can heal with a laying on of hands.

Okay, here’s the feedback I’ll receive for what I’ve written so far:

You’re exaggerating. You’re bringing me down. Law isn’t so bad. I love law.

Yeah, well good for you. I’m not exaggerating.

It’s their own damn fault. No one made them go to law school.

Yes. They. Did. Stop kidding yourself – the entire system is engineered to lead smart, conscientious kids exactly where it leads them. And get off it already with the no sympathy/blame the victim routine.

How bad are things? How many times can I pose that (at this point rhetorical) question?

Young lawyers look me in the eye and ask, how am I supposed to carry on with my life? What they mean is – how is one supposed to live a life worth living – a life that satisfies one as a human being – trapped in the hell of law and law school loans?

Sometime, I ask them what they would be doing with their lives, if they didn’t have loans. Here are some of their answers:
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At Barnes & Noble, where I once worked as a marketing exec, we bandied about the phrase “aspirational purchase” to portray a small, but profitable segment of our sales.

Aspirational purchase meant you bought the book not because you were going to read it, but because you aspired to read it. You might even convince yourself you were going to – but in all likelihood it would serve as a pretentious coffee table tchotchke, an impressive (if un-cracked) spine on a decorative bookshelf, or a useful device to prop up a little kid’s butt so he could reach the cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.

An aspirational purchase is intended to impress – you want to be seen buying it. It tends to be something conservative as well. And long. And difficult. “War and Peace” is the classic aspirational purchase, but you might also pick up something with a political message that makes you look wise and open-minded, like “The Satanic Verses” (which, for the record, I actually read.) (No, I’ve never plumbed War and Peace. However, I embrace the fact that plenty of you certainly have read it and, yes, loved it and desire for me to acknowledge you’ve read it and how much you loved it – to which I reply, in advance, how very nice for you.)

Law school is an aspirational purchase.

You choose law because it’s more impressive than an internship or “assistant” job – which is how you’d have to start out in an ordinary career. With law you jump directly to the land of the grown-ups without passing Go. From the moment you graduate, you have a “profession.” That means (at least in theory) you wear a suit and people take you seriously. You’re an “attorney” – not someone’s assistant.

Law is conservative, too. It’s about the least imaginative thing you could do. A law degree establishes (at least in theory) that you are serious and focused and down-to-business. No more staying up all night partying for you. It’s time to retire that giant plastic bong with the “Steal Your Face” decals and step up to adulthood, dude.

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A law student client – already an MBA – said she needed convincing to drop out of her third-tier school.

I told her to calculate the return on investment for the final three semesters.

She crunched the numbers.

“Debit-wise, I’ve burned $80k in savings and I’m looking at another $100k of borrowed money. On the credit side, I might find a low-salary doc review gig.” She pretended to scratch notes. “So… big loans, interest payments, inadequate cash flow…opportunity cost of eighteen more wasted months learning legal mumbo-jumbo followed by the bar exam…”

“In other words…” I egged her on.

“I’d be totally screwed.” She affixed the cap on her pen. “Thanks. I’m convinced.”

I posed the question we were dancing around: “Why are we having this conversation?”

My client laid out the background: “My dad’s a lawyer. My mom’s a lawyer. My little brother’s taking his LSAT. This is what my family does. If I quit, I feel like I’m failing.”

She added: “It seems like it was different in my parents’ day.”

That’s because it was. A generation gap has opened in the legal world. On one side there are lawyers over-50, for whom law still looks like a safe, reliable ladder to the upper-middle-class. From the other side – where their kids are perched – law more closely resembles un ascenseur pour l’échafaud.

My client’s parents live in a time warp – a world trapped in a snow globe. Mom’s worked for 25 years as an in-house lawyer for a state college – safe, not terribly stressful (or interesting) work, with a decent salary, good hours and benefits. Dad’s worked for decades as general counsel for a local business. It’s no wonder that for them – and their generation – law still epitomizes a safe, low-stress career with good pay and benefits.

These over-50 types can’t imagine how bad it gets nowadays for someone calling himself an attorney. Their Weltanschauung doesn’t encompass windowless warehouses packed with contract lawyers logging 18-hour shifts of doc review for hourly wages, no benefits. Mom and Dad haven’t seen young partners at top firms getting de-equitized and struggling to snare in-house positions. If they knew that reality, they’d also realize their own sort of safe, steady work with benefits, a decent wage and reasonable hours constitutes a pipe dream for a kid graduating law school today.

Another client of mine – a 20-something from a decent school entering her third year in biglaw – summed up her reality thus:

“Really? I spent myself into life-long debt, endured hours of property law lectures, analyzed Erie problems on brutal exams, crammed for the bar…all so I could waste two years on doc review, then wait to get laid off (with the de rigueur bad review and zero career prospects) so someone younger and cheaper can take my seat? Really?”

If she’d studied computer science, or gotten an MBA or just quit school after college, she might have become a better-paid “e-discovery provider.” As a JD, it’s strictly “e-discovery peon.” In any case, five years from now a computer program will do doc review all by itself. As one client put it: “that’s when attorneys start living in cardboard boxes on the sidewalk.”

This isn’t your grandfather’s biglaw.

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Atul Gawande is a medical superstar – a surgeon at Harvard who’s also a New Yorker magazine writer, and the author of several books. His latest push is for doctors to use checklists to prevent common mistakes during surgery. A scary percentage of the time, it turns out, things grow overwhelmingly complicated in an operating room and a nurse or an anesthesiologist, or a resident (or whoever) gets distracted and forgets to do something basic – like confirm there’s extra blood in the fridge, or plug that little hose into the machine that keeps you breathing.

It happens. People forget things. Best to err on the safe side, and use a checklist.

The idea comes from aircraft pilots. It turns out they use checklists for absolutely everything – a pilot literally can’t step into a plane without a checklist. Pre-take-off, take-off, pre-landing, landing, and every possible contingency that might happen in-between is assigned a checklist. That’s because when you’re a pilot and you forget something, well…it can be a problem. Kind of like a surgeon.

Or a lawyer.

This isn’t exactly a new idea. The first thing I received at Sullivan & Cromwell when I arrived there was a checklist – and my first task was to start ticking off items. That’s how you handle a corporate deal closing – otherwise you’d never keep track of all the officer’s certificates and securities certificates and side agreements and various other bits of paper required for that six hundred million dollar acquisition of the rubber plant in Brazil (or whatever.) If you’re the junior associate and you forget something that needs to be on a closing table, well… it can be a problem.

But there’s another surprising finding in Gawande’s new book, “The Checklist Manifesto.” One required item on pilots’ checklists simply instructs them to stop and introduce themselves. During that process, they explain their responsibilities to one another, including any pertinent details regarding that specific flight. It sounds like this:

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It’s hard to conjure up bad stuff to say about clerking. It’s an honor, and an all-expense-paid ticket on an exclusive legal gravy train. If you’re lucky enough to clerk for a federal district or circuit court judge, you can rest assured you’re looking good and feeling good. You might even shoot the moon and sing with the Supremes. In that case, you’re good to go: You’ll never have to practice actual law again. You can sign up now to teach a seminar on “Law and Interpretive Dance” at Yale or attend sumptuous international human rights conferences hosted by African dictators. Life is good at the top. Imagine the stimulation of interacting one-on-one with the mind of a Clarence Thomas (and acquiring access to his porn collection.) You could be the clerk who builds an ironclad case striking down universal access to healthcare – or witness the day Justice T opens his mouth to speak during oral argument.

Even if you’re clerking for an obscure political hack (which is the norm), as a clerk you qualify to skip out of biglaw hell. The deal – as you probably know – is thus: you get to work non-law firm hours for a year, then return to the firm as though you’d suffered with the other monkeys. If you finish two clerkships, you double your fun and skip two years of Hell-on-Earth – then return with a third year’s salary!

Clerking gigs can be hard work – you could be researching and writing twelve hours a day. But you’re not putting in weekends (usually), and thanks to the court calendar, there are slow times built into the schedule. Your judge could turn out to be geriatric and losing his marbles (not a rare occurrence) or simply a lunatic – but you’re still doing substantive, important work – rather than, say, researching an un-busy partner’s attempt at a treatise or frying your brain with doc review.

Clerking is a sweet deal – one good reason to do litigation instead of corporate. As a clerk, you might learn something. That’s probably not going to happen as a junior doing corporate.

Yes, there’s a catch, and it’s a whopper: Most clerkships – a whole lot of clerkships – require relocating to the middle of freakin’ nowhere.

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At some point you have to get out of here. The question is when – and whither.

A vacation might help, if you could achieve the impossible and take one. My client pulled off a week – seven whole days! – at a Caribbean resort, only to return feeling like a condemned prisoner.

“It made things worse,” she lamented. “Now I remember the outside world.”

Sometimes it’s better to live without that distraction.

You’re in it for the money.  Biglaw creates money to toss into the maw of a bank. But no one can stand this abuse forever. Change – any change – might be good, right? How about another firm? Working in a different building – working with different people – different acoustic ceiling tiles, different vertical blinds, different sound-absorbent beige carpeting, different cheap wood veneer bookshelves, different anonymous windows to stare out… Anything different counts as change, doesn’t it?

The omnipresent worry: out of the frying pan, into…someplace worse.

Could anyplace be worse?

Isn’t that what you said about law school?

Another client took the leap and fled his firm – couldn’t take it any more. Guess what? It was worse. Two months later he was begging to return to the frying pan.

Yes – it actually happened. He returned to his old firm, proving forever there are places worse than the-frying-pan-you-know. There’s the-frying-pan-you-don’t-know.

This guy was a fifth year groping for an exit from hell. Nights and weekends of endless grind congealed into a determination – no más. Anything was better than this. This – whatever this was – was killing him.

An escape hatch appeared in the form of a nearby firm (five blocks away) celebrated for “associate satisfaction.”

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