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Archive for the ‘AboveTheLaw series’ Category

I’ve been talking to people – well, my people have been talking to people – about speaking engagements, radio shows, panels – celebrity stuff – the daily fodder of The People’s Therapist’s life of fame and glamour.

One group wants me to teach a workshop for young attorneys on “health and wellness.” Well, okay. Whatever. I can do that. How much?

They offered the same course in a different city last year, using another therapist-who-is-also-a-lawyer (I wasn’t aware others existed, but I’m not threatened.) To make things easy on myself, I asked how that other (lesser) therapist-cum-lawyer contrived to occupy her “workshop.”

“Oh, she gave them a list of pointers for ‘self-care’,” I was told. “You know, get enough sleep, exercise, eat right, that kind of thing.”

Piece of cake – except I’m not sure they need me to dispense said epiphanies. Richard Simmons manages to preach an identical gospel while everyone performs jumping jacks in lavender leotards.

No matter. Giving advice is what people expect therapists to do.

It’s like “sex therapy.” Remember “sex therapy”? Be honest: Did Ruth Westheimer ever teach you anything you didn’t already know? Yet you found it deeply, mysteriously satisfying each time she chirp-chortled that phrase – “with a firm greep on dee head of dee penis.” Tearing your attention from a tiny Israeli woman in her sixties discussing penises is like trying not to ogle a car wreck. Why fight the hunger?

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It’s hard to generate sympathy for lawyers – especially when the group of people you’re milking for sympathy is other lawyers.

At first glance, that seems counter-intuitive. I’m writing about your fellow attorneys, after all, and they’re in miserable straits. I feel sorry for them. I want to help. But then, I’m a bleeding heart psychotherapist. I even felt sorry for them back when I was a lawyer, too – incontrovertible proof I was never “cut out” for the profession.

With lawyers, it’s not a question of “compassion fatigue” – they never show enough compassion to develop fatigue. It’s more like a birth defect – compassion deficiency.

My solution? The same trick Jerry Lewis used for his telethons. I’ll fabricate a poster child – a Jerry’s Kid – a cute, lovable little spokesperson for suffering, misunderstood, mistreated lawyers!

What would my Jerry’s Kid – ahem – Will’s Kid – look like?

Let’s call him Tim – Tiny Tim. (Cue violin music.) (Cue photo montage.)

Okay. Here’s the narration:

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I received an offer recently that I couldn’t refuse – an invitation from “legal search consultants.”

Headhunters!

They were having a convention and asked if I wanted to drop by, and, you know, say hi.

Vague images flitted through my mind – guys in suits dancing in a conga line wearing hats with silly horns.

I don’t often get invited to shindigs. I’m a therapist. Mostly, I visit my office, my dog and whoever’s sitting in the other chair. Or I sit at my desk and write columns. Ask me to a party? Hell yeah, I’m down. I’m all over it like a tall dog in a cheap suit. You looking to turn it out? Count me in.

I never say no to headhunters, conga lines and hats with silly horns.

So I went. And it was fun.

Here’s the newsflash about headhunters – they’re good peeps.

At very least, they’re more fun than lawyers. In fact, many of them were lawyers, but had to get out because they were too fun.

They can also teach you stuff you need to know – not just pointers on beer pong and naked Twister.

Behold three key lessons acquired whilst getting down with my bad self in the company of legal search consultant party animals…

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It’s mid-September. I’m talking with a client , a 3L at a top-tier school.

“Here’s how it works,” she explains. “There’s the have’s and the have-nots. Either you have a job offer, or you don’t. If you don’t, it sucks. You feel like an illegal alien.”

Unfortunately, she’s a have-not. Yes, she’s working to correct that situation – trawling small firms in her hometown, attempting to milk connections. But “have-not” might as well be printed on her forehead. Around her peers, she says, it’s the body language that betrays have-not status. As a have-not, you don’t talk much, keep your eyes down, and behave generally like the undocumented guy lugging tubs of dirty dishes back to the kitchen. The aroma of failure – let’s say it, loser-hood – clings to the fabric of your clothes.

Some thoughtful charity – maybe it was Oxfam – threw a fund raiser dinner some years back, with the worthy goal of educating socialites about world hunger. The guests were divided the way the world is divided. Behind velvet-ropes, at a small central table, a handful of diners savored a gourmet meal. Across the ropes, a larger group picked at bowls of plain rice. Further out, beyond non-velvet barriers, a sizable fringe of outsiders observed the others and listened to their own empty stomachs rumble.

It was just like law school – at least at the good law schools. At the second and third tier joints, it seems like everyone’s a have-not. If the personal experience of poverty derives from comparing oneself to one’s peers, then maybe everyone feels less impoverished at the lower-tier schools, where no one gets a job, everyone’s in massive, crippling debt – and the whole class occupies the same boat.

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I tell the truth in these columns – at least, to the degree I find convenient or advisable. There is such a thing as a surfeit of veracity. My clients are lawyers, so god help me if I record something a little too candid with regard to their doings. Just talking about myself raises issues.

I haven’t worked at Sullivan & Cromwell since 1999. A statute of limitations must cover misdeeds perpetrated in that dim, dusky epoch. But I’m not betting the farm on it.

I will, therefore, tread with caution as I recount events that occurred in the life of a close friend who practiced at Sullivan & Cromwell during that time, someone whose tenure at this august institution coincided precisely with my own. A dear, personal friend.

It is possible this person occasionally misrepresented his billable hours.

I know. You’re sickened. Awash with a visceral revulsion.

Could I be saying what you think I’m saying!? Not that. It’s unthinkable.

I shall not shy away from the painful truth. I’ll say it: my close personal friend cheated on his hours. At least I think he did. I only think, because he was so sloppy in keeping track of his hours it wasn’t clear what they actually were.

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If it’s happened to you, keep reading. If it hasn’t, keep reading anyway. It happens a lot.

It begins with the standard set-up. You feel trapped. Hate your life. Nerves shot. Self-esteem shredded. You know the drill: biglaw.

That’s when the dæmon lover appears. It doesn’t end well.

There’s biglaw hanky-panky and biglaw sexual harassment. There’s also biglaw romantic infatuation. It’s the one you talk about least because you least feel like talking about it. Once you reemerge on the other side and wish it never happened, you never feel like talking about it again.

It’s no coincidence life-crushing, soul-annihilating infatuations collide on a regular basis with the lives of young associates – any more than cars colliding with deer on an expressway is a coincidence if you locate the expressway in the path of the herd’s migration. Life-crushing, soul-annihilating infatuation is the logical outcome of life-crushing, soul-annihilating law firm existence.

The firm swallows your life, denies you sleep and vacation, works you into the ground, and subjects you to an endless stream of criticism. You got there in the first place because you’re a pleaser – the kid who earned “A’s” to please teacher. Now you can’t please anyone.

Enter the dæmon lover. He gets you when you don’t love yourself – when you hate yourself. That’s infatuation – not falling in love, but hating yourself so much you try to escape your own identity by merging into someone else.

For some reason, he’s British. I’m not saying he has to be British, but three of my clients – by some stroke of fate – ended up obsessed with British guys at their firms. Oh, and I did, too. So we’ll make him British.

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As The People’s Therapist, my door is always open. I don’t turn away poor clients.

“Pay whatever you can afford,” I tell them.

Naturally, they get what they pay for. If I’m a little sleepy, or staring at the clock – who are they to complain? Come to think of it, why do we have to talk about them all the time anyway…

Just kidding.

But let’s be real – are things any different with the the high-fidelity first-class traveling set than they are with folks flying “comfort class”? I ask myself that question a lot. I do it to stay honest.

For one thing, my wealthy clients – mostly partners at big firms – pay a lot more, which means they literally pay my rent. That means something. Therapy can feel conspiratorial, too – you tell your therapist everything. So when I’m on duty in the Platinum Elite Lounge, I’m aware I’m also pow-wowing with a supremely powerful boss making life-shattering decisions affecting my clients on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

But I have to be everyone’s therapist. That’s my job. I’m consciously working two sides of a divide.

The following is not an unusual scenario: I spend fifty minutes with a JD two years out of law school who’s making $25 per hour doing doc review – all to eke out monthly payments on a $170k financial carcinoma euphemistically termed a “school loan.” Five minutes later, in the same chair, I face a senior partner who brings in $2.8 million every twelve months. I witness abrupt social discordance at least once a week. Welcome to my world.

One of my wealthiest clients, a hypothetical composite who claims half of a large law firm as a personal asset, explained to me an especially profitable element of his firm’s business:

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I was hiking in Iceland this past summer. We were pretty high up – around 1,000 meters – and it was raining hard, high wind, snow on the ground.

“Damn, it’s cold,” grumbled one of my American companions.

An Englishman behind us stumbled over a patch of frozen volcanic ash. “There’s a clue in the name, mate,” he offered helpfully.

Some things are so obvious they really don’t need to be explained anymore. Like it’s icy in Iceland. Like it sucks working at a big law firm. You kinda ought to know that by now…

…which is why interviewing 2L’s feels so heart-breaking.

I should know, I’ve been listening to senior and mid-level associates for the past month, telling me how much it sucks interviewing 2L’s.

Why? Because if you hate them, you’re interviewing someone you hate. And if you like them…then you feel a moral obligation to clue them in on the hellish misery they’re clambering to claim for themselves.

It’s hard not to hate law students, especially from the vantage point of a senior or mid-level associate. They’re clueless, and yes, many conform to the worst stereotypes. There’s always the tall dork who wears a suit to class and raises his hand to ask obvious, meandering questions. There’s the girl with hair dangling over her face, who trails the professor after class to smarm, in her peculiarly nasal voice, over the subtle charms of today’s lecture. We all hate them.

One of my senior associate clients reserves her remaining tolerance for part-time law students. “At least they’ve got a clue,” she says. Maximum disdain is reserved for the full-timers who slid into law school directly out of undergrad, scribbling their name on loan documents like so many fevered lemmings racing to be the first off a ledge.

The worst story I’ve heard so far came from a mid-level associate, miserable and deeply in debt, who interviewed the obnoxious 2L son of a huge corporate client’s CEO. While this over-privileged sack of ordure grinned in his preppy suit and barely bothered answering her questions, she returned to an old fantasy of firing a pistol into her mouth in the firm’s dining room, taking special care to splatter the head of litigation.

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The new book is available as an ebook or paperback via Amazon Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning and BN.com and as an ebook in the Apple ibookstore.

Sorry for the wait.

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LGBT people confront widespread hatred, yet each year take new strides towards equality. What’s the secret?

“Straight allies” – a concept every lawyer needs to understand.

As an LGBT person, you face a stark reality – there aren’t many of us. It might not seem like it, but we’re a tiny minority. And it’s a myth we recruit straight people to be gay – we would, but it’s impossible.

“Straight allies” are the folks who aren’t LGBT but – because they’re caring, patient, loving, open-minded and plain decent – they help LGBT people persevere in the struggle for equal rights.

What’s this got to do with lawyers?

You need some allies, too – allies who aren’t lawyers. It’s key to your survival.

Look around – all you see, probably, is lawyers – lawyers and more lawyers. That’s because you spend 90% of your waking hours at a law firm, where that’s all there is to see.

At some point in your day, or your week, or maybe your month, you’re going to have to see someone who isn’t a lawyer. And that person is going to have to put up with you. It may be your spouse, your romantic interest, your buddy from college or a member of your family.

That’s your non-lawyer ally. And you know deep in your heart it’s not a fun job. Whoever he is, he’s putting up with a lot – helping you keep it together.

One of my clients complained to me that he regrets coming back from work every night and grumping at his wife. I reminded him she might not be savoring the experience either. But it went further than that. The following week she blew up at him and gave him an earful of what being a non-lawyer ally is like.

Based on that earful – and other earfuls like it – here are a few tips for getting along with your non-lawyer allies:

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My client’s concise estimate of her second year at a big law firm:

“Meh.”

For months, the “career” consisted of 1/3 idleness, 1/3 word-processing, and 1/3 pointless research. That morphed over time into “managing” doc review, which morphed into doing doc review, which translated into odious hours staring at odious documents on a computer and clicking “responsive/relevant” “privileged” or some euphemism for “embarrassing.” According to rumors at her firm, there’s juicy stuff squirreled away in electronic nooks and crannies – most notoriously, emails from execs hiring hookers. To date, my client’s experience of “doing doc review” has matched the edge of your seat excitement of watching drywall compound discharge moisture.

“There are days I want to scream, ‘Who are we fooling?!’” she remonstrated. (Granted, there wasn’t much use remonstrating with me, since I’m her therapist.  Sometimes you just need to remonstrate – to demonstrate you can remonstrate.) “This isn’t a career – it isn’t even a job. It’s a joke. Every day I think about quitting.”

But she doesn’t.

Why?

The $160k per year.

Money changes things. Especially when your school loans top $200k.

Another client, from a while back – an NYU undergrad – was introduced to an older gentleman at a gay bar. This éminence grise offered a proposition. A partner at a major law firm, he possessed quantities of money, and an apartment on Park Avenue. They devised an arrangement. Each week, my client would ride the subway up to Park Avenue, undress in this guy’s living room, and, then… ahem …“stimulate himself to climax”…in the presence of said partner.

Why?

$400 in cash. Usually with a nice tip.

If the partner called, he showed up, no questions asked. You could say there was something in this arrangement that piqued my client’s entrepreneurial spirit. Or you could say it paid the rent.

Did he feel like a prostitute?

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My client wasn’t getting enough sleep. I assumed it was insomnia, but that didn’t fit the bill. It wasn’t that she couldn’t sleep – it was that she wouldn’t sleep. She was staying up from 11 pm to 2 am, lying in bed – mostly, playing Angry Birds.

Those few hours were the only time she was left alone all day – no one from the firm called to assign her something awful to do or yell at her for something awful she’d done. To relinquish this sliver of “me time” – even for sleep – was out of the question.

Morning to night, she spent at the firm. Weekends didn’t exist, in any meaningful sense – they were workdays. Laundry went undone, as did other stuff, like getting her driver’s license renewed or her taxes filed. The only hours devoted to anything for herself were stolen from her sleep schedule, and spent slingshotting daredevil birds at sneering pigs (that’s an Angry Birds reference.)

She needed to vegetate. You need to vegetate, too. There’s only so much work anyone can do. That’s why you find yourself playing video games at 2 am instead of sleeping. You need to play and you need to sleep. You need both.

A medical resident told me law sounded worse than medicine. At least with medicine when you’re on-call, you’re on-call, and when you’re not, you’re not. With law, you’re always on call. Just because you’re asleep in bed doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be working.

Another lawyer client crawled home from the office recently after midnight, only to be awakened at 3 am by the alarm on her Blackberry. She turned it off, but noticed an email from a senior associate, still at his desk. She glanced at the email, but decided to ignore it – nothing critical – and deal with him in the morning.

She forgot his account was set up so he could see she’d opened the email.

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There’s slow at the office. Then there’s moribund. Like, stick a fork in it, parrot in the Monty Python skit, no longer viable, kaput, over and out, flat-lining…dead dead dead.

Like you haven’t recorded a billable hour in weeks. Like you show up at 10:30 am, slide your Kindle under your computer monitor and try to look busy while you read John LeCarre novels. Then leave at 6 pm – or whenever the coast is clear and you think you can get away with it.

We all know having nothing to do at a big law firm is better than being busy. Being busy is really, really bad.

When you’re really busy, you know you will have to quit soon because you can’t bear it, and when the loans get sufficiently below $100k that will be your cue to say fuck it, I need out.

But when you’re totally dead at the office, you think…hmmm…might as well wait on the bailing out and keep those delightful loan-reducing paychecks coming in, right?

No one ever leaves because it’s too slow. You wait it out. Pay off loans. And wait. And do nothing. And wonder if the partners are noticing – or whether they somehow don’t realize you haven’t billed an hour since 1971.

One of my clients was deep in a Kurt Vonnegut novel when a partner dropped by his office.

“Your billables are a little low this month,” the partner intoned.

My client threw on his “sincere face” – a complex intermingling of dignified concern at the immediate reality presented to him in the here and now and a more generalized melancholy at the state of the world as a whole, with emphasis on the wider suffering that exists everywhere – suffering he himself is helpless to address.

“Yes, it has been a bit quiet. I’m doing what I can to make myself helpful wherever I can, but…” He let his voice trail off, helpfully.

The partner frowned, apparently in deep thought.

“I’ll let the Banking Group know. They’ll be contacting you.”

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To judge by the accoutrements of “the profession,” lawyers, as a group, maintain an inflated self-image. They think they’re all that. It’s easy to get sucked into this mind-set – especially fresh out of law school. Perhaps, when you’re not “thinking like a lawyer,” you’ve spent a few minutes admiring the little “Esq.” printed after your name on an envelope from school or a law firm – or some company in Parsippany trying to sell you a genuine mahogany and brass pen holder featuring a statue of “blind justice” for only $59.99 with free shipping.

Back when I passed the bar, I was offered the option by New York State to purchase a printed document – “suitable for hanging” – to memorialize the event. I figured what the heck and blew the twenty-five bucks. The “parchment” arrived in a cardboard tube, and it was huge – like a royal proclamation. I felt ridiculous, rolled it back up and stuck it in a closet, where it remains.

It’s hard to imagine accountants (who often make more than lawyers), or bankers (who always make more than lawyers) laying on the pretension to quite the degree lawyers take for granted.

My father was a physician, and in his early days, he fell for the professional ostentation thing, too. After he graduated from medical school, he ordered “MD” plates for his car. Sure enough, the next time he took the rusty old Mercury Marquis in for a repair, the mechanics charged him double. That was enough – he sent back the plates.

At least doctors are highly regarded in our society. My father was a psychiatrist, not a brain surgeon, but there was grudging respect for the fact of his MD. If you were in a car accident or had a heart attack on a plane, theoretically my dad could save your life. That meant something.

With lawyers, self-esteem outpaces public acclaim. That’s because, for the most part, non-lawyers view lawyers as worthless parasites – or at least, as existing on the more worthless, parasitical end of the esteem spectrum.

I’ll never forget the time I asked a Wall Street-er what he actually thought about lawyers.

I’d received the nudge from Sullivan & Cromwell, which meant I had six months to find another job. A head-hunter somehow or other set me up with an interview to be a bond trader at JP Morgan.

I considered the whole idea misguided – I was a lawyer from one of the top firms in the world, and far above working as a trader. I thought of bond traders as slick goombahs with Staten Island accents shouting into a phone all day. I was an attorney, with a degree from Hahvard. I showed up at Morgan as a courtesy to the headhunter. I radiated disdain.

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Associates at big law firms don’t normally burn out right away. They arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, raring to go. This is their moment! Grasp the golden ring!

If you look closely, though, you’ll notice a few poor souls who burn out immediately – sometimes within a few weeks. These folks look awful almost from Day One, dread coming to work, don’t talk to the others, can’t sleep and wonder how to get out – like, immediately.

That’s because they’ve been sexually harassed.

Oh…that.

Right. That.

I know. Sexual harassment is a drag of a topic, the stuff of tedious lectures by gender theorists and “Human Resource professionals.” Nothing new to say, just standard material: wince-inducing scenarios, tired platitudes about respect and crossing the line and what’s appropriate in a workplace blah blah blah…boring, scary, boring.

I hear about sexual harassment all the time from my clients, so it’s a little less boring for me, and a lot more real. There is stuff worth talking about. But I’ll keep it quick.

First, to be clear, I’m not talking about law firm sex in general. I’m as sex-positive as the next guy, and this isn’t about sex. And I’m not naïve. I’ve heard all about the “hanky-panky” – ill-advised and otherwise – that goes on at firms. Associates get it on in their offices. Partners seduce young summers. Some of those partners are married. So are some of the summers. And it’s not just a straight thing – gay associates and partners get caught up in this stuff, too.

When you’re working together around the clock at a big law firm, there’s a lot of pent-up sexual energy, so there’s oodles of sleaze. Stuff happens. That stuff might be fun, or un-fun, no big deal or something you’ll regret for a while. That’s not our topic.

Harassment is never fun or okay. It’s unwanted, unasked-for, undesired, unexciting, unpleasant, unsexy, unattractive, uncool sexual attention.

I have a theory that everything is more interesting if you stick the word “extreme” in front of it. Barbecue is okay. Extreme barbecue is way better. The same thing goes with sex. It intensifies things. Cool becomes super-cool if you add sex. Likewise, bummer turns into super-bummer if it’s sexual. Harassment is a bummer, and sexual harassment is a super-bummer.

Here’s what sexual harassment looks like:

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Some big law firms are like the mob. They do ugly things, but prefer to avoid “ugliness.” The partners, like the capos of major crime families, have delicate constitutions.

Ugliness could result from ill-considered communication. For that reason, a capo – or a partner – isn’t going to tell you what he really thinks. That would be indelicate. It could lead to misunderstandings.

You, in turn, shouldn’t tell a partner what you really think. That could lead to sleeping with the fishes.

My client recently received a lesson in partner communication.

The firm was dead slow, and she was dedicating her time to a big pro bono case. An email suddenly arrived announcing a new policy: you now needed special permission to bill over 250 pro bono hours annually. In two months, she’d billed 220, and the case was coming to trial.

She called the pro bono partner.

“You’re close to the limit,” he noted.

Last week, there was no limit, she explained. This is an important case, coming to trial.

“You’ve nearly exceeded the cap on hours,” he helpfully re-noted.

She inhaled deeply, and re-explained the situation.

He ingeniously pointed out that the 250 hours cap was the firm’s new policy…

…at which point she snapped, and did the unthinkable: she said what she really thought.

“I didn’t know there was a new policy. No one communicates at this place. And what is the point of this crap? Look at my hours – it’s not like I have anything else to do!”

There was a lengthy pause.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the partner.

He hung up – and she began to harbor second thoughts.

I’m sorry to hear that.

Behold, a singularly dreaded phrase. It is not good news, at a law firm, when you hear “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Generally speaking, when you hear “I’m sorry to hear that,” at a law firm, it means “you will soon be fired.”

There is something worse you could hear – worse than “I’m sorry to hear that.”

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I spent the second year of my social work internship working at a community center, which offered one of the top smoking cessation programs in the country.

One fine spring day I was sprawled, sunning myself, on a bench in the courtyard of the center when a fellow intern lit up a cigarette. I proposed she give the cessation program a try.

“No one likes a quitter,” she quipped, exhaling a cloud of toxins.

Uh…huh. Except there’s a proviso in that statement – a “carve-out” in the contract language – covering the quitting of something self-destructive. Like smoking.

Or a pointless march through law school.

I’d like to speak in defense of quitting, and quitters.

Quitting can be about more than stopping whatever you’re doing. It can be about waking up and asking yourself if what you’re doing makes sense and is worth continuing.

If you’re plugging away dutifully through the legal education process with no real idea why – it might be time to quit.

Does this mean I’m seriously advising young law students all over the country to give up and drop out – simply abandon their legal education mid-way through?

Yes.

I am prescribing a mass exodus from law schools. A semi-mass exodus might do the trick.

Tune in. Turn on. Drop out.

If you don’t know why you’re there – and you’re not sure what you’re getting yourself into – if you’re not at a top school, or even if you are, and your grades are a little iffy, and likely to stay that way – then please, get out. Today. Before you spend another cent.

The legal education scam works because it follows two key rules of all successful Ponzi schemes:

First, it plays to your greed. You dig your own hole because you’re in it for the money.

Second, it keeps you distracted. You never realize you’re getting fleeced.

The process is like a cattle chute. From the LSAT to the bar exam, you never look up because you’re moving too fast, racing to compete against the others…right up to the bolt gun in the forehead. Even if you awakened midway and realized you weren’t having fun and wanted to flee, there’s no obvious route of escape. That’s how it’s designed.

Along the way, you sign documents to borrow the purchase price of a Rolls Royce Corniche with nothing to show for it but a piece of paper saying you’re theoretically prepared for a job you know nothing about.

You end up $200k in debt and either stuck in a field you never understood and don’t like – or unemployed (the unemployed part isn’t the problem since it turns out you really want to be a jazz drummer anyway, not a lawyer.)

But that $200k in debt is there to say – sorry, you work for us now. In fact, we own you – own your future. Just like that cow on the feedlot.

You don’t have to go out like that.

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I raced downstairs to break the news: I’m leaving. I got a new, non-legal job at a major online book-seller.

The reception at the firm gym wasn’t what I expected. My favorite trainer looked pensive, mumbled “good for you, man,” then gave me a half-hearted fist bump. The other two trainers, both women, exchanged looks. One grimaced, and quipped to the other, “see, I told you – the nice ones always leave.” She caught my glance, and turned serious. “Hey, it’s good news. We’ll miss you, that’s all.”

The nice ones always leave.

My client ran into this phenomenon recently. She’s a first year, assigned to a major case with two senior associates. The partner’s missing in action, so she and the two seniors are running the show.

The good news is the seniors are great guys – and, as a result, she’s been one of the few not-unhappy lawyers I’ve seen all year.

“They’re just plain nice,” she told me. “The hours suck, the work itself is kind of boring, but nothing’s that bad if you’re working with people you like. Sometimes, we even have fun.”

One guy was super thoughtful, and bent over backwards to take time to explain things and create a sense of teamwork. The other was a bit of a kook, with a goofy sense of humor and a light-hearted way of defusing crises.

Then, Monday last week, the firm distributed bonuses. On Tuesday the first senior associate gave his notice. On Wednesday the other said he’s leaving, too.

Neither of the seniors said why they were taking off. Maybe it was the demanding, ungrateful client – maybe the partner, who never acknowledged their hard work. Maybe they were just burnt out in general.

As a result of their departure, an office that used to be fun has turned grim. It’s like watching a friendly college dorm turn overnight into der Führerbunker. The partner is melting down. He pulled in another senior associate, an anal-retentive who doesn’t know what he’s doing. People are hiding in their offices. The atmosphere among the paralegals is funereal. Even the contract attorneys look more depressed than usual, if that’s possible.

“It’s a shit storm,” my client said. “And from my perspective, a lose-lose proposition. The partner’s overwhelmed, the new senior is clueless and I don’t know whether to try to help – and get yelled at – or lay low and hide – and get yelled at.”

There’s no winning, and it’s no fun.

(more…)

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Every guy with a family feels the urge to pack a bag, get in the car and drive. At least, sometimes.

A client told me that – a straight guy with kids. I don’t think it’s a straight thing, though. It might not be a guy thing, either. It can be a lawyer thing. Any lawyer with loans experiences the impulse to hit the highway.

When you’re “The Provider,” you do constant battle with the itch to hightail it out of town.

Who’s “The Provider”? It’s someone you morph into. A character from an Updike novel…or maybe it’s Cheever. Maybe it’s Mad Men. You become a cliché from 1950’s or early 60’s tv shows: Dad, who arrives home, pecks the wife on the cheek, tousles the kids’ hair, then collapses into a La-Z-Boy and reads the paper while the golden retriever fetches your bedroom slippers.

…Except it sucks bad enough that you’re feeling the urge to pack a bag, get in the car and drive.

I’m not saying getting married and having kids is terrible. That’s how you got into this mess – you want the wife and the kids. As one of my clients bemoaned, “I want to be a good father. I want to be a good husband. I just can’t pull it off with this job, and it’s killing me.”

The problem is trying to be a lawyer and The Provider at the same time. That’s the part that doesn’t work.

The basic principle, when you’re The Provider, is simple: you pay for everything. This has a certain seductive quality. Many lawyers get into this work because they want to be The Provider. Maybe your father didn’t earn much, and mom had to work and hated it. Or there simply wasn’t enough money to go around. Or you’re the first in your family to go to college or grad school – or earn six figures. It’s a thrill, making it up there, conquering a new plateau of stability and social achievement. You want to bring everyone else up with you.

Or maybe this is what everyone’s always expected of you because it’s what they expected of themselves. You’ll be like dad, or your father-in-law. They were The Providers in their day. They pulled it off. Why can’t you?

It’s easy to get sucked in. You’ll have a big house, a few kids – maybe some leftover cash to lavish on mom and dad. “Let me fill your tank,” you’ll offer, without a care. “You deserve it.”

The Provider wants to “have it all,” “live the dream.” That stuff.

If you try to be The Provider, you could wind up standing next to my client on the train platform at 7 am in a fat cat town like Greenwich or Stamford or Bronxville, clutching a briefcase, waiting for the express to Grand Central and your mid-town office.

That’s okay. You want that, too.

It’s later on, when things turn sour.

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Two guys from my high school. One year apart.

Hipster…and Lawyer.

Hipster plays in jazz band with Lawyer. They have the same academic advisor, and fall into a casual friendship.

Hipster has trouble in school. He plays drums and guitar, but struggles to maintain the grades. It’s nothing to do with behavior – everyone likes him. The academic advisor does his best, but after failing a few courses, Hipster’s expelled. He ends up bouncing from school to school, and manages to graduate, then heads to a halfway-decent state university known for partying. He spends most of his year there jamming with his buddies and soon drops out. They start a rock band, smoke dope, wear tie-dye, collect Grateful Dead tapes and call each other “dude.”

Lawyer thinks it’s a shame Hipster got kicked out of school. His own grades are A’s. He wins academic prizes, a scholarship to study in England, and advanced placement at Harvard, where he graduates magna cum laude. He heads to a first-tier law school, and places near the top of his class. An offer arrives from a white shoe firm.

Stop the tape.

We know what happens next:

Hipster grows a beer belly, loses the tie-dye and winds up working in a call center. He moves into his old bedroom at home and turns morose. His parents mumble excuses about dyslexia.

Lawyer makes partner and earns a million six. He purchases a loft in SoHo, a little country place upstate and a vintage Porsche. His parents seek opportunities to smugly mention his doings to their friends, who hate them for it.

Here’s what actually happens:

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