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Archive for the ‘AboveTheLaw series’ Category

My tenure at Sullivan & Cromwell ended – along with my legal career – in a smoking crater. Picture scorched earth. Nuclear armageddon. The fat lady sang.

That said, I actually got off to a pretty good start. At least for the first couple weeks.

I was assigned to a rather jolly partner, fresh back from running an office in Asia. He didn’t seem a bad sort, and I was feeling on top of the world, commencing my career after a month’s vacation. Off I scrambled to the library to write a memo on a detail of securities law. The topic was complex, but I kept my cool, summarized what I found – with a touch of wit – and called it a day.

Things went swimmingly. The partner loved the memo. He deemed it clever and refreshing and pretty close to accurate. Apparently, I’d managed to lighten the mood at a key moment in a tough deal. I decided I loved him.

The next week we did the deal closing. As a first year, I arranged for execution of the documents (a trickier proposition in those antediluvian days of fax machines and actual, non-cell, phones.)

To my amazement – remember, I’d been there all of two weeks – the jolly partner had a full-on melt-down the night before closing. I found him pacing back and forth outside the conference room, waving documents and shouting that the senior associate was “going to wreck this deal!”

I hurried over to him – again, I was new, I didn’t know any better – and tried to calm him down.

“It’s going to be okay,” I said. “The senior’s a nice guy, and he’s doing his best – we’re all doing our best. We’ll stay focused. The closing will either happen tomorrow or it won’t, but it’ll happen sooner or later, and everything will be okay.”

The partner took a deep breath, and calmed down.

I may have crawled away in disgrace two years later, but that partner at S&C appreciated what I did, and he always liked me. I still think of him fondly.

Why did he like me? Not because I was anything like a competent lawyer. I rarely did more than stand around and send faxes.

He liked me because I kept my cool. I was the calm center.

Sometimes, when the world assumes crisis status, being the calm center gets the job done. Politicians know this. Awful as it sounds, a crisis like 9/11 presents an opportunity to look good. When everyone else is freaking out, you present yourself as the calm center – even if you’re not doing anything.

Biglaw attorneys crave a calm center because they face constant crisis. In an ordinary job, if you work a late night or a weekend, it means something major is happening. Afterward, you take a break and recover. But every day is a crisis at a big law firm – and there’s no recovery. Even if you are “granted” a vacation, there’s the blackberry – and they won’t hesitate to use it.

There’s the nature of the work itself, too. Litigation lurches from crisis to crisis – it’s a zero-sum game, two combatants fighting to the death, searching for a dirty trick, trying to catch the other out on a technicality. Some of my Canadian lawyer clients tell me it’s better north of the border, where people don’t bring law suits on a whim, simply to create delay or cost, and lawyers hesitate to torture prisoners and burn villages to the ground. That might sound wussy to an American litigator, but if you’re looking for a calm center, maybe Canada’s your place.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine serene, tranquil M&A deals, even in Ottawa.

Towards the end of my time at S&C, when I was too frazzled to form sentences, I managed to locate two calm centers at the firm. I stumbled upon them by accident, but they did wonders towards preserving my sanity.

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I asked a client how things were going at work – or not-going. She’s a junior at a big firm where it’s been dead slow for the whole year she’s been there and partners are starting to flee.

Not horrible,” she said.

That’s a not-uncommon sentiment from to people in her position. As a junior, you’re asking for not-much. You’ve realized law school was a mistake – and the thought of your loans makes you queasy. If you get through the day without being criticized or given some god-awful assignment, you can go home and try to sleep. That’s a good day.

Not-horrible means not-unbearable, even if you hate what you’re doing, see no way out and cry alone in your office.

Not-horrible is not-unemployed. Better to not-complain.

One junior associate client has a corporate headhunter friend, who asked him to write something down and commit it to memory:

There. Are. No. Jobs.”

Okay. Got it.

Another client spoke for thousands when he said he hates the thought of waking up and facing another day at his firm, but with two hundred grand in loans, how can he leave a job where he isn’t working that hard and earns $160k?

The partner’s a psychopath – don’t get me wrong. He expects me to answer the blackberry at 2 am and criticizes every move I make. But he’s paying me a fortune to take this crap, right?”

Hey, it’s not horrible.

The week before Thanksgiving, my client reminded this partner he’d be away for the actual day of the holiday – Thanksgiving Day – to visit his wife’s family.

The partner looked shocked at this effrontery. “Will you be available remotely?” He asked.

I’ll be available anally, if that helps,” were the words my client struggled not to utter. Because that would have gotten him fired.

Of course,” is what he actually said.

Hey, it’s not horrible.

At a big law firm, it’s hard to imagine a life containing meaning or pleasure. This is a legal career: You exchange human misery for money, which pays loans.

One client’s firm has a “free market” policy, so each associate competes for work. That way, if you admit you don’t have any work to another junior, it invites him to look relieved and announce he does. My client isn’t sure which is worse – not having work and having nothing to do or having work and having to do it. Mostly, she does nothing, and suspects the others do, too.

It’s not horrible.

I hear this one from lawyers all the time: “It’s no better anywhere else, is it?”

But you know it is. Outside of law. The entire world isn’t as bad as a law firm just because you’re stuck in one. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous – it’s simple, but it’s not easy. To escape not-horrible you just have to escape law. That’s the not-easy part.

Not-horrible is a holding pattern – you might be stuck there for a while. That’s what the loans are for. In the old days they used chains.

Does not-horrible ever end?

Yes. Here’s why: they’ll get rid of you.

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In law, if you’re making big money, you’re working for the bad guys. That’s the sad truth.

I’m not talking about defending vicious criminals. I mean tougher cases – like representing the 1% of the world who own everything.

Deep in the recesses of big law, you might not realize who you’re working for. From where you’re standing, your boss is the firm. Juniors report to seniors. Seniors report to partners. Partners report to God.

In reality, up, over the partner’s head, there’s someone called “the client” – a possessor of vast wealth. Normal people don’t hire biglaw – the owners-of-everything do, and they don’t get uber-rich being nice. Things only get worse when they’re dealing with lawyers.

If and when you actually meet “the client,” you might feel like an Imperial Stormtrooper aboard the Death Star:

Lord Vader? Great to meet you, Sir. Yes, absolutely, the torture chamber is under control. Yes sir, we just checked the planetary death ray this morning. One hundred percent ready to go. My pleasure, Sir.

Then the client walks away, and you play that same argument in your head: You have one hundred and seventy grand in school loans. They’re going to blow the planet up anyway. You’re not torturing anyone personally.

Some lawyers learn to embrace the evil – to “go with it.” I knew a guy in law school who left to work for a firm that did nothing – NOTHING – but defend Big Tobacco. We ribbed him about it. In fact, we regarded him as a stinking pile of vomit. His response was to chain-smoke and brag about money. He disappeared to a hateful red state to work black voodoo, and by now he’s no doubt worth millions. Loathed by millions, too.

My first taste of evil came early at Sullivan & Cromwell. It was a deal for Goldman Sachs with an amusing codename: “Project Rolex.” At the closing I finally encountered the client – and the wry humor of i-bankers: He wore the largest gold wristwatch ever made.

I developed a fascination with Mr. Rolex. His name was all over documents I’d been staring at for weeks. The deal – a securitization of mortgages on a package of investment properties in the Mid-West – suburban strip malls and cheap hotels on interstates – was worth half a billion dollars. As I generated documents, I took guesses at his net worth. If it wasn’t a billion, it was darn close. A guy who met Bill Gates at a technology convention wrote a piece admitting all he could think about while they shook hands was “$500 per second. $500 per second. $500 per second.” Same thing with this client: I couldn’t believe how much money he had.

After weeks of late nights, the partner asked me to arrange catering for the closing. The choice was the standard Sullivan & Cromwell breakfast with rolls and bagels or the “deluxe” breakfast, with lox. For Mr. Rolex, I pulled out the stops and ordered deluxe.

He stormed into the room the next morning, sporting a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and the giant gleaming timepiece. I was awestruck.

But Mr. Rolex was not in a good mood. He turned to the partner:

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I receive a steady stream of disaffected lawyers who want to change careers. They come to me for “the answer.”

The question is “how do I get out of law and do something different?”

What gets under my skin is the expectation this is going to be easy. It isn’t.

Remaining in law and looking for something better poses challenges. You realize by now you can’t call a headhunter and go to a “lifestyle firm” – they only exist in the imaginations of fee-hungry “staffing professionals.” Hyphenated jobs, like “environmental-law” or “entertainment-law” are misnomers. Choose anything fun and attach the word “law” to it – “food-law,” “sex-law” – and it’s still law. More realistic “remain-in-law” solutions, like an in-house position or a government job, are hard to find because everyone’s thought of them. You can get there with sufficient determination – but it’s tough and I can’t make it not-tough. No one can.

Getting out of law completely poses a new level of challenge – you have to figure out what you truly want to do with your life. I am indeed wise and all-knowing, but I cannot tell you what your purpose is on Earth. This is your journey – and you have to find your own destination. The process isn’t like opting for a legal career, where you hop on a train and go where they take you. I cannot talk to you for an hour and concoct some sensible, well-paying, fun, creative job, with status and money, that will make your heart sing and all your problems go away. Remember the last time someone promised that? Look where it got you.

I’m skeptical of “career coaches” and “out-placement counselors,” too. They can help you learn to interview and hone your networking skills – which is useful as you explore options. But you can Myers-Briggs yourself into a coma and still not know your true work. The task is tougher than getting “coached” or “aptitude tested.” There is no easy answer. It requires time, and a good deal of soul-searching.

You might need to flounder. That’s what people who aren’t “K through JD” do during their 20’s. As an adult child of the law, you may flounder a little later in the game than everyone else. But if you need to flounder and find yourself, don’t pretend it’s anything other than that. Saying you’ve “decided to write” doesn’t fool anyone. Taking classes in something creative might be a step on a path forward, but it’s only a step. Getting fed up with being a lawyer, and telling everyone you’re “writing” is like wandering around a cocktail party after you graduate from college telling people you’re working on a novel. Everyone will roll their eyes, and for good reason. They’ll assume you’re floundering – trying to find a new path. They may or may not respect your struggle, but they’ll know you have a ways to go before you can claim a hard-won title of respect, like “writer.”

Here’s my best advice for what to do if you’re a lawyer, hate it and want to do something else:

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There’s a terrific opening scene in Stephen King’s novel, “Pet Sematary.”

I don’t read a lot of Stephen King novels. That’s not because I dismiss his skill as a writer. It’s because they scare the hell out of me.

In this one, the main character is a young doctor. He’s on his first day at a hospital when a college kid is rushed into the ER. The kid was hit by a car, so he’s all smashed up, his neck broken, blood all over the place, one eyeball hanging out – whatever. Just as the doctor is concluding he’s dead, an arm shoots out, grabs the doctor by the collar and the dead kid stares at him (with his working eyeball.)

“Stay away from the Pet Cemetery!” he intones.

In a flash, it’s over. The kid is stone cold, and the doctor wonders if he was hallucinating.

The suggestion to stay away from the pet cemetery, however, is a sensible one. Like most sensible suggestions, it goes entirely unheeded.

I don’t want to give away the ending (and I only read the first 20 pages because I got scared) but I suspect, if he stays away from the pet cemetery, flesh-eating zombies won’t become an issue.

But he doesn’t listen!

Lawyers are the same way. They just don’t listen!

Here’s another scary story. My client was in law school. With a big smile, she announced to her journalist boyfriend she was accepting a job at the big, prestigious law firm where she’d summered the year before.

He grabbed her by the collar, his face etched with horror, and intoned: “But you hated that place. It totally weirded you out. You said you were pursuing public interest. Why would you go back there?”

She didn’t listen. Now their relationship is over, and she’s hating her job and her life and weeping in my office.

“Why didn’t I listen?”

But she’s not the only one. You had moments like that, too – didn’t you? When someone tried to warn you?

My Pet Sematary moment came the summer before I started law school.

I was visiting home, went to a party and ran into an old friend – a guy I’d known since I was about twelve years old. I casually related the big news – I was going to law school! I expected one of several possible reactions:

  • an expression, feigned or otherwise, of happiness that I was finding my way forward in the world;
  • a tinge of jealousy that he was still a burn-out art student while I was on my way to wielding staggering corporate power; or
  • curiosity about law school and how he might follow in my tracks.

I didn’t get any of those reactions. I got disappointment and concern.

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My client was sitting at her desk, drafting a complicated, rushed memo. The topic was an obscure derivative. She’d worked all weekend, then come in again early. Her head hurt. It was due at 5 pm. She could barely focus and was feeling panicked. It was 4 pm.

The phone rang. Not thinking, she picked up and barked her last name, sharply, the way the partner she worked for did.

“Jones.”

It was her ninety-two-year-old grandmother.

“How are you, Sweetheart?”

My client couldn’t stop crying.

“All she did was ask how I was,” she told me. “That’s all it took. I fell apart.”

When you enter the world of biglaw, you pass through a ritual of initiation – LSAT, law school, bar exam, interviews.

Then you enter the bubble.

On the inside, propositions that seem insane in the outside world are taken for granted:

  • Two hundred thousand dollars in student loans is within the normal range.
  • You have to earn six figures or you are a failure.
  • You can’t take a vacation just because you “have” a vacation. It must be “convenient.”
  • Leaving the office at 5 pm shows a serious failure of commitment.
  • Taking a weekend off shows a serious failure of commitment.
  • Working night and day and doing your best shows a serious failure of commitment.

Last week, another client’s mother was rushed to the hospital. He got a call from the emergency room, then sprinted to the train station to buy a ticket home. It was serious – a perforated appendix that could have killed her. He spent the weekend by her side. Once she was back in her own bedroom, recovering, he found himself tucking her plastic hospital id bracelet into his briefcase.

“I know, it sounds crazy, but I didn’t think they’d believe me.”

“They’d think you were lying about your mother being rushed to the hospital?”

He rolled his eyes. “I know. I know. But they’re like that. No one trusts anyone. An excuse to leave for a long weekend? Someone might try it.”

The rules are different in the bubble. The worst distortion? Money becomes more important than people.

When my client’s ninety-two-year-old grandmother called to ask how she was, it reminded her this old woman is a precious treasure – and she’s elderly, and frail. She won’t be here forever.

When you work at a law firm, things keep coming up. My client hasn’t seen her grandmother in more than a year. That’s part of the reason she was crying. The rules inside the bubble take over. You forget who you are. Then an old woman calls and reminds you.

As the author of this column, I’m asked the same question all the time – how do I survive this?

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I’ve always been awestruck by tax lawyers. They are the dudes.

As a transactional attorney, you can’t make a move without a tax guy. M&A is based on IRS consequences. It’s the tax guy who hands you a chart with boxes and arrows, holding companies and off-shore limited partnerships buying and selling and re-selling and issuing and repurchasing and spinning off. Everything starts there.

Tax lawyers do stuff no one else would attempt. They swagger out the door at 5 pm.

“Don’t start with me. I’m in tax.

Way back when, I took an advanced tax course in law school – to see if I could roll with the gangstas. I even took it the wrong semester, so instead of JD students, it was LLM’s snickering at my desperation. I received my lowest grade ever. I also discovered tax law is like higher mathematics: there is no big picture. Tax is not intuitive or guided by over-arching principle; it’s a mess of staggering, intimidating complication.

What I’ve come to realize lately, as a therapist working with tax lawyers, is that these seemingly unapproachable superstars are human. And being “the expert” can exact a toll.

One guy – a senior tax lawyer from a big city firm – walked into my office last week. He had the usual frustrations. In an ordinary economy he’d be making partner soon, but business was terrible, so even the partners at his firm were being laid off. He was expecting a pink slip.

There was a deeper issue, too: He didn’t like being a tax lawyer.

I gave him a speech about my admiration for his kind.

He appreciated the fawning worship, but his expression remained grim.

“What you describe is actually what I hate about it.”

It turns out being “the expert” can be isolating – and scary. From where he’s sitting, there’s incredible pressure to know everything and solve every problem.

He clued me in to his experiences, and in the process brought me down to Earth. Tax lawyers aren’t a race of super-beings from Planet Krypton. Tax is incredibly complicated for them, too. The job is about helping rich people avoid the IRS, which translates into “gaming” each tax law to create loopholes that the government closes up in the next version the following year.

There isn’t just a “tax code,” either. There’s an endless labyrinth of fine print: contradictory court decisions, administrative regulations, IRS guidances, state and local and international consequences for every move you make…it goes on and on and on, twisting and turning like something from the imagination of Borges or Kafka.

The mind reels. At least my mind reels. I always believed that – by some miracle – if you were a tax lawyer, your mind didn’t reel.

My client was a senior tax guy at a top firm. His mind was beginning to reel.

“They want to hear you say it’s possible – whatever deal they dream up. So you’re under massive pressure to find a way to do it. And it’s all riding on you. If you screw up… I try not to think about it.”

I thought about it. The entire deal blows up – probably in the papers. Millions of dollars lost by your client, who might try to sue you. Criminal penalties. Malpractice. Disbarment. All that bad stuff.

It’s like writing an opinion letter. No lawyer wants to write an opinion letter. Why? The same reason no one wants to step into the sights of a high-powered rifle.

“I can’t do this anymore,” this guy said. “I feel like I’m wracking my brain, dealing with incredible complexity, holding on by my fingertips – all to save billionaires from paying their due.”

It isn’t only tax lawyers who end up “the expert.” We had a bunch of experts at Sullivan & Cromwell. I remember an environmental guy whose only job was to review deals for pollution issues. There was an ERISA guy, too, who only reviewed stuff for ERISA issues (whatever they are).  And there was a strange tall guy with a mustache who always smiled and whistled to himself. He was the ’40 Act guy. I once sat through a CLE presentation he gave, and remember thinking it wasn’t that I didn’t understand the details – I couldn’t figure out what the ’40 Act was.

Sometimes the role of expert seems like a hot potato – everyone wants to pass it off to someone else. I remember doing a deal with AIG – some complicated nightmare with a dozen side agreements and sub-corporations selling and repurchasing their own holding corps. At the umpteenth drafting session, a banker scribbled down a formula on a napkin – no kidding, it was a mathematical formula, and he said “stick this in there.” They’d been arguing for days about some clause in the back of the contract and this is what he told us to stick in there. I looked at it. There was what I recognized as a numerator, and a denominator, and a bunch of letters.

The partner glanced at it and told the of counsel to stick it in there. She handed it to me, and told me to stick it in there. I stuck it in there, but I didn’t know what it was.

Of course, I knew the general rule that you’re not allowed to put math into a contract, you have to put it into plain English. So that’s what I tried to do: “the Pre-determined Selling Price shall be determined by a formula in which the numerator shall be the amount of the Settlement Price and the denominator shall be one added to the amount of the Sales Price multiplied by the First Pre-Settlement Price minus the Third Sub-Corporation Preliminary Offering Variable…”

You get the idea. I had no idea what I was doing. I tried, a few times, inserting numbers, just to see what would happen. The first time I got something like one hundred billion dollars. I knew I’d done something wrong. The second time I got something like 0.000125782 dollars.

I should add that it was late at night and I’d been wearing the same wool suit for 17 hours.

I gave up and handed it nonchalantly to the of-counsel. No biggie. I’d “taken a stab at it.” She might yell at me, but she’d know what to do. If she had to, she’d fix it herself.

But she didn’t.

I watched her disappear into the partner’s office, then return. Her face was set. She approached my desk and plopped the offending passage down in front of me.

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My client is in the horns of an uncomfortable dilemma.

Here’s the scenario:

He and his wife are both in law, and both want out. Resources exist to permit one to escape. The other must remain behind to pay loans.

Who makes it to freedom? Who gets left behind?

Arriving at that decision can wreak hell on a marriage.

A successful partnership requires an alliance, which depends upon shared goals. If the primary shared goal was being wealthy, powerful lawyers, and that goal cartwheels in flames into the tarmac at three hundred feet per second… the alliance fractures. Sometimes the alliance transforms into opposition.

You do law. No, YOU do law.

That kind of opposition.

My client met his wife at a first-tier law school. They were in the same class, and their shared dream was simple – they would graduate at the top of their class, join powerful, big-name law firms, and make a lot of money. They would have a nice house, maybe a couple of kids, fabulous vacations – and a kitchen with granite counter-tops and an AGA stove.

This was a simple, bourgeois dream – stability, money, family. Naturally, they were intellectuals, so they’d have a subscription to the local symphony – but their dream was about making it, in predictable, concrete terms.

Then reality hit.

They hated their firms. He got laid off, which came as a relief. She went in-house, and to her surprise, hated it even more than the firm. She ended up quitting.

They relocated to another city, where he found a job at a smaller firm. He hates it less, but still basically hates it. She’s still out of work, dragging her feet. He’s paying both their loans every month – and resenting it.

She says she can’t do law anymore – it would crush her soul. She needs to go to grad school and study art or she’ll go crazy.

He wants to go to grad school and study history – or he’ll go crazy.

They both think the other should stay and do law to pay the bills.

Remember the old shared goal? Charred embers. There are new goals – and they’re no longer mutual.

When he’s not slaving at the firm, they’re fighting. That’s driving them both nuts.

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I’ll never forget a moment in a wildlife program about Antarctic penguins – I think it was a David Attenborough series.

There were two little penguin parents and a penguin chick.

Then, suddenly, there wasn’t. The chick fell into a crack in the ice.

The little guy squeaked for all he was worth, the parents circled, there was frantic waving of wings – and not a damn thing anyone could do.

Five minutes later – which seemed like several lifetimes – a member of the film crew tore away a chunk of snow and released the chick.

Profound relief for all involved, penguin and human.

But there was a wrinkle. The show’s non-intervention policy had been violated. A voice-over explained that an exception had been made because the film crew may have created the crack in the ice.

Uh, yeah.

I doubt David Attenborough was buying that story.

The truth? You try filming a baby penguin slowly perishing in front of its parents.

One of my clients, a biglaw senior associate, experienced something similar.

The situation: An 8th year associate – not my client – was up for partner. She worked at a branch office of a huge firm. My client was preparing a case for trial, and her team needed help. They sent word to the branch office, which sent the 8th year. She showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but the partner – an unstable sadist – decided on a whim after two weeks that this 8th year was no good. He didn’t tell her to her face. Instead, he mocked her behind her back to the entire team, proclaiming her work product worse than a second year’s, and bragging he’d send her packing to the branch office, where she belonged.

My client watched all this, and felt complicit. She wasn’t laughing, but she wasn’t saying anything either.

It was like watching the baby penguin.

This 8th year had no idea she was the object of ridicule. In fact, she was arrogant – confident she’d make partner. At the branch office she was their pride and joy, and they sent her to the big city to win support for her bid.

That bid was being derailed. One word from the partner to the branch office and Miss 8th year’s aspirations were toast.

There was nothing wrong with the 8th year’s abilities – she just wasn’t used to the level of aggression this partner demanded in his written work. That, and the partner wanted to hurt something small and helpless.

My client’s instinct was to step in and warn the 8th year.

She didn’t.

Maybe the penguin analogy isn’t quite right. This 8th year was hardly a helpless baby penguin – she was a cold-blooded litigator. If she were watching this happen to someone else, she wouldn’t intervene either.

A better analogy might be gazelles on the African savannah, watching as a hungry lion paces nearby. Each gazelle knows how things are going to end – one of them will be lunch. They would prefer it be someone else. They eye the others – that one’s old, that one’s lame, that one’s still a fawn.

The lion makes the same calculation. He chooses a weak runner, and gives chase.

The other gazelles flee, knowing he’ll get his meal. But this time, it’s not them.

My client was afraid of this partner. If she warned the 8th year, it might get back to him – and that wasn’t worth the risk. There was nothing she or any of the other gazelles could say to the lion – or to one another – that would do this 8th year any good. She was marked. The others were already stepping out of the way. Nature would take its course.

But the lion and gazelle analogy might not be apt either. Gazelles are harmless, but at a law firm anyone can turn dangerous. My client wasn’t naïve. She knew, if this 8th year came to power, she would grow fangs and learn to kill.

A friend of mine recently returned from Australia. He was amazed to find nearly every living creature that walks, swims or crawls Down Under can turn out to be deadly poisonous. It was incredible, he said – they had venomous toads and frogs and spiders and fish and snakes and centipedes and jellyfish and even a poisonous octopus. Just about anything you met could end up killing you.

What was it about living isolated together on a desert island that turned everyone poisonous?

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I was chuckling with a client the other day about the insanity of trying to please a partner with a piece of written work.

The trick, she said – I’ve heard this before – is to adopt the voice of the partner. That’s what he wants – something that sounds like him. It doesn’t matter if your style is better than his. He wants to hear himself.

My client can imitate the writing styles of five partners. That includes whatever quirks – run-on sentences, rudeness, biting sarcasm, unnecessary adjectives, circuitous explanations – capture that partner’s unique gift. It’s a piece of cake: assemble substance, add ventriloquy, and voila! – a happy partner.

She learned this trick after receiving mark-ups. Her heart would sink as she combed the scribble for a critical error. But there was never anything there – only her failure to clone.

This is an example of a more generalized phenomenon – partners, as a group, tend to be arrogant and narcissistic. They harbor absurd notions about their own abilities and tend not to notice anyone else’s right to exist.

Nothing new. But it’s interesting to ask why.

Law firms are abattoirs of self-esteem. If you think you might be a good, useful, capable person, give yourself a few weeks in the world of biglaw and you’ll come to realize you have no ability whatsoever, are in way over your head and were a fool to consider you might succeed at anything.

That’s the special magic of a law firm.

You are also entirely alone. Everyone else is flourishing. They’re doing fine. It’s only you. You are the problem.

How do they achieve this feat of psychic disassembly?

For starters, nary a kind word.

If you put dozens of pleasers in the same room, everyone tries to please everyone else. No one acknowledges he’s pleased. That’s not what pleasers do.

Everyone can’t try to impress. Someone has to be impressed. That person would do the hard work of thanking and praising the others – “You’re doing a great job. I appreciate your effort.”

You’ll never hear that sort of piffle at a law firm. In a world where everyone is starved for praise, no one has time to waste feeding anyone else’s confidence.

Two defenses, arrogance and narcissism, permit lawyers to survive in this hostile environment.

The simplest defense against self-doubt is arrogance. Inside you’re scared, so you pump yourself up for others to see.

The simplest defense against isolation is narcissism. You’re afraid no one wants to be with you, so you tune them out.

Arrogance always appears a bit comical because it’s so obvious. If you’re terrified you might not have what it takes, you put on a false bravado, but it doesn’t fool anyone. And once you’ve taken the leap into arrogance, you’re stuck – you have to maintain it, or risk humiliation.

Narcissism is more insidious, and less amusing. If you’re not receiving anything you need from anyone else, you shut them out – put up a mirror – and stare at a world that looks like you.

Maybe you must be an arrogant narcissist to make partner. That would certainly explain some things.

The downside is that you become an arrogant narcissist. The money’s good – but no one can stand you. You wind up correcting memos to sound like you wrote them. You don’t realize you’re doing it.

J.K. Rowling, in her Harry Potter series, presents a flawless portrait of a biglaw partner.

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I did a podcast a while back with the American Bar Association Journal. The topic was “work/life balance.” You can listen to it here.

It was a weird experience – like living on another planet.

I was the sole male. The other panelists and the moderator were women. That’s fine, but somehow, faced with the topic of “work/life balance” everyone turned into Gloria Steinem circa 1971.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a shrill, strident feminist committed to full equality for women, and I have no beef with Gloria Steinem.

But how is work/life balance in the legal world strictly a gender issue? Women are admitted to law schools, and graduate from them, like men. They go to the same law firms, make the same money and take the same abuse.

I have tangential experience with this stuff since I’m gay. When people talk about homophobia at Sullivan & Cromwell I roll my eyes. Homophobia wasn’t the issue. Humanophobia was the issue. Some of the partners and plenty of the associates were openly gay. Homo or hetero, male or female we were all in the same boat.

The unspoken “women’s lib” angle on the “work/life balance” at law firms is this: women give birth to children, and it’s impossible to raise a kid if you are a partner at a law firm, so women are less likely to become partners. If they did, they wouldn’t have time to raise a kid. It’s also impossible to meet anyone you want to have a kid with when you’re working 70-hour weeks.

These are incontrovertible facts of law firm life.

Plenty of male partners have kids. They become absentee fathers, and their kids never see them. Nothing new there. But a social stigma kicks in when your kid tells his friends he only sees mommy an hour a week.

You also have to find time to be pregnant. If you put it off until you make partner, you face fertility problems. That’s a fundamental bummer about being a woman who wants a kid – when you’re mentally prepared your body gives out. At sixteen, anyone can get pregnant. At 39, you can only get pregnant if you don’t want to. If you’re trying, it never happens.

The solution to all this is obvious – have a kid while you still can, and let your husband do the raising.

That’s more or less where the other panelists ended up, but only after spouting “women can have it all” slogans and fabricating visions of “part-time partners.” The law professors on the panel had no concept of law firm reality. The young lawyer running an internet-based T&E firm receded politely when I pointed out the obvious: plenty of women would rather stay at home with the kids than work at a firm. Hell, I’ve worked with couples where the husband and wife fight over who has to do law for a living. They’d both rather stay home and play with junior. Wouldn’t you?

A second yawning gulf between me and the other panelists came with their determination to defend law as a profession. They were “pro-law” and I was “anti-law.” That’s understandable, since the ABA Journal represents the official propaganda ministry for Law, Inc. Law professors need to herd eager young things into school – that’s how they earn big bucks. And the internet lady was trying to drum up business, too – she has loans to pay.

I’m not from that world. I’m a psychotherapist who cleans up the wreckage of young lives decimated by the law school/law firm machine.

Here’s a little scandal for you: at least 10 minutes of the podcast – the final 10 minutes, where I stopped sitting back feeling out of place and came out swinging – were deleted from the recording. You hear a fadeout as I’m about to come on.

What did you miss?

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There comes a time in every big law firm lawyer’s career when things take a turn for the deeply serious. After two or three years, someone turns to you and says “okay – you own this,” and suddenly you’re no longer a glorified secretary or paralegal or guy/gal Friday – you’re an actual lawyer.

That’s when most biglaw attorneys think seriously about fleeing for their lives.

For me, the moment of truth arrived after a meeting near the top floor of the skyscraper at 70 Pine Street in Lower Manhattan, one of New York City’s iconic spires.

Nowadays we all know AIG as a smoking crater owned by the US government, but back then it felt pretty good to get waived past the guard in their Art Deco lobby and take the special elevator all the way up to the executive suite, stroll into the boardroom and help myself to a cheese danish.

My job that morning, as I understood it, was to play the part of a little second year along for the ride. I was accompanying an of-counsel from S&C, who actually knew what was going on. I worked hard to look the part, act serious and important and try my best to figure out what they were talking about.

The meeting lasted a couple hours – something to do with deciding on a structure for a deal involving the purchase and simultaneous sale of some smaller companies in the insurance business. The guy doing most of the talking was Howie Smith, AIG’s CFO. I smiled and played along.

Afterwards, we admired the view out the window – eighty-five floors up – traded gossip about Hank Greenberg’s palatial mansion, and chatted with Howie Smith’s son, Mikey, who was visiting the office and wanted to become a lawyer. Then we stepped back into the fancy elevator for the ride back down.

As the doors closed, I felt a chill. The of-counsel handed me a heap of papers.

“Okay, she snapped. “You own this deal.”

I gaped at her, uncomprehending. Didn’t she realize I was a mere child? A babe in the woods? Totally unprepared for such weighty responsibilities?

“Uh…really?” I sputtered.

She was already gazing at the flashing lights indicating descending floors, unaware of my existence.

That was that. I was screwed.

I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

It’s one thing to be a first or even a second year corporate attorney. Pretty much anyone can handle setting up closing tables and “running changes” and setting up meetings and “taking a stab” at drafting this or that. But then someone turns to you in an Art Deco elevator and hands over the whole mess.

Generally speaking, that’s your clue to run for the hills.

I know – you still have loans, and each and every paycheck is one more step towards freedom, but let’s get serious – you either are one of those people who can turn into a biglaw senior associate, or god forbid, a partner – or you’re not. You can’t fake it – and someone in a position of power is going to figure it out eventually.

I don’t know what the precise equivalent of that elevator ride is for litigators. Maybe it’s “owning this deposition” or “owning this brief.” I honestly have no idea. But you’ll know it when you see it. Whatever it is, if you’re not really one of them, and you’ve been faking to get by – well, that’s your clue to hit the highway.

Of course, it’s always possible you are one of them.

I knew a guy at Sullivan & Cromwell, a few years ahead of me, who clearly fit the bill. After our first day working together, it was apparent I was in for hell, but when he didn’t seem to need me at 7:30 pm, I slipped out of the office and made it home. I was walking my dog in a mood of mournful introspection when the cell phone rang. An icy trickle of sarcasm leaked from the receiver.

Yep, it was him.

“Umm…Will? You comin’ back?”

“Right away.”

And back I went. We stayed up the entire night while he ran around like a speed freak, mumbling to himself and ordering me to alter documents, print them out and fax the whole mess to Bahrain, London, Beverly Hills, Budapest, Paramus, wherever.

This was a fourth year associate, “running his own deal.”

Nowadays this guy’s a partner, and from the reports I’ve received, even at S&C he’s considered a little nuts.

For me, it was that night – and the long unbroken chain of nights like it that followed – that drove home the reality I’d never be someone who “ran my own deals.”

To become a senior associate, you have to drink a fair amount of Kool-Aid. It means taking the plunge – going in deep, and actually assuming responsibility for very very serious things. You turn into the person who calls terrified first-years and sarcastically tells them to get their asses back in for another all-nighter. You become the person who curses everyone else for being useless and not working hard enough. You become the guy faxing side agreements to Bahrain at 5 a.m.

Eventually, if lightning strikes – at least in the old days when lightning still struck – you turn into the partner who terrorizes everyone around you. You enter the heart of the beast.

But that probably won’t happen.

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I uttered those words for the first time back in 2001, over lunch.

I wasn’t putting myself down; I was setting myself free. This was transgression – admitting the whole legal “thing” wasn’t for me.

It’s what you’re never supposed to say, because it opens you up for slaughter. It’s throwing down your weapon, taking off the armor and walking away from the fight.

Go ahead – tear into me. I double-dare you.

It was a weird lunch. I was sitting with another former associate from Sullivan & Cromwell. We weren’t friends. I actually sort of hated him. For two years he did his best to bad-mouth me and let everyone know he was a better lawyer.

Now he wanted to do lunch.

That’s because he’d been laid off (you know, the “bad review” routine.) I’d left S&C six months before and done the impossible – gotten a real job outside law, as a marketing exec.

He said he wanted to discuss “careers outside the law.” Yeah. As soon as we sat down he started shooting the shit about our law firm days.

No way.

I felt sorry for him. He had a fiance and was clearly a mess. But I wasn’t about to play along with that bullshit.

I knew what would get his attention. When he paused from the stream of false bonhomie to catch his breath, I seized the opportunity.

“I suck at law.”

This produced a deer in the headlights face. I went on.

“I never belonged at that place. Who was I kidding? You were twice the lawyer I was.”

From his expression, I’d morphed into a winged goat in a tutu.

First rule at a law firm: Never admit vulnerability. Second rule: Conform. Third rule: Compete.

It felt like an accusation. I meant it that way. You were much more lawyer-ey than me. No, really. I insist. You were far and away the better lawyer. You are law, dude. You much much law. Me no law.

Me free.

No one gave a shit at my new job if I was a good lawyer. That’s because I wasn’t a lawyer.

I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Rent a skywriter. Hire a blimp.

From the outside I look like a pretty good lawyer. Top 20% at NYU. Article in a journal. Sullivan & Cromwell.

Yeah, well I’m not. I suck at law.

Sorry.

I’m good at school, and law school is school. That doesn’t make me a lawyer.

Here are the facts:

I ignore details. I hate small print.

I’m not a “team player.” I hate working on stuff with other people.

Money and power bore me. Give me music, books and art.

I’m not confrontational. Put me in a room and we’ll all start getting along.

I can’t do all-nighters. At 10 pm I go to sleep.

Nothing is more boring than the Supreme Court. They mostly (5-4) hate gay people. I mostly (5-4) hate them.

Litigation terrifies me. It’s complicated and scary. Threaten to sue me, and you win. That’s it. Take whatever you want and go away.

I suck at law.

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My client was a hard-boiled commercial litigator, a junior partner. “When you want a street fight, call me in,” was one of her mottos. She won cases. She made a lot of money. She kicked ass.

She was having issues with a second year associate.

At first, they got along. The associate was bright, and wanted to impress. The problem was deeper. As the partner put it bluntly: “She just isn’t cut out for this place.”

Yeah. That old line. But now I was sitting with the partner who was saying it, nodding my head in agreement.

Here was the situation:

The associate grew up working class – a smart big fish in a small pond. She expected to compete and win, like she always had. Her aim at the firm was to show everyone she was the smartest one there. So she worked endless hours, volunteered advice before she was asked, and chatted about French films at lunch.

The partner hated her. It felt like a competition instead of a working relationship. She complained the associate didn’t “understand her place in the pecking order” and failed to show respect by deferring to the partner’s experience. A street fighter didn’t waste time competing with a kid to write an erudite brief – she could mop the floor with her in a courtroom.

Things came to a head when the partner reviewed a document with obvious typos and sent an email to the associate, saying – hey, did anyone check this thing before it went out?

She got back a half dozen outraged paragraphs: The partner never appreciated the associate’s work or the long hours she was putting in; she was arrogant and inconsiderate; she had no idea how to manage others; she didn’t know as much law as she thought. It concluded with a threat: if the partner didn’t want to work with her, she’d be happy to work with someone else.

The partner wasn’t sure what to do. The email was inappropriate and if anyone else saw it, would go over (as they say in Mississippi) like a fart in church. This wasn’t how things were done. Not at her firm.

The partner asked me what I thought.

The best plan seemed to be a gentle but firm nudge. Remind the associate she’d done good work, and that her abilities and dedication were appreciated, but make it clear the email was inappropriate. We talked over various approaches, and what needed to be said.

The partner kept reminding me it didn’t matter how many hours you worked, if you were sending stuff out to clients with obvious typos. She had a point. The associate needed to understand that wasn’t acceptable. The big message, in her mind, was make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Something else itched at her, too – the associate needed to stop taking this kind of thing personally – to buck up, and get on with the job.

Even as we talked over the partner’s response, I realized there was a bigger problem: these two people don’t like one another, and that associate doesn’t belong at that firm.

I know my client – we’ve worked together for months. I understand her side of things. But I see a lot of myself in the associate, too, and her predicament feels all too familiar.

Sometimes I feel like I’m standing in the middle, seeing both sides.

The partner is a pro. She grew up with a father who was a wealthy Big Law managing partner, and she thrives on the slightly frat boy-ish, hazing aspect of the commercial litigation world. She suffered through being a junior associate herself, but caught another partner’s eye early on, and earned her stripes. In her view, if you don’t like going for the jugular – a good dirty brawl – then you don’t belong there. The firm is a club, and she’s in that club, and she likes it that way.

Is she perfectly happy in her career? No. The grueling hours mean her personal life is, as she puts it, “a work in progress.” That mostly translates into abortive flings with other attorneys (some at her firm) and drunken hook-ups she typically regrets. She isn’t thrilled about being single, has mostly given up on kids and isn’t even sure she wants a family. But she loves her work, and if she has to spend too much time at a job, this is where she wants to do it. She has her Upper West Side two-bedroom, and her cat, and she takes nice vacations – active stuff, like skiing or horseback riding with tour groups of other wealthy, single women. She dotes on her nieces.

I never met the associate, but I could fill in the blanks from what the partner told me. She lives with her unemployed PhD boyfriend in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, and is carrying both their school loans. He seems resentful that she’s never around, and they hardly ever have sex anymore. She hates the firm, but has no choice since jobs are hard to come by and they both have debt. She tells herself she has to succeed at this job, and she does everything they ask, including putting in brutal hours – but nothing seems to work. She does a lot that’s right, and never hears a kind word – but if she makes a stupid mistake from sheer exhaustion, she never hears the end of it. Lately, after arriving home at 11 pm feeling like a zombie, she wonders if she can force herself to return the next morning for another round of abuse.

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There comes a time as a lawyer when you split in two – an angel and a devil.

The angel wants to do well – as I never tire of explaining, lawyers are pleasers. You want to make partner, earn a million bucks and be the best attorney in the world. To the angel, the firm is like your high school football team – go Skadden! Rah rah rah!!

The devil, on the other hand, would burn the place to the ground while he toasted marshmallows and sang campfire songs.

The irony is that it’s the law firm itself that turns little angels into devils – just by telling you that’s who you are.

A junior partner at a big firm told me how they did it to him. Two senior partners marched into his office and announced he was slacking off and taking advantage of the firm. It was a mistake, they told him, to make him partner.

In reality, this guy was a pleaser’s pleaser. He worked his ass off to make partner, and talked in all sincerity about his “gratitude to the firm for that honor.” He was as rah-rah as it got.

Unfortunately, none of that meant anything, because the economy sucked, and he wasn’t bringing in billables. According to firm logic, that meant he wasn’t trying, he didn’t care – he was a bad guy.

By the end of his grilling, all he wanted to do was slack off and go home.

They’d done it – turned an angel into the freeloading devil they told him he was.

A few weeks later, he’s still having trouble finding his groove, and feels tempted to fudge his hours, pad his expenses, and kick off early. It seems reasonable, all of a sudden, to glance at a document and hand it off to an associate to review instead of staying that extra couple hours at the office.

There are few things quite as frustrating as having someone question whether you are acting in good faith. It’s like one of those Hitchcock movies where they collar the wrong guy for a crime he didn’t commit and no one believes him when he insists he’s innocent.

Law firms do it all the time.

At Sullivan & Cromwell, it got to feeling like a roller coaster. I arrived at the firm fresh-faced and innocent, totally committed to doing my best. I know how absurdly naïve it sounds now, but I really did think I had a chance of making partner.

You couldn’t get more angel than me. I spent three years earning A’s in law school, pleasing professors, drinking the Kool-Aid, writing a journal article, drinking more Kool-Aid, talking about my commitment to “the profession” – all the while whipping up molten Kool-Aid gateau served with mint-rosemary Kool-Aid coulis.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I’m so bitter now – why lawyers are all bitter – because we bought in utterly at the start of things. We really were angels.

It’s a long, hard fall to the shadowland of Hades.

My expectations for Sullivan & Cromwell were ridiculous, in retrospect. I perceived the partners to be wise, caring mentors who would guide me to “excellence.” I bragged to everyone I met about where I worked, employing words like “collegial” to describe my vision of the firm. No kidding – “collegial.”

My plunge to the land of shadows only truly arrived when they ignored all that and accused me of being a slacker. It was their telling me I didn’t take my work seriously that somehow made it a reality.

There’s something about working your ass off only to be told you’re a slacker that actually turns you into a slacker. Suddenly padding your hours and avoiding work become the prime objective. Let the other little junior – Mr. Eagerness – handle things for a change.

A few days later, I’d snap out of it and remember why I was at S&C. It was the best, most prestigious law firm in the world! I wanted to make partner! I was going to make them happy, do my absolute best, and be a success!

Then I’d get stomped on by some senior associate telling me I didn’t even seem to care…and the process would begin again.

At some point, you go numb. (Even lawyers have their limits.)

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For the record, a law degree is not “versatile.” Being a lawyer amounts to a strike against you if you ever decide to pursue another career.

So why do people keep insisting it’s an “extremely versatile degree”?

A bunch of reasons.

Law schools are in it for the money. Teaching law doesn’t cost much, but they charge a fortune – made possible by not-dischargable-in-bankruptcy loans. That makes each law school a massive cash cow for the rest of the university. Money flowing from the law school pays the heating bill for the not-so-profitable Department of Neo-Structuralist Linguistics.

Law students play along with the “extremely versatile degree” farce to justify the three years of their life and the ungodly pile of cash they’re blowing on a degree they’re not interested in and know nothing about. This myth is also intended to calm down parents. You need a story to explain why you don’t have a job, but that it’s somehow okay.

No one else cares. And that’s chiefly why this old canard still has some life left in it.

Time to put it out of its misery.

Why is a law degree not versatile?

Let me count the ways.

For one thing, it costs about $180k. Anything that leaves you two hundred grand in a hole is not increasing your “versatility” – it’s trapping you in hell.

For another thing, studying arcane legal doctrine for three years (a purely arbitrary number) leaves you with no translatable skills. The arcane legal doctrine you learn in law school isn’t even useful at a law firm, let alone anywhere else.

And let’s talk about the “skills” a lawyer “hones” in his “profession.”

A litigator is about the worst thing you can be if you want to do anything else. Why? Let’s examine the skills you “master” as a litigator.

Pumping up billables. Dragging out discovery. Dreaming up and laboriously penning pointless motions to create delay. Behaving in an oddly aggressive and hostile manner at meetings that end in a standstill. Organizing complicated information into folders, and folders of folders and labeling everything and organizing that into lists, and lists of lists, then billing for it by the hour. Researching recondite issues and writing memos you’re not even sure you understand. Wrapping your head around Byzantine procedural rules and forum and jurisdictional niceties and arbitrary court filing deadlines, all so you can trip up the other side with needless delay and expense.

Okay. Now translate those skills into the real world, where people make products and sell useful services.

See my point?

If you’re on the corporate side, at least you get to watch business people do their thing before you spend the night typing it up. That’s why corporate partners are considered more valuable at firms when it comes time to recruit. Corporate guys hang out with business people, so they bring a “book of business” (i.e., customers) with them. A litigator doesn’t even have clients, just cases, which might (God forbid) end some day. A litigation partner without a live case is dead wood awaiting pruning. Sorry.

Of course, the actual “stuff” of corporate law could drive you mad. Studying securities law is like learning the rules to the most boring, complicated board game ever invented. All you want to do is quit playing and go home.

But there’s a bigger, broader problem with switching careers when you have the letters JD after your name: people hate lawyers.

Why do they hate lawyers? A bunch of reasons.

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There’s one thing every lawyer, no matter how miserable, seems to agree on: law school wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was kind of fun.

Things take a nosedive when you get to a firm. That’s when you start hating life.

Maybe we should take a look at this phenomenon, and ask ourselves why this might be the case.

There are a few prominent disparities between the experience of law school and that at a big law firm.

First – in law school when you work hard, you get a reward. There is an “incentive” for “doing your best.”

I remember a guy in my class at NYU who used to grow an exam beard every semester. He’d stop shaving a couple of weeks before exams. The beard would start to get scraggly – then, after the last bluebook was filled with scribble, he’d shave it off and everyone would hit a bar to celebrate.

It was silly, light-hearted fun, designed to focus attention on completing a goal.

Contrast that to a law firm, where nothing is silly, light-hearted or fun – and there is no such thing as completing a goal.

At a firm, you don’t “complete goals.” Thanks to your massive student loans, you are now someone’s property, and you work to avoid punishment. That means you work until midnight, then go in on the weekend. Rinse. Repeat. There is no end of semester. There is no end of the week. There is no end of anything. There is no vacation. There is no end.

Your reward for working harder than you’ve ever worked in your life? If you do a good job, no one complains – and you get more work.

That is, unless there isn’t any work, in which case you’re in trouble, because that means you’re not going to make your billables, which means you’re a parasite and a useless drain on the firm and you should feel terrible about yourself and fear for your job.

It’s also possible that you didn’t do a very good job on whatever it was you were working on harder than you’ve worked on anything in your entire life. That might be because you’ve been working eighty hour weeks with no vacation and receiving a steady stream of criticism, all the while fearing for your job, which is a problem because you have a wife who wants to have a kid and you’re $180,000 in debt. The Zoloft and Klonopin your shrink prescribed don’t seem to be doing the trick. Nor does the Adderall you’re popping with alarming frequency – the left-over Adderall from the first shrink, who diagnosed you with ADHD before the second one decided it was actually depression and anxiety.

It might be that all the other work you did for the past six months at the firm was good, or even very good – until you handed in this latest assignment, which wasn’t good. However, at a law firm, if you do something that isn’t good, it doesn’t matter if you did one hundred other things that were good. You did something that wasn’t good, which means you are bad.

The reason this thing wasn’t good might be that you had no idea what you were doing because they gave you something unbelievably, insanely, laughably complicated to do over the weekend with a totally inadequate explanation.

That brings me to a second way in which law firms are not like law school.

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There’s a scene in John Waters’ classic film, “Female Trouble” in which Edith Massey, playing Aunt Ida, begs her nephew, Gator, to give the gay lifestyle a chance.

Gator, poor thing, refuses, which sends Ida into pleading desperation.

Here’s the dialog –

Gator: Ain’t no way; I’m straight. I like a lot of queers, but I don’t dig their equipment, you know? I like women.

Ida: But you could change! Queers are just better. I’d be so proud if you was a fag, and had a nice beautician boyfriend… I’d never have to worry.

Gator: There ain’t nothing to worry about.

Ida: I worry that you’ll work in an office! Have children! Celebrate wedding anniversaries! The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life!

Sometimes I feel that way about the world of law.

For the record, I’m not trying to change anyone’s sexual orientation here, or even suggest that it could be changed – that’s not what this scene is about. The absurd humor in Gator and Ida’s exchange derives from Waters’ inversion of the normal situation: parents are supposed to nag you to be straight, not to be gay. Just like they’re supposed to nag you to get a job and work hard and act like an adult and get serious about your life and go to law school.

But a lot of the time I feel like Aunt Ida – pleading with lawyers not to get serious and buckle down, but precisely the opposite – to give something – anything – wacky and fun and subversive – or merely indecorous – a chance. That’s because, if you’re not careful, slaving away at a big law firm can drain all the spark out of life, leaving things looking…well…sick and boring.

Now and then, after I receive a new referral, I succumb to the temptation to Google that person’s name. The first few times I did this, it was to find out whether he or she was male or female. That happens sometimes – you get an email from “Pat” or “Jamie” or “Oyedele,” and set up an appointment, then aren’t sure what to expect.

The inevitable result of an online search, in the case of a lawyer, is a page from a law firm directory. You get a passport-size photo capturing the flannel-suited subject with a slightly shocked deer-in-the-headlight expression, then the inevitable list of schools attended, bar admissions and a capsule summary of obscure “practice areas,” all rendered in lawfirm-ese: “General Practice Group,” “Corporate Capital Markets Restructuring,” “Derivatives Litigation and Regulation.”

There’s no sense of an actual person in those pages – only a scary apparition from the world of the serious and very grown-up.

I still recoil, looking at those bland, comically formal law firm directory pages – just as I wince looking at my old photo in the Sullivan & Cromwell facebook.

In the case of a new client referral, that passport photo comes to life a few days later in my office, in the form of an unhappy person confessing his loathing for his firm, bemoaning the steady stream of abuse, the sterile, alienating culture, crippling hours – the usual lawyer misery.

I wonder how ordinary people can be split in two like that, transformed simultaneously into the miserable, suffering human being sitting in my office, while the outward appearance is meticulously maintained – that official law firm image of a ring wraith from the world of the humorless.

Then I remember how S&C worked its magic on me, embalming me in its parallel dimension of un-fun.

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So many cases like this appear at my office that I’ll construct him/her as a composite. That way perhaps I can spare myself the chore of receiving those “how dare you write about one of your clients” comments that I receive every week when I get specific in detailing my fictions and some of you decide I simply must be writing about your roommate.

So here goes.

He/she is very young – 22 or 23 or 24 or 25.

He/she moved across the country to go to a law school that I’ve heard of vaguely. It turns out to be number 79 or 83 or 66 out of the top 100, according to some hack newspaper that profits from disseminating this sort of nonsense.

He/she is the son/daughter of immigrants from Bangladesh, Peru, Kenya, Romania or Ireland.

His/her immigrant parents operate a doughnut bakery, dry cleaner, small hobbyist shop, motel or air-conditioner repair service.

His/her parents are adamant that he/she marry someone from Bangladesh, Peru, Kenya, Romania or Ireland in a traditional ceremony – soon – and produce male children.

Before then – quickly – he/she has to become a doctor.

He/she is no good at math or science or dating, so that’s not going to happen to him/her any time soon. Being a lawyer is the official second choice – not as good as a doctor, but acceptable.

He/she has just started law school at number 79 or 83 or 66 out of 100 and is presenting with anxiety around test-taking and deep feelings of insecurity about his/her abilities compared to those of his/her classmates.

We talk about CBT – cognitive behavioral therapy – to identify the thoughts that are triggering the anxiety – fears of being unable to live up to dad/mom’s demanding agenda, especially when, despite getting accepted into number 79 or 83 or 66 out of 100, he/she suspects he/she has never been all that great at school. College was a struggle, too. It is possible that he/she is simply doing his/her best, but isn’t cut out for academics and would be happier doing something else, such as operating a doughnut bakery, dry cleaner, small hobbyist shop, motel or air-conditioner repair service. But he/she runs from that idea – it doesn’t compute with the dreams and expectations of his/her immigrant parents from Bangladesh, Peru, Kenya, Romania or Ireland.

We learn his/her parents remind him/her that they sacrificed everything for their son/daughter, so he/she could have a future. His/her parents gave up their own happiness so he/she could succeed. This notion is recited to him/her in some form or other about five times each week, most recently in the form of phone calls from home.

We learn he/she has an older brother/sister, who is a doctor, is married to someone from Bangladesh, Peru, Kenya, Romania or Ireland, and has two male children.

We also talk about the ever-widening pharmacopeia available to him/her, should he/she decide to go that route. There are the anti-depressants, which take two weeks or so to work, and have side-effects he/she might not like. There are the anti-anxietals, the benzos, like Xanax and Klonopin, which might be habit-forming. There are the stimulants, like Adderall or Concerta or Ritalin, which will help you focus on studying, at least unless you abuse them, like many law students, and stay up night after night without sleep and start hearing voices – which happened to a client of mine (no – for you helpful comment-writers out there – not while under my care, and no, I’m not a medical doctor, so I didn’t prescribe the stuff.)

But there is another issue that I can’t help discussing with him/her: magical thinking.

Because even as he/she talks to me about his/her anxiety around being back in school, a few more facts are glossed over.

First, he/she is in the process of borrowing $170,000 which he/she cannot discharge through bankruptcy.

He/she has never seen that much money in his/her life and has no concept of how much money it is. Remember, he/she is only 22 or 23 or 24 or 25.

He/she has never worked in law. He/she only graduated from college 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 years ago, and spent most of that time working in his/her parents’ doughnut bakery, dry cleaner, small hobbyist shop, motel or air-conditioner repair service.

When I ask him/her why he/she is pursuing law, I get a canned speech of the law school essay variety.

He/she wants to become an environmental lawyer/ international human rights attorney/ entertainment lawyer/ executive director of a group to help the oppressed/ federal judge.

Pressed on the details, he/she admits that he/she might have to spend a few years at a top law firm first, earning $160,000 per year, minimum. But he/she isn’t doing this for the money.

Pressed to describe what precisely an environmental lawyer/ international human rights attorney/ entertainment lawyer/ executive director of a group to help the oppressed/ federal judge actually does, or how one attains these titles, things grow vague.

Pressed as to how he/she will pay back the $170,000 in loans that he/she will have accumulated at graduation, he/she looks at me like it’s obvious. If you make $160,000 per year, then you need one year to pay off $160,000 and maybe another month or two for another $10,000 and it’s paid off. Duh.

Oh yeah, and maybe taxes or interest or whatever – say a year and a half.

I stare at him/her. He/she stares back at me. There is a steely determination in his/her eyes. He/she isn’t going to back down. This has all been arranged. It is decided.

We are at a stand-off.

(more…)

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One of my clients told me last week he went to law school because he “didn’t want to do an MBA.” Apparently he’d only considered those two options.

Another client told me he’d decided between a PhD in History and a JD, and went with the JD because he “didn’t think there would be jobs for academics.” Fair enough. Unfortunately, there weren’t many jobs for lawyers, either, and at least with a PhD, as opposed to law school, he might have received some sort of “stipend” ( i.e., a meagre handout), or adjunct faculty position (i.e. cafeteria work.) That way, he might not have ended up both unemployed and in hock up to his eyebrows.

Going to graduate school has become a popular substitute for finding a job, especially in this recession. Grad school sounds easy – basically a few extra years of college – but it only puts off a lot of tough decisions that have to be made sooner or later.

The problem here is proverbial and involves carts and horses. In a perfect world, you would explore a career and make sure it is right for you first, then head off to get a degree.

Instead, we have the situation I see every day in my office: young people in their mid-twenties, who grind through law school, then face not only a moribund job market, but the deeper horror of realizing they don’t enjoy the work. They end up fighting to find a job in a profession they don’t like simply because they have to pay off debts.

It would be great if the law schools seemed to care – if they insisted that prospective students work as paralegals for a while and make sure they know what they’re getting into. But law schools are money-making concerns and they’re raking in cash the way things are. They’re not about to start telling the truth about their massive profits on law student tuition or the feeble job market. As they see it, that’s not their problem.

What sent you off to law school, more than any other factor? Probably fear – specifically fear of being a disappointment to mom and dad. When you decided to go to law school, you saw only two options – graduate school or loser-dom. In law school, you would be doing what you’d done your entire life – going to school, which always kept your parents happy in the past. It seemed like a no-brainer. And in your early 20’s, things that happen a few years from now (like paying off student loans) seem far away – they take place in another universe with another person cleaning up. Hey, plenty of people go to law school and they do whatever, and it works out, right?

Now, in many senses of the word, your loans are being called in.

One of my patients says he wishes he’d gone the burn-out route, stayed home and smoked weed. He has buddies from college who drifted after graduation. Some are working retail jobs, or in restaurants. Some have office or sales jobs. Mostly, they’re blowing off work and playing in bands and part-timing as ski instructors during the winter or hanging out and talking about that back-packing trip to Bhutan they really want to do some day.

From where he’s at – an unemployed quasi-lawyer waiting to hear whether he passed the bar exam while he processes the reality that he doesn’t like law – being a burn-out sounds pretty good. As a burn-out, he wouldn’t have loans, so he could afford to spend the whole day studying the lyrics to “Paranoid Android.”

I’d like to suggest a “third path” – an alternative both to the mindless lemming-march towards graduate school and complete burn-out. (more…)

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