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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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