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Posts Tagged ‘law firms’

hqdefault-19There’s a new place in biglaw – not always a comfortable place – called the middle. One of its defining characteristics is euphemism, particularly around job titles. Consider yourself lucky if you’re merely saddled with a legal anachronism like “Of Counsel” or “Senior Counsel” or the more workaday “Senior Attorney” (i.e., a lawyer who’s been here a while, which is apparently the best we can say for him), as opposed to that vague moniker creeping into the legal world, borrowed from finance or consulting firms, “Principal.”

The ultimate horror (though somehow preferable as middle titles go) is that now-commonplace epitome of biglaw oxy-moronicness: “non-equity partner.” Every thinking person’s initial objection to this laboratory-experiment-gone-horribly-wrong of a credential, or title, or status, or whatever it is, is that in purely legal terms, it’s nonsense. How can a partner, meaning a member of a partnership, i.e., a fundamental part of an entity defined by shared ownership – not own anything? I’ve run this past tax attorneys (the smartest of all lawyers) and they agreed to a man (and woman): This is more than a quibble – the concept is absurd.

In essence, a non-equity partner is a non-partner partner. If a partner owns nothing in a partnership, it’s not merely that the partnership is non-equitable, it’s that the existence of a non-owning partner in said partnership renders it a non-partnership. The other guys, who own stuff, have a partnership. You, as a non-equity partner, might as well be called “that guy we let work here until we decide differently” (thus, perhaps, was born yet another neologism, the term “de-equitize.”) The phrase “salary partner” only makes things worse, by sweeping less of the evident cognitive dissonance under the rug. Might as well emblazon yourself “Proletarian Viscount” or “Marquis of the living wage.”

In fairness, the whole problem began when someone needed to come up with a word for lawyers who somehow never left their firms, but on the other hand weren’t really getting anywhere, either. There had to be something better to call them than “fourteenth year associate,” which is one of those titles more apt to leave a lawyer gazing into a mirror, his face wet with tears, than crowing with pride at a firm cocktail event.

More importantly, “Fourteenth year associate” sounds bad in front of clients, and let’s face it, the entire issue of concocting these titles for folks in the middle is about appearances, i.e., what outsiders think. No one cares what you think, and everyone knows where you dwell (amid the dark and dreadful middle realm.) Law is like fashion (to paraphrase Heidi Klum): You’re either in, or you’re out (and no, the middle isn’t in, so all the more reason for clever euphemisms.)

Let’s pause for a moment and get all “big picture” about things: What lies behind this phenomenon? Why doesn’t anyone in biglaw just work hard, make “the sprint” for partner, win the big prize and get “elevated” anymore?

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hqdefault-18Before I was a psychotherapist, I was a patient, and at some point in my time as a patient, I participated in group therapy, and witnessed an unsettling interaction. (Unsettling-interaction-witnessing occurs in groups, where you spend time watching people “work their stuff out” and often “work your stuff out” at the same time.)

A new group member, a twenty-something, showed up for his first session with us, and like new members sometimes do, he presented as quiet and a bit deferential – eager to fit in, and above all, to please.

Eventually, the therapist leading the group went to Newbie directly, and asked how he was doing on his first day. He replied with some variant of “fine” and she probed further, asking if there was anyone in the room he felt drawn to, or perhaps shy to approach (this is typical group technique, designed to make the Newbie conscious of how he’s relating to others in the room.)

Newbie opted for the “drawn to” half of the question, probably aiming to sound upbeat rather than scared, and gestured towards an older guy sitting beside him.

“I guess I’m drawn to Joe. He seems like a father figure to me.”

To which, without a flicker of hesitation, Joe snapped under his breath (loud enough for everyone to hear): “I’m not your damn father.”

Newbie winced, and he wasn’t alone. That was a chilly welcome, coming from a member of your new therapy group.

On the other hand, Joe’s statement was true – he wasn’t Newbie’s damn father. More to the point, he didn’t want to be, to judge from his reaction. That wasn’t Joe’s role. He didn’t sign up to parent Newbie in that therapy group; he was a member like anyone else, trying to make himself a bit less neurotic and maybe happier. It was Joe’s right to be there, in that room, for himself, taking care of himself. And maybe Newbie wasn’t the only one there longing for a father figure – maybe Joe could have used a father figure, too.

I realized at that moment that I’d been like Newbie in my first group, too – searching for a father (for reasons I won’t bore you with), and drawing close to folks I might have been better off shying away from.

There were larger implications: I’d done the same thing at workplaces, including at my law firm, with disastrous results.

A lot of lawyers make that mistake. After working as a therapist with lawyers for a dozen years or so, I can say plenty of attorneys confuse their law firm with a parent figure, then relate to the firm like eager-to-please children. It leads to hurt feelings, resentment, anger and much unnecessary human misery.

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little-boy-reading-school-bookBlue’s Clues was a children’s television program developed in the 1990’s with the cooperation of child psychologists. The show was unique because it sought to incorporate the findings of cognitive psychology research on children into its content and presentation – a goal that produced surprising results.

What the researchers discovered in the course of their work was that children crave repetition, to a surprising degree – it comforts them. How much repetition do they crave? The results were unexpected, to say the least. It turns out most pre-schoolers are happiest watching exactly the same television show five times in a row. And so that’s what the producers of Blue’s Clues did – broadcast the same exact half-hour episode every weekday for five days in a row, every week. The kids loved it.

You might not be surprised by this outcome if you’ve ever sat a pre-schooler on your lap and read him a children’s book. You know what it’s like to finish “Thomas the Tank Engine,” then point to a stack of other books and suggest, “hey, how about we read ‘Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel’?” only to get shouted down: “No, read Thomas again!”

“But I just read it to you…”

“Read. It. Again!”

And so you do. Again and again and again until you’re getting kind of sick of it, until at last, little pre-schooler nephew lies comatose in your lap amid a spreading puddle of drool. Awwwww…how cute.

But why do kids like watching (or hearing) the same damned thing over and over again?

For the same reason junior (and sometimes senior) lawyers often do.

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looney_tunes_mad_as_a_mars_hare_-_screenshot“I don’t think…I mean…I’m not someone it would be fair to call a gunner…do you think?” My client asked, a quiver of trepidation in her voice.

“Of course not,” her therapist reassured her. Because that’s what I’m paid for.

No, that’s not why I reassured her. I did so because my client is a nice person and gunners are loathsome pariahs, denizens of the fens and low places, nothing like her at all. There might not be much that everyone in this country agrees on at the moment but we all (especially lawyers) know one truth to be self-evident, which is that everyone hates gunners and no one wants to be one.

So it’s worth posing another salient query: What is a gunner?

Part of the answer, at a law firm, is obvious – a gunner is someone who wants to make partner. That’s the whole point of “gunning” at a law firm. If you are already a partner, you’re busy doing your partner thing. But if you’re an associate, the goal is to make partner. That’s what a gunner is gunning for.

The term “gunning” further suggests, however, that you’re pointing your gun at someone else (or several someone elses) and (as is normally the case when one points a gun at someone) therefore mean them no good.

And that’s another part of the answer – and what we all hate about “gunners” – not merely that they’re gunning for (i.e., want to make) partner (we all want to make partner (mmmm…money good!)) It’s that, on the way to that goal of making partner, they’re gunning (i.e., want to eradicate) you (or anyone else standing in their way.)

That definition sounds straightforward – and loathsome – enough. But how does one actually know for a fact that someone’s a gunner, that he would nonchalantly pop some caps into a colleague’s back, then prance jauntily over said individual’s bleeding corpse in pursuit of partner-hood…as opposed to simply a hard-working, ambitious, talented lawyer on his way to success in his chosen field? Sometimes the distinction is not as obvious as it sounds.

In my client’s case, for instance, she stood accused of gunner-hood, but felt the charge was unjust. Even if I weren’t on her payroll, I’d be inclined to argue she has a point. Judge for yourself:

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screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-4-14-02-pmIt was especially fun getting together in a recording studio in midtown Manhattan a couple weeks ago with my old friend, Frazer Rice, to compare notes on life and work and everything else, former lawyer to former lawyer.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-4-17-25-pmFrazer is a great guy, and a great interviewer, and we managed to cover a lot of ground.

Click here to listen to the podcast.  It’s about 40 minutes long, and we used that time to unpack a lot of the madness of the legal life and work life and lots of other facets of being human.

Thanks, Frazer.  Let’s do it again sometime.

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Please check out The People’s Therapist’s legendary best-seller about the sad state of the legal profession: Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning

And now there’s a new Sequel: Still Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: (The Sequel)

My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy:Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

I’ve also written a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls

in love with a blue alien from outer space. I guarantee pure reading pleasure: Bad Therapist: A Romance

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9987116d453904225ab5b80d3b4da749Isolation is a popular topic with my lawyer clients. There are so many varieties of biglaw loneliness I hardly know where to start explicating the phenomenon. One client summed up his particular variant:

“They stuck me on a matter that had gotten lost in the shuffle – some rainmaker too busy bringing in business neglected it, so we lost a critical preliminary motion. After that, everyone knew the case was hopeless, and since I was low man on the totem pole, it became mine. Now everything that’s already gone wrong is officially my fault, and no one’s around to help – as in, if you ask for ideas, you hear crickets. I sit in my office, staring at documents, unable to motivate. A calendar on my wall at home has hundreds of tiny boxes I check off each day until November 12th, 2018. That’s when I pay off my last loan – my final day in law.”

To add to the festive ambience, this guy’s firm is in the midst of endless renovations, which they’re taking in stages, floor by floor. Some floors are left mostly-renovated, others barely-renovated, and the stragglers still untouched. My client was assigned to a half-renovated half-floor, nearly empty except for some staff attorneys who toil down the hall in an un-renovated former conference room.

It’s creepy. And according to firm gossip, theirs is one of those “sick buildings” where the ductwork is clogged with black mold or toxic dust or something insalubrious, especially on the as-yet-not-renovated floors. Those could be unfounded rumors. Or not. He hunches beneath fluorescent lights and stained acoustic ceiling panels, trying to breath through his nose.

Law firms are lonely places by design, or at least biglaw firms are, since they’re typically located on multiple floors of sterile glass towers. One partner client was assigned to her office renovation committee. The new philosophy, she says, encourages walls of glass, to bring light in and cheer the place up. So now, as a biglaw attorney, you work in a fish bowl, with everyone looking in as you pretend to review something while surreptitiously playing Candy Crush, or merely ride out an anxiety attack. In a “modern” glass-walled law office, lawyers retreat to the bathroom if they need to cry.

A relatively recent factor contributing to biglaw alienation derives from the fact that biglaw firms aren’t really “firms” anymore – they’re closer to conglomerates or loose federations.

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b775975a44e3d7a4395cfdebcc7db7cdI just turned fifty, so I can tell you about old. Old isn’t merely the words “Mission: Impossible” conjuring memories of a show you watched as a kid in 1973 on a “color console tv set” the size of a freezer chest. Old transcends. Old abides. Old pushes through to not caring if everyone else’s memories zip directly to a movie with Tom Cruise hanging off a cliff. Old concedes Jean-Luc Picard a place in the pantheon beside Kirk and Spock, but remains firm in its belief Peter Graves and the miniature reel-to-reel tape player that self-destructed after five seconds were the height of awesome, Tom Cruise or no Tom Cruise. Old is about “values.” Old doesn’t haggle over this stuff.

What made the original Mission: Impossible show so much fun (other than its co-starring Martin Landau, which already made it fun) was the bizarrely improbable nature of the missions. They were supposed to be “impossible” to carry out, but in reality that was the least of the issues. The “mission” generally took place in some made-up Eastern European country with a name like “Vladistan” with a grey, oppressive capital city (“Vodkagrad” sounds good) and there was always an evil dictator holding a good, democratic leader guy captive in Vodkagrad (not that I remember details – I was seven years old, chomping a peanut butter and jelly sandwich during much of the action.) I mostly recall that a couple of the IMF (“Impossible Mission Force”) agents hung out in equipment rooms tapping phone lines and fiddling with electronic gadgets, glancing nervously at their watches, while the others (including Martin Landau!) wore disguises so convincing you only realized who they were when they peeled off plastic masks. How cool was that?

But my point – and I do (despite advancing age) have a point – is that I’ve recently, in my role of psychotherapist to the lawyers, been assigned “missions” by biglaw firms, requests for my services, that leave me feeling like Mr. Phelps watching wisps of smoke rise from the little reel-to-reel. I’m a publicity whore, like any author who ever sold a book (or tried to) and yes, I might be termed a whore-whore as well, in some respects, like any public speaker who ever pocketed a fee. Points conceded. But on those occasions when I’ve managed to get hired to speak at conferences and panels and industry events and even at law schools, everything has come off if not without a hitch, then at least without a major conflagration. Invite me over, serve me lunch, treat me nice, and I’m a total pro, no trouble at all.

Yet, somehow, when it’s a biglaw firm that comes calling for my services, everything goes all pear-shaped. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and be your own Mr. Phelps – check out a couple “impossible missions” that came my way recently, and decide for yourself whether you’d “choose to accept” them. I’m still scratching my head, long after the tape self-destructed. To wit:

Impossible Mission #1: Death 

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