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Posts Tagged ‘law school’

trump-university-3Congratulations, you’ve “gained admission” to a lower-tier law school! You might be wondering what the actual experience is going to be like. Well, if you’re one of those lucky souls who’s had the unique pleasure of matriculating at Trump University, you’re at a big advantage, because lower-tier law schools and Trump University are a whole lot alike. Let’s count the ways:

#1: It’s all about money. It probably didn’t take you long to ascertain Trump University was about money – and no, not about making you a millionaire, about making Donald Trump a millionaire a few more times over. Contrary to what you may have believed beforehand, when The Donald founded his “university,” he wasn’t on some idealistic mission to bring real estate investment expertise to the benighted masses. He wanted your money. He wanted it badly enough to shed all compunction with regard to tapping the limit on your credit card so he could squeeze out every drop. Emptying your wallet was the objective, plain and simple.

Guess what? It’s the same thing at a law school. The only difference is they have a leg up when it comes to wallet-emptying: Instead of bullying you into upping your credit card limit, they line you up at the bursar’s office with instructions to “sign on the dotted line.” You’ll hardly notice you’ve borrowed $200,000 in bankruptcy-proof loans at a high rate of interest – that is, until you’re condemned to financial ruin (which might be the least of your worries, once you wind up unemployed, or worse yet, stuck in a low-paying legal job with nightmarish hours and sadistic management. Trump stole your money – these guys steal your soul.)

Now that I’ve revealed these alarming details about law school, you’re probably mulling whether, given these drawbacks, it might be such a good idea to attend. Law schools worry about that, too – which brings us to another parallel between these two august institutions…

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King-Kandy-1306451680I recently attended a conference at a law school – a pretty good law school – and they invited me to appear on a panel and paid for my transportation and even offered a hotel (if I needed one, which it turns out I didn’t, but still…nice.)

I am a psychotherapist, which means, under ordinary circumstances, I never go anywhere, let alone on anything resembling a “business trip.” Instead, I sit in my office and listen to someone else talk. Whether that someone else is sitting on a chair in front of me, or in a chair in Australia via Skype on my computer screen, there I sit, listening, in my office, in the morning and in the afternoon, and in the evening, too. If I didn’t work out at the gym four times per week, I’d probably go all soft and pudgy and endomorphic and begin to assume (like many of my peers, who shall go nameless) the contours of the chair I sit in. Which is to say I’d look like a pear. It turns out there are two kinds of therapists – those who make the effort to step outside their offices and get some exercise, and those who look like pears.

But I digress. And regress. Which is okay in psychotherapy – free association and all – but I was talking about this conference at the pretty good law school.

The conference’s first discussion panel – which I wasn’t invited to be on, for reasons which will become obvious – was titled “An In-Depth Look at Firm Life.” (Well, actually, this was a conference for Asian Pacific American law students, so it was titled “Peering Through the Glass Ceiling: An In-Depth Look at Firm Life for Minorities” but being Asian Pacific American seemed a minor consideration compared to dealing with biglaw, even at a conference for Asian Pacific American law students.)

I wasn’t on that panel – I was on the one about Mental Health and lawyers (once again, Asian Pacific American mental health and lawyers, but whatever – I’m married to a Chinese-American and I love my Asian Pacific American fans and their mental health and their lawyers.)

What struck me, at least in retrospect, about the classy panel – the one I wasn’t on – was who was on it. Just for reference, my panel – the one about going nuts – was staffed with a research psychologist, two psychiatrists, a psychotherapist (me) and a guy who runs a recovery/support center for lawyers. Two or three of us were lawyers, but mostly incidentally. There was also a third, afternoon panel at the conference about Asian Pacific Americans being a “model minority.” That afternoon panel was populated with academics (no lawyers at all, so far as I could tell) and so things predictably took a highfalutin, theoretical turn – more like college than law school.

Only the panel purportedly concerning the actual reality of law firm life was stocked with 100% lawyers. Clearly, there was to be no fooling around with non-lawyer riffraff for them. The breakdown among the lawyers on this panel was interesting, too (for reasons I’ll disclose shortly.) First, all five of them were lawyers at biglaw firms, with the exception of one former biglaw lawyer who is now a corporate counsel at a humongous, famous, fancy-pants software company. Two panelists were partners at humongous, fancy-pants biglaw firms. There was also a senior associate at another biglaw firm, but she’d clerked for two federal judges and looked like she meant business; she was clearly not planning to be a mere senior associate for much longer – at least, if she had any say in the matter. And there was a lone junior associate, who looked slightly terrified, but she was at a top biglaw firm. Slightly terrified or not, she looked like she was dead set on going places, too.

So? Nothing wrong with that panel, right? Here were a bunch of success stories – Asian Pacific American lawyers in top jobs, reaping the success that comes with hard work. And they said all the stuff you’d expect them to say – advice on getting ahead and racing to the top, stuff like seeking out mentors, checking in to make sure you’re delivering what they want and…well, a lot of stuff about working hard and achieving success like they did. That’s hard to argue with.

But here’s the issue with that panel. The thing that stuck in my craw. The problem (if there was one) – which only dawned me in retrospect: They were only telling us the good news.

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munchkins3-lgReaders of my blog express surprise when they discover that all my clients aren’t lawyers – indeed, a small but sizable percentage of my clientele consists of ordinary civilians, non-combatants, plain folk who have nothing whatsoever to do with law. But the people surprised by this situation are mostly biglaw lawyers – and what really surprises them is not that I work with non-lawyers, but that I work with non-lawyers employed in biglaw – secretaries, law librarians, human resources folks, paralegals and so on. In other words, what surprises them is that I work with those people, those other people.

You know…the Little People.

Before you pile, on accusing me of snobbery, let me point out that I’m the one who’s treating these card-carrying members of the hoi polloi, and often for sliding fees. Let’s also admit that a rigid social hierarchy exists at law firms – in fact, a very rigid social hierarchy, something akin to the caste system under the Raj.

At Shearman & Sterling, where I summered one year, and at Sullivan & Cromwell, where I worked after blowing off Shearman & Sterling because it wasn’t (sniff sniff) quite up to snuff (yes, that’s a social hierarchy, too), I distinctly remember encountering what were referred to as “attorney dining rooms.” These were private dining rooms – partners and associates only. The very existence of these exclusive (as in, everyone except lawyers was excluded) dining chambers sent something of a…uh…message. The lawyers at the firm didn’t require separate water fountains, but message-wise, the effect was along the same lines.

Granted, back in the days when I worked in biglaw, partners arrived at the office in horse-drawn broughams and sported top hats and tails. I fondly remember Old Caesar, the darkie who toiled cheerfully in the S&C stables, and Irish Polly, the scullery drab – and who could forget wee Pip, the cripple foundling lad who maintained the fire in my office, always stoking it high with coal on a cold winter’s morning to earn his ha’penny and an affectionate pat on his cinder-begrimed cap as he hobbled off on his homemade crutches. Those were merry times.

But I shouldn’t permit misty nostalgia for another era to distract from my serious message: No kidding, there really were dining rooms reserved for the lawyers (and for all I know, there still are) and the message around them was clear: No Little People allowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we go…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here, I’ll show you how to do this.

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

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

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

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

Her demurrer was sustained. She had a point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes it’s better to live without that distraction.

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

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

Could anyplace be worse?

Isn’t that what you said about law school?

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

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

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

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

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Last February I appeared on Steven Spierer’s radio show, and he brought on a caller, Matt, who had just started work at a big New York City law firm. You can listen to that interview here.

Now – 9 months later – I went back on Steven’s show, and caught up with Matt, and heard how things are going for this newly-minted corporate 2d year.

Here’s the show – Steven always does a great job, and it was especially fascinating to catch up with Matt and talk about how his views have changed now that he’s been working in biglaw for more than a year.

Thank you, Steven, and thank you, Matt, for another terrific experience on Talk Radio One.

========

Please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, “Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning”.

I can also heartily recommend my first book, “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or a pointless march through law school.

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

Tune in. Turn on. Drop out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t have to go out like that.

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I 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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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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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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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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