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Posts Tagged ‘making partner’

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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When I launched The People’s Therapist, my intent was to get stuff off my chest – process a smidgen of psychic trauma. I’d write a column or two, exorcise the odd demon, piss off Sullivan & Cromwell and call it a day.

It never occurred to me I’d be deluged with lawyers as clients.

It never, ever occurred to me I’d be deluged with partners as clients.

It never so much as crossed my mind they’d be so unhappy.

It turns out being a partner can be…not all that. For many of my clients, the job boils down to evil middle management.

Permit me to explain.

Biglaw associates resemble the low-level evil henchman in James Bond movies – those omnipresent guys in jumpsuits who all look the same and do what they’re told. They drive around evil headquarters in little golf carts, manipulate dials in the control room, shoot at James Bond (always missing) – then get shot themselves. Presumably – like biglaw associates – they’re mostly in it for the money, rather than a genuine penchant for evil.

I felt like an impostor at S&C – only pretending to be a genuine low-level evil henchman. I was more like James Bond after he bonks the real low-level evil henchman on the head, then reemerges strolling through evil headquarters sporting that guy’s jumpsuit.

I was an impostor – trying to look like I drank the Kool-Aid, going through the motions. I wasn’t even a clandestine agent, battling evil, like 007. The plan to blow up the moon wasn’t my problem. I just wanted a way out of that crummy job – one not involving a fatal dunk in the evil piranha tank. Somewhere in that evil-lair-secreted-in-a-hollowed-out-volcano there had to be a door marked exit.

Most of the partners I work with are looking for the same thing. The difference is, as a partner, you’re not an impostor pretending to be a low-level evil henchman – you’re an impostor pretending to be evil middle management.

“Preposterous!” you sputter, outraged. “Partners never condescend to be middle anything! They crouch, smugly, at the pinnacle of the evil pyramid! With one wiggle of their evil little finger…they manipulate human life!”

It can look that way from the bottom rung, whence a partner appears as far removed from a low-level evil henchman as a junior associate from a positive bank balance.

From the vantage of the pyramid’s sub-sub-basement, all partners appear interchangeable – the unifying feature being their utter dissimilarity from anyone like you. A partner’s one of them – evil incarnate, possessing his own evil headquarters – his own creepy evil white cat (for stroking purposes) – and his own weird evil European accent (with which to mutter, “Come now, Mr. Bond…”) A partner doesn’t have to drink the Kool-Aid – an iv bag of the stuff dangles by his bedside.

If only that were true. After getting all up-close and personal with a bevy of partners, I’ve caught wind of a terrifying reality: All partners are not the same. Most are nothing more than evil middle managers.

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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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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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