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Posts Tagged ‘partners’

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There’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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upsidedownhouseWe all know lawyers are pleasers. Everyone knows that. The weird thing is how it doesn’t feel that way from the inside. When you are a lawyer, and a pleaser, you don’t think you’re a pleaser – it seems more like you’re the only conscientious person in the world. You are the one who shows up on time, sits in the first row and hands your homework in on schedule, always perfect. Other people don’t, and that’s annoying. Thus begins a typical lawyer pet peeve – that other people never live up to their obligations. Stretch that out to the extreme, and you wind up doing a job where you bill 3,000 hours a year, just to set a good example for everyone else.

The odd thing is that lawyers simultaneously manage to feel a bit like imposters even as they’re pleasing, because pleasing isn’t the same thing as achieving. Achieving is an objective fact – you have accomplished something useful, good, of value. Pleasing just means you’ve convinced someone else that you’ve given them what they wanted, which might involve little more than smoke, mirrors and billable hours.

Lawyers are good at working hard, just like they’re good at racking up grades in school, which amounts to pleasing teachers. But hard work and good grades in school don’t mean you can play saxophone or or paint a portrait or write a gripping novel. It doesn’t mean you can design a computer or cure cancer either, especially since lawyers tend not to be much good at science and math (if you were any good at that stuff, you’ve have gone to med school and really pleased your parents.) Even if you are a lawyer good at science or math, it’s unlikely you’re designing computers or curing cancer because you’re probably an IP lawyer, who fled the lab bench for “money and prestige” (the magical lawyer incantation.) It’s a small wonder “imposter syndrome” thrives among lawyers. Don’t think you fooled me. We both know you aren’t really that good – you just run around trying to please everybody to distract them from the sense of defectiveness that haunts you, keeps you dancing so it won’t become obvious you’ve no idea what you want to do with your life. Everyone else seems to have somehow figured out what they want to do with theirs. Except lawyers.

So who do lawyers seek to please? Lots of folks. Pretty much everyone, except themselves.

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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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members-onlyI was recently interviewed by the lovely and vivacious Melissa Maleske, Senior Reporter for Law 360, for an article entitled “How to Stop Hating Your BigLaw Life” – and you can read it here.

Aha!  But there’s a catch (there always seems to be a catch in law, n’est-ce pas?)  You see, Law 360 is a LexisNexis Company, and you know how LexisNexis works:  You no pay, You no read.

Yes….One must subscribe to LexisNexis in order to indulge in the sybaritic delights that await you behind its sturdy paywall.

Luckily, they have a free trial offer.  So it’s really no big deal.

But, in order to tantalize you further – and to render the temptation frankly unendurable – here’s an excerpt from the article:

Based on the statistics, their pool of potential clients is considerable. The American Psychological Association has found that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to have depression than the general population. The Centers for Disease Control says lawyers are near the top of the list when suicide deaths are sorted by profession.
“It’s pretty clear that firms don’t care [about lawyer happiness],” Meyerhofer says. “Frankly, there are plenty more lawyers out there, you can grind one up and spit it out and another lines up. … I think they’ve created a world where everyone from the junior associates to the senior partners are making a tradeoff — money in exchange for an unhealthy lifestyle — and it’s kind of tragic.”

…and one more tantalizing tidbit:

There are lawyers who get a genuine thrill and sense of satisfaction out of practicing law. If you’re not one of them and you’re miserable, there’s a way out. For Meyerhofer, the realization came when he confronted the fact that this isn’t just a dress rehearsal for life, this is it. Why spend his life on work that he had no true interest in or acumen for?
“The big problem in law is that the profession has an awful lot of people who don’t belong there,” Meyerhofer says. “They just don’t really love law. They’re smart and they can do it. The schools are eager to train them and the firms snap them up. … Law is so intense that you better love it. I know lawyers who don’t mind working all night on that brief or staying all weekend to close that deal because they love it. But that’s a rare bird.”

Now you must keep reading.  Resistance is futile.  Go ahead, sign up, log in.  Tune in, turn on, drop out.  Tear down the wall.  Do what you must.  Foment revolution.  Burn it all down.  But get inside.
==========

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

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

My latest book is 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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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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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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Someone posted the following astonishing comment in response to one of my columns a few months back:

“I’ve never worked in a biglaw firm, but what happens if an associate just says no, I am busy this weekend, or no, I am on vacation that week, so I won’t be able to do that project. Do you immediately get fired? If that’s true, then you must not really have much to offer to the firm in the first place. In a situation where the associate had some real value to offer to the firm, I do not see why the firm would fire someone for that. Am I hopelessly naive?”

Go ahead – laugh. Get it out of your system. You know perfectly well your guffaws wear thin, right about when that twinge of poignancy creeps in. You, too, once mulled the notion of rising above the fray – going all Bartleby the Scrivener and muttering “I’d prefer not to” when asked – oops, I mean told – to work and work and work and work and work.

This “pure fool” of a comment-writer has raised a troubling issue (and that, by the way, was a combined Parsifal and Magic Mountain reference…this will be one of those classy columns larded with literary allusions.) Cower behind your carapace of cynicism, but sooner or later you’ll admit you weren’t always like this. You weren’t always a broken, cynical wreck who jumps at the slightest command. You used to be Bartleby The Scrivener, too. You imagined you were valued as a unique, complex individual. You imagined you held some sway over your own existence – some “preferences.”

I know it’s no fun trying to remember the stuff you read in college, but please attempt to keep up. Even if you weren’t an undergraduate English major, you might recall that the narrator of “Bartleby the Scrivener” was called “The Lawyer.” That’s right: “The Lawyer.” The whole thing takes place in a law firm! And remember what a scrivener did? It was the worst job in the firm – probably one of the worst jobs of all time. You sat at a desk copying legal documents – handwriting them – for hours. Reminiscent of doc review, or due diligence, or “running changes” – scrivening was mindless and, if you kept at it for too long, guaranteed to drive you bat-shit. You – and everyone else – would obviously “prefer not to.”

And yet, somehow or other, our narrator – “The Lawyer” (i.e., a partner at the firm) – is astonished when Bartleby, after being asked politely to scriven something, even more politely states in return: “I’d prefer not to.” The Lawyer explains his astonishment at Bartleby’s resistance by pointing out how he, as a partner – even in 1853! – possesses a “natural expectancy of instant compliance.”

You know all about that, right? The “natural expectancy of instant compliance”? Sure you do.

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I participated recently in a panel discussion at a conference, speaking with other lawyer/blogger types in front of an audience consisting largely of people from law firms and law schools.

After we finished, I did the decent thing and sat and listened to the panel that followed mine. I happened to choose an empty seat next to a woman who introduced herself to me later as a Dean at a law school, in charge of career placement, or whatever the euphemism is for trying to find students non-existent jobs. The law school was obscure – one of those dreaded “third tier” places.

She confronted me afterwards. “I guess I’m the bad guy, huh?”

I was startled by her candor, but knew what she meant. This was one of those people from a third tier law school – the greedy cynical fraudsters signing kids up for worthless degrees, then leaving them high and dry – unemployed and deeply in debt.

Despite her participation in crimes against humanity, I had to admit she didn’t seem so bad, in person.

Then I snapped back to my senses – and went on the attack, assuming my sacred role as The People’s burning spear of vengeance.

“At very least, you have to admit the tuition is too high,” I vituperated.

“Don’t talk to me about tuition,” she rejoined. “It’s the tenured faculty – that’s where that money’s going.”

She took a step closer and lowered her voice, taking me into her evil confidence.

“I’ll tell you what I’m looking at. I’ve got to find kids jobs – that’s it, my assignment. Here’s how bad it’s gotten. Someone called the other day and said ‘I’m getting evicted – you have to find me something, anything.’”

Her face looked dead serious. She wanted The People’s burning spear of vengeance to hear this.

“I called in every favor – I called everyone I knew. What more can I do?”

I acknowledged her point, grudgingly. Maybe this was a lesser villain. Perhaps some vestige of good remained in her corrupted, blackened soul.

“The best thing,” she continued, “and it’s going to happen – will be a bunch of schools shrink their class sizes or close down completely.”

She paused while we mutually processed the implications – namely, that she’d lose her job.

“That would be the best thing,” she repeated for emphasis, as though daring me to believe her. I did.

I left the conference chewing over the big question: If that lady I’d just met, and chatted with, was Lucifer herself – then she failed to convince. In which case, who’s left? Who is the Great Satan?

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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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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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