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Posts Tagged ‘partners’

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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