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Posts Tagged ‘Shearman & Sterling’

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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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 summered at Shearman & Sterling way back in 1996. Judging from my clients’ feedback, the summer associate “experience” at big law firms hasn’t changed much over the years. With the recession, it’s harder to get a summer associate position – but once you’re in, it’s pretty much the same old thing – or maybe the same old thing on lysergic acid diethylamide. It was a pretty weird experience to begin with.

As a summer associate, you’re entering Bizarro World, and nothing makes sense in Bizarro World. Nothing ever has, and nothing ever will.

Here’s how it works:

You show up, dressed in the new suit you probably bought with your mom. You’re a little nervous and eager to impress. The first day starts out pretty much as you’d expect, with human resources spiels – “trainings” – on stuff like how to use the library, how to turn on your computer, how to find the word-processing department, whatever.

You are presented with your desk – your own desk in a law firm! You chat excitedly with the other summers, sizing one another up, seeking allies – someone you can trust, who seems to be thinking the same things you are. There are no obvious candidates.

What now?

Eventually you are introduced to a senior associate and given your first assignment. You rush off to finish it and promise yourself it will be the best summer associate assignment in the history of the firm. As you get down to work, it turns out to be some confusing research question that either has an obvious answer that you find in about twenty minutes, or it’s not really a question at all, it’s just a broad open-ended request to poke around for cases, so you’re not sure what they want. Or it’s an inquiry regarding the income taxation of irrevocable charitable annuity trust stand-by provisions in the State of Florida under provision b(7), and you’re feeling a little out of your depth.

Either:

You finish it in twenty minutes, with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that maybe you did something wrong. So you wait an hour or two, re-checking everything, then poke around the library trying to look serious and busy before you hand it in.

Or you struggle through dozens of cases, trying to find something relevant, with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that maybe you’re doing something wrong, but determined to produce a good heap of print-outs and some sort of summary even if you suspect you might be totally off-point.

Or you try to figure out what a charitable annuity trust is and stand gaping like an idiot while the punctilious and efficient law librarian produces state law documents that appear to be written in Klingon. A cold wave of panic rolls up your spine. You wonder if it’s worth the risk to ask the senior associate for more guidance.

Let’s say you actually go back to the senior associate. You brace yourself to look like an idiot. You knock on his office door, and he’s surprisingly friendly.

“Ummmm…I’m not sure I understood the parameters of the question. Do you think I could walk through it with you for a minute?”

He smiles, and too-quickly agrees that the question was a little unclear, but says it looks like you did a great job of “taking a stab at it.” He admits he’s busy at the moment, and suggests you put it down for now, but adds that you’ve “done a great job” and he’ll have another assignment for you soon.

That was your first assignment and you’re sure all you’ve accomplished is to make the one guy you needed to impress think you’re an idiot.

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When I summered at Shearman & Sterling back in the late ’90s, the partners had just voted on whether to install a gym in the building or create a formal dining room.

Needless to say, they went with the dining room.

It was strictly lawyers-only. At the center stood a buffet fit for a cruise ship, replete with heaping chafing dishes. On certain days, they even had a “prime rib station,” manned by a guy wearing a toque.

This was the golden trough. We fed with complete abandon – at least on days when we weren’t being whisked off to The Four Seasons by a partner pretending to remember our names.

The joke was that all summer associates at Shearman gained 15 pounds.

It wasn’t a joke. We did.

Almost overnight a relatively in-shape pack of law students morphed into a fresh, pudgy litter of big firm attorneys.

It’s no secret law firms ply you with food to address the fact that they’re denying you everything else.

You’re giving up a social life and working around the clock – but there’s a smorgasbord only steps away, and free cookies in the conference rooms! If it gets really late (which happens a lot), you can order anything you want – anything! – from the 75 take-out menus stuffed in your secretary’s desk drawer.

One late night at S&C, we decided to push the envelope. We all ordered take-out “surf-and-turf” platters. It was absurd – bleary-eyed associates tearing into steak and lobster tails with plastic forks and knives, sitting around a table cluttered with closing documents.

That was, admittedly, taking things to extremes. But eating at law firms is always something of a parody of a true dining experience. It amounts to exacting revenge for the fact of your presence there when you’d rather be somewhere else.

In my day, at least, the financial printers was the ultimate example of what we used to call “punitive billing.” They knew you resented spending your night in that place proofing offering documents, and the client was paying the bill. So they outfitted their proofing rooms like suites on a yacht, with menus elegantly bound between leather covers.

If you nodded in the direction of a printer employee at 1 am when he asked if he could get you anything, you’d probably end up with a $300 plate of sushi from the best joint in TriBeCa.

I know – it happened to me.

I stuffed myself until I felt ridiculous, then simply gave up. I hope somebody ate it.

Ultimately, lawyers eat their anger. They pig out at the client’s expense – or the law firm’s – because they hate the way they’re treated.

Ironically – and I know this because in the business world I dealt with outside counsel – clients resent how much their lawyers charge, and punish them by demanding insane deadlines and making them work nights and weekends.

The wheel of bad karma just keeps turning.

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