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Posts Tagged ‘Sullivan & Cromwell’

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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A visit to my office has evolved into something akin to the road to Lourdes. Pilgrims arrive red-eyed and defeated, faces etched with misery, searching for a way out of a trap.

The standard story is some variant of the following: You are either out of work or loathe your work. You have $180k in loans. You have either no income or an impermanent income paid to you in exchange for any joy life might offer. You see no hope.

Let me spell out the critical element here: You are one hundred and eighty thousand dollars in debt.

Just to fully drive the point home: that’s bankruptcy-proof debt.

You’ve yelled at your parents, but it’s not really their fault. You’ve wept and wailed and gotten drunk and stoned and consumed a script of Xanax. You’ve tried sleeping and pretending you don’t have to wake up.

Then comes the pilgrimage. Perhaps I can heal with a laying on of hands.

Okay, here’s the feedback I’ll receive for what I’ve written so far:

You’re exaggerating. You’re bringing me down. Law isn’t so bad. I love law.

Yeah, well good for you. I’m not exaggerating.

It’s their own damn fault. No one made them go to law school.

Yes. They. Did. Stop kidding yourself – the entire system is engineered to lead smart, conscientious kids exactly where it leads them. And get off it already with the no sympathy/blame the victim routine.

How bad are things? How many times can I pose that (at this point rhetorical) question?

Young lawyers look me in the eye and ask, how am I supposed to carry on with my life? What they mean is – how is one supposed to live a life worth living – a life that satisfies one as a human being – trapped in the hell of law and law school loans?

Sometime, I ask them what they would be doing with their lives, if they didn’t have loans. Here are some of their answers:
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Atul Gawande is a medical superstar – a surgeon at Harvard who’s also a New Yorker magazine writer, and the author of several books. His latest push is for doctors to use checklists to prevent common mistakes during surgery. A scary percentage of the time, it turns out, things grow overwhelmingly complicated in an operating room and a nurse or an anesthesiologist, or a resident (or whoever) gets distracted and forgets to do something basic – like confirm there’s extra blood in the fridge, or plug that little hose into the machine that keeps you breathing.

It happens. People forget things. Best to err on the safe side, and use a checklist.

The idea comes from aircraft pilots. It turns out they use checklists for absolutely everything – a pilot literally can’t step into a plane without a checklist. Pre-take-off, take-off, pre-landing, landing, and every possible contingency that might happen in-between is assigned a checklist. That’s because when you’re a pilot and you forget something, well…it can be a problem. Kind of like a surgeon.

Or a lawyer.

This isn’t exactly a new idea. The first thing I received at Sullivan & Cromwell when I arrived there was a checklist – and my first task was to start ticking off items. That’s how you handle a corporate deal closing – otherwise you’d never keep track of all the officer’s certificates and securities certificates and side agreements and various other bits of paper required for that six hundred million dollar acquisition of the rubber plant in Brazil (or whatever.) If you’re the junior associate and you forget something that needs to be on a closing table, well… it can be a problem.

But there’s another surprising finding in Gawande’s new book, “The Checklist Manifesto.” One required item on pilots’ checklists simply instructs them to stop and introduce themselves. During that process, they explain their responsibilities to one another, including any pertinent details regarding that specific flight. It sounds like this:

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I was chased down the sidewalk by a breathless woman.

“You’re the guy who made me vegetarian!” she announced between gasps.

I didn’t know what she was talking about.

It turned out she’d worked as a paralegal, years before, at Sullivan & Cromwell.  I didn’t feel guilty about not remembering her.  We only toiled together once – a grueling all-nighter preparing for an M&A closing.

We ordered take-out burgers that night, and I opted for a veggie burger.  She asked why I wasn’t eating meat.  At first I played it down – mumbled something like “don’t feel like it.”  Carnivores can grow testy if you fail to consume meat in their presence – they take it as a personal affront.  I’ve learned to tread lightly.

But she persisted, with genuine curiosity, so I told her the truth:

“You don’t have to go there – no one’s asking you too,” I said.  “But if you do go there, you’ll stop eating meat.”

That was it.

Ever since that night, she told me on the sidewalk, she’d been vegetarian.

All it took was going there – well, having someone tell you there was a “there ” to go to, then making the trip.

No, I’m not going to spell out where “there” is – you know perfectly well and I’m not here to preach.  I’m here to talk about consciousness-raising, not vegetarianism.  Specifically, consciousness-raising around alcohol.

You know, alcohol – those lambent elixirs stored in gleaming bottles; the all-American can of beer that pops open to seal friendship and inaugurate cherished memories; the cork shooting from a pricey bottle of champagne to harken in merriment and delight.

Yeah.  Ethanol.  Ethyl alcohol.  Let’s tackle the popular mythology surrounding this stuff. We can start with what I call the Maya Angelou rule.

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I received an offer recently that I couldn’t refuse – an invitation from “legal search consultants.”

Headhunters!

They were having a convention and asked if I wanted to drop by, and, you know, say hi.

Vague images flitted through my mind – guys in suits dancing in a conga line wearing hats with silly horns.

I don’t often get invited to shindigs. I’m a therapist. Mostly, I visit my office, my dog and whoever’s sitting in the other chair. Or I sit at my desk and write columns. Ask me to a party? Hell yeah, I’m down. I’m all over it like a tall dog in a cheap suit. You looking to turn it out? Count me in.

I never say no to headhunters, conga lines and hats with silly horns.

So I went. And it was fun.

Here’s the newsflash about headhunters – they’re good peeps.

At very least, they’re more fun than lawyers. In fact, many of them were lawyers, but had to get out because they were too fun.

They can also teach you stuff you need to know – not just pointers on beer pong and naked Twister.

Behold three key lessons acquired whilst getting down with my bad self in the company of legal search consultant party animals…

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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 tell the truth in these columns – at least, to the degree I find convenient or advisable. There is such a thing as a surfeit of veracity. My clients are lawyers, so god help me if I record something a little too candid with regard to their doings. Just talking about myself raises issues.

I haven’t worked at Sullivan & Cromwell since 1999. A statute of limitations must cover misdeeds perpetrated in that dim, dusky epoch. But I’m not betting the farm on it.

I will, therefore, tread with caution as I recount events that occurred in the life of a close friend who practiced at Sullivan & Cromwell during that time, someone whose tenure at this august institution coincided precisely with my own. A dear, personal friend.

It is possible this person occasionally misrepresented his billable hours.

I know. You’re sickened. Awash with a visceral revulsion.

Could I be saying what you think I’m saying!? Not that. It’s unthinkable.

I shall not shy away from the painful truth. I’ll say it: my close personal friend cheated on his hours. At least I think he did. I only think, because he was so sloppy in keeping track of his hours it wasn’t clear what they actually were.

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