Friday, April 28, 2006

GUILT BY ASSOCIATION, PART I

All the posturing and politicking seeping out of DC this past week or so, in the context of energy, energy prices & energy policy, got me thinking of a short piece I wrote a couple weeks ago. Since it relates to my experiences as a big firm attorney, I figured now was a good point to launch a running "series" I've figured on introducing here. As my "profile" explains, I'm not only a lawyer (and I play one on television), but a lawyer who's all but fed up with The Life, who's looking for a way to do something else.

So, without any further ado, the first in what I hope will be many tales, stories, anecdotes & observations of my existence in the strange world of the big city law firm:


One reason New York remains so bright at night is that all the lights, on every floor of every office building, stay on. Forget the external lights, the Empire State Building's blue & white beacon (when the Yanks make their annual post-season appearance), or red & green (in December), or red & black (when Bush comes to town). No, I mean the lights in individual offices.

I can't pretend to know why office management leaves the lights on. But I know why individuals do: Arrogance & Living A Lie. Lemme explain.

Arrogance:

The overblown sense of self-importance that resides in the ego of a big firm lawyer is hard to comprehend unless you've worked with one. Or worked with one thousand. Fresh outta law school at 25, or 28, or 31. Making six figures even though he knows nothing, and can do less than nothing. And sitting in a swank office, with a secretary and comped late-night dinners and car service home after grueling hours at his desk. Intoxicating for most, toxic for some.

And this 26 year-old schmuck, armed with a law license, a corporate AMEX card, a larger weekly salary than he made in a month six months earlier is gonna be bothered turning off the lights? It never happens. Lot of reasons I left the law firm associate world. That's one.

Living The Lie:

This one's more subtle. A law firm pays its expenses (and earns partner profits) through billable hours. Realtors are taught their ABCs, Always Be Closing? I dunno; according to Mamet they are. But associates are taught their ABBs. Not American Bar Board or anything like that. No. Always Be Billing.

A masochistic world of competing suffering develops. "I'm so tired," one associate complains (read: brags), "I worked til 2:30 last night."

"Ohhh, I hear you," her fellow associate whines (read: brags), "I was here til 4:00."

It's soul-shattering and it's a sickness. But I digress.

A weird phenomenon takes hold whereby no one wants to admit -- to partners, to fellow associates, to himself -- that he leaves work at a human hour. He'll lie about when he left, she'll come in on the weekend in the hope of being seen by the stray partner, he'll leave his suit jacket on his chair when he goes out for a longer-than-usual lunch. And . . .

. . . he'll purposely leave the lights on when he goes home. So no one will know he left. So the partner -- who, in reality, barely knows this associate exists, and certainly doesn't know which office is his -- will see his late hours struggles and consider him for partnership in 7 years. It's that sick.

Now, in one of the many ways I set myself apart from this industry I hated, I always turned my lights out when I went home. Partly for environmental/energy reasons. But mostly as my angry way of screaming, "I won't play by the 'rules.'"

But again I digress.

Before heading into the nomadic world of independent contracting, I was friends with a fellow associate at one of my old firms. He had impeccable environmentalist credentials: Sierra Club contributor; his own canvas bag for shopping; a reformed vegan who nonetheless refused to eat meat because it had some influence on the Brazilian rainforests that was never clear to me; threw his own blood onto the fur coat of the firm's managing partner (ok, I made that last part up). He left his lights on when he went home.

"Why do you leave your lights on when you leave?" I asked him. "Not very environmentally sound."

"The cleaning lady's coming around soon after I leave," he explained. "She'll turn em off."

"Then why don't you turn them off yourself?" I retorted. "Anyway, once she turns them off, people'll know you're not here."

"That's not why I do it," he lied, piling a verbal prevarication on-top of that which he lived. "It's just easier to leave it for her . . ." he continued.

"Then why not turn them off yourself to save energy?"

Or something like that. I think he finally admitted there was no good reason to leave them on and said he'd think about turning them off when he went home.

And that evening -- and every evening til I left the firm -- he, like all the other attorneys, left his lights on.

So, late into the evening, at every law firm, the lights remain on in all the individual offices. A whole world of attorneys working late, although 75% of those offices are empty. And the folks who actually remain at the office couldn't possibly care less about the truth of this charade. All they want to do is finish up and go home. Or they're workaholics, all too happy to slave away into the night, oblivious to whether anyone else is with them.

And finally, none of those who ostensibly care -- the partners -- are there to observe this strange dance. They're long gone, back in their homes. Being workaholics themselves, and only too happy to generate the staggeringly expensive hours they bill to the client, they're probably working too. But the computer and phone in their home office serves this need well enough.

Very few partners have enjoyed the beautiful nighttime view of New York since they were associates, and had a much smaller window through which to take it in. But they wouldn't get to enjoy it too much anyhow, since the lights would be on, casting a reflection and spoiling the scene.

3 Comments:

Blogger ORF said...

A lot of buildings leave the lights on for security reasons, but also because it takes a LOT of energy to "boot" them up in the mornings when the employees come in. So much so that they take less energy to leave on all night. However, I used to work in an office that had motion sensor lights and they would turn off if a certain area sat "dormant" for a certain period of time. It was a "green" building, so I'm guessing they had a different type of light fixture that was more energy efficient all around.

thx for stopping by the blog, by the way!

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Orf-

I've heard that, about the energy to "fire em up" vs the energy to leave them on. Frankly, I don't know one way or the other (I'm not an engineer, nor do I play one on television), but something sounds a little fishy to me. I'm not saying you're making anything up, nor was the person that told you. But there's juuuuust a bit of an urban legend feel to this one.

Anyone know for certain?

10:21 AM  
Blogger bdodgey said...

I can say for certain (as a budding lawyer AND engineer) that it depends on the light in question.

:)

9:46 AM  

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