GUILT BY ASSOCIATION, PART I
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.
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.