Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Part Two of a Running Series I started last week, about my former life as an associate in a large NYC law firm:

The Life, the whole associate-in-a-law firm thing depends upon massive power imbalances. The associate, a king in law school with a trail of bodies behind him to prove it, suddenly discovers he is powerless. Less in control of the day-to-day than he was when adhering to a particular bedtime, instructed by parents when to wash, shower, even shit.

But unlike a child, the associate can always engage in that most adult of acts. He can choose.

But a healthy salary and the promise of the Holy Grail . . . PARTNERSHIP, dangles before the eyes of this unmarried 26 year-old, looking to explore everything offered by that powerful formula known as Manhattan+Money. He doesn't have to go to bed. He can drink & eat & tomcat around, and do whatever else he chooses. When he's not working, that is. He's never forced to work, nor is he compelled to accept the lifestyle the firm affords him. Yet, most accept it.

And in return, they own you.

Some folks like the law firm life. They like the ass-kicking mentality, the quasi-militarism. A law firm isn't "corporate" in the sense often understood. It's no Dilbert society. Talents aren't compartmentalized, improvisation and creativity aren't discouraged. The Firm fosters a sense of ownership, and for many it rings true and plays out as such.

But it's most definitely hierarchical. And monastic. Like a novice studying and training for the cloth, or a journeyman working with permission of the guild, an associate lives to fulfill the every wish of the partner beneath whom he slaves. Word is law. Wishes are commands. Instructions, no matter how outrageous, are followed unquestioningly. Failure is tolerated . . . once. Beyond that, the one at fault is ostracized, no longer "invited" onto a given task, persona non grata on the team. And clearly, if implicitly, no longer on "The Partnership Track."

Ouch! So why does anyone do it? Again, many people like it. The hierarchy offers comfort, and a sense of purpose, a role, that a lot of lawyers seem to crave. Unlike a corporation, there's no fierce day-to-day competition. Sure, people'll see themselves in battle with other senior associates when they're each "up for partner." Afterall, many of them won't get the call. But it's an army. Work together. For the officers, the bosses, the partners, the owners of the firm. Make them happy and you've won. For a moment.

"What are you working on?"

The five words no associate wants to hear when a partner calls.

"Oh . . . a few matters. I'm on a case--"

"Who's running it?"

"Which one?"

"Never mind. I'd like you to do a discrete research project?"

Projects described as discrete are always long and indeterminate. They're buttering you up, and there's a reason.

"Research project? Yeah, I guess I . . ."

The other red flag rises when a partner says the project is "interesting" or, god forbid, "fun."

"Great. It's a really interesting project, very exciting case. The team is great . . . . Oh, that reminds me, call Joe Cohen*. You know him? My secretary'll get his number for you, and he'll fill you in and get you the materials. Get the matter number from her too. Bill it to . . . [shouting into the hall] Dawn, finish this call for me . . . "

And that toss to his secretary for logistics & other information will likely be the last contact with the partner.

The call can come on a Tuesday morning. Or it can come on Friday at 5:30 PM. Every associate has gotten one of those calls. And every associate knows in his heart that whatever the interesting project is, odds are it need not be solved by 10:00 AM Monday morning when the partner -- so eager to "explore options" three days earlier -- is no more interested in receiving work-related calls than the associate.

Is it malice? Not really. Muscle flexing? You bet. Concern for the actual lives of those one works above? None.

$140,000+, first year out of law school. $160,000+ by third year. That's how the associate rationalizes it. The partners rationalize it because an associate billing both days over a weekend means $3,000-$5,000 for the Firm. Hit that associate 20 weekends a year, Mr. Partner generates half the associate's salary, before one weekday billable hour gets logged. Do that with four associates, he's bringing in over $300,000 before he gets to work in the morning. He can't leave his associates alone on Friday afternoon. If he doesn't make the 5:30 phone call, one of his partners will, and that means less at year's end. That he'll earn $850,000 rather than $1.2 million doesn't gain my sympathy, but the incentives are clear.

Additionally, the effort and sacrifice required to make partner at a top law firm weeds out all but the most intelligent & hard-working. Everyone knows that one charismatic partner. The Natural Rainmaker. I know him too. Now forget about him. He's rare. A statistical oddity of no consequence in analyzing The Life. Far more common is the 40 year-old nerd. The kid with the thick glasses who played D&D and memorized the patterns to Pac-Man in high school. When he wasn't studying, which was almost all the time.

Then he actually continued working like a maniac at college, discovering he could get laid and have some frat-boy friends by continuing to study hard, setting up for a life of material success. Then the same through three years of law school, probably a clerkship or internship here or there, an academic law article or two published in a journal only the most dedicated read. And then, another eight or nine years of his life sacrificed to stay on that partnership track.

But he owns. He's a Member of The Firm. He's gonna care if some 27 year-old has to cancel a date or a trip to the beach? When he can earn money by doling it out? When he spent nineteen straight weekends at work over the spring and summer he was 27, a summer during which he attended no beach gatherings, saw no concerts, and read no books, save those relating to indemnity, personal jurisdiction, and the local court rules? Not a chance.

He may not spend much quality time with the kids and wife #2, a paralegal he worked with when he was a 7th year associate. He may drive his $125,000 BMW on a wide, flat highway only twice a year. He may never read that book, or see that concert, and may be too tired & stressed out to bother touching the woman unfortunate enough to love him. But he owns the firm, and he's worked harder than a normal person can comprehend in order to achieve that ownership.

The associate's coming in over the weekend.


* Not a real person


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I will post this anonymously but Mike you will recognize me.

As you know I was one of the rare few that really enjoyed my time at a Big Firm. But there definitely was this mentality that a law firm associate is not allowed to be human. I felt like I should never be hungry, tired, or even have to go to the bathroom. Especially at a firm that considers itself "collegial" -- this means that even though you were at work till 2:00 AM and back for a 9:00 AM meeting, that is no excuse for being in a bad mood, or worse yet, irritable! And of course the human need for companionship, friendship, a relationship -- for any contact with any other human outside of the walls of the law firm is totally unacceptable.

1:43 PM  
Anonymous Donna said...

Mike, sympathies. The experiences you discuss are a great deal like medical school, internship and residency, except there isn't as much emphasis on the salary (at least not in my day, 25 years ago--it was =very= uncool to be seen as going into medicine for the money). Soul-destroying systems, law and medicine. I'm well out of it.

2:31 PM  
Blogger bdodgey said...

Mike - you certainly paint a formidable picture.

I imagine the situation is comparable in Australia - it's something that really makes me a bit apprehensive at times.

You can do all the clerkships & internships you like, but the big ones do a damn good job (I get the impression) of making you think they're giveing you a snapshot of life at X, without really telling you what to expect.

I've been doing some paralegal work for 2 years now at a boutique firm - 2 partners, 2 solicitors and another clerk. I've got to say it's been an amazing experience - I have more responsiblity and hands-on work that I'll probably see for the first 5 years at a top-tier.

But, I don't think I'll be strong enough to resist that graduate salary after the years of uni poverty... oh well.

9:41 AM  
Blogger ORF said...

You should perhaps counsel my friend the Attractive Nuisance as she's about to join a firm this fall...I'm not real sure what she's expecting, but I DO know she will not appreciate 5:30 Friday phone calls....

I am a cyber-tard, so I don't know how to attach her link here, but it's on my place listed as "My Legal Counsel."

5:36 PM  

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