Tuesday, May 09, 2006

GUILT BY ASSOCIATION, PART III

Part Three of a Running Series (names & other easily recognized facts changed to protect the innocent, and to protect me from the guilty):

The Trial. A mere four months into my career as hungry, young litigator, I shipped off to our nation's capital to defend a major international corporation from various civil charges levied against it by plaintiffs large & small, American & foreign, in an extraordinarily complex case involving 89% of all possible Federal causes of action. The trial lasted 11 weeks. Possibly the worst 11 weeks of my life.

Whatever image you have of a trial lawyer, lose it. Now. While this image may contain elements of truth, I can assure you that it doesn't include the first year associate, sifting through documents, logging the exhibits used at trial, cite-checking one of the manifold motions filed during the course of the proceedings. Let's put it this way: the press that covered the trial didn't ask me what I thought about any given day of testimony. I doubt they would have known I was part of the team.

The Team. Along with 20 attorneys & about 10 non-attorneys from three different law firms, I was part of an army, a finely-honed corps of lawyers, paralegals, secretaries, IT people, marching daily into Federal Court, towing boxes & laptops, projectors & reems of paper. We won, partly through hard work (and a favorable case -- the real lawyer's best friend). But we also won a war of attrition against plaintiffs we could outspend. We had more lawyers, more staff, and more money to spend on all that paper & IT support. That won't win an unwinnable case, but when the odds are in that 50/50 range, it's huge. Like having the better coach or the better bench in sports. Not enough to win it for you outright, but a real difference maker when it's close.

The whole D.C. trip got off to a rotten start. I did the prep work for a deposition that Nash, one of our partners, took in D.C., one week before the scheduled D-day. After busting my ass for the 8th straight weekend, then zipping down to the firm's Washington office for prep on Monday and the deposition on Tuesday, I was set to head back to N.Y. for a last weekend of domesticity before leaving wife and home for the unknown frontier. She was quickly growing unreasonable after two months of my at-first-gentle, then less-subtle-as-time-went-on, requests to talk over this whole "husband away for 2 or 3 months" thing. Call me an overplanner, but this journey seemed like a late edit to the script of our marriage. Finally about a week before I was set to leave, the fact seemed to hit her, and the hysteria kicked in.

After the deposition ended, I went to grab my bag, which I'd left in a conference room. But along with my bag, I noticed a crew of about five associates in the room, reviewing documents and preparing the exhibits list. The exhibits list. A project that had absorbed a good month or two of my life at that point. In fact, Bagby, Natali and I -- the three junior associates, two first years, one third -- had covered that angle from at least five different directions. Named the Documents Czar by the paralegals, I thought I'd put in my time on that project. But, for some reason, there sat the rumored, but not-yet-seen, Chicago Associates, contracted to our firm as compensation for permitting one of their hot-shot partners to deliver rip-roaring opening & closing arguments. And these Chicago Associates were reviewing and double checking my exhibits list. I was perturbed, but I had no time for ownership; I wanted to get back to N.Y.

Yet I noticed something very disturbing. Quite, quite disturbing. Next to one of the female Chicago Associates sat Bagby. Working. Hard.

"What are you doing here?" I asked him.

"They decided to get all the junior associates here to start prepping for trial."

"Prepping for trial??? What the fuck have we been doing for three months?"

"No, I mean the real, final prep. They want all of us here for good. Now. Last round of pre-trial motions, research. And finalizing the exhibits list."

"The exhibits list???" Confounded questions were the extent of my communications ability at that point.

"Yeah, Vitali told Debbie he wasn't sure we got every exhibit we need, so . . . "

"Three years of experience, and he still doesn't know when to keep his damn mouth shut. What an ass."

"What an ass-kisser."

So I explained to him that I needed to get back to N.Y., "to get my stuff to bring back down" and I'd join him in this pit of doom in a day or so.

Riding back to N.Y. on the Acela train I was bombarded by e-mails, my blackberry bringing me the minute-by-minute reports of hostility and pessimism and pettiness and all the other horrible emotional traits that manage to slip out of their cages when their owners get themselves into stressful, taxing situations. The blackberry, like its cousin the cellphone, is a horrid invention. Like the cellphone it grants access to a world that excludes and makes pariahs of those who don't want to enter. Like the ubiquitous cellphone it lets one enjoy a luxury that he didn't need, didn't even know he needed, just a few months earlier. And like that goddamned cellphone, it's a ball-and-chain. Another link in the irons that shackle us to the wall of paychecks and mortgages and prestige and other things we don't need, but insist on having.

The slack was tightening fast.

"Mike," Bagby wrote, "Debbie is pissed. You better call her. She's muttering and bitching about how you're not here," blah, blah, blah. Debbie: senior associate, soon to be partner. Debbie: married woman, soon to be divorced. Debbie: always intense, soon to be angry. She was gettin herself into Army-on-the-March-mode. The chosen state-of-mind of 4/5 of the lunatics that shipped out to D.C .to defend capitalism, abandon woman-and-child, drink, cheat, bullshit and bicker their way to Victory! Team, rah, rah.

I was doomed.

I got back to N.Y. and pretty much swallowed Debbie's e-mail anger. She made it clear they expected me down there as soon as I could get it together. I made out that I had a lot of loose ends to wrap up at the office, and I'd arrive the following night or Thursday morning. My wife and I engaged in what we thought was our next-to-last night together. It ended up being quiet, we ordered Chinese, and went to bed early.

I headed to work at the usual hour the next day, figuring to take it easy, have lunch with Sean & Rick, say "goodbye" to a few chosen folks and spend a nice evening with the wife before shipping out. But the e-mails started early & often. By the time I got to the office I knew things were shaky. By 10:30, the walls caved in. My secretary buzzed, informing me that the receptionist at the D.C. office called, telling her that Debbie was trying to reach me. She wanted me in D.C. ASAP.

"Why didn't she call me directly?"

"She thought you weren't coming in today." Damn, I could've stayed at home.

And that was pretty much it. After a frantic set of calls to my wife's cell, I managed to reach her, headed out to some mission that easily could have kept her incommunicado. I met Sean downstairs for a smoke, a habit firmly re-ensconsed in my routine by that point, and taxi'd home, courtesy of our client's famously rich CEO, to pack and catch the 2:21 Acela Express to Washington. For this I studied my ass off in law school? Was $125,000 worth this? I felt like a private heading out to battle. My wife cried in the cab to Penn Station. I just felt numb.

I never cry at the "appropriate" time. I was the only person not crying at my mother's funeral. Father, aunt, nephew, niece, aunt's ex-husband, friends, every eye was drenched. I broke down sobbing on my friend's shoulder for hours on the boardwalk by his beach house eight months later while his frat brothers drank in the yard. And again, sitting on a doorstep in the village one drunken evening, with a different friend six months after that.

But this mini-tragedy, this disaster, this moment resembling nothing of the visions and fantasies I'd drawn out through the years, this one was of my own doing. I'd accepted the blood money, and now . . . ?

How could REM or Carlos Santana or Liz Phair "sell out"? How could Clemens pitch for the Yankees? How could I obey the whimsical commands of a woman painting the lines on the highway to her own divorce, and voluntarily tell the driver to take me to Penn Station as my wife cried? So The Famously Wealthy CEO's personal worth could stand at its customary $12B rather than dropping to $10B?

It's easy, when you buy into The Life. That's what you do.

You're a lawyer, and lawyers work, and they make sacrifices, and they advocate zealously for the client, and so it goes, so it went, so it will go. As a monk lives by the tenets of the church, so the associate lives by the tenets of the firm. The attitude infuses the atmosphere. People speak glowingly, in awe-struck wonderment, of the associate who billed 3700 hours. They brag-via-complaining of the long weekend they worked and the fun & frivolous events they missed as a result. A warped world of masochism & suffering. And that is that.

I kissed my wife goodbye, boarded the train, and stared out the window at the rolling New Jersey countryside, awaiting whatever Washington would present. I didn't know what to expect, but I knew it wouldn't be good.

To be continued . . .

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike:

Beautifully written. Having gone through a slightly different but highly stressful story myself (I worked for most of my career in a small law firm where I was able to try my first case three months into employment and made partner in six years) I can totally feel for you. BTW, as a small firm attorney, I truly laughed at and commisserated the batallions of young associates lugging thick briefcases and doing all the real work for their masters. You all large firm associates had the same bewildered, stressed, highly competent, pasty look to go along with the already expanding mid-riff brought about by too much Chinese at 12:30 a.m. while putting away your 100 billable hours weeks for the partners.

Anyway, I brought back memories, lots of them.

Cheers,

Jorge

7:13 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Partner-in-six-years. Does-not-compute. Do-not-understand-your-strange-words.

7:31 AM  

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