Thursday, October 28, 2010

Jiminy Cricket

(probably there should be some kind of credit for this graphic,
but I got it from someone I'm pretty sure "borrowed" it as well, with no credit given)

When I was a kid, I was watching some Disney cartoon, and our friend Jiminy Cricket ended the cartoon doing a voice-over, and said something that I have never forgotten.  It's not particularly profound, though it seemed like it was to my 8 year old brain.  I can still hear his wise-cricket voice, saying, "That's human nature for you.  Never satisfied."  I think this sentiment pretty perfectly sums up what it means to be working in Biglaw.  I'm a junior associate, but I understand this runs all the way up the chain.   

When you're busy, all you want is to be slow.  You're billing 70 hours a week, which means you're working 80.  You're bloated from all the take-out you eat sitting at your desk at 11 pm (broccoli always seems like a good idea, but almost never is).  You wake up in the morning, after 4 1/2 hours of sleep and try to figure out in your head the next time you can sleep more than 6 hours.  Usually it is about 4 days away.  And yet, the expectation is that you will nevertheless turn out perfect work product in a minimal amount of time.  You haven't seen your significant other (awake) in about 2 weeks, and your "weekends" consist of sitting in your home office, listening to your family laugh and play in the next room. And then....

When you're slow, all you want is to be busy.  You're billing 15 hours a week, and 5 of them are made-up pro bono tasks.  You sit in front of your computer from 9 (okay, 10) until 5:45, when you finally decide you can leave and have it still be almost respectable, and then inevitably your phone rings, and you have to stay until 8.  You recognize that 8 is not late, but FOR GOD'S SAKE YOU HAVE BEEN SITTING THERE DOING NOTHING ALL DAY.  You begin to question your existence, because you aren't contributing anything to society, and there is something extra-depressing about reading blogs and online news all day about people who are out there doing things.  It's not that you're not contributing in the make-the-world-a-better-place kind of way (although you're not doing that either) it's that you're not contributing AT ALL.  You find it impossible to pay your bills, because you can always do it later.  You don't make the phone calls you should, you don't e-mail your mother.  It's like the inertia of slowness at work makes it impossible to stay on top of the rest of your life as well.  Then, when you haven't bought the gift/made the plan/paid the bill/called the person back, you can't even blame being busy at work!  One of Kathy's friends actually got her cell phone shut off, and I suspect it was during one of these slow patches.  And on top of all of this, you're stressed out about your hours being low.

The cycle continues.  Busy, slow, busy, slow.  Never anywhere in between, and you are NEVER slow when you want to take a vacation.  This is the base layer of dissatisfaction that all the Biglaw lawyers you see around you are operating from. 

On top of that, you layer onto associates all of the other reasons why junior people in an organization are unhappy.  Lately, it seems as though they are trying to boost associate morale.  The "associate morale" push has taken the form of trivia nights and crappy bleacher Yankees tickets that cost $12 a piece.  I, and the other associates around me, suggest things (amongst ourselves, of course) like not firing our friends during economic downturns and not asking for things overnight and then not reviewing them for a week.  Or, perhaps, getting our names right and not referring to us as "cogs in a wheel."  Basically, you know, treating us as humans.  I realize perfectly well that the partnership, and especially the administration of Biglaw firms do not view us as such.  But we, in fact, are. 

The excuse for this poor treatment is always "But you make so much money!  And right out of law school!"  This is true.  We DO make so much money, and it started right out of law school.  But almost everyone I know would agree to a 30% salary cut in exchange for being treated as a person.  That is why I have never, ever heard anyone who has quit working in Biglaw who has regretted it.  I am sure that there people for whom this lifestyle is perfect.  In my view, these are mostly soulless cousins of Voldemort.  The thing is, by and large, the Voldemort-cousin set is not who I surround myself with at work, so I don't really understand their point of view.  There are exceptions, of course; Kathy has made it all the way to partnership, and still manages to treat associates like people.  I think they are few and far between, though. 

This horrendous culture is the reason I am going to quit.  I am not going to quit tomorrow, I'm far too risk-averse for that (isn't that how we end up in Biglaw in the first place, by being risk-averse?).  But eventually, I am leaving.  Sometimes this dream, non-law-firm existance seems so far away.  Sometimes, I am afraid that once I get there, I will think, "But wait, remember when I used to be a lawyer at a big New York City law firm, and how great and glamerous it was?  I mean, really, my whole argument is that I am actually a human, so maybe I will never be satisfied; isnt' that human nature?  And hasn't that been my experience at work, that no one is satisfied, and when they are busy they want to be slow and when they are slow they want to be busy?"

But then I look at the eyes of those around me who have been here for years and years, and compare those people to my friends who have quit, and I think, Sorry Jiminy, I don't think you got this one quite right.  Perhaps the reason that it seems like human nature to be dissatisfied is because so many people are unwilling to take the chance, and face the failure.  I think the people who are willing to take that chance have a really good shot at being satisfied.  I guess we will leave for another day whether "satisfied" is enough.

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