Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Working in a Law Firm Worse Than Being a P.O.W.? No.

Is working in a law firm worse that being a prisoner of war?  No.  

A legal recruiter sends me these crazy e-mails, and he has links to his articles, one of which compares working at a law firm to being a prisoner of war.   It is a ridiculous comparison, of course.  You can always quit a job at any time - the key to your freedom is in your pocket.   A P.O.W. doesn't have that luxury.

(And it strikes me as odd that a legal recruiter would post an article telling potential clients how awful it is to work in a law firm!).

And yet, many Americans feel put-upon in this way - building their own gilded cages and then complaining they are trapped.  When I worked for the big evil law firm (for a whopping six months) I ran into a young senior associate (or junior partner, I forget which).  She had a model of a 1999 BMW M Roadster on her desk, in Imolarot.   I saw it, and having a rusted-out 1974 BMW 2002 at the time, struck up a conversation with her.

She said, "I bought the actual car last year, and I keep this model on my desk to remind me why working here is worthwhile!"   I kind of felt sad for her - her job satisfaction was measured in car payments.

Ironically, 15 years later, I now own the same car, which I bought secondhand from a friend of mine.   It is a nice car and all, but hardly worth enslaving oneself to a law firm for.

Are the stories in his article true?  I have no reason to doubt it.  I recounted before how a friend of mine's husband decided to start up a crack habit while in law school.   And I knew of a number of people who did "overnighters" - working 24 or more hours in a row without sleep or rest.   And yes, maybe drugs were involved.

As I noted before, lawyers aren't very bright people.  When it comes to their client's rights, they will fight tooth and nail over a tiny term in a contract.   But their own employment contract is usually unwritten, and not even verbally discussed.   It is little more than an implied promise of promotion, based on unstated and nebulous criteria.  It would seem that billable hours would be a concrete way of measuring performance, but in the law firm world, simple mathematics become surreal, and often what is counted as billable ends up a different number than what is actually billed.

And young people - well into their 40's, are often intimidated into working long hours with the promise of riches down the road, or indeed, a six-figure paycheck today.  And often they are so intimidated by the firm or the attorneys, they tell themselves they are lucky to be working such long hours.

I guess I was never so intimidated.   I worked at one firm, and the Senior Partner was a grizzled old silverback who was once famous for taking a case to the Supreme Court and setting a real precedent on the patentability of living creatures.   He was a smart attorney, but he was also an cantankerous asshole, as well.   One other associate did a lot of work for him, and whenever he presented his work to the partner, a shouting match would ensue, with my friend backing out of the room apologizing profusely for his "errors."  Problem was, he never actually did anything "wrong" with his cases, and that made it doubly depressing for him.  He was always "wrong" but nothing he could do could fix things, because he was actually right.

I had one run-in with this partner, when he asked me to monitor some cases at the International Trade Commission.  We had defended a Japanese chip maker in a case, and it was settled.  The plaintiff was browbeating all the defendants (of which our client was one) to certify that all documents produced during discovery were destroyed, according to the protective order in discovery agreement.

Once all the defendants did this, the plaintiff filed a new suit, and then petitioned the ITC to "modify" the protective order, to allow them to keep the documents that they had supposedly destroyed and also browbeat the other parties into shredding.  In other words, they violated the protective order, and once they made sure all the opponents had shredded their documents, revealed that they decided they wanted to keep theirs and moreover make it legal by modifying the protective order.  Kind of a slimebag move.

Well, my boss had heard, over a round of golf, that there was a "routine" petition to amend the protective order, and he asked me to get a copy of it (this before the Internet and scanning documents online).  I did so, and was appalled at what the plaintiffs were doing.   I wrote a concise memo to the partner explaining what was going on.

Well, he called me into his office.  Screamed me into his office, more like.   He was furious, as he had agreed to this modification of the protective order without having read what it was all about and without understanding what was going on in the case.   In other words, he dropped the ball, and he wanted to blame a young associate for his error.

He screamed at me that I had it all wrong, that it was a routine change in the protective order.   I went through it step by step, and explained it all to him.  He just got madder and madder.   But what was I to do?  Change the facts of the case?  Any lawyer who does this is living in a fool's paradise (many do, though).
And unlike my nervous friend, I didn't back down and agree with him, which of course, really pissed him off.    But again, if I said, "Well, you're right!" how is that really helping our client?   It wasn't.   Reality is what it is, and you can't change that to suit the whims of a senior partner.

The difference between myself and my nervous friend was that I felt that I could quit at any time.  The demand for young Patent Attorneys back then was pretty high, and I could always go back and work for the Patent Office if worse came to worse.   And I was prepared to chuck it all, if I had to, rather than be miserable.

Others, well, they back themselves into a corner.   They buy the fancy house, they lease the fancy cars.   For young people today, it is student loans.   They feel chained to the desk by debt, and forced to work the rest of their lives to pay their debt-masters.

It is, of course, still a choice.   You don't have to have a fancy car.  One of the smartest associates I knew at the firm drove an old Mazda (Ford Escort) that he bought before he went to law school.   He could afford to own a fancier car, but chose not to.

The people profile in this story comparing a law firm to a POW camp are the same way.   They chose the big salary and the big salary lifestyle, and now they feel "trapped" by it.   But they can quit at any time, if they chose to.

And the sad reality is, of course, that they will get booted out, eventually - if they don't burn out first.   If you look around any law firm or any tech firm - or any firm for that matter - you will see a lot of young people, but very few oldsters.   Where do they all go?

And sadly, most are not prepared for this eventuality, convinced that if they pull enough "overnighters" and bill enough hours, then they too, can be silverback gorillas and scream at young associates.   But since the nature of the management structure in a law firm is a pyramid, it is in effect, a pyramid scheme.  Most of the young associates end up working somewhere else.   And all that stress is for nothing.

Is working at a law firm worse than being a prisoner of war?  No, not really.  Not unless you decide to make it that way - by building your own gilded cage and stressing yourself out.

We all have choices in life.  Sadly, few people believe this.