Great news. I’ve figured out the secret to avoiding psychological self-implosion and irreparable burnout in the hellish world of BigLaw.
Unfortunately, my combination of passive-aggressiveness and shifting sense of self-worth won’t allow me to actually implement any meaningful changes with any withstanding resolve, so I might as well share my epiphany.
The lightning bolt hit me after speaking with one of my mentors (yes, it is possible for me to appreciate a fellow female lawyer). She called me to report on life at her new place of employ. A few months back, my idiotic firm made her one of our layoff casualties. The value she added to every case she touched, not to mention the fact that our Chicago litigation department now has ZERO competent female partners, made the firm’s actions inexplicable.
Our friendship was established when I became a fixture on an equity partner’s team for whom she did the bulk of the work. After observing my neurotically fastidious work product and priggish email responses, she sensed in me a kindred perfectionist paranoiac, and the rest was history.
During her call, she and I commiserated over the brutal mental and verbal beatings to which we’d supplicated while working together, so our conversation inevitably turned to whether there are any notable assholes at her new place. Unfortunately—and unsurprisingly—there are. And the biggest one falls into the category most dangerous to a lawyer’s mental wellbeing: The Unavoidable Asshole.
She explained how he can’t be avoided because he’s very high up on the food chain and has added her to his team on several valuable cases. After she finished describing her first experience of getting undeservedly browbeaten by him (in a semi-public forum, no less, since he chose to act on his prick impulses in the doorway to her office), my heart started to sink.
After her layoff, I set about fervently hoping that there would be a silver lining. I aspired for her to rise Phoenix-like from the ashes into an even better position at a utopian firm. What she was saying didn’t bode well for my fantasies, and I heard the familiar sound of hope shattering.
I was caught completely by surprise, however, when, instead of launching into a series of wretched abuse stories, she said brightly, “But it seems like it’s going to be fine because after the second instance of asshole behavior, I told him that he can’t treat me like that anymore.”
Total silence. I couldn’t speak. I needed to process this strange and alien concept.
So she stood up for herself? She set…a boundary? But that’s what people do who have jobs where they aren’t treated as expendable and replaceable. That’s only what happens in fantastic, far-off lands where bosses recognize that you’re a human and actually treat you as such.
Understanding my befuddlement, she continued to explain. The strains of a string symphony practically crescendo-ing behind her voice.
“I had a lot of time to decompress after being laid off. I realized that our fanatical risk-aversion and perfect resume obsessions ended up obscuring the truth. When you strip away all that bullshit, this is just a job. And being a lawyer is a job I happen to be very good at doing. So I’m not going to allow myself to be treated like shit out of fear that they’ll just replace me with someone who is willing to suffer in silence. I know that my work product isn’t 100% replaceable, and if I lose my job for setting boundaries and asking to be treated like a human being, then I will just pick up and keep going. Instead of focusing on myself as replaceable, I’m going to focus on the fact that these firms are replaceable.”
I scrawled down her wisdom on a legal pad next to the phone: “Start acting like they are replaceable, instead of the other way around. Set boundaries accordingly.”
It sounded so sharply simple, it might as well have been a Japanese haiku.
My behavior since the beginning of BigLaw has been influenced by the complete opposite of this wisdom. And it has led to most of the intolerability of my life as an associate. Seriously, I can handle pressure and long hours. But what I suddenly realized I can’t handle is pressure and long hours combined with being treated like absolute shit by a handful of pricks. This new philosophy seems like a pretty decent way to decrease the latter.
Almost immediately, BigLaw (predictably) gave me an opportunity to test out my new theory.
The ink had barely dried on my legal pad when a psychotic email from a particularly nasty partner appeared in my inbox. He demanded to know why he hadn’t received a case status summary he’d recently assigned. The fact that his original tasking email set a deadline of the beginning of next week didn’t deter him from e-screaming at me.
“You are putting every single one of my client relationships at risk by messing with my work flow, and that’s unacceptable. DROP whatever it is that you might be doing, and get that summary to me BY THE END OF THE DAY.”
The old, unenlightened LF10 would have set aside the (time-sensitive) project she was working on in order to complete his summary. Then she would have stayed in the office all night long finishing up what she had dropped to respond to the unnecessary fire drill.
But that was the LF10 of 15 minutes ago. Taking a deep breath, I crafted my best balls-y, boundary-setting response. I tried to ignore the tachycardia as I explained that he hadn’t received the summary from me yet because the deadline that he had communicated was still several days from now. I told him that I couldn’t finish the summary by the end of the day because of another time-sensitive project I needed to complete, but I would complete his summary immediately thereafter—and he would still receive it well in advance of his original due date. Just to be safe, I concluded by copying the relevant deadline-related portion of his original tasking email.
I hit “send,” picked at my cuticles and waited. Four minutes and one bloody finger later, he replied.
“Irrelevant responses like these are a complete waste of my time. Anything other than asking a specific question about an assignment or turning in completed work product requires me to unnecessarily open, read, and hit ‘delete.’ My time is too important and scarce to deal with distractions.”
Voila. My moment of Zen.
I suppose that when all is said and done, the conversation with my mentor was like a pharmaceutical ad. Although it promised a cure, it still includes a host of possible side effects. And sending that email caused so much nausea, dry mouth, increased sweating, dizziness, and suicidal thoughts and/or behavior, that I think I’ll check with a healthcare provider before deciding if boundary-setting will ever again be right for me.