BigLaw Beyond Thunderdome

Matthew Richardson Columns, Lawyer

One Friday in July at around 3 p.m., I did something I hadn’t done in quite some time… I did NOT leave the office to drink a margarita. I can’t even blame it on a deal—I didn’t have much going on.  Sticking around the office and putting in a full day’s work on a Friday was a matter of face time.

I know that trumpeting my decision to actually work might seem contrary to all my other actions, but lately I’ve been feeling the heat.  And by heat, I mean that there’s an eerie feeling since layoffs and salary freezes have slowed down, and I have a hunch the bottom is about to drop out again. The murmurs, whispers and neurotic chatter that used to exist in every corner of the firm have subsided, and everyone just seems to be intensely working—a concept that has me concerned.  Every single partner, associate, paralegal, secretary, HR chick and IT guy seem to have tunnel vision.  And the target of their focus is their jobs.  Hell, even the heavy-set Russian woman who empties my garbage and normally harasses me now marches like an Army private and doesn’t reek of vodka anymore. 

All of the people I count on to join me in slacking off suddenly decided to keep to themselves and start walking the straight and narrow.  The reason?  I’m not sure, but I’m freaked out.  So I figure if I can’t beat them, I probably should join them.

To make matters worse, not only has everyone become a teetotaler, they are acting really, really edgy toward each other. I generally find the firm to be a pretty cordial place, with the occasional a-hole and me as obvious exceptions. Lately, though, my office has turned into a scene from Mad Max.  But instead of fighting over scarce oil, we are fighting over billables.

Halfway through the year, I took a look at my billed hours, and the picture wasn’t pretty.  I made a few calls to see how I stacked up against my colleagues. I’m usually in the lower middle, but this time around, it seemed everyone was struggling to bill hours—and we’re all aware the firm loves an excuse to trim the fat. 

So when a new deal started last month, my standard protocol was a little different.  Usually I get one of my boys like Marcus, who is now a second-year, on board. If at all possible, I try to work with people who know the drill and my M.O., and I recruit anyone who will cover for me, as I will for them…but it’s mostly them covering for me.  In return, I show them how to game the system. It’s a pretty good tradeoff, and everyone seems happy.  But times have changed.

Instead of leaving the grunt work on a routine deal to Marcus, I realized the easiest way to pad my stats was to do some of the dirty work myself.

When Partner called us in for the first meeting on the deal, the conversation went something like this:

Partner: So, I assume Marcus will have a closing checklist ready by Tuesday.

Me: Actually, I figured I would do it. Marcus has a bunch of other stuff going on.

Marcus: No, I’ll do it.  I’m used to it.

Me: Yeah, but I can do it a lot quicker.

Marcus: Yeah, but I’m billed out at a much cheaper rate.

Me: Yeah, but I can do it twice as fast.

Partner: What the hell is going with you schoolgirls? Marcus, do the checklist.

WTF?  A second-year just gave me shit, and Partner took his side? It was a complete breakdown of the rules of decent conduct.

Suddenly, I knew I had been thrust into Bartertown—that place Tina Turner ran with an iron fist in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.  The fight over scarce hours was heating up. But you can be damn sure I was going to be Mel Gibson’s character and not some extra that gets his head chopped off in the first twenty minutes of the film.

Marcus walked out of the office to go work on his cheap-rate checklist.  Partner, AKA Tina Turner, stood looking unpleased.

Me: So what do you say we go get a drink?

Partner: I say you get back to your office and do your f&*king job.

Not the first time he cursed about me, but a bit jarring at that precise moment. New approach.

Me: I’m a little freaked; my hours are low. I know they’re looking to ax a few more.

Partner: I’m not gonna lie, you better get your shit together.

Me: Wait, you’re serious?

Partner: Just look around the office.  It’s a climate change. Act accordingly!


Asking me to shape up is kind of like asking Paris Hilton to stop hooking up with random Greek dudes and snorting cocaine, but after that confidence-building chitchat, I decided to buckle down. Progress is best measured in relative terms, and any gains were obviously temporary, but I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

I busted my ass and started working full 8-10 hours days with nary a drink or random sexual encounter for what seemed like months. (In reality, it was about three weeks.) (Okay, three weeks and a day, if you’re really counting.) But I did my part to get back into everyone’s good graces. I even managed to get Partner to see it my way and let me take on some of the first-year crap to get my hours into the realm of respectability.  I was living by a new set of rules in the post-apocalyptic Bartertown.

Sure, it’s all well and good to dream about leaving.  And, lord knows, I’ve wanted to get myself fired in the past, but the more I look at the desert wasteland outside my office, the less inclined I am to want to leave.

As they said in Bartertown, “Bust a deal, face the wheel.” And though I put in a solid effort to avoid the wheel, the shenanigans unavoidably took over again. I guess it’s in my blood to screw around.  Old habits die hard—something I realized as I tried to explain the rules of Thunderdome last Tuesday afternoon to Gia, one of my favorite exotic dancers.

“Two men enter; one man leaves,” I explained.

But Gia was either too young to get the reference or the Mad Max trilogy never made it to her native village in Poland. Either way, in addition to her gorgeous fake boobs and disinterested lap dances, Gia offered me a nugget of stripper wisdom:

“You think you got it bad. I would stab a bitch to get a Saturday night shift.”

Hmm.  It was at that moment I realized that fighting over billables isn’t the worst thing in the world. I definitely wasn’t gonna stab Marcus over a few hours of work.  That’s not my style.  I threw a few more Washingtons at Gia and returned to the office determined to restore a bit of order to the workplace.

Thursday, a different partner called and asked me to come aboard a new deal.  I hung up the phone and headed directly to Marcus’ office.

Me: New deal.  You in?

Marcus: Are you going to let me even do anything?

Me: I’ll make you a deal.  You do the grunt work, closing checklists, certificates…

Marcus: And?

Me: In return, you ditch out on Fridays with me for margaritas.  Like the old days.

Marcus:  You’re bartering billables so you have someone to get fucked-up with?

Me: Are you in or not?

Marcus: What are you gonna do about your hours?

Me: Lie, cheat and pad the stats like always. Remember, Marcus: Bust a deal, face the wheel.

Marcus: Huh?

Damn it!  Apparently, Mad Max references have an age minimum.  So I clarified.

Me: If you screw me over, I will stab you like a bitch.

Marcus: Margaritas tomorrow?

Me: Now you’re getting it.

This hellish economy may mean that I have to work a little harder, but I’ve always worked just hard enough to survive—no more, no less. Yes, from time to time, I may have to step up my game, but even Bartertown must’ve had at least one total screw-up.

Matthew Richardson is mergers & acquisitions by day, Unethical & Amoral by moonlight.

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