[Ed. Note: The Internet has a strange fascination with Prozac Nation and Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women author Elizabeth Wurtzel. Online coverage of the writer-turned-lawyer on sites ranging from Above The Law (here, here and here) to Gawker (here, here and here) generally involves bloggers and readers being peculiarly delighted when Wurtzel stumbles and oddly enraged when she succeeds. From the beginning of her legal career, Wurtzel has been the target of ad hominem attacks that somehow suggest that she is unworthy of her Yale Law degree and/or her job at Boies, Schiller.
After reading her Wall Street Journal Opinion article in April and “Failure to Launch: When Beauty Fades,” a piece she wrote for Elle magazine in May, we wanted to know, among other things, why she went to law school and what was happening with her legal career today. So we asked her. And her responses didn’t disappoint. CLICK HERE for Part 2 of this interview.]
What is your current title?
I’m an associate at Boies, Schiller & Flexner.
Where did you go to law school?
You were already a rather well-known writer when you enrolled at Yale. What made you decide to go to law school?
You know, I always kind of wanted to go to law school—and specifically to Yale because I was such an admirer of Renata Adler, who also went to Yale Law [after establishing herself as a writer and critic for The New Yorker].
She is kind of like Joan Didion. She’s very smart and very interesting—someday a smart publisher will reissue her books—but anyway, I always wondered if I could do that too.
So you wanted to follow in Adler’s footsteps?
Well, yes, to a degree. Law school is such a crazy idea when you already have a career. And it was always a dream [for me] in the way that people dream of climbing Mount Everest or going to visit The Taj Mahal. You know, maybe you do it, and maybe you don’t.
But so many people looked at me like I was crazy when I started talking about the idea, and I don’t tend to be influenced by what people say about me. But there was such a critical mass of people saying that law school was crazy… After all, lawyers often want to quit to become writers, not the other way around.
And so you just went for it?
No. Not exactly. I think the events that directly led to my decision to go to law school were the 9/11 attacks.
I lived across from the World Trade Center. I was deep in ground zero, and I was pretty damaged by the event personally for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways.
I had to move. I moved into a new apartment, and I found myself so freaked out and shocked by everything that was going on [in the immediate aftermath of 9/11]. There was a television [in my new apartment] with only a few channels. I was watching C-SPAN constantly. Constantly.
I found myself really wanting to be on a C-SPAN. And I don’t mean that in a literal sort of way. What I mean is that I wanted to be an expert on something. I wanted to be the kind of person who would be on a C-SPAN panel. I had this weird feeling that I was really uneducated.
I remember sticking my head out the window [the morning of the attack]; I didn’t think this was Osama bin Laden because I didn’t know that then. In those months there were just so many people talking [in the media] and none of them really knew anything. But I just kept watching C-SPAN and starring into space. I was turning down writing assignments, and I really just wanted to know something—to be an expert in something—and to go to a place where people were thinking rationally, so I applied to law school.
Did you find a refuge in law?
Yes, I think so. I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t noisy. That was the hardest part after 9/11. Everyone was just sort of shouting a lot. Everyone was irrational. There was a certain code that you couldn’t say things. I think that’s changed somewhat now. But back then, I wanted to go somewhere where people made sense.
And I was right, law school was that place. No matter what people said, it made sense. They had to be rational and reasonable. For example, you could have a debate between an Israeli and a Palestinian at the law school, but each student would pain himself or herself to think clearly and rationally.
Did you want to practice law?
I thought I might want to teach. Yale Law is kind of like a mini Ph.D in a lot of ways, so I thought maybe I’d become a professor. The funny thing was I really liked Civ Pro. Is that weird? I know that’s kind of weird, even among lawyers. But I really liked procedure.
[Teaching made sense] because I didn’t really think I could get a proper job even if I wanted one. I had always been a writer, so I really didn’t know what good I would be at a proper job. The plan was just to get an education.
How did you end up with a “proper job” at Boies, Schiller & Flexner?
Two things happened: First, I decided I did want to do something with my law degree. Maybe my instinct would have led me to a public service career, I don’t know, but I wanted to do something. I knew that.
The second thing was that I got a summer job at Wilmer Hale. I had a really good time there, and they offered me a job. But I couldn’t see myself working fulltime at a huge law firm. I wanted to find a way to work part-time [and keep writing]. Wilmer Hale was great, but they couldn’t let me do part-time, which I understood. So, I wrote an email to David Boies telling him that I wanted to practice law and keep writing.
Did you know him?
No, not personally. But he went to Yale. He had spoken there and a lot of my professors knew him, so it wasn’t as if he was totally distant to me.
He asked me to meet with him, and I’ve got to be honest, he’s the most charming person on Earth. When you meet him, you’ll agree to anything. He could sell the Brooklyn Bridge. And if he had said, “I need you to work fulltime in China for five years,” I would have gone.
But you managed to convince him?
Yes, but part-time at Boies, Schiller is like fulltime by anyone else’s reckoning. Part-time means a reasonable schedule, and it ebbs and flows with the workload. I work five days a week, but most people here work seven, so I guess that’s part-time. I suppose you can think of my schedule as being something closer to flextime.
To tell you the truth, I wonder if the world isn’t moving to this model in general. I wonder if the future of law is people working less and getting paid less. There does seem to be the belief that you can’t practice unless it’s 100 hours per week, but that’s not true. Unless you’re in the middle of litigation, you don’t need that crazy schedule.
What’s been your best professional moment since graduating law school?
I don’t know if there is one that I can really point to. I’m working on the Prop 8 case right now, and I’m very proud of that. But mostly, like a lot of young lawyers, I think I’m just happy when I do something that’s valuable to somebody.
I’ll give you a silly, little example: When I first started, I had to prep David [Boies] for a conference call about a case. So I wrote up all the notes and made the talking points, and he used them, and it went really well. It’s a really small example, but those kinds of things make me happy.
What’s been your worst professional moment since graduating law school?
I don’t know if there’s been a big, dramatic moment. But one of the worst moments was when Prop 8 first happened. There was one day when I went with David on some media stuff, and there was so much confusion because everything was happening so quickly. I was supposed to bring along a particular binder, and for some reason, I didn’t. David, who is quite nice, didn’t yell—he’s not like that. But it was a mistake, and I felt awful. Really awful. Whenever I make a mistake, I feel really bad. It’s just a terrible, sinking feeling. It worked out, but you still feel awful. That’s been the worst so far.
Did going to law school make you a better writer?
I don’t know. In some ways there’s a lot of writing you have to do on demand [at a firm and in law school]. It’s like a newspaper, and that forces you to write because you must, and actually doing the work makes you do it better. But I don’t know that [law school] made me a better writer, honestly. I think that if I wrote [non-legal pieces] in the way that lawyers are supposed to write, that would be a disaster. I still write like me. I can’t change my voice.
Do you think your voice makes you an asset?
I hope so. I happen to think that legal writing could use a lot of help. That is, how it’s practiced in general—obviously there are plenty of good examples of legal writing, but legal writing in general is pretty bad.
Legal opinions, for example, tend to be really well written. But I can’t believe some of the briefs out there. There’s a formula [for legal writing], and that formula is bad. There are so many 100-page briefs that could easily be ten. It’s the opposite of what you do for any other purpose. Say it once and well, that’s the general rule for writing.
But lawyers are kind of the masters of anxiety. It’s like it’s their job to be anxious beyond belief. It’s a shame—really a shame. Because when you see a lot of these briefs, the point is made on the first page and then it’s repeated over and over again because there’s this irrational fear that it will somehow be missed.
There seems to be a shortage of prominent female attorneys. Is there a glass ceiling, and, if so, what does it look like these days?
I don’t know that there is or isn’t [a glass ceiling]. I think with the way it is setup, it’s hard to work at a law firm—period. It’s hard work for men and women. Women who can opt out, choose to do so. I think it’s something like 16 percent of partners are women. That’s appalling. Women could really make more inroads if they stuck it out, but a lot of them opt out, and that’s really embarrassing to me.
Why do you think they opt out?
I think they opt out because they can. Women get away with opting out, and that bothers me a lot.
How do they get away with it?
Women can still get away with saying that motherhood is more important. Don’t get me wrong, motherhood is important, but I hate it when I see women using motherhood as an excuse to get their nails done. I can’t believe they still get away with that.
I wish more women stuck it out, though. There’s so much room for them to do what men don’t do. Men can just be so much tougher. They stick it out, and I’m ashamed of that, but sometimes men are so f**king dense. There are all these things that men don’t notice.
I’ll give you an example: When I was working at Wilmer Hale, there was a big conference call, but when it came to setting the time, there were dozens of emails back and forth. Literally dozens. One man kept arguing for 2 p.m. and another man kept making a stronger and stronger case for 4 p.m. It was that ridiculous, and they just kept ratcheting it up. Finally, I just wrote, “Has anyone thought of 3 p.m.?”
They were all so busy getting their own way that they lost sight of a solution. It’s this thing that men do. It’s funny. It’s cute. It’s such an abundant blindness to what the alternative solution could be. Do you know what I mean?
Umm, I think I’m actually blind to it. Do you mean women are better at compromise?
Not compromise per se. I think women can just be more efficient. We’re better at multitasking. That’s why it’s a shame that many women don’t stick it out in the law because I think they have a lot to offer.
Sometimes I dream of a law firm that’s all women. I think we would kill it because we’d be so efficient. But, of course, ideally you want both men and women because each has their strengths. But I worry that with so few women in the law, the ones who stay will just sort of become like everyone else. That has a tendency to happen.
CLICK HERE for Part 2 of our interview to find out Wurtzel’s thoughts on Sarah Palin, what she thought of the film version of her book Prozac Nation, the biggest misconception about her, and where she goes from here.