If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you already made the gravest error an educated person can possibly make in his or her lifetime, i.e. law school. Everything about that decision virtually guarantees a life of inescapable misery. It’s like walking into a Vegas casino with your life savings (most of it borrowed) and wagering it all at Casino War.
By the time I was halfway through law school (in other words, when it was way too late to turn back), I realized there was only a microscopic speck of hope that I could ever end up with a happy, fulfilling job while engaging in the turgid practice of law. So it was absolutely, utterly critical for me to avoid jeopardizing the chances of career happiness further by stepping on any of the countless landmines that litter the BigLaw landscape. But nobody cared enough to take the time to warn me about them when it still mattered—in advance.
This is a long-winded way of saying that, this past week, I was reminded of the epic career-jeopardizing landmine I naively stomped on when I left my first big firm.
Back then, when the toxic combination of burnout and post-traumatic stress drove me to a lateral move, I didn’t realize I would be offered a tantalizing, seductive treat in the form of an “exit interview” by some serpentine mid-level partner from the retention committee. Unfortunately, nobody explained to me that (like all other retention-related BigLaw initiatives) it was entirely smoke and mirrors. What I desperately needed was for someone to say, “Not so fast, dumb ass—don’t eat the apple.” Of course there was a sociopath partner whose verbal and psychological abuse was the driving force behind my move. There always is. It’s 50% of the reason why they’ve got to pay us so much. And of course it seemed like a rather noble endeavor to Make My Departure Matter, and to Prevent Anyone Else from Suffering Like Me.
But the reality that got lost in the heady mix of Kool-Aid they served me is that I was neither the first, nor the last, to be driven from the firm by the savage asshole in question. Obviously they know he’s an asshole who obliterates every associate in his path. Chances are I was little more than a sacrificial lamb offered to sate his rainmaking blood thirst. But the utopian, altruistic bonehead that often stands in for me at crucial moments decided to spill my guts. And at the time, it felt so lovely and cathartic to be shown empathy and attention at long last in that god-forsaken place. The exit interviewers assured me that everything I’d confessed would be kept confidential, and that they would make sure that controls would be put into place to prevent other associates from suffering as I had.
Here’s what they didn’t tell me. Before my body was even cold, one of the interviewers leaked the information to a partner who really liked me. From there, the information took on a life of its own, and by the time the cock crowed three times, no less than four partners marched into savage asshole’s office and accused him of chasing me from the firm. It’s worth noting that none of these four partners lifted a finger to protect me from savage asshole during my tenure as his intra-office chew toy. But no matter—when I heard about this through the grapevine a few weeks later, I wasn’t all that bothered. In fact, I might have even felt a teeny bit vindicated. Too bad no one ever warned me that, for a big firm associate, vindication is the poisoned cocktail of the shortsighted fool.
If I hadn’t been such a prepubescent moron, I would’ve realized that it’s best when fleeing a firm to pretend that the partner who whipped me the hardest will one day be the gatekeeper to the only in-house job that could ever make me happy. Because that’s precisely what ended up happening.
Until three days ago, I had largely forgotten all about savage asshole and my ridiculously misguided exit interview. But it all came sharply back into focus when I fell into conversation at a waste-of-time conference with the VP of legal operations of a company for which I would actually die to go in-house (and that’s saying a lot, since going in-house at most companies seems like actually dying). VP and I hit it off pretty well and were having a decent conversation—that is, until he asked me the name of my previous firm. I told him. He replied, “Oh! Do you happen to know my best friend from law school, [savage asshole]?” I politely excused myself from the conversation while visions of the crashing Hindenburg danced in my head.
Ever since then, everyone I’ve told this story has been going on about how it’s okay that I made this mistake, so long as I learn from it and don’t repeat it. Yeah, well—leaving my current firm anytime in the next five or so years would constitute career suicide, so my lesson will have to lie dormant for a while. Which is why I figured I might as well share my story, rather than let the nugget of wisdom borne of my idiocy go to waste:
If you (or any hapless associate you care about) are invited to partake in an exit interview, treat it like the farce that it is. And always treat the partner you hate the most as if he holds the key to the only job you will ever love. Thank him for his abuse and let him bend you over one last time before you leave him—because any other course of action dooms you to an even shittier fate than the one you already doomed yourself to when you earned your J.D.