Big firm lawyers spend years training to be precise with their language. Partners reinforce that message by providing new associates with illegible markups of draft briefs or merger agreements and regaling them with stories of misplaced commas that cost clients katrillions of dollars.
So you can imagine my confusion when I started my career in BigLaw and discovered the huge gap in meaning between what people say and what people think. Even the most basic and routine interactions take on a form of their own when they occur in a law firm. Take the frequent example of two associates having a chance encounter in the elevator. The conversation is broken down to reflect the differences between the spoken word and its true meaning.
Associate 1: Oh. Hi.
Translation: Why did you have to get on the elevator . . . Fuck.
Associate 2: Uh, hi.
Translation: Fuck. You probably think I should be working right now.
Associate 1: You busy? Working this weekend?
Translation: If I had any ability to interact socially with a human being, or knew anything about you other than what practice group you were in, I would reference one of your interests right now. Instead, how’s work?
Associate 2: Probably a little bit. Not too bad. How about you?
Translation: How did you know I’m not working this weekend? Do you have access to my billing records?
Associate 1: (long exaggerated sigh)
Translation: I don’t know which of the canned responses to the “are you busy” question I should go with right now.
Associate 2: That sucks.
Translation: Yes, when needed, I can be compassionate towards another human being.
Associate 1: It is what it is. Want to grab lunch?
Translation: The elevator takes way too long to get to the lobby. I hate you. I’m hungry.
Associate 2: Ah, sorry. Can’t today. Got a call.
Translation: I would like to grab lunch. But I am now lying to you about a call so that I can seem busy and so that I can lock the door to my office and read the internet for the rest of the day.
It turns out that some form of the question “are you busy” is a proxy for all communication between associates. Be warned. Only a handful of acceptable responses exist, and none of the acceptable responses carry the meaning that they would seem to convey.
Response 1: “Yeah, you know how it is.” Actual meaning: “I was told that this job would mean sacrificing my life and working around the clock, but I have been here seven months and have yet to receive my first assignment. I still never leave before 8:00.”
Response 2: “Pretty busy. Not too bad.” Actual meaning: “I have nothing to do, but I am lying to you because I am hypercompetitive and I realize that telling you the truth might cause you to think that you are superior to me in some way. Also, I don’t want assignment to a new matter.”
Response 3: No verbal response, but a long exaggerated sigh intended to convey exhaustion. Actual meaning: “I’m billing between three and five hours a day, mostly to pro bono. However, I definitely don’t want to do any other work, and I want you to think that I am working my ass off.”
Response 4: “I’m not busy at all.” Actual meaning: “I am quitting soon.”
And associates who are actually busy don’t waste their time riding up or down elevators.