Dispatch from the midwestern front #1

Posted by jdg | Thursday, March 06, 2008 |

During my first year as a lawyer at a big firm in San Francisco, I quickly got drawn into some massive bankruptcy case involving airplane leases with many millions at stake, the kind of case all gray-haired senior partners smile thinking about before heading off to the land of nod. Such cases come with virtually no restrictions on the number of hours attorneys can spend on them, so partners and older associates use these cases for the big firm equivalent of a fraternity hazing: endless hours of meaningless work performed in the name of "due diligence"; forcefed triple espressos at 6:30 p.m.; and the Friday 4:45 p.m. phone calls letting you know you should probably cancel any weekend plans you might have made, because, yeah, we're going to need to pull some all-day and all-nighters before that motion for reconsideration gets filed on Monday. It takes some time before you realize this is just an initiation. Fresh out of law school, you believe you actually have something to contribute to this case, but in reality you're pretty worthless. They prey on your false belief that you are bright, capable, and worth the $350 an hour they are charging for your time. And then they work you like a Russian hooker in a Turkish brothel. Because you are surrounded by other little pledges in the same position, you think this is perfectly acceptable. The partners do it because someone once did it to them. And that's the way the whole durn legal comedy keeps perpetuating itself down through the generations.

Many weekends during those first few months, I found myself at the beck and call of an older associate clearly gunning for partnership. I never saw him leave the office, except one Sunday morning when he ducked out and didn't come back for hours. Pissed, I sat down and tried to come up with an answer to one of his impossibly arcane questions about subject matter jurisdiction. Later that evening, he showed up. "What's up dude! Guess what: my son was born today!" I knew he had a toddler already, but he'd never even told me his wife was pregnant. I congratulated him. "Thanks, man," he said. "Now how's that research coming?"

"Nothing yet."

"Well, like I said, I won't be surprised if you don't find anything. But if you do, that will be great. Now let's get back to work."

In the following weeks, this poor guy saw way more of my ugly mug than he did of his new baby. During the first weeks of this new life he usually spent twelve to fifteen hours a day in the office. The working weekends went on for months. He would sometimes drink in the middle of the day. He would go out to the bar with us after work and either go back to the office or somehow find his way back to whatever suburb his kids were sleeping in. I didn't give it much thought then. When you're in this sort of environment, this is just how it's supposed to be. I think I respected him, even, working so hard to provide for his family. I just assumed it was an arrangement he made with his wife, who'd put her own legal career on hold to raise their family by herself. I mean, how hard could that be?

But after two and a half weeks with a 3-year-old and a newborn at home, even with two of us taking care of them, I can't stop thinking about this man's wife, and what a saint she was for not putting a shotgun in his face every morning on his way out the door.