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The game is the game

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avon and marlo

Life as a senior corporate-side associate at a top New York law firm:

My background: Top 5 undergraduate school economics major. Harvard law school. I practice as a very senior corporate associate at a v3 law firm in the city. Standard-issue southern white guy who’s pretty quick on the uptake and extremely good at school and standardized tests. To my regret, I’m also pretty good at being a law firm associate.

My pitch: Going to law school, and taking this job right afterwards, are the first and second worst mistakes of my entire life. I’m here to give a skeptic’s look at “winning” the law school game, at least from the perspective of someone who is interested in business or who is at all interested in having a stable career, or any opportunity to be thoughtful, creative or interesting at work. I’ve tried for almost a decade now to rationalize my going to law school. There’s no objective way of doing that. Many/most of my cohort feels the same way. Nobody who had options out of college would do it again.

First, I point to commitment requirements. As a comparison, I worked in bulge bracket banking as a full time analyst prior to law school during the boom. Despite the widely held notion that biglaw is more human, I will assure you it is not. To give you a sense, there have been two days since Christmas, about 3 months ago, that I have not worked over 8 hours (most weekdays are 10-15 hours). That stat includes weekends. That stat includes weekend dinners and informal get-togethers, all of which I cancelled. That stat also includes my best friend’s wedding out of state (a wedding I was in) last weekend, where I got up at 4AM after a rehearsal dinner ending at midnight so as to be able to put in 8 full hours before I was required to be downstairs at 1PM. Partner: “We’re sorry but we just don’t have anyone who can cover [deal X]. You may just have to be late to your event.” Going back a bit further, I worked a full day on Christmas Eve and all of Thanksgiving and TG weekend. I cancelled trips to go down home to see my family both times. I haven’t seen them since Thanksgiving 2014. In this job, you’re very much expected to be within 20 minutes of a computer, and able to sit down for 5 hours at it, at a moment’s notice. And that does happen regularly. It’s also worth considering that I’m one of the better people around here at saying no to new deals. At least I sleep 7 hours a night. Some of the meeker associates don’t even get that. But the most striking thing about all of this is that it doesn’t ever get better, unlike most other jobs. That partner from the story above cancelled a trip with his young family a few months ago because some worthless deal “might close on Monday”. It closed three weeks later. He was livid, then he looked like he was going to cry. I could go on and on (I’m a very good squash and tennis player. I love playing, but I play 1-3 times a year — I joined a league but missed 3 of my first 3 matches and quit). This sounds melodramatic, but I’m underselling the sacrifices, if anything.

Second, I need to talk about the work itself. It’s the most tedious thing on earth. Some areas (M&A) are better than others (capital markets, bank finance, tax), but ultimately there are 20 points the people actually care about in any deal, and you’re not responsible for any of them. You’re also not responsible for the points people *don’t* care about. You’re a scribe. You summarize what a document says. They tell you what it should say. They can’t read even a short 10 word sentence themselves. So expect the unexpected call at 2 in the morning to ask if “ABC means 123” when there’s a section heading called “ABC meaning 123” in the table of contents, and when you flip there, the section is one line saying “ABC means 123”. Then they’ll call you again the next day for the same thing. They forgot. There’s almost no room to be creative. You read. You summarize. You make marginal changes based on what your client wants to do. Your client doesn’t care about 95% of what you’re trying to get them to focus on, so it’s tedious for them and for you. And once you get through that process, where your client finally hangs up (putting down the gun he had to his head because he was so bored just discussing this stuff) you then get to do the much more tedious process of actually editing a 200 page contract. Hope you love proofreading.

Third, you are trapped in law. In 2016, with very few exceptions, once you go to law school you’re never going to get a good non-law managerial or business position in any company ever again (unless you found a company). It doesn’t matter if you majored in math. It doesn’t matter if you spent 3 years at McKinsey before law school. You’re fighting the view that corporate lawyers have no ability to deal with numbers, think strategically or do anything aside from being a scribe. Many times, that’s not even unfair (see above, you are a scribe). Very few people overcome that prejudice, and nobody overcomes it to get a business job they couldn’t have had out of undergrad. So if you’re the lucky 2% that can make that move, you’re taking a massive seniority cut and pay cut. The days of of the JD opening doors have been over for 30 years. 30+ years ago, the MBA wasn’t the credential it is now (a good example is that anyone at SLS was automatically accepted into GSB without applying), and lawyers regularly became business people. Now there’s a generation of MBAs running around, and you’re not getting hired over any of them. I absolutely cannot stress enough how niche you become after just one day as a corporate lawyer. This is by far the worst thing.

Moreover — you’re trapped in a specialization within law that likely wasn’t your first choice. Without outing my firm, most top firms these days are specializing their associates much, much earlier, as clients won’t pay for worthless/generalist junior skill sets. Even a decade ago, you would get a few years to find your way to a specialty, and get to pick it. Now you’re assigned one on day one in many firms. And within a year at the vast majority. Places do a good job at trying to match you, but if there’s demand in capital markets, and you don’t want to be a capital markets lawyer, tough. That’s where they’re putting you. And once you specialize, it’s almost impossible to do something else, especially after a few years and you realize how much you hate it. You can go do the same specialty in house (maybe, in some specialties), or hang around until they kick you out, which they always do.

On that note: 100-200 people enter every year. 0-3 are made partner. It won’t be you, unless you’re both the best in your class and extremely lucky (someone needs to die or a big new client needs to come in, etc.). It’s all for nothing. You become very good a very very niche job you can’t do anywhere but in a law firm, and the only law firms that will have you will pay you progressively less for the same level of work.

Sixth, there’s no stability, even for junior associates. It’s been a long time since the 2008 crash. For those of you who don’t remember, law firms fired (or rescinded offers) from thousands of law students and first/second year associates. Many of the junior associates who were fired never turned that around. I know a great/smart/hardworking guy, magna at Harvard, who was fired by Latham. He had to move to BFE to get any non-document-review job at all. It pays nothing and is a dead end. By the time the legal market recovered, the ship had sailed on his career and he was too senior to come in as a junior. Anecdotal, of course, but it happened a lot. We’re poised for another crash in the next 0-3 years, and there’s no taboo on law firms “right sizing” anymore.

You’re reading this and thinking it won’t be me. You think you’ll do a few years and go after your true calling. You won’t. Nobody does. People become broken (lost relationships with friends, family and spouses; alcoholism; depression — law firms are very sad places), and flame out, generally into something as bad or worse. Print this off and stick it somewhere that you’ll find it in five years. Or better yet, don’t make the mistakes I did (and which I felt strongly enough to spend 30 minutes writing this at my desk here on a Sunday night).

Taking questions.

Quivering with fear, a law student tells “Bernie Trump” (the nom de guerre of this cautionary tale’s author) that he’s heard from a couple of new lawyers that corporate-side work isn’t actually as bad as litigation. BT’s reply:

Completely, totally, metaphysically wrong. In litigation, you have years-long things with schedules projected months in advance. It can be grueling and there can be a ton of wood to chop, but you have at least some visibility into where you might be or what you might be working on two weeks from Tuesday. In deal work, you have no clue. Litigators may not know if their case will settle in 3 months or 3 years, but there’s no real benefit in knowing that your deal may close three weeks from now, because 90% of the time, that will change. If you try to schedule a vacation for the week after a big deal closes, the deal will be pushed a week, guaranteed.

On the corporate side you’re going to have 5-10 repeat player clients. You’ll do similar deals for them over and over again. They will call you or the partner at random with “something new we’re looking into” and you’ll instantly have 50+ hours of work that you didn’t have 20 minutes before. This is why so many senior corporate associates schedule vacations last minute. The deal actually closed? I’m leaving tonight!

I suspect some of what your friends are talking about is just secondary to being very, very junior. They’re not getting the emails at 11PM from a client that just read X and needs to discuss it or modify it immediately. They will as they start into their 2-4th years. It’s not that fire drills like that never happen in litigation, but they happen far, far less frequently.

By all conventional metrics, Bernie is one of the big winners in the law school game (“V3” refers to one of the three top-ranked law firms in the country. In a prestige-obsessed profession, this is the best you can do on the private side of the game). As an 8th-year associate at that firm he’s probably getting paid, with bonuses, somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000, and therefore he might — might — have his law school loans paid off by now. Again in conventional terms his career options at this point look awfully good: he’s not going to make partner, probably, because almost nobody does any more, but he can lateral to a less exalted firm and work somewhat less insane hours at somewhat lower pay, with a real shot at partnership, or he can move in-house, and do the same kind of work he’s doing now, although this will involve a moderate to severe (30%-50% or more) pay cut, and may not actually change his work schedule much, if his new employer is a NYC investment bank or the like.

The problem is that in either case he’ll be doing pretty much the same thing he’s doing now, and what he’s doing now is making him intensely miserable, because it’s extremely boring and stressful at the same time. Except for the money, it’s a horrible job, at least from the perspective of professional-class people who have been brought up to think of work as something that is actually supposed to be meaningful, fulfilling, self-actualizing etc.

But instead Bernie lives in a world in which the client is not only king, but now expects you to be “available” to deal with the client’s new problem at 11 PM, the excruciating details of which, because of the wonders of the information age, can in fact be conveyed to you at 11 PM, with your thoughtful response expected forthwith.

So how do people end up stuck in these situations?

Let’s take a quick look at Bernie’s alma matter, Harvard Law School. If Bernie had matriculated in 1975, he would have paid $13,900 per year in tuition, in 2015 dollars. Since he probably matriculated in 2005 instead, he paid $44,260 (again, in 2015 dollars). This fall, entering 1Ls who watched Legally Blonde one too many times will pay $59,550 in tuition.

In the course of one generation, HLS raised its tuition by 218% in real terms. And then for good measure it raised it 35% more, in constant dollars, above and beyond what would a couple of decades earlier have been an unimaginably stratospheric sum, even though associate comp at big firms has been essentially frozen in nominal terms (and has declined in constant dollars) during that decade.

I’m not picking on poor little HLS here: every other elite law school without exception (along with the vast majority of non-elite law schools, who needless to say aren’t sending their graduates to V3 or for that matter V250 law firms) has done the same.

Now if you’re a big believer in the idea that education “enhances human capital” in ways that produce positive pecuniary gains for the enhanced, this is all just hunky dory, because after all Bernie and his ilk are still coming out ahead of the game, right?

And of course the exploitation of professional labor, when that exploitation takes place at the most elite levels of the economy, is a long ways from the most pressing social justice concern of the moment. But that exploitation is both real, and symptomatic of a lot of other things in our money-worshiping, life-destroying culture.

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