Ed. note: Welcome to the second installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a new column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. To those of you who have been wondering, it is not fiction; we’ve just altered a handful of details to preserve the author’s anonymity (since she’s still looking for work).
It is December. The office feels empty, abandoned. I have finished every shred of billable work I could dredge up, and, as of a few days ago, exhausted the non-billable possibilities as well. My few pro bono matters have been reviewed and researched thoroughly, and I have no CLE requirements left to fulfill. I wonder idly if I can spend 70 or 80 hours on CLE, and then roll it over for the next few years, like cell phone minutes. Or maybe I can spend some time “organizing client files,” which, incidentally, my cabinets are choked with.
One of our biggest clients, a huge lending institution, collapsed suddenly a few months ago, and the raft of cases that had been keeping me afloat burbled and sank virtually overnight. Most of them, which involve holding companies or subsidiaries that have not yet declared bankruptcy, are not officially dead: they are simply moribund, the paper equivalent of carrion. My office is an abattoir! I think. Though unfortunate, I wonder, does this present billable possibilities? How about “Administered last rites to dying cases; prepared dead matters for cremation and burial; performed obsequies for same”?
I try to tell myself that we are experiencing an early, holiday-related slump, but the truth is that things have been this way — painfully slow — for several months. We are all on edge, and growing progressively more nervous as work gets harder to come by. Associates spend the time not devoted to billable work complaining, worrying, regarding each other jealously, or trying to read tea leaves: why did he (or she) get that assignment? Does everyone know I’m looking for work? Why hasn’t that case, mentioned in passing by a partner, materialized? Where did it go?
Making matters worse, the firm insists that business is booming, although we all know by now that several associates were axed during the last round of reviews (for unspecified “performance-related” reasons) and that, more recently, there has been a spate of staff layoffs, also unacknowledged. At our last litigation meeting, the department head announced cheerfully that things were “great,” and that our group was “going like gangbusters!” In the stunned silence that followed, the associates looked at each other incredulously. Although, with few exceptions, no one was busy, a palpable sense of doubt settled over the room. Maybe, everyone seemed to wonder, it’s just me.
Read more, after the jump.
So, for the past few months, most associates have occupied a strange netherworld. We are employed, but unable to believe that we have anything resembling job security. We come to work every day, but there is nothing there to do. Still, we can’t bring ourselves to leave the office at a reasonable time, just in case someone happens by looking for an associate to do something — anything — after hours. We end up leaving late and tired, even though we have accomplished nothing.
My best friend at the firm, Giovanna, tells me every day that she is definitely getting fired; she spent the better part of three years working on a shareholder derivative class action, which settled over the summer. She is beginning to sound like Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man.” Definitely getting fired. Definitely. Ten minutes to Wapner. “That’s crazy,” I tell her. “You did a great job managing that case.” She is adamant. “I don’t do anything that someone younger and cheaper couldn’t do,” she tells me. “I’m fungible, like a widget.”
Even as I try to convince her that she’s safe, I am sure that I will be the next casualty. At my last review, I got a positive evaluation and a good bonus, and they told me it was one of the better bonuses given — a “way of saying, ‘we’re happy to have you here.’” It suddenly feels like a liability, since I have struggled to bill 150 hours a month since then, and the work I do manage to put on my timesheets has a distinctly fig-leafish quality. The night before Thanksgiving, for example, I went to visit a pro bono client in jail; although I usually try to time these visits not to coincide with the frustrating, time-sucking prisoner count, I am secretly relieved when I arrive just after it has started and have to wait for 45 minutes to see my client. When people ask me how work is, I quote Woody Allen: it’s terrible, and the portions are too small.
So, as Christmas approaches, we try to balance the demands of eking out an existence with the imperative of staying sane, with mixed success. Giovanna and I bring lunch, purloin beverages from conference rooms, and decide to cut out Starbucks, all of which seems reasonable. We also seriously discuss making macaroni frames for Christmas gifts, and I wonder whether, at 34, it’s too late to donate eggs to infertile couples, which seems very lucrative (if the subways ads are to be believed). These are a few of my stupider ideas.
On this particular day in December, I am antsy and nervous. I spent most of yesterday trolling the halls, knocking on doors and starting one conversation after another with anyone who might have work to give me. After a while, these interactions take on the cadence of a televangelist’s pitch. We chat, I laugh at jokes, I feign interest in a lengthy disquisition on John McCain’s crucial strategic errors, the recession, whether “Quantum of Solace” is a worthy Bond movie.
At some point, relevant or not, I bring the conversation back to work, and how desperately I need some. The partners are all in the same, undignified position: they’re toiling away on tasks that, in years past, they would have delegated to someone much, much lowlier. As they review their own documents, write their own briefs, and do their own research, it becomes painfully evident: they have nothing to give.
Finally, Giovanna and I decide to go to TJ Maxx and look for bargains. Although we feel guilty leaving the office, we realize that a huge case with significant staffing demands is unlikely to come in while we are out buying our Christmas presents. Neither of us has billed 100 hours for the month, and there is no work in sight. We decide that we will call our excursion “personal time,” which is non-billable, but at least explains where part of the day went.
When we return from the store, I stop by the assignment partner’s office, prepared to beg for something — anything — that I can put on my timesheets. He is gone, as is the head of our practice group and, for that matter, everyone else I attempt to stalk. I wonder if they are all at TJ Maxx, buying fuzzy slippers on sale.
The next day I look nervously at my hours, which are hovering near 75 for the month. I decide to resume my offensive on the assignment partner, who, I tell myself, has to return to his desk at some point. I know that he is being pursued by every associate for the same reason, and that he probably spends much of his day delivering anodyne promises about big, document-heavy cases that will come in “soon!” and dodging the anxious whimpering of associates desperate not just for work, but for a whiff of security. On my first trip upstairs, I find his office empty, and picture him crammed into a bathroom stall, shuffling papers and balancing his laptop, careful to make sure that his feet do not dangle into view. You can hide, motherfucker, but eventually you’ll get hungry, I think. You can’t stay in there forever.
An hour later, my phone rings. It’s him — the assignment partner! He knows that I am desperately in need of work and is calling to tell me that someone needs help on an order to show cause, which will invariably turn into protracted, time-consuming motion practice. I pick up the phone, and he asks me to come to his office. I leap up from my desk and start upstairs, realizing as I do that something doesn’t feel right. There were no pleasantries, no “what’s your schedule like?,” not even an “I heard you were waiting outside the bathroom for me, and, as it happens, your hard work and persistence have paid off!” When I get there, his door is closed. I am too rattled to knock, so I barge in; he is sitting with someone I have never met.
“This is Bob, from Human Resources,” the partner explains. “Nice to meet you, Bob,” I say, because it seems inappropriate to say “Bob, I would prefer not to meet you, today or any other day.” As he points me to a chair, I think of the scene from Lethal Weapon in which the bad guy calls one of his associates in for a meeting, tells him to stand on a strategically placed sheet of plastic (put there by “the painters”), and then executes him. I know, from the look on the partner’s face, that the one thing he regrets right now is that he never installed the trap door — just on the other side of his desk, right under the chair where I now sit — that he has always dreamed of.
As the realization of what is happening settles on me, I find myself oddly focused on two thoughts: don’t cry, and don’t throw up. I repeat the words in my head like a mantra: don’t cry; don’t barf; don’t cry; don’t barf. I know what the partner is about to say, and am not surprised when the words land around me like sheepish little mines.
“Roxana,” he starts out (in a tone that would be equally appropriate if he was announcing that “it looks like we’re going to have to amputate”), “as you know, these are incredibly difficult times, with the economic downturn and all.” He tells me that “the firm has been struggling,” and that it has decided “to let a number of people go.” The way he says it makes it sound benign, as though the firm is waving us through at a traffic light, or setting us free in the wild. “Unfortunately,” he explains, “you are one of those people.”
Suddenly, I wish I could, in fact, barf — with eruptive precision, like an oddly-endowed superhero striking back at her enemy. The power to summon thunderbolts would be sexier, I think, but I would settle for projectile vomit. Instead, I hear myself asking whether other attorneys are being “let go.” Yes, they tell me; in addition to staff, there are a number of attorneys being “released,” though they are not at liberty to say which ones. I’m not sure why this detail seems important, but it is oddly comforting.
Having delivered the news, the partner begins to recite a stream of apologies. He is sorry; they are all sorry. This is a purely economic decision, and in no way reflects on my worth as an attorney, or, for that matter, as a person. The firm will write me a recommendation that makes it abundantly clear that I was let go for financial reasons. Do I want help with my resume? How about the name of a recruiter? I stand up. I do not want their suggestions about my resume or their referral for a recruiter; I want to leave the room. If I can’t barf on these people, I want to be alone in my office, away from their mendacious pity and superficial offers to help me out of the tar pit they have just pushed me into.
Before I go, however, they must address the matter of severance. I feel myself holding my breath, praying that they will give me at least three months. I have heard that many firms are not being nearly as generous these days, but the associates who were axed in the last round of cuts were given three months, even though they were — at least ostensibly — let go for “performance-related” reasons. Three months, I repeat silently. In this market, it’s hardly anything… but at least I’d have a chance.
My hope is short-lived. “You’ll have two weeks in the office, so that you can get your affairs in order,” the partner tells me, “and two weeks out of the office.” In total, I am being given one month, which, they explain, starts from today. Not so long ago, I was being given a nice bonus, and with it a reassurance of my place at the firm. Now I have one month to finish what I am working on, clean out my desk, and move on.
I walk back to my office, stunned. I sit down for a moment, but the room feels too small, and I having the unpleasant sensation that I am drowning. I wonder idly whether my seat cushion would make a good flotation device. I get up and go downstairs. Although I quit a while back, I buy a pack of cigarettes and stand outside, smoking, and wondering what to do next.