Ed. note: Welcome to the latest installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a new column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. Prior columns are collected here. You can reach Roxana St. Thomas by email, at email@example.com, or find her on Facebook.
There are moments in life that portend tectonic change. It is possible, even before you can tell whether you are facing a perennial shift or simply a fleeting adjustment, to know that something — or perhaps everything — is different. In movies and on television, these moments are usually accompanied by musical cues, dramatic camera angles, or the distinctive drumline of the song that will narrate the aftermath of such a transformation. In reality, nothing quite so obvious happens. Your dog dies, your relationship fails, you graduate from law school, pass the bar, get married, win a jury trial, fall in love… and you find yourself wondering why events of this magnitude don’t leave a visible mark, if only to spare you the banal task of describing something that feels so profound. Unless you are unfortunate enough to lose an eye or grow a horn, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.
As it turns out, being “terminated” abruptly on a bright winter morning is just such a moment. When it comes to getting laid off, there is a distinct “before” and “after” — and standing outside your office chain-smoking delays, but does not prevent, your arrival in the after.
After far too many cigarettes, I wander back upstairs, suddenly aware that everyone around me looks busy. They are on their way to make phone calls, or attend meetings, or engage in whatever it is that I am no longer needed for. I get off the elevator and go straight to the restroom, where I confirm that a bright red letter (perhaps an “L,” for “loser,” or maybe a “C,” for “canned”) has not appeared on my bosom. I look fired, I think, knowing as I do that firing probably does not leave a visible aura. Still, I feel like an impostor, or someone dressed in a particularly lame Halloween costume, and I am mildly surprised when my card key still unlocks the door. I am already a ghost in this office: rendered irrelevant, but bound to roam the halls alongside the functioning members of its tiny, carpeted world.
Before I can make it back to my desk, I am accosted by my friend Dave, a paralegal. He waves me into his office, where he is sitting anxiously on the edge of his seat, and tells me to close the door behind me. “I can’t fucking believe this,” he says, staring at his computer screen. I am certain that he is about to tell me that he has been “let go” as well, and my stomach clenches. Not Dave, too, I think. I happen to know that he has just finished purchasing a kegerator and a home entertainment center, and I have a terrible vision of both being hauled away by the repo man while Dave stands on his front stoop with an empty beer stein, sobbing.
My fear is short-lived; he is about to consummate a transaction on Hotwire, and if his research is accurate, he has scored a room in a “fucking amazing” four-star hotel for $192 a night. If he is wrong, he has just treated himself to three nights and four days in a “fucking shithole.” He grabs my arm nervously before he hits enter, holding his breath. It works; he will be staying in the hotel he wanted. He springs up and throws his arms in the air, as if he has just nailed a landing from the uneven bars, and I find myself caught in a surreal flurry of high-fiving and fist-pumping. Overwhelmed with relief, he regales me with a detailed account of his booking coup d’etat, promising to send me a link to a website he used. I feel myself slipping away as he talks, unable to comprehend the idea of a vacation. I wonder if we can talk about particle colliders or tulip bulbs; both would seem less strange right now.
When the conversation finally turns to work, however, I find myself unable to respond. “Did you get any assignments?” Dave asks, aware that I have had very little to do recently. “No,” I say slowly. “I think I’m going to get fired.”
Read more, after the jump.
Moments later, alone in my office, I wonder why I couldn’t tell Dave the truth. Of course, I didn’t want to spoil his Hotwire elation, but there is more to it than that. Although I know, as an intellectual matter — and because Bob of Human Resources said so — that my “termination” was a matter of economic expedience, I am ashamed nonetheless.
I did not choose this profession because I thought I would make a million dollars and buy a boat, or because I was unsure about what to do with my life. Like many of my peers, I paid for my own education, worked hard at being a better lawyer, and spent my share of nights, weekends, and holidays cloistered in the office. Friends returned from long weekends tan and relaxed, while I emerged covered with paper cuts, blinking like a mole in bright light. I forgot birthdays, but remembered Bates ranges and hot docs. Now, sitting in my office, surrounded by the detritus of my own futile efforts, I am not shocked by the realization that, at the end of the day, the sacrifices I made were not definitive. Nonetheless, I cannot help but feel demeaned.
Sooner or later, I will have to say the “F” word: fired. I consider the alternatives, which consist mostly of pretending that I still have a job. I realize, however, that in this market it might be difficult to maintain the charade. I picture myself months from now, at a Memorial Day barbecue, engaging in vague banter when asked about work. “Oh, you know, the usual,” I see myself saying, fiddling nervously with an ear of corn. “Just some, um… subpoena compliance, and, uh, an internal investigation… nothing I can really talk about.” Attorney-client privilege, I think gratefully, can shut down virtually any conversation.
While I am still considering the idea, I unexpectedly remember Laura Wingfield, the character in the “The Glass Menagerie,” a play I haven’t read since high school. Laura cannot bear to admit that she has stopped going to typing class; although she leaves the house every day and pretends to go to school, she is really wandering the city and sitting in the park. “Note to self,” I think, “avoid behaving like mentally unstable woman with pathological attachment to glass unicorn.” It’s a beginning.
Reality intrudes on my reverie when the phone rings. It is my uncle, a lawyer at a Big Firm in another city, whom I called earlier in the day. We exchange pleasantries and I ask him about work, believing for the moment that we may not get around to discussing my situation at all. As if on cue, my uncle changes the subject. “How’s work?” he asks bluntly, and I realize that I am trapped. “Well,” I begin, explaining how slow things have been lately. My words come out in an addled jumble, until I finally get to the punch line. “Anyway,” I hear myself say, “so I got laid off.” There is a brief pause, and then he says, “You’re kidding.” “Yes,” I snap, suddenly irritated. “I’m kidding. Was that funny?”
I am met with confused silence, and I assure him that I have, in fact, been laid off. In an effort to avoid actually thinking about what I have to say, I try to channel Bob. I wish desperately that we could sit around a Ouija board while Bob, joining us from the Human Resources netherworld, painstakingly helped us spell out, “S-H-E W-A-S F-I-R-E-D. J-U-S-T L-I-K-E T-HA-T.” Then I could leave the room, and Bob could field questions. Alas, Bob has forsaken me. “What are you going to do?” my uncle asks. “I don’t know,” I tell him. “I don’t know.” I hear myself repeating these words, over and over, and I realize that it is time to get off the phone.
I also realize that I need to talk to someone who is closer to the world I live in, who can understand what I am trying to comprehend. I call my best friend from law school, Molly, who, while out on maternity leave a month before, was told by her firm that it was “time to end the relationship.” Molly’s husband is a partner at a Big Firm, so the loss of her job, oddly couched in the terms one might use to accomplish an extremely efficient breakup, was not particularly catastrophic. Molly answers the phone in a whisper, and tells me that she just came from a funeral. “Jesus, I’m sorry,” I say. “I’ll call you later.”
No, she reassures me, the deceased was a friend of her grandmother’s, whom she barely knew. “In that case,” I have an urge to say, “I’ll see your dead person, and I’ll raise you one unfortunate employment action!” Instead, I tell her bluntly, “I just got laid off.” Silence.
“You’re kidding,” she finally says. I wonder whether I am unaware of a recent cultural phenomenon that has rendered the delivery of layoff news inexplicably funny. No, I explain again, I am not kidding. Where is Bob when I need him? I think plaintively. Molly snaps into lawyer mode, asking me whether I am expected to come into the office to work for the next few weeks, or if I will be free to start my job search immediately. When will I get my last check? Will I remain on the firm’s website after I leave? Will I get my tech bonus? It’s part of my salary, isn’t it? She presses me to remember what happened in the meeting, and grills me about what questions I asked.
I realize, somewhat sheepishly, that I was too concerned, during the meeting, about the imminent possibility that I would vomit on someone to make inquiries about my professional welfare. “I don’t know,” I find myself saying, again and again. “This just happened.” She sounds exasperated. “You need to get some more information,” she tells me sternly. I know she is right, but it makes me tired to think about it. “Look,” I say finally, “I just needed to say this to you. I don’t feel like it’s real yet.” She softens immediately, reminding me that she loves me and will do anything she can to help. Anything? I think, and picture myself delivering a pile of student loan bills to her door.
When we get off the phone, I am aware that I have learned the first lesson of post-employment: it is exhausting. My experience this morning with Bob and the assignment partner was deeply unpleasant, and has become no less so in subsequent reenactments. Nonetheless, I need to tell my (perpetually distraught) friend and colleague, Giovanna. I have no idea whether other people in the office know what has happened, and I don’t want her to hear from anyone else. I have been trying to track her down all morning, to no avail, and when I finally reach her she is out to lunch with a friend. As soon as she returns, I ask her to take a walk with me, realizing as I do so that I am full of apprehension — not because of my situation, but because I know that I will never again be able to convince her that her job is safe. Giovanna is an inveterate worrier, and nothing I say to try to distinguish our situations will stick.
Since it is a special occasion of sorts, we walk to Starbucks. On the way, Giovanna tells me about the friend she had lunch with, who has just been laid off from a Big Firm. After three years, and without ever having gotten a bad review, her friend was let go because of “performance issues.” Even three months ago, the friend’s plight would have seemed grossly unfair; now it is par for the course. There is something about our vulnerability, as lawyers, that makes me think of the Whack-a-Mole arcade game. How fitting, I think, since we spend so much time in dark burrows, essentially blind to everything around us. We laugh at our own defenselessness. “What the fuck?” Giovanna says, shaking her head. “What the fuck?” Despite her friend’s bad news, she is cheerful, and I dread having to deliver my own.
Finally, as we are nearing the office, I tell her that I have been given the proverbial pink slip. “You’re kidding,” she says. This time, I let it slide. “Totally serious,” I say, and, once again, I describe the morning meeting. She does not know what to say, and I can tell that she is more fearful than ever. I immediately launch into the differences between us: I have been at the firm for less than two years, while she has been there for nearly four; I tend to work on a collection of unrelated cases, whereas she was part of an important trial team; I spent a lot of time on a group of bank cases, which vanished a few months earlier.
“Honestly,” I tell her, “I’m almost relieved. At least now I don’t have to wonder when I’ll get axed.” I can tell that she is not comforted, and that no amount of certainty would make the relief I describe even remotely palatable.
When I sit down in my office again, it is late afternoon. I do not think that I can have The Conversation again today. Of course, nothing is that simple: I have just started seeing someone, and even though it is early — too early to have a problem this big; too early to be unemployed, afloat — I conclude that, if I do not tell him, it will make for a very awkward third date. Since, I decide, e-mail was made for just such occasions, I compose a message to him:
My firm started doing some recession-driven downsizing, and I am among the downsized. That sounds like it would at least be slimming, but it’s not. I am trying to find the elusive bright side of being unemployed in this shitty economy, and what I’ve come up with is that this may be my opportunity to enjoy monk-like austerity. Also, I eat way too much sushi and have been meaning to reduce my mercury consumption, so this is a perfect time to work on that. Any other ideas are welcome.
I steel myself for a long, ambiguous e-mail silence, and am pleasantly surprised when he responds in less than fifteen minutes. “Ouch,” Cliff writes. “That sucks, and I’m really sorry. I hope they at least packaged you out well enough to survive for a while. Seriously… I’m way sorry. Look at it as a way to regroup, and think about what really matters to you. I know that sounds cheesy, but it really works. Dr. Phil told me.” Then, he adds, “before you leave, crack an egg in the supply closet, or in your boss’s desk. Just make sure it’s the day you leave … not today.”
I think it is the best advice I have gotten yet.