Ed. note: Welcome to the latest installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. Prior columns are collected here. You can reach Roxana St. Thomas by email (at firstname.lastname@example.org), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
Cliff does not understand why attorney layoffs — mine or anyone else’s — are, well, newsworthy. This comes to light when I show him what I think is a fairly remarkable story about a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop who, in a display of consummate indiscretion, broadcasted the firm’s layoff plans to his fellow passengers on the Washington-to-New York Acela train (via loud cell-phone conversation).
“Pretty fucked up, huh?” I say. He shrugs. Crickets chirp. “I don’t know,” he finally answers. “I don’t get it. I don’t get the whole thing.” I try to explain why I think the story is remarkable. First, there is the obvious matter of the partner’s imprudence, and the thoughtlessness of announcing personnel decisions that will affect people’s lives — people like me — to the passengers on the 2:00 train. Second, I tell him, putting aside the fact that widespread job losses are the foremost indicator of what feels like our profession’s implosion, they are often fashioned as “stealth layoffs.” Pillsbury had already engaged in some stealth layoffs, and although it is not clear that the partner’s unofficial press release (in the form of poor volume modulation) thwarted the firm’s plans for another, the possibility gives the story a “gotcha” quality.
But, it turns out, while the term “stealth layoff” may be part of every lawyer’s lexicon at the moment, it does not have universal currency. “What are ‘stealth layoffs’?” Cliff wants to know. Growing exasperated, I try to explain the pernicious “enhanced performance review,” and its insidious corollary, the “performance-based dismissal.” My indignation is not contagious: Cliff remains unmoved. “These are private companies,” he says. “I don’t see why they have an obligation to announce anything about who they choose to fire, or why.”
People get fired, he says: it sucks, but why should we expect law firms to act any differently than any other employer? Cliff has worked in advertising for the better part of two decades, where, apparently, things work differently; when he was working at big ad agencies, he tells me, people were fired all the time. In fact, firings usually coincided with payday, so if you got a paycheck you knew that you were safe for a little while longer.
Once, years ago, when he was working at one such agency, someone from management went around and put stickers on the doors of selected offices. Everyone who got a sticker assumed that they were going to be canned, so that later, when they were herded into a conference room, they were prepared for the ax to fall. Instead, they were told that they “were the future of the company,” but that everyone else was being told to pack up and leave. The chosen ones were then sequestered in the conference room until the unfortunate ones, who hadn’t made the cut, were shepherded out of the building. No one had any warning of what was about to happen, much less an expectation that they would get three months of severance.
I understand what Cliff is saying. “But,” I remind him, “you told me that the last few times you were fired, they escorted you out as you threw things down the hall and yelled obscenities.” I also recall him saying, at some point, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re still going into the office. I would be walking in with a can of gasoline.”
“I didn’t say that it doesn’t suck,” he concedes. “I just don’t understand why everyone thinks that these law firms owe them something.”
Is Roxana’s significant other being insufficiently understanding? Read her reflections on lawyers’ love lives, after the jump.
I find myself wondering if this is why lawyers so often end up miserable and alone, or at least paired with one another. We are, on some level, a freakish sub-species, whose members may be better off inbreeding than trying to relate to the rest of the population. The last person I dated was a lawyer, and we did make use of a certain, specific shorthand. When he didn’t follow through on promises, I could justify my annoyance based on promissory estoppel; when he did things on his own initiative, I could express gratitude for his sua sponte thoughtfulness. Still, I want Cliff to understand what I am experiencing, so I try to temper my frustration.
Stealth layoffs are wrong, I explain, because they rely on impermissible burden-shifting. “Strike that,” I say hastily, and start again. They are wrong because they insult the people who are being laid off, and create a pretext of failure or inadequacy on the part of the associate in order to hide the failures or inadequacies of the firm. I wasn’t laid off because of fabricated “performance-related” issues, but what if I had been? I feel bad enough about being laid off for economic reasons, I tell Cliff.
If, after getting a good performance review and a bonus at the last evaluation, I was suddenly told that I didn’t measure up, it would have been a much bigger blow. More importantly, what would I tell potential employers about why I was searching for a new job? When firms are dishonest about why they let associates go, it robs the associates of confidence, on one end of the continuum, and, on the other end, of opportunities with new firms, who may regard them as having not been good enough for their last employer. Why, I ask Cliff, should associates be forced to shoulder the burden of the firm’s shortcomings?
“That’s how the system works,” he says. “The little guy always has to take one for the team. The people at the top aren’t going to voluntarily take a hit if they can sacrifice the people below them.”
Frustrated, I do what any woman in my situation would do: I complain to a friend. Giovanna and I have talked about how hard it is to explain our situation to family and friends who are not lawyers. First, Giovanna points out, people don’t seem to understand that the entire industry appears to be collapsing. “They don’t realize how many lawyers have been laid off,” she says. “No matter how many times I explain that about 6,000 people lost their jobs, I swear they still look at me and think it’s because I suck.”
“They don’t think you suck!” I insist. But, even as I do, I know that I wonder the same thing when I tell people about my situation, and that I often find myself adding, almost as a disclaimer, that the firm laid off a lot of attorneys — not just me. In the era before lawyers started showing up, en masse, in the breadline, most people assumed that if you got fired it was because you had done something wrong. I didn’t drop the ball! I want to tell people, even if they are complete strangers. I didn’t cite Dred Scott in a brief! I didn’t send an email about confidential settlement talks to the New York Times!
Moreover, both Giovanna and I have encountered the widespread belief that lawyers are recession-proof. “If I had a dime for every time someone said to me, ‘You’re a lawyer! You’ll find something,’ I could just stop looking for a job,” I tell her. She agrees. All the non-lawyers she knows are convinced that jobs are out there waiting, like low-hanging fruit; all we have to do is run out to the orchard and decide which one we want to take a bite out of. Giovanna and I, however, see no evidence of the charmed life that we are presumed to lead. “This whole recession is going to get worse and worse,” she warns me ominously. “You mark my words: there’s going to be a shantytown in Central Park. I’m setting up my tent by the Boathouse so I can at least get something that’s waterfront, with a nice view.” I picture us camped out by the Boathouse, wearing fingerless gloves and watching a static-y television powered by electricity siphoned from the nearest light pole. “We’d have to hustle for odd jobs so we could get a digital converter box,” I say absentmindedly. “And I guess it’s a good thing we have that firewood connection.”
Giovanna had her first job interview around the same time as mine; hers did not end well, either. “It was awful,” she tells me later. “I was waiting for Ashton Kutcher to jump out from behind a plant to tell me I’d been Punk’d.” The partner, she says, spent most of the interview attacking her (with varying degrees of subtlety). At one point, when he asked her to talk about what she had been doing for the past few years, she described her work on the case she had devoted much of her time to, emphasizing what she thought were her strengths. When she was finished, he said, “If you’re so great, why did your firm let you go?” At the end of the interview, she says, he told her to ask him some questions. The only ones she could think of, initially, were “Does your head get stuck in every door you walk through?” and “Are you running for Chief Douchebag?” “He wasn’t just a tool,” she tells me, “he was a toolbag. In fact, he was a toolshed.”
But, it turns out, despite her ignominious beginning, Giovanna proves to be much more recession-proof than I am. Shortly after being turned down for the first job, she gets an interview at another firm. After two interviews in quick succession, she is offered the position. “This is a miracle,” she says. Then she adds, gravely, “I’m 100% certain that God decided to give me this one because he knows I had a terrible childhood. I’m telling you: it’s my one break.”
I don’t know whether her good fortune is the result of divine intervention or a perfectly-tailored skill-set, but I am beginning to think it is the former: I do not know anyone else who, after being laid off, has been able to find a job. But, whether it is an act of God or a lucky break, I am relieved that at least one of us is working again: unemployment has been hard on us both. Before she met Tony and I met Cliff, each of us had been on our own for quite a while, and neither of us is used to the subtle degradation that comes with losing financial control of one’s life. It is one thing to do without minor luxuries to which you have become accustomed; it is another thing entirely to contend with the grinding uncertainty of not knowing how you will support yourself as your safety net continues to fray beneath the weight of unrelenting financial demands.
The problem, I tell her one day, is that she made it look too easy. “You found a job so fast,” I explain, “that I think Cliff is wondering what the hell is wrong with me, and why I can’t find something.” I have tried to explain to him that the stars aligned perfectly for Giovanna, but that her experience is the exception to the norm. Giovanna is sympathetic; she is not sure that Tony understands how lucky she was to get a job so quickly. “Don’t worry,” she reassures me. “I’m sure he understands that you’re doing your best.”
A few days later, however, I wonder whether he does, in fact, understand that while I am doing my best, I am also swimming against the tide. We are in the car — for the record, his car, not mine — when I get an email from a friend, who wants to know if I am interested in environmental law. She thinks she knows of some positions with a public interest organization that might be looking for people to work on policy issues and impact litigation. I read the email out loud and say, “I don’t think this is for me.”
“Why not?” Cliff asks. “Why not just try? Can you really afford to be so selective?”
“I’m not being selective,” I say defensively, “I just don’t have any environmental experience.” I try to explain that, given the state of the market, employers can hire anyone they want. Why would they want someone like me, who has nothing remotely related to environmental law on her resume? I’m not sure I have anything on my resume that would demonstrate so much as an interest in those issues. I think I even used plastic bags the other day at the grocery store. It isn’t a question of what I want (which is a job, doing just about anything); it’s a question of whether I’m qualified.
“Just apply,” he says. “What do you have to lose? If they’re not interested, maybe they know someone who is. Maybe they’ll like you and pass your resume along. You need to just get your resume out there, even if it’s not a perfect fit.”
I bristle at his advice. In my experience, people who apply for positions for which they are totally unqualified don’t seem innovative; they seem tone deaf. And, in the unlikely event that I were to get an interview, how long could I even sustain the illusion that I was actually interested in the position, as opposed to the mere promise of a job? Probably, I think, long enough for them to thank me for wasting their time. On the other hand, I suddenly feel as though I have to justify my continued unemployment to Cliff. He has been working long hours lately, and it seems important to me to show him that I am not spending my days on the chaise lounge, eating bon-bons while I fan myself with a palm frond and watch re-runs of Designing Women. “Fine,” I say. “I’ll look at the jobs on their website when I get home.”
I look at the jobs on the website when I get home. Most of them require more technical expertise than I will ever have. In fact, I don’t understand what half of the job duties are. “Um, I don’t think this is a good fit,” I tell Cliff.
Still, I feel guilty, and the next time I come over I bring a bag full of groceries. I am not sure exactly why, but I need for him to know that I am trying, at least, to pull my own weight. He may not understand how much effort I put into looking for a job, but it seems important to show him that I have not become complacent, and that I have something to contribute. Maybe life was easier when women didn’t have high economic expectations for themselves, but what can I do? If I got a job tomorrow, I find myself thinking, I would buy Cliff something new and shiny, just because I could. As soon as the thought forms, I recoil. Maybe I am becoming an asshole.
Cliff and I have since split up, for reasons unrelated to the vicissitudes of unemployment. The day after we had “the talk,” I woke up with a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t place it initially, but then I was struck by the uncertainty of everything around me and I realized what it was: fear. If I had been able, at that moment, to smack myself with a rolled-up newspaper, I would not have hesitated to do it; after all, I had experienced so many difficult things, on so many occasions, with very little support. Why should I be afraid now?
But, I realized, being unemployed and uncertain about whether — and where — there is room for you in a radically changing profession is, in a word, scary. The possibility of having met a kindred spirit is a glimmer of hope. It smooths some of life’s more precipitous edges, and reminds you that there is plenty of lightness in the world around you. And, of course, it always helps to have a hand to hold at the end of the day, someone to make you laugh, and a sense that you’re not alone on a difficult journey.
Still, when I get the rare — but occasional — ding letter, I think of what Cliff would tell me. “Fucking savages,” he would say. “Burn the place down!”