Obviously not a lawyer.

Ed. note: This post is written by Will Meyerhofer, a Biglaw attorney turned psychotherapist, whom we profiled. A former Sullivan & Cromwell associate, he holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, and The Hunter College School of Social Work. He blogs at The People’s Therapist.

My lawyer clients sometimes arrive at my office complaining about their awful work hours. They talk about how worn out they are, how they pulled all-nighters, came in on weekends, etc.

Other times they come in with a different complaint – there’s nothing to do.

Why would that be a problem? Couldn’t they just relax a bit and catch their breath?

No. Because at big law firms, no one is ever supposed to admit there’s nothing to do.

The big firms endlessly remind you of their ridiculous demands for “billable hours” – but they never so much as whisper that they might not always have sufficient work to keep you there that long.

If you’ve ever attended a partner’s meeting, you’ll know the rainmakers aren’t just sitting around gossiping about associates. They’re pressuring one another – and especially the young partners – to cultivate clients and drum up work.

One more secret: partners hog the work during dry times. That’s why associates feel the drought so severely.

The real issue here isn’t that workflow is variable at law firms. It’s variable at any business. That’s the way the world works. Of course there will be downtime.

The problem is that this reality isn’t acknowledged at law firms. That creates an atmosphere, at least for associates, in which rest, downtime, slow-downs – whatever you want to call it – are never permitted to happen. There’s no work – but the associates cannot enjoy that situation and catch their breath. Instead of resting, you switch from one intense pressure to another. Instead of having too much work and being exhausted – you’re exhausted with worry.

When there’s nothing to do, an associate is placed in a quandary.

No one admits it and says, “Hey, it’s slow this week – why don’t you take a couple days off?” That doesn’t happen at law firms.

Curiously, it does happen elsewhere. When I was in the business world, it was considered a matter of course to grab your coat and head home if things were slow. People respected the work you did, and there was no point in “face time.” If things were slow, you took off.

A friend of mine who worked at McKinsey consulting for years told me they had a phrase for these periods. You were said to be “on the beach” for a few days or weeks, while the partners drummed up business. It was acknowledged that this was the case, and no one expected you to do anything but rest up and be on call for the next project.

Law firms are different. Here is a culture that abhors rest above all else.

Read on at The People’s Therapist.


comments sponsored by

32 comments (hidden for your protection) Show all comments