Ed. note: This is a special post from Will Meyerhofer of The People’s Therapist. This article is also posted there.

I summered at Shearman & Sterling way back in 1996. Judging from my clients’ feedback, the summer associate “experience” at big law firms hasn’t changed much over the years. With the recession, it’s harder to get a summer associate position – but once you’re in, it’s pretty much the same old thing – or maybe the same old thing on lysergic acid diethylamide. It was a pretty weird experience to begin with.

As a summer associate, you’re entering Bizarro World, and nothing makes sense in Bizarro World. Nothing ever has, and nothing ever will.

Here’s how it works:

You show up, dressed in the new suit you probably bought with your mom. You’re a little nervous and eager to impress. The first day starts out pretty much as you’d expect, with human resources spiels – “trainings” – on stuff like how to use the library, how to turn on your computer, how to find the word-processing department, whatever.

You are presented with your desk – your own desk in a law firm! You chat excitedly with the other summers, sizing one another up, seeking allies – someone you can trust, who seems to be thinking the same things you are. There are no obvious candidates.

What now?

Eventually you are introduced to a senior associate and given your first assignment. You rush off to finish it and promise yourself it will be the best summer associate assignment in the history of the firm. As you get down to work, it turns out to be some confusing research question that either has an obvious answer that you find in about twenty minutes, or it’s not really a question at all, it’s just a broad open-ended request to poke around for cases, so you’re not sure what they want. Or it’s an inquiry regarding the income taxation of irrevocable charitable annuity trust stand-by provisions in the State of Florida under provision b(7), and you’re feeling a little out of your depth.

Either:

You finish it in twenty minutes, with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that maybe you did something wrong. So you wait an hour or two, re-checking everything, then poke around the library trying to look serious and busy before you hand it in.

Or you struggle through dozens of cases, trying to find something relevant, with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that maybe you’re doing something wrong, but determined to produce a good heap of print-outs and some sort of summary even if you suspect you might be totally off-point.

Or you try to figure out what a charitable annuity trust is and stand gaping like an idiot while the punctilious and efficient law librarian produces state law documents that appear to be written in Klingon. A cold wave of panic rolls up your spine. You wonder if it’s worth the risk to ask the senior associate for more guidance.

Let’s say you actually go back to the senior associate. You brace yourself to look like an idiot. You knock on his office door, and he’s surprisingly friendly,

“Ummmm…I’m not sure I understood the parameters of the question. Do you think I could walk through it with you for a minute?”

He smiles, and too-quickly agrees that the question was a little unclear, but says it looks like you did a great job of “taking a stab at it.” He admits he’s busy at the moment, and suggests you put it down for now, but adds that you’ve “done a great job” and he’ll have another assignment for you soon.

That was your first assignment and you’re sure all you’ve accomplished is to make the one guy you needed to impress think you’re an idiot.

You wait at your desk. You try not to look like you’re surfing the internet, and settle for reading the New York Times online, which seems an improvement over Facebook. If you hear anyone out in the hallway, you pretend to read a memo about the “events” that have been planned for you during the summer.

Okay, if it’s 2010, there are a couple of other things. There are fewer “events” planned for you, and fewer of them involve visits to country clubs.

You also poke around the office and realize that half of the floor you’re on is empty. Just empty offices. That’s especially weird since there are two of you summers stuffed into a tiny office on the other side of the floor. This situation will never, ever, ever be discussed by anyone under any circumstances.

Your officemate appears. She turns bright and perky when she sees you, which is scary, since that’s not how you’re feeling, but you brighten up and turn perky yourself since she is.

You want to ask how her assignment went, but she’s already rearranging pencils on her desk and looking intent on something, and you know she just handed it in, flawlessly executed, probably to the managing partner. He accepted it with smiles and a congratulatory handshake.

It gets to be five o’clock and you’re trying to look busy and not like you’re glancing at the clock every ten minutes. You wonder if you’re supposed to go home now. It’s kind of boring sitting here and you’re hot in your suit. You imagine changing into a t-shirt and having a beer and watching tv. It seems preferable to sitting in Bizarro World wondering if you’re already in trouble on your first day.

You hope your officemate will take off first. In desperation, you make for the bathroom, thinking that might give her an opening and then you can leave and no one will have to feel awkward.

The next day you get in at nine and realize no one else makes it in that early except the secretaries. You sit at your desk. Finally, you walk past the senior associate’s office and sort of wave at him and let him know you exist. He waves back, but doesn’t invite you in.

Your boredom is relieved by a “summer associate training breakfast.” The bubbly summers are greeted by a kindly-looking older partner, who then quickly disappears. A bright, perky consultant from WestLaw or someplace like that takes over, and shows endless slides about legal research or insider trading or diversity sensitivity or ethics. It is boring, but there are bagels and muffins laid out on a table in the back and at this point you’re happy that time is being killed.

Eventually you go back to your desk and rearrange your highlighters and post-it flags for twenty minutes. You’re wondering if you should go bug the senior associate again when, to your amazement, the bright, perky young blond woman in the suit with the pearl necklace who works for human resources – or “associate development” – or whatever they call it – comes by your office asking if you want to go out for lunch.

She might not actually be blond or wear pearls. She might be African-American or older or a guy. But whoever she is, she will radiate an aura of blondness, suit-ness and pearl necklace-ness. You can’t quite put your finger on it. But she is very very nice, and there is nothing she wants more than to take you and a bunch of your summer associate buddies out for lunch. The best description you can think of for her job is “cruise director” and you half expect her to herd everyone onto a boat and sail you all to Martha’s Vineyard, which is probably where she was born and raised.

After a few weeks, you realize this “let’s all go out for lunch” thing happens a lot. Like every week. You are constantly pigging out at Italian restaurants with the other summers, who talk about NCAA basketball – not your thing – or chat mindlessly about how nice this partner is or how wacky and fun that associate is. These are people you’ve barely met, so you can safely assume the other summer associates, whom you barely know, have barely met them either.

Every two weeks, you receive a paycheck for more money than you’ve ever been paid in your life. You notice you’re getting fat from all those lunches.

Everything culminates in a dinner at a country club in Westchester. You’ve never been to a country club and aren’t sure what to make of all the wealthy, skinny young second wives and blond mop-top second batch kids eyeing you by the pool. You drink too much at dinner and fall asleep in the van coming back to NYC. You say goodbye to the blond lady in the suit with the pearl necklace. You visit your family, and dodge questions about the job – and then you’re back in school again, wondering what that surreal experience was all about and trying to process the notion that you might actually work at that place next year.

You’re back from Bizarro World, but it’s only a respite. Because Bizarro World is where you’re headed back to soon, if you’re lucky. It could become your life.

How you like them apples?

Years later, when it does become your life, you realize:

  • Those senior associates were “assigned” you against their wills, and dreaded concocting assignments for a useless summer when they were having mindless work dumped on them by people over their heads and hating their own lives.
  • That the firm had just laid off half of its real estate department and the entire structured finance group and partners were screaming at one another at partner meetings and threatening to de-equitize under-producers, including the kindly-looking older partner, who hasn’t brought in a client in twenty years, which is why they stick him with the summers.
  • That they were trying to lease out the extra floor to save money, but the downtown commercial real estate market is in collapse so it’s just sitting there, empty, while the partners argue.
  • That the senior associate you reported to was sleeping with the blond lady with the pearl necklace, although they’re both married.
  • That no one there even remembered your name, and they will decide whether to hire you based entirely on whether there is enough business for them to bill you out for forty hours per week at five times what they’re paying you.
  • That half the partners in the firm are secretly planning to jump ship to another place where the money is better and leave the other half – who aren’t pulling in the billables – up a creek.

You receive a letter informing you that your hiring date has been postponed to December, earliest.

Welcome to BigLaw. It only gets more Bizarro from here.

You might consider finding a good therapist.


Will Meyerhofer is a Biglaw attorney turned psychotherapist. 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.

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