Biglaw, In-House Counsel

The Angel and the Devil

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

There comes a time as a lawyer when you split in two –- an angel and a devil.

The angel wants to do well — as I never tire of explaining, lawyers are pleasers. You want to make partner, earn a million bucks, and be the best attorney in the world. To the angel, the firm is like your high school football team — go Skadden! Rah rah rah!!

The devil, on the other hand, would burn the place to the ground while he toasted marshmallows and sang campfire songs.

The irony is that it’s the law firm itself that turns little angels into devils — just by telling you that’s who you are.

A junior partner at a big firm told me how they did it to him. Two senior partners marched into his office and announced he was slacking off and taking advantage of the firm. It was a mistake, they told him, to make him partner.

In reality, this guy was a pleaser’s pleaser. He worked his ass off to make partner, and talked in all sincerity about his “gratitude to the firm for that honor.” He was as rah-rah as it got.

Unfortunately, none of that meant anything, because the economy sucked, and he wasn’t bringing in business. According to firm logic, that meant he wasn’t trying, he didn’t care –- he was a bad guy.

By the end of his grilling, all he wanted to do was slack off and go home. They’d done it –- turned an angel into the freeloading devil they told him he was….

A few weeks later, he’s still having trouble finding his groove, and feels tempted to fudge his hours, pad his expenses, and kick off early. It seems reasonable, all of a sudden, to glance at a document and hand it off to an associate to review instead of staying that extra couple hours at the office.

There are few things quite as frustrating as having someone question whether you are acting in good faith. It’s like one of those Hitchcock movies where they collar the wrong guy for a crime he didn’t commit and no one believes him when he insists he’s innocent.

Law firms do it all the time.

At Sullivan & Cromwell, it got to feeling like a roller coaster. I arrived at the firm fresh-faced and innocent, totally committed to doing my best. I know how absurdly naïve it sounds now, but I really did think I had a chance of making partner.

You couldn’t get more angel than me. I spent three years earning A’s in law school, pleasing professors, drinking the Kool-Aid, writing a journal article, drinking more Kool-Aid, talking about my commitment to “the profession” — all the while whipping up molten Kool-Aid gateau served with mint-rosemary Kool-Aid coulis.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I’m so bitter now -– why lawyers are all bitter –- because we bought in utterly at the start of things. We really were angels.

It’s a long, hard fall to the shadowland of Hades.

My expectations for Sullivan & Cromwell were ridiculous, in retrospect. I perceived the partners to be wise, caring mentors who would guide me to “excellence.” I bragged to everyone I met about where I worked, employing words like “collegial” to describe my vision of the firm. No kidding – “collegial.”

My plunge to the land of shadows only truly arrived when they ignored all that and accused me of being a slacker. It was their telling me I didn’t take my work seriously that somehow made it a reality.

There’s something about working your ass off only to be told you’re a slacker that actually turns you into a slacker. Suddenly padding your hours and avoiding work become the prime objective. Let the other little junior – Mr. Eagerness – handle things for a change.

A few days later, I’d snap out of it and remember why I was at S&C. It was the best, most prestigious law firm in the world! I wanted to make partner! I was going to make them happy, do my absolute best, and be a success!

Then I’d get stomped on by some senior associate telling me I didn’t even seem to care…and the process would begin again.

At some point, you go numb. (Even lawyers have their limits.)

Continue reading about how to get out of this on The People’s Therapist

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