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. His new book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy, is available on Amazon.
There comes a time in every big law firm lawyer’s career when things take a turn for the deeply serious. After two or three years, someone turns to you and says, “Okay – you own this” — and suddenly you’re no longer a glorified secretary or paralegal or guy/gal Friday, you’re an actual lawyer.
That’s when most Biglaw attorneys think seriously about fleeing for their lives.
For me, the moment of truth arrived after a meeting near the top floor of the skyscraper at 70 Pine Street in Lower Manhattan, one of New York City’s iconic spires…
Nowadays we all know AIG as a smoking crater owned by the U.S. government, but back then it felt pretty good to get waved past the guard in their Art Deco lobby, take the special elevator all the way up to the executive suite, stroll into the boardroom, and help myself to a cheese danish.
My job that morning, as I understood it, was to play the part of a little second-year along for the ride. I was accompanying an of-counsel from S&C, who actually knew what was going on. I worked hard to look the part, act serious and important, and try my best to figure out what they were talking about.
The meeting lasted a couple hours – something to do with deciding on a structure for a deal involving the purchase and simultaneous sale of some smaller companies in the insurance business. The guy doing most of the talking was Howie Smith, AIG’s CFO. I smiled and played along.
Afterwards, we admired the view out the window – eighty-five floors up – traded gossip about Hank Greenberg’s palatial mansion, and chatted with Howie Smith’s son, Mikey, who was visiting the office and wanted to become a lawyer. Then we stepped back into the fancy elevator for the ride back down.
As the doors closed, I felt a chill. The of-counsel handed me a heap of papers.
“Okay, she snapped. “You own this deal.”
I gaped at her, uncomprehending. Didn’t she realize I was a mere child? A babe in the woods? Totally unprepared for such weighty responsibilities?
“Uh…really?” I sputtered.
She was already gazing at the flashing lights indicating descending floors, unaware of my existence.
That was that. I was screwed.
I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
It’s one thing to be a first- or even a second-year corporate attorney. Pretty much anyone can handle setting up closing tables and “running changes” and setting up meetings and “taking a stab” at drafting this or that. But then someone turns to you in an Art Deco elevator and hands over the whole mess.
Generally speaking, that’s your clue to run for the hills.
I know: you still have loans, and each and every paycheck is one more step towards freedom, but let’s get serious. You either are one of those people who can turn into a Biglaw senior associate, or God forbid, a partner – or you’re not. You can’t fake it – and someone in a position of power is going to figure it out eventually.
I don’t know what the precise equivalent of that elevator ride is for litigators. Maybe it’s “owning this deposition” or “owning this brief.” I honestly have no idea. But you’ll know it when you see it. Whatever it is, if you’re not really one of them, and you’ve been faking to get by – well, that’s your clue to hit the highway.
Of course, it’s always possible you are one of them.
I knew a guy at Sullivan & Cromwell, a few years ahead of me, who clearly fit the bill. After our first day working together, it was apparent I was in for hell, but when he didn’t seem to need me at 7:30 p.m., I slipped out of the office and made it home. I was walking my dog in a mood of mournful introspection when the cell phone rang. An icy trickle of sarcasm leaked from the receiver.
Yep, it was him.
“Umm…Will? You comin’ back?”
And back I went. We stayed up the entire night while he ran around like a speed freak, mumbling to himself and ordering me to alter documents, print them out and fax the whole mess to Bahrain, London, Beverly Hills, Budapest, Paramus, wherever.
This was a fourth-year associate, “running his own deal.”
Nowadays this guy’s a partner, and from the reports I’ve received, even at S&C he’s considered a little nuts.
For me, it was that night – and the long unbroken chain of nights like it that followed – that drove home the reality I’d never be someone who “ran my own deals.”
To become a senior associate, you have to drink a fair amount of Kool-Aid. It means taking the plunge – going in deep, and actually assuming responsibility for very very serious things. You turn into the person who calls terrified first-years and sarcastically tells them to get their asses back in for another all-nighter. You become the person who curses everyone else for being useless and not working hard enough. You become the guy faxing side agreements to Bahrain at 5 a.m.
Eventually, if lightning strikes – at least in the old days when lightning still struck – you turn into the partner who terrorizes everyone around you. You enter the heart of the beast.
But that probably won’t happen.