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.
I’ll never forget a moment in a wildlife program about Antarctic penguins – I think it was a David Attenborough series.
There were two little penguin parents and a penguin chick.
Then, suddenly, there wasn’t. The chick fell into a crack in the ice.
The little guy squeaked for all he was worth, the parents circled, there was frantic waving of wings – and not a damn thing anyone could do.
Five minutes later – which seemed like several lifetimes – a member of the film crew tore away a chunk of snow and released the chick. Profound relief for all involved, penguin and human.
But there was a wrinkle. The show’s non-intervention policy had been violated. A voice-over explained that an exception had been made because the film crew may have created the crack in the ice.
Uh, yeah. I doubt David Attenborough was buying that story.
The truth? You try filming a baby penguin slowly perishing in front of its parents….
One of my clients, a biglaw senior associate, experienced something similar.
The situation: An eighth-year associate – not my client – was up for partner. She worked at a branch office of a huge firm. My client was preparing a case for trial, and her team needed help. They sent word to the branch office, which sent the eighth year. She showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but the partner – an unstable sadist – decided on a whim, after two weeks, that this eighth-year was no good. He didn’t tell her to her face. Instead, he mocked her behind her back to the entire team, proclaiming her work product worse than a second year’s, and bragging he’d send her packing to the branch office, where she belonged.
My client watched all this, and felt complicit. She wasn’t laughing, but she wasn’t saying anything either. It was like watching the baby penguin.
This eighth-year had no idea she was the object of ridicule. In fact, she was arrogant – confident she’d make partner. At the branch office she was their pride and joy, and they sent her to the big city to win support for her bid.
That bid was being derailed. One word from the partner to the branch office, and Miss Eighth Year’s aspirations were toast.
There was nothing wrong with the eighth-year’s abilities; she just wasn’t used to the level of aggression this partner demanded in his written work. That, and the partner wanted to hurt something small and helpless.
My client’s instinct was to step in and warn the eighth-year.
Maybe the penguin analogy isn’t quite right. This eighth-year was hardly a helpless baby penguin; she was a cold-blooded litigator. If she were watching this happen to someone else, she wouldn’t intervene either.
A better analogy might be gazelles on the African savanna, watching as a hungry lion paces nearby. Each gazelle knows how things are going to end – one of them will be lunch. They would prefer it be someone else. They eye the others – that one’s old, that one’s lame, that one’s still a fawn.
The lion makes the same calculation. He chooses a weak runner, and gives chase.
The other gazelles flee, knowing he’ll get his meal. But this time, it’s not them.
My client was afraid of this partner. If she warned the eighth-year, it might get back to him – and that wasn’t worth the risk. There was nothing she or any of the other gazelles could say to the lion, or to one another, that would do this eighth-year any good. She was marked. The others were already stepping out of the way. Nature would take its course.
But the lion and gazelle analogy might not be apt either. Gazelles are harmless, but at a law firm anyone can turn dangerous. My client wasn’t naïve. She knew, if this eighth-year came to power, she would grow fangs and learn to kill.
A friend of mine recently returned from Australia. He was amazed to find nearly every living creature that walks, swims or crawls Down Under can turn out to be deadly poisonous. It was incredible, he said – they had venomous toads and frogs and spiders and fish and snakes and centipedes and jellyfish and even a poisonous octopus. Just about anything you met could end up killing you.
What was it about living isolated together on a desert island that turned everyone poisonous?