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.
My client was sitting at her desk, drafting a complicated, rushed memo. The topic was an obscure derivative. She’d worked all weekend, then come in again early. Her head hurt. It was due at 5 p.m. She could barely focus and was feeling panicked. It was 4 p.m.
The phone rang. Not thinking, she picked up and barked her last name, sharply, like the partner she worked for did.
It was her ninety-two-year-old grandmother.
“How are you, Sweetheart?”
My client couldn’t stop crying.
“All she did was ask how I was,” she told me. “That’s all it took. I fell apart.”
When you enter the world of Biglaw, you pass through a ritual of initiation – LSAT, law school, bar exam, interviews.
Then you enter the bubble…
On the inside, propositions that seem insane in the outside world are taken for granted:
• Two hundred thousand dollars in student loans is within the normal range.
• You have to earn six figures or you are a failure.
• You can’t take a vacation just because you “have” a vacation. It must be “convenient.”
• Leaving the office at 5 p.m. shows a serious a failure of commitment.
• Taking a weekend off shows a serious failure of commitment.
• Working night and day and doing your best shows a serious failure of commitment.
Last week, another client’s mother was rushed to the hospital. He got a call from the emergency room, then sprinted to the train station to buy a ticket home. It was serious – a perforated appendix that could have killed her. He spent the weekend by her side. Once she was back in her own bedroom, recovering, he found himself tucking her plastic hospital id bracelet into his briefcase.
“I know, it sounds crazy, but I didn’t think they’d believe me.”
“They’d think you were lying about your mother being rushed to the hospital?”
He rolled his eyes. “I know. I know. But they’re like that. No one trusts anyone. An excuse to leave for a long weekend? Someone might try it.”
The rules are different in the bubble. The worst distortion? Money becomes more important than people.
When my client’s ninety-two-year-old grandmother called to ask how she was, it reminded her this old woman is a precious treasure – and she’s elderly, and frail. She won’t be here forever.
When you work at a law firm, things keep coming up. My client hasn’t seen her grandmother in more than a year. That’s part of the reason she was crying. The rules inside the bubble take over. You forget who you are. Then an old woman calls and reminds you.
As the author of this column, I’m asked the same question all the time – how do I survive this?