Biglaw lawyers behave badly sometimes. And Biglaw lawyers sometimes use travel as an excuse to behave badly. But no one likes to talk about the bad things they see their colleagues do. It is bad for business, especially since it is the rainmakers that usually behave the worst. Bad behavior is usually just ignored, and only gets revealed as confirming evidence of a former colleague’s failings — if and when the firm decides enough is enough and cuts ties with the evildoer. Sometimes that never happens, and the sociopath becomes a “firm leader.” Biglaw is a business, after all, and powerful people need to get away with the things powerful people decide they are entitled to do. So Biglaw lawyers and staff generally keep quiet.
When I was an associate, I was lucky enough to work with pretty decent people. Even though I did a lot of work traveling, with a variety of senior attorneys, I was never exposed to any behavior that was out of line. Back at the office, there usually was a spate of gossip following partner retreats, but that was tame stuff. To be honest, a group of pasty old partners hitting a strip club, or some millionaire partner sitting at the ten-grand-a-hand blackjack table, did not strike me as that scandalous. Especially when I was exposed in the office to blatant overstaffing of matters, do-nothing partners and associates “reviewing” things, and similar other profit-drivers that normal people would consider theft. (My firm was not so bad on the padding front; other firms I saw from cases I was on were far worse. But that is a discussion for another time.)
There was one time, however, when I saw openly unprofessional behavior, perpetrated by a pretty important Biglaw figure no less. And I kept quiet about it, despite the temptation to email Lat and expose what I saw. Now that I have this platform, I still intend to protect the identity of the Biglaw figure that I saw with my own eyes publicly debase his or herself and our shared profession. Why? For the sake of his or her family, clients, and firm. And for Biglaw — we don’t need more scandals, especially stale ones. And when there is innocent collateral damage to consider, I think it best to keep my mouth shut. If this person’s fate is to be exposed for other indiscretions, it will happen. Going by the lack of discretion they exhibited publicly (which I witnessed with my own eyes), there is a good chance they feel immune. Maybe they are. We’ll see — and I have no doubt that if things ever catch up to them, ATL will be there to capture the happenings.
So what did I see? First, some background….
If you are an East Coast-based Biglaw attorney, and you are lucky enough to be let out of the office on occasion, there is a decent chance you will spend some time on an Acela train. There is also a decent chance you will spend time on a broken-down Acela train with a grumpy colleague, no cell reception, and crappy Wi-Fi along the way — but that is beside the point. For some reason, Biglaw partners seem to love
revealing confidential information on the train. Wider seats for their chunky backsides maybe. Anyway, board an Acela (especially the first-class car) anywhere in the Boston to D.C. corridor, and there is a decent chance you will see a Biglaw lawyer or two, furiously billing while chomping down on the free nuts Amtrak is so generous with. Political junkies may also be treated to the presence of some politician or foreign dignitary, especially heading into or out of D.C. (Trust me that the train has its fans, and its detractors — and good luck if you are ever forced into a debate on the merits of the Acela over the shuttle.)
Anyway, I was heading somewhere by train, for a hearing or a deposition. I was reviewing my file, sitting by the window. A little while into the trip, I heard giggling across the aisle. I looked up and across, and I saw a very well-dressed partner lounging in his or her seat, shirt buttons open, and a younger lawyer’s hand inserted into the resulting space. They were having a grand time, it was clearly consensual, and it was grossly inappropriate. The senior figure looked familiar, and I was quickly able to confirm their identity after some snooping around on my Blackberry’s browser. It was easy to figure out, since they eventually stopped with the public fondling to hop on a conference call with a client, and pulled out matching redwelds emblazoned with their proud firm’s name on them. They actually separated seats on their call, only to later giggle at how clueless the client was about their proximity and soon-to-resumed public displays of affection. All this out in the open, on a semi-crowded train, where at least the senior person knew or should have known that other Biglaw lawyers would be on the train, and that his or her activities were inappropriate for anyone to engage in publicly on a client’s dime — much less for a leading Biglaw figure. But I guess they did not care.
I watched all this, and after indulging my prurient interest in identifying the perpetrators, came very close to texting the ATL tip line about what I was witnessing. I even considered taking a discreet picture or two with my Blackberry, before wisely deciding against it. An elaborate blackmail fantasy even crossed my mind. So did the idea of taking what I had seen to the client, in the hopes of securing some work of my own in return for exposing the unprofessionalism of their current outside counsel. This was one situation where who was involved actually increased the inappropriateness of the activity. I know that people have workplace flings — but there is a way to exhibit discretion, and this senior person was showing absolutely none. Simply acting with no regard for the consequences of their actions. A dangerous trait for a senior Biglaw person to have — for their firm’s and their clients’ sake.
Was I getting a little carried away? Sure. But I didn’t and still don’t like having been put in that position. Ultimately, I decided to look at the experience as a test, and a warning.
The test? Whether or not I would be willing to try and destroy someone else, just because I potentially could. I am glad I passed that one — and enough time has passed from what I saw to make it impossible for anyone to figure out who I am talking about. (Of course, if it was you, either as the fondler or fondlee(?), feel free to email me with your thoughts on this column.) The warning? That success in this profession is no guarantee of moral rectitude. And that the more you have, the more you can lose with stupid behaviors.
Hopefully next time I will have the courage to say something when I see the inappropriate and profession-damaging conduct taking place. For now, as a Biglaw partner, there is a Biglaw wall of silence to hide behind. And I choose to do so.
Feel free to email me regarding, or discuss in the comments below, how you would have handled the situation above, or how you have dealt in the past with bad behavior by Biglaw bigshots….
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.