Today is Tisha B’Av (lit. the 9th day of the month of Av), the “heaviest” day on the Jewish calendar. It is a day of national mourning, observed through the adoption of Jewish mourning customs, such as not shaving or wearing leather shoes, among others. It is also a fast day, meaning no eating or drinking, and one that is similar to Yom Kippur in its 25-hour duration.
For Jews, the tragic national events underlying this day are unfortunately plentiful, from the destruction of the two ancient Jewish temples to the mass expulsion of Jews from the Iberian peninsula in 1492 — and more. In contrast to Jewish mourning customs upon the death of a person, where the severity of the mourning customs decreases as time passes from the burial of the deceased, the period immediately preceding Tisha B’av sees an increasing adoption of displays of grief, culminating in the observance of the day itself. In short, the mourning is experienced, as well as reflected on.
Interestingly, this sad and mournful day is also considered a holiday — suggesting there can be positive aspects to putting oneself “in the mood” by experiencing and reflecting on the message of the day. Many in Biglaw are familiar with the general contours of the Jewish holidays, considering the outsized presence of Jewish lawyers (of varying observance levels) at many firms, particularly in those cities with large Jewish populations. One way of categorizing those holidays is to relate them to different aspects of the human condition: Passover celebrates the human need for freedom, Yom Kippur the need for repentance and a fresh start, and so forth. Mourning is a universal human experience as well, and thus deserving of its own special day, to be visited on an annual basis. A holiday implies an active process for its celebrants, in contrast to simply recalling a tragic series of events.
The question becomes, what is the value in experiencing a “taste” of loss every year? Let us relate our discussion to Biglaw….
In Biglaw terms, where practicing law is measured in decades of service, my career is still in its early stages. Unlike other industries where there is significant age segregation, in Biglaw it is not uncommon to have representation within the same firm of people in their twenties through those of age 80 and sometimes beyond. For example, I am currently partners with individuals who are a decade or so older than my parents. You can actually be considered “young” in Biglaw well into your forties, in contrast to technology companies where I know “senior” engineers my age. So I get to speak on a daily basis with lawyers who have been in the profession for three or four decades, and have seen the changes that have resulted in the Biglaw of today.
Many of them mourn, despite financial success that was previously unfathomable to them. They mourn the loss of collegiality. They mourn the days when the work “walked in the door” and did not have to be chased in a price-driven “race to the bottom.” They mourn the lack of civility between opposing counsel. They mourn the loss of professionalism, and the shallowness of today’s relationships. And in some cases, they mourn the very loss of the Biglaw firms that were the bedrock of their professional identity.
Unfortunately, it seems like the opportunities for Biglaw attorneys to mourn have only increased. Especially since 2008.
When I talk to these older lawyers, the cynical side of me sometimes thinks that it is all a bit much. Just as most people tend to romanticize those who have recently passed on, so does it seem that these senior partners are romanticizing a time when Biglaw was more exclusive than inclusive, when abusive practices were more likely to be tolerated, and when the mistakes of management were the cause of many of the problems. But then I remember that there was much good in what used to be. See my interview with Old-School Partner for a taste. Or ask someone who was there in Biglaw’s formative years for a description of how things were in many ways better than they are today. You may be surprised.
People have a strong need for reassurance that things will be the same. Loss uproots that sense of security, and as a result is a traumatic experience for many. But there is a spectrum of potential responses to events we perceive as tragic in the moments of experiencing them. The response can be a defeatist one, where the person refuses to adapt the new reality, and simply hangs on. Think of the partner who primarily serviced institutional clients that have since moved their services elsewhere, but does nothing to adapt in response. Their new reality is one where they actually have to go out and generate business, but they can’t, wrapped as they are in their regret for how things used to be. For such a person, mourning what was is a destructive force, robbing their present while also laying waste to their future.
But it does not have to be that way, and that is one of the messages of Tisha B’Av. We cannot control historical events or personal tragedies; we can only control our response to them. As unsettling as negative events can be, they are also opportunities to forge ahead with renewed vigor on a healthier course. Just because Biglaw has been racked by change over the last few years, and seen institutions fall and foundations shaken, does not give us license to give in to despair. From destruction arises opportunity, especially for those willing to embrace the future while remembering the lessons of the past.
We can all, myself included, choose to perpetuate the practices and spirit that make Biglaw firms institutions capable of great contributions to society. That starts with compassion for our colleagues who have suffered in these turbulent past few years, and an increased commitment to our co-workers. And for ourselves? Hoping for a better future is the first step to creating one.
What do you hope for when you think about your Biglaw career? Let me know your thoughts by email or in the comments.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.