The remnants of the Grateful Dead (Furthur) came to town last week. I was unable to attend, as I was putting on a five-hour benefit show the next day, and I knew a party the night before would not be good for me. Well, the band only got part way into the second set before stopping the show due to “weather.” Granted, there were thunderstorms about, as a cold front was finally lifting the oppressive heat wave of July 2013. But no rain was reported at the venue, and no “weather” ever materialized. Putting on my foil-hat character for a bit tells me that Bobby is still not well, or recovered enough from his bout with something or other earlier this summer. YouTube the clip of “Bob Weir falling” and see for yourself. It is not only sad to see a legend in the throes of some sort of addiction, but it is frustrating as a fan — to pay good money for a show, only to have to leave early because one of the stars couldn’t keep it together.
I have written before about mental illness in the profession, but a more insidious and pervasive issue is alcohol and drug dependency. Everyone who uses has their own story and background about how they got into alcohol or drug use, but I want to focus on the atmosphere in the legal profession: that you cannot have a gathering of attorneys without letting the booze flow. Beginning as a summer associate, and on through your career, wherever you end up, alcoholic beverages, and to a lesser extent drugs, become an omnipresent factor in your daily life. I am not here to preach or judge, just to offer a cautionary tale.
It might also have to do with the fact the we are boring as hell when in a group, and the only way to loosen up is to imbibe….
In the summer program at the now-defunct Coudert Brothers, alcohol was everywhere — on Friday afternoons, at summer lunches, and especially on outings. There was no limit to what you could drink, and many times the partners were messy well before the associates got going. The mantra was to stick to two drinks max, but that went out the window with the first order of shots. We lived the high life, and most of us stayed high for a good part of that summer. The absolute funniest moment of the summer was when one summer associate received a 3 a.m. voicemail from another summer slurring, “I don’t know where I am.” It was funnier when you heard it, but trust me, this was one of many examples of Biglaw life in the late 90s.
Alcohol was served freely at every event, at every party, and at every partner’s house. Firm retreats were an excuse to order whatever single malt was most expensive. Drugs were not as prevalent, but were every bit as available if you knew whom to ask. The atmosphere was what I imagine fraternity life to be, especially in litigation, where you were expected to work hard and party harder. I know from speaking with friends at other firms that this was the norm. It was expected, and we all wanted offers, so we not only did the work that was expected, but hung out with the partners as expected.
There was also the pressure release of riding the train home with a buzz. Heck, you could get those ice cold oilcans of Foster’s on the way to your track. It seemed that having the shoeshine guy stop by your office went with having the barber come to the 42d floor, just as drinking like a fish went with doing summer work. We knew they weren’t billing us out, and that we were being observed to see if we could keep it all together, drunk or not. And we all got offers.
That summer experience led to the same experience (just not as “fun”) at other jobs. The underlying similarity was alcohol. In other firms it became an open secret that the conference room fridge was where there always was a ready supply of beer or wine for those late nights in the office. Stories of partner X failing to come home from the Christmas party were legend, and unfortunately true. And I never really stopped to think about it all, and what it was doing to me. Until I had a son. It somehow became time to grow up and not act like a drunken teenager, but to somehow transform into a responsible adult. But just because circumstances change does not mean that personality traits change. Addictive folks remain addictive even if they have a gaggle of kids and responsibilities for millions of other people’s money. In fact, the pressure that comes to bear with keeping it all together, when the “all” is as high-pressure as what we do for a living, can make it that much easier to self-medicate.
My message is simply to take stock once in a while, and try very hard to stay honest. The one thing no one can take from you is your integrity. Look in the mirror now and then and if you see only bleary eyes and a puke stained oxford shirt, maybe it’s time to make a change or two. Best of luck.
After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.