Astute Biglaw associates, and their fellow associates at boutiques and smaller firms, share an understanding with Tyrion Lannister. For those who don’t watch Game of Thrones, nor read the books upon which the popular series is based, Tyrion (played by the Emmy-winning actor Peter Dinklage) is the proverbial “second son,” whose father serves as the de facto ruler of the kingdom. His sister is the Queen Regent whose taste for wine matches only her disdain for her younger brother.
At this point in the series (spoiler alert — skip down two paragraphs if you are not up to date with the show), Tyrion stands on trial for alleged regicide. Rightfully skeptical of his chances of exoneration by the tribunal standing in judgment of him, Tyrion elects for “trial by combat” as a means of proving his innocence. While a smart choice, Tyrion is far from capable of physically defeating the literal “Mountain” man that his sister and accuser has selected to represent the “State” in Westeros v. Lannister. He needs a champion.
And he finds one, in the form of a visiting Prince who nurses a longstanding grudge against both Tyrion’s family members, and the man who will be his co-combatant — lucky for Tyrion, as his previous attempts to recruit others to stand as his champion had failed. When we see him at his moment of salvation, he is a desperate man, jailed, facing capital punishment at the hands of a blood-starved beast who disembowels malnourished slaves for sport. The appearance of a champion may not improve his situation all that much. But it gives him hope, and with hope comes the will to carry on.
Law firm associates may not have it quite as bad as Tyrion, but they share in common with him the need for a champion to secure their future….
Without a champion in Biglaw, it is only a matter of time until an associate finds that their career options devolve into a very limited number of choices. Move or perish. Doubly so in a small-firm context, where there is simply no place for an associate to hide, and the good graces of the partners are necessary for survival. The associate with a champion will still have to perform, many times under trying conditions, and always under the burden of trying to stand above their colleagues. But they will also have hope that their performance will earn them future chances to perform at an even higher level. Whether or not that is a good deal is for every person to decide for themselves. But it is the best that a career in Biglaw can offer.
As important as the need for a champion is, so is the quality of the person who stands up to assume that role. I understand that many Biglaw associates get flushed through the system without a champion standing up for them at all. And even those lucky enough to have one rarely if ever have the chance to choose who their champion will be. But it is important to be able to discern whether one’s champion (or if you are a partner, your practice group leader or managing partner) is one worth staking your career on.
An old teaching comes to mind: “By three things one may determine a man’s character: By his cup, his anger, and his wallet.” This ancient observance applies equally to men and women, of course, and provides a framework for evaluating the quality of one’s champion. Let’s look at each metric in turn.
His cup. These pages have chronicled the scourge of drinking to excess (amongst other vices) that plagues our profession. While people suffering from the disease of alcohol addiction or dependence deserve our support and willingness to help them turn things around, it would be folly for someone to follow and rely on the impaired judgment of those who struggle with alcoholism or other addictions. Anyone who has been a partner at a Biglaw firm has seen a colleague, or partner, or former classmate whose career has been derailed by alcohol abuse. The collateral damage? In many cases, the career of the associate who most depended on the fallen partner. Ultimately, looking at a person’s “cup” is really an investigation into how that person treats themselves. And no one wants a champion who struggles to defeat their own challenges.
His anger. In perhaps no other profession is there as much public discussion over the presence of anger in the workplace. “Our firm has a no a**hole policy” is a common recruiting refrain — a far cry from the free organic salad bar available at tech start-ups. Biglaw firms have to mention a-holes because there are a measurable number of partners whose anger-driven abusive behavior towards subordinates was (and depending on their book of business continues to be) tolerated at firms over the years. And there are no shortage of angry lawyers in other areas of the profession. But a person who can’t control himself from getting angry or while he’s angry is a dangerous person to place your trust in. Whether the anger stems from insecurity or hubris, it is still destructive, and the most likely victim is the associate who works most closely with the raging partner.
His wallet. This one is simple. As used in the saying, a person’s wallet is a proxy for their integrity — especially in business dealings. And as terrible as it can be to work for someone who can’t control their drinking or their anger, there is perhaps nothing more destructive than working with or learning from someone who engages in behavior that is unethical or criminal. Especially for a lawyer, because as much as a Biglaw firm can contribute to building someone’s reputation, it can’t insulate them from dire consequences when an ethical breach brings on their downfall. As nice as it is to have a champion, it is important to keep your eyes open to make sure that they remain worthy of your loyalty. Because even under the ideal circumstances your champion will be your guide, and the road is unforgiving.
Gaston Kroub lives in Brooklyn and is a founding partner of Kroub, Silbersher & Kolmykov PLLC, an intellectual property litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on intellectual property litigation and related counseling, with a strong focus on patent matters. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @gkroub.