My Life As An Associate
The terrible truth dawned on me as I sat on the flowered patio of a midtown restaurant. I was smiling at the summer associate, and he was smiling at me. There were three other associates and three other summer people, all tucking into northern Italian delicacies under a sultry sky. I was smiling at this fellow—whom I liked a lot—and lying to him. I was telling him how much "fun" it was to work at the firm. How the "collegial atmosphere" made all the difference. How ours was not a "sweatshop" like other firms I could mention. As the cliches tumbled out of my mouth and he drank them in like a traveler in the desert, I realized that I had become a Company Man.
There I was—the rebel, who almost every day caballed in corners with my fellow disenchanted ones—seducing another victim. Pulling another sucker into the machine. My late father worked in a circus as a teenager, back in the thirties. He told me that the carnies called the yokels they gulled "marks." Here I was luring a "mark" of a different sort into his very own cage in the menagerie.The big firm I worked at was— like all big New York law firms—a cultural oddity. It combined aspects of the boarding school I had attended in England with the political climate of the former Soviet Union. Like school it was a nightmare world of irrational hierarchies, institutionalized bullying, and overwhelming peer pressure. Like the bad old USSR it combined grotesque inefficiency with a culture of Orwellian surveillance, universal distrust, shameless sucking up, and constant dishonesty. High ideals were honored only in the breach. Capricious tyrants roamed the hallways, the terrifying reality behind the movie The Revenge of the Nerds. Those who flourished in the system were almost always monsters, twisted into Balzacian shapes by the struggle for power. The office was a petri dish for the growth of abnormal psychologies.
Economically it represented a perfect reification of various Marxist theories. As associates we were wage slaves, members of a white-collar proletariat, objectively closer to the model described in Das Kapital than most nineteenth-century factory hands. It may seem odd to call someone a wage slave whose starting salary was $85,000 (though broken down per hour it was much less impressive). But the work of a junior associate, in reality, is being a clerk, a checker, the one whose job is on the line to make sure that the decimal points are in the right place. No one with an Ivy League education is going to perform this sort of drudgery for much less than 80 grand.
We were also faced with alienation from the products of our labor. You would work on the tiniest part of a huge transaction. You would never see the big picture, never know if your all-nighter made a difference, if your clauses appeared in the final documents, never even find out if the deal had gone through.
And to make the life bearable, you found yourself spending a lot of money. After a particularly long and dreary project, or a humiliating interaction with someone of higher rank, I would often slip out to buy myself a little present, perhaps another Ferragamo tie. It's a way of reminding yourself that despite your misery you are a highly paid professional: you may feel like a serf, but you can afford to spend $80 on a beautiful strip of silk. This becomes a way of life. Some people eat chocolate to make themselves feel better; lawyers buy stuff. As they claw their way up the ladder, they buy more and more. Before they know it, they cannot imagine living without an enormous salary.
For a young, single associate this means making up for the unpredictability or lack of a social life by spending freely on your few free evenings. I took taxis everywhere without a thought. I dined at the most expensive restaurants in town because, dammit, it was the only real perk of the job. Lawyers pulling 100-hour weeks have more money than time. So, when we got to take our vacations, we just threw down our gold cards in front of the travel agent and didn't even look at the bill.
Most of us had expensive apartments. Again the thinking was, if my life is going to be so awful, at least I'll have a decent place to come home to. I tried not to think about how little time I spent in my pad, with its great views and empty fridge.
I had struck a Faustian bargain, and I was stuck with it. Without considering its implications, I had sold the firm an option on my time. All my time. I could be called at 3am on Saturday and ordered to go to the office for some proofreading. A friend of mine was forced to miss his sister's wedding. Fathers who were up for partnership worked so hard they never saw the children whose private educations they were paying for. I remember seeing sixth-year associates humbly swallow insults like "shithead" and "jerkoff." We may have been professionals to the outside world. But we cringed and scraped like Dickensian factory hands. We had paid $100,000 in school fees to become members of a white-collar proletariat, loathing our paperwork mill but desperate to continue working in it.
It was worse for the married associates. Some of them had spouses whose affections were predicated on an expensive way of life. Many had children or had taken on mortgages on apartments in an elegant part of town. It all gave the firm more leverage. The loss of your salary was such a terrifying prospect that they could do anything they wanted to you, and you would take it, like the fraternity pledges in the movie Animal House who replied to each blow of the paddle with, "Thank you, sir. May I have another?"
Nor was it simply a matter of money. Many were also bound by chains of status. They believed that you were either "on the track" or not. If you weren't a banker, a consultant, or a lawyer at a big-name firm, you would be seen as a loser by your parents, or worse, by the people you went to college with. No one would want to marry you.
We had known a few people who had become teachers or academics or would-be filmmakers. It was a cute and daring thing to do right out of school. But if you didn't want to be a nobody at 28, you were supposed to get serious and get a JD or an MBA. Friends who didn't get this became embarrassing. You couldn't really mix them with other friends who were successful, so you lost track of them. And they all disappeared—presumably into unfancy neighborhoods, where they were engaged in a desperate struggle against poverty and humiliation.
Such thinking was less prevalent among those associates who came from wealthy, long-established families. On a presumably unconscious level, the firm understood this, and therefore recruited heavily from among those who were the first in their families to go to college. It wasn't just that lawyers from the outer boroughs were hungrier. Being associated with a famous name meant more to them. It was a bigger part of who they were. In terms of leverage, it gave the firm an extra twist of the wrench.
Our firm had what it called an "open-door policy." "It's so anybody can ask anyone else a question at any time," my smooth "partner-advisor" explained with a mirthless smile. It did not mean we were part of one big, happy, cooperative family. It meant you had to have your office door open all the time so they could make sure you weren't reading the paper or making personal phone calls. Or worse, talking to headhunters in a desperate attempt to get out.
We all believed that our phone calls were being taped. (This was years before The Firm became a best-seller or a movie.) We would joke about it. Having complained about a partner's atrocity, you would say, "Well, if they play this tape my career is over" and laugh. Then you would put the phone down, feeling sick at your indiscretion.
The only time you weren't being watched was in the library or when you visited word processing in the working-class ghetto on the windowless third floor. The people down there, the proofreaders and photocopying guys, seemed to lead a carefree, jolly existence when their numbers weren't being halved by downsizing. Visiting them, I could breathe again. At first they were suspicious of any "suit." But if you avoided the temptation to be an asshole with the only people lower than you on the totem pole, they could save your life. Many times I was in a crisis, and Maria from Borough Park would put my stuff on the top of the pile. The jerks had theirs put at the bottom.
It was a terrible epiphany after spending so many thousands of dollars and working so hard to realize that the people I sometimes envied the most at the firm were the security guards. They stood all day in the huge glass-walled lobby under a giant piece of hideous pop art. They saw the sun and the sky all day. They saw the traffic and the people shopping. And they went home when their eight-hour shifts were over.
We, on the other hand, were all either pale and fat or pale and skinny. Day/night, weekend/weekday were distinctions that had lost all meaning. On the subway one day I heard a girl make a disparaging remark about a man having a "lawyer's body." We had the shadowed eyes you associate with heroin addicts. The only ones among us who weren't soft and flabby were the running fanatics. The firm encouraged its employees to run the marathon, especially if they had a chance of winning, as one partner had done a few years ago. It had something to do with the masochistic discipline involved.
At my boarding school every boy with four working limbs was forced to play rugby, in the traditional belief that the experience would build "character." Those who used a doctor's note to get out of it were marked forever as outsiders and malingerers. In the firm we were similarly expected to take part in, or at least watch, summer intra-firm softball. Softball was played with summer associates. Like the long, expensive lunches, the outings to country clubs, and the theater trips, softball games were part of a recruiting process that involved the construction of a Potemkin law firm between the beginning of June and the end of August. They were therefore an orgy of fake bonhomie, forced sportsmanship, and hail-fellow-well-met post-game beer drinking. Also an opportunity for some of the partners to "get to know" the more attractive female summer associates. The pretty ones inevitably received offers at the end of the summer, and often their affairs with their married sponsors lasted for several years.
Basketball, on the other hand, was played for real against the best that rival firms could offer. No one held back. People were crude, rude, and competitive to a psychotic degree. One of our partners was ejected by security guards from another firm's building after assaulting one of his opponents, screaming at the referee, refusing to leave the game, and overturning a table.
The partners were obsessed by team sports in inverse proportion to their athletic abilities. Any associate who had played in college or professional sports—and the recruiters had a weakness for such men—was fawned over endlessly. The young female associates who rose the quickest were those who could reel off baseball stats and name all the Heisman Trophy winners of the past 20 years. And, of course, sports metaphors sprinkled every conversation. The firm preferred "team players," but everyone had to be a "potential quarterback."
Partly in obedience to the dictates of some eighties business guru, our departments were renamed "teams." This did not cause them to resemble teams in any way. After all, just to survive you had to play a zero-sum game. I'd worked in Hollywood and in restaurant kitchens and had traveled through a Latin American civil war. But this was the jungle. To paraphrase La Rochefoucauld, it was not enough to be seen to succeed; others had to fail. If something went wrong, you didn't hesitate to load the blame on someone beneath you in the hierarchy. If things went well, you ruthlessly took as much credit as you could get away with.
The "team leaders" maintained esprit de corps through the careful application of terror and a sustained and successful effort to divide and rule. Some made no secret of their wish to get rid of as many of us as possible and have the rump then work twice as hard. They longed for the day, presumably not far off, when we would all be replaced by clever computer software.
Lying was a way of life—a necessity and therefore a virtue. When a partner came into my office and told me that he had a "very interesting assignment" for me, I knew for certain that it would involve mindless, repetitious, stunningly dull work. Of course, none of what I did as an associate would be regarded by anyone on the outside as "interesting." I mean, it was better than staring at the wall of a cell or watching ants walk across the ceiling. But if it was officially designated as "interesting," then it would turn out to be crushingly boring. And it was my duty to pretend that I was excited at the prospect of another assignment. Once engrossed in, say, counting the pages of a document that was incompatible with our computer system, I would have to show enthusiasm for the task. And when it was finally done, having taken over my nights and weekends, I would have to show profound gratitude.
Our corporate culture required the show of enthusiasm in all circumstances. A partner would come into your office and ask if you had any plans for the weekend. The correct answer was "no." And you would then be given an assignment to fill your empty Saturday and Sunday. The first time I was asked the question, I mumbled something about having hoped to go to Vermont. The young partner, who was nicknamed "Dave the Barracuda," looked at me with a combination of incredulity and sympathy, as if I had just confessed to a subnormal IQ. "It's a rhetorical question," he explained with an exasperated sigh, before proceeding to assign me 20 hours of research.
Every week we had to fill out a form saying how many hours we had billed the week before and for which client. If you put down a number that suggested you had enjoyed an easy week, the assignments partner would soon wander through your open door and ask if you were busy. It was another rhetorical question: it meant that you were about to become extremely busy. It also meant that there was an incentive not to work too fast. The idea was to charge as many billable hours to clients as would seem reasonable sometime in the future. If you worked too fast, the firm would not be getting its money's worth, and you would be rewarded immediately with another assignment. So our progress was sedate even when we were billing over 100 hours a week.
Sometimes we junior associates were given secretarial work to do on the weekends. It made sense for the partnership. Our salaries were high and fixed; secretaries cost overtime. The work had to be done, and you could charge some or all of it to the client as if it were real legal work at $200 an hour. None of us could complain, because a single complaint, even a look of resentment, was a "CDM"—a career-damaging move. You would blow your chances of partnership. You would sacrifice your twenties and early thirties for nothing. They would keep you on as a slave for seven years, getting more and more out of you as the dream of partnership came closer, and then make you walk the plank with ill-concealed amusement.
The ex-hippies were the worst people to work for. If you went into a forty-something partner's office and saw a picture of him with hair down to his shoulders, you were in trouble. You would be dealing with someone whose cynicism was boundless, a shark in pinstripes, a creature to whom decency was just an old-fashioned superstition favored by the old, the foolish, and the weak.
For a while my own department was run by a bankruptcy lawyer we called "Caligula" for his capriciousness and the pleasure he took in torturing the vulnerable. Caligula was short and vain and bore an extraordinary resemblance to John Gotti, the New York gangster known as the "Dapper Don." It was a resemblance he took pains to cultivate. He wore only Armani suits and would noisily send his secretary off to Saks for ties and handkerchiefs.
Some mornings he was genial. He would pop into your office for a friendly, slightly awkward chat. Other times you could hear his screaming on distant floors. Anything could set him off. A friend of mine named George had joined the firm as an associate in his late thirties. He was overweight, balding, and single, and desperately aware of all three. George had foolishly enlisted the help of one of Caligula's tough-talking female cronies in composing a singles ad for New York magazine. When Caligula found out, he teased the poor fellow relentlessly, adding the advertisement to his usual jibes about baldness. George was clever and witty and was given the most intellectually demanding assignments, but he remained the butt of relentless bullying. It took months of abuse before he got up the courage to attempt a mild jibe at his chief tormentor.
One morning, Caligula came in after 9:30 with the collar of his suit coat twisted over. George went up to him nervously, fixed his collar, and said to him, "Not quite the epitome of sartorial elegance today, eh, Andrew?" Whereupon Caligula whirled round and shouted at the top of his voice, "You fucking asshole! You are this close to losing your job" (holding two fingers close together).
In theory, the hierarchy within the firm was simple. On the one hand, there were the attorneys. And on the other, there were the support staff: secretaries, photocopiers, messengers, paralegals, computer technicians, librarians, and receptionists. In practice the hierarchies were extremely complex and could shift suddenly. But one thing was made fairly clear, and that was that associates belonged with the employees, though many insisted on being deceived by the symbolism of the suits they wore. Associates weren't even at the top of the employee hierarchy. Cuts in support staff meant that attorneys now had to share secretaries—all of whom were survivors who understood perfectly well how valuable they now were to the firm. Some would only get around to typing up documents for lawyers with genuine clout. If you wanted to make an issue of this, it was rapidly made clear that any partner forced to choose between a reasonably competent secretary and a junior associate would unhesitatingly fire the associate. You alienated your secretary at the risk of your career. Some of them achieved extraordinary power, like Stasi agents or Sejanus, captain of the Praetorian Guard.
The end of the eighties came as a terrible surprise to many of the yuppie partners. They had no experience of economic downturns. Their personalities had been forged in the glory days of premium billing, when competing takeover clients threw money in the air the way Haile Selassie used to throw pennies out his limousine window. They had sacrificed everything to gain the partnership. In the eighties a partnership had meant a million or more a year. Suddenly, 1989 came around, and partners were making only $250,000. They had mortgages on Park Avenue apartments to keep up. Something had gone horribly wrong.
Their anger was palpable. In many cases it took on a hysterical tone. It was someone's fault. Everybody else was being paid too much. They fired 20 percent of the support staff, promising that it was a one-time measure. Eighteen months later they did it again. Now there weren't enough receptionists to answer ringing telephones. Documents began to get lost. But the rationalizations had only just begun. There were still inefficient, wasteful elements to be purged.
It was the associates' turn next. This had once been a "white shoe" firm. In other words, it was old, had once been ethnically exclusive, and had an unspoken tradition that you just didn't fire lawyers unless they did something really bad, like commit a felony. If they were no good, or didn't fit in, you gave them a couple of years to find another job. It was one of the perks of being a corporate lawyer instead of an investment banker. Bankers made more money but had to be braver because they could get the push at any time. Lawyers were more risk-averse; they had chosen security over the really big bucks.
All this went out the window. The Young Turks insisted that heads must roll. No one had any experience in the mass firing of colleagues, and no one wanted to claim it as his idea. So management consultants trooped in, at great expense. After several weeks of writing reports and inputting data, they decided that the firm should cut 10 percent of its workforce. The office held its collective breath. No team leader was willing to make the first move. This was Caligula's moment of glory. On the night of the long knives, five associates in my department were called in and told they had six months to find new jobs. One of them was my office mate. He had just persuaded his pregnant wife to give up her job in Rochester and move to Manhattan.
When an investment bank fires people for economic reasons, it says so. Those who are sacked quickly get jobs on the Street if there are any around. Law firms, however, are terrified to admit that they might have financial problems. Clients might leave them. Law students might shun them. So they put it about that the people they fire are just no damn good. They become unemployable.
The Young Turks took a breather after the purge of associates. They enjoyed the fear on the faces of those who remained. They hadn't had such fun since Woodstock. But the fact remained that they were not making the kind of money they felt they deserved. So now it was the turn of the older partners. The forty-somethings began to complain openly to associates about the "deadwood." Rumors of another impending purge spread. You cannot fire partners without a vote of the whole partnership. So you force them out.
The Young Turks had taken control of the compensation committee, and they simply gave the deadwood a smaller and smaller draw of the profits until the humiliation became unbearable. If this treatment failed to bring about resignation, there was always "internal exile." The unfortunate person would be transferred to another department and made to work for another partner as a quasi-associate or, worst of all, assigned to a project that meant having to make frequent trips to some godforsaken place, like Kazakhstan, with its appalling weather and worse food. A few months usually did the trick; 13 partners were thus given the hint to leave. The list was a secret but somehow became known to every associate in the building.
It was this final purge that pushed me over the edge. There's a limit anyway to the number of ties you can buy to make yourself feel better about your life. The jokes about lawyers take their toll. And the fact that nobody was ever impressed when I dropped the name of my employer at cocktail parties—those few I attended—didn't help. It seemed that only law students and their parents thought it was a big deal to work in a Wall Street megafirm. Anybody who had had the slightest contact with corporate law, from investment bankers to secretaries to dancers-cum-proofreaders, just felt sorry for us. Our amazingly high turnover meant that over two years most of the people I liked quit or were fired.
Others, the real unfortunates, were broken to the system. Once the cream of the Ivy League, they had been told too often that they were useless, that they were lucky to have a job at all. Years of semi-brainless paperwork while their college peers were starting businesses or making movies had dissolved their self-confidence. After three or four years the outside world had come to seem a terrifying place. Some claimed they were trying to get out, but one look at their eyes told the whole story.
One of my friends who remained told me that she had always planned to quit after two years, but somehow after four and a half years, she was still there. She just didn't have the time to look for a new job. And, in any case, as a fifth-year, her salary had just gone up by another $20,000. It is no coincidence that your salary starts making bigger jumps after your fourth year. The firm knows that it is at that point that most associates start seriously to consider leaving for smaller firms, so they up the ante. The prospect of being trapped like this scared me. But leaving seemed even more frightening.
Then a friend at Sullivan & Cromwell quit his job and went to Vail for a season before leaving for Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. He called me one morning from Colorado. He was working 30 hours a week in a mountainside store for a season ticket and a small salary. "It sounds crazy," he told me, "but I have no problem getting up for work at 7am here, and when I was practicing, I could barely make it in by 10."
Still I stayed on, mindful of what Dave the Barracuda had said to a senior associate who resigned when forced to move from L.A. to New York: "You'll be poor." Then on a whim I spent eight of my precious vacation days on an Outward Bound alpine mountaineering course in the California Sierras. Part of the course involved rock climbing. I had always been scared of heights, but I did it anyway. As I clung to a granite rock face 100 feet up, it occurred to me that if I could do this, I could quit my job and survive.
So I took my parachute and jumped while I still could.
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