Sex, Drugs, and Billable Hours
January 22, 2009 by Legal Tease
My first intervention went down pretty much exactly like the ones you see on TV. Well, except that there were no cameras. Or tears. Or therapists. And it took place in a shoebox office in a law firm instead of, say, in my living room, surrounded by friends and family. Still, the core elements were the same: I had a serious issue and it needed addressing. No, I wasn’t a junkie, or an alcoholic, or addicted to fetish porn. My issue was far more dangerous. More destructive. More worthy, apparently, of the powers that be at the firm stepping in to make sure the situation didn’t get further out of control.
The issue? My billable hours were too high.
It was a couple of years ago, when it was actually possible to have billable hours, no less ones that were too high. The day started like any other: sitting at my desk on three hours’ sleep, mourning my former life as a person who…had a life, and wading through diligence for a massive public company merger that had consumed every billable, no less waking, hour of my life since I’d started working at the firm a few months back. I heard a knock on my door and looked up to see Bess, a senior associate I’d never met, smiling at my door.
“Hey there!” she chirped. “How’s it going?”
I looked down at the heaps of SEC filings covering every inch of my desk. How does it look like it’s going?
She kept smiling. “Sooo, gotta sec?”
“Great! I figured we could just go grab a coffee and talk for a bit.” Oh, Jesus Christ. What the hell is this about? I don’t have time for this.
Turns out, that was the whole point. Bess was a member of the committee at my firm responsible for monitoring associates’ hours, advancement and so-called happiness. She’d been dispatched to talk to me about my billable hours because they were apparently higher than anyone else’s in my class and it was the firm’s policy to “touch base” with anyone whose hours fell outside of the billable Bell curve—on either end. Go know. The firm thought “it was great” that I was billing so much, but wanted to check in and make sure that I wasn’t in danger of burning out, i.e. they were concerned that I was going to have a breakdown, quit, and show up in the office one day with a sawed-off shotgun, or worse, sue them.
After making a 20-minute Starbucks loop where Bess explained the hypothetical importance of drawing boundaries and made sure to ask if anyone had “forced” me to keep such a high pace—Of course not! That string of hundred-hour weeks was absolutely, hands-down 100% my own choice. Sleep, sex, sanity? Pass!—she sat me down and gave me the firm-sanctioned recommendation for how to handle too much stress.
“You know,” she lowered her voice, almost conspiratorially, “if you’ve been working nonstop and maybe you haven’t slept, or maybe you’re, you know, about to lose it, you can always just—”
I actually leaned forward, waiting to hear the obvious: take a nap, take a shower, take a personal day. What I didn’t expect was what came out of her mouth next.
“…go take a short walk around the block.”
She was nodding her head now, smiling even more. “There are actually some seriously amazing museums within a ten-minute walk from here. Have you been, actually? They’re amazing.”
Yes. Yes, they are.
So there you have it. According to the firm, when the stress of working torture-camp hours is starting to break you, when you’re one billable minute away from slicing your wrists with the edge of a redweld, whatever you do, don’t go home, don’t go to a bar, don’t go to hooker. No. Just…go take a walk! A short one. Maybe pass by a museum—but don’t go in. And then go back to work.
And then, then sit down at your desk and wonder if the all the players in the BigLaw game really are this far gone. Sure, it’s not a shock that firm management would toss out inane, revenue-focused ideas for how to maintain associates’ mental health, but is it possible that the associates tasked with dishing out these idiotic ideas are actually buying into them? Is it inevitable that the longer you work in BigLaw, the more you become a person who truly believes that a “short walk” isn’t an absurd solution to someone on the verge of a breakdown? Is this what passes as an intervention in BigLaw—and worse, is it really supposed to work?
I never got the chance to find out because within less than one year, it didn’t matter. Just like hordes of other corporate lawyer drones coast-to-coast, my billable work suddenly started to dry up. And then, in a particularly poetic turn of events, I had my second intervention at the firm almost one year to the date from my first one—this time to discuss why my hours were so low compared to last year. (Hmm, I don’t know, maybe it’s all those short walks I keep taking around the block.) There was no free Starbucks this time, but the Bell curve did make a repeat appearance—as in: If you’re going to have crappy hours, make sure they’re only as crappy as everyone else’s.
I haven’t been graced with any interventions since then, although if there’s another one coming down the pike soon, I can pretty much guess how it might end. Because at the end of the day, when it comes to life as a BigLaw associate, whether you’re a billing machine or a burnout, any intervention that involves (1) you, (2) your well-being, and (3) your well-being as it relates to your billable hours is bound to have the same upshot: Go take a walk around the block. Granted, depending on the context, they just might not let you back into the building.