The Deadliest Sin?
March 19, 2009 by Legal Tease
A few things are bound to happen when you spend 76 straight hours closing a bond offering in a windowless office the size of a handicap toilet stall, eating nothing but stale candy corn from a nearby vending machine and fantasizing about unconsciousness. First, you make peace with the fact that showers are for people far luckier than you. Second, you start obsessively calculating what your hourly salary might be compared to, say, a teenage babysitter or a shoe-shine guy. Maybe you start to hallucinate a bit. Or wonder if it’s possible to slit your wrists with a stack of post-its. And then, finally, you catch sight of your pale, desperate reflection in the desktop monitor and you realize the pathetic, obvious, predictable truth: You’re wildly jealous of the people your firm recently laid off.
Don’t get me wrong, when it became obvious that my firm was conducting another round of layoffs, I wasn’t hoping to be axed. My day-to-day may indeed be a perverse merry-go-round of corporate inanity, bruising ego slams, romantic nonstarters, and bleak yearnings for my pre-BigLaw life, but when the time comes to end this cycle of misery, I want to do it on my own terms. Preferably with health insurance. So, when I found out that I wasn’t one of the Laid Off, I wasn’t disappointed—but I wasn’t exactly pleased, either. More than anything, I was just relieved that the waiting was over.
But now, in the aftermath of the layoffs, I can’t help but wonder if that relief was misplaced. If morale at my firm was low before the latest slaughter, the atmosphere now is pretty much unbearable. Within a matter of days, most of us went from billing a few hours a day, tops, to not being at the office for a few hours a day, tops. And yes, I get it, it’s BigLaw—it’s not supposed to be a day-spa experience, in any economy—but now, now, we’re supposed to be extra-super grateful for the sadistic pace. We’re supposed to bend over cheerily and smile while the firm’s powers-that-be alternately punish us, and then expect gratitude for, the very fact that we still have jobs. In the past few weeks, even the most docile partners I work with have had a taunting, lupine shine in their eyes every time they’ve doled out work on a Friday at 6 p.m., or announced an absurdly artificial deadline, or passed me in the hall at 5 p.m. as they were heading home and I was rounding midday. Just yesterday, one asked me if I was free to help on a new matter—and when I responded that 100% of my time was already committed, I could hear his smirk through the phone as he asked me to “define 100%.” (Note: you’re screwed no matter how you answer this one.) Now, regardless of how ridiculous, how unreasonable, how idiotic the demands of some prick partner may be, the subtext is the same: “Don’t like it? What are you gonna do—leave?”
And that’s just it. I’m not going to leave. Not now, anyway. Call me stiflingly risk-averse, call me masochistic, call me addicted to the ability to pay my rent, but I’ll admit that I just don’t have the balls (well, literally and figuratively) to ups and quit in a depression. I know, I know—I understand the whole “leave-now-because-before-you-know-it-you’ll-be-37-and-still-toiling-away-at-a-job-you-hate” argument. And hell, I’m ready to take a pay cut and move out of BigLaw right now to a job that might let me have a life and a shot at not being miserable—if that job existed anymore. Back in the day, I’d have been able to slide into pretty much any low-key legal job I wanted at this point. But now? Now, ex-BigLaw players are dialing down their resumes and duking it out for night-shift doc review temp jobs. And still getting dinged. My problem isn’t the golden handcuffs themselves; it’s that I just can’t find the goddamn keys to take them off.
And this is where the recent casualties of BigLaw layoffs may actually have one up on those of us who haven’t (yet) been shown the door. Well, OK, first let’s have a quick reality check—I know that being laid off is hideous and traumatic. I don’t envy my laid-off colleagues for their uncertainty over where their next paycheck may be coming from, or their stagnant mountains of student debt, or their cringing awareness that a few months’ severance runs out all too soon. I’m not delusional. But I will say that whether or not the Laid Off were ready to ditch those golden handcuffs, at least they’re off. They’re off. Unlike those of us still racking up insane hours doing work we can’t stand for manipulative sadists, whining about how miserable we are, but acknowledging that we’re too afraid to leave, the Laid Off aren’t stuck in this catch-22. They don’t have to fantasize about having free time to see their families, or finish that screenplay, or backpack through Thailand, or sleep in for a week or three; they can actually just go do it. Sure, that freedom comes with its own set of crippling anxieties, but the immediate point is: They don’t need to worry about wrangling up the courage to make that leap out of BigLaw—they’re already out. That alone is worth a little envy, no matter how they got there.
So, at the end of the day, who are the bigger suckers in this situation? I don’t really know—all I do know is that a few days after my firm’s latest layoffs, I found myself stuck in a conference room at 3 a.m., alone, eating three-day-old chicken parm with my fingers out of an aluminum tin, waiting for comments on the nine-hundredth draft of a mind-crushingly boring document that no one but me and about six other lawyers cares about or will ever read, wracked with stomach-churning anxiety that my life is passing me by just so that I can help make some CEO I’ll never meet more money than I’ll ever know in my lifetime. Is that really any less humiliating—or more enviable—than being…laid off from that job? Tell you what: If I ever find myself in a position to learn the answer firsthand, I promise I’ll let you know. Right after I get back from Thailand.