The Myth of the Cool Partner
June 25, 2009 by Legal Tease
It’s happened—after a few years and a few thousand billable hours, I’ve finally found him. Sure, there have been loads of false starts along the way, but I think this time it’s for real: I’ve finally met the worst partner in the entire firm. At first, I thought the winner might be Russ, the firm’s resident stone-faced robot and reigning Big Firm Savant. But no. Then, for obvious reasons involving hidden harnesses and coconut-flavored lube, I thought it could possibly be Ian, our favorite slave-driving Pervert, Esq. Wrong again. No, in the past few weeks, the true winner has revealed himself to be a creature far more insidious, more vile: the Cool Partner. And I’m here to warn you—he’s a type more dangerous than you’ve ever imagined.
As any Big Law victim can tell you, the Cool Partner, like any true predator, takes time to attract and distract his prey before he bares his polished little fangs and goes in for the kill. He may seduce you at first with hints of an actual personality, an apparent respect for your time, and possibly even a sense of humor. You’ll marvel at how comfortable you are around him, how energized you feel. You’ll smile and shake your head in disbelief as you sing his praises to fellow associates who ask why you look sunnier than usual. You might even find yourself—even just for one brief, indulgent little moment—wondering if you might’ve been wrong all those times you thought this job was nothing but a festering sewer of misery where dreams go to die at the hands of lunatic, unit-holding nerd sadists. Hell, you might even start waking up happy.
And then reality comes crashing back down.
My first exposure to the lure of the Cool Partner happened as most do—over the phone. A fifth-year corporate associate named Lauren and I had been staffed on a run-of-the-mill bond offering headed up by Kurt Henson, a forty-something equity partner in the corp fin group whom neither of us had ever met. From the very first status conference call, we were blown away by just how…well, cool Kurt seemed. He was more than affable, quick with a few inside jokes, super-responsive and blissfully laid-back. He apparently had a slew of new-ish kids at home and told us that he tried to work from home as often as he could—and stressed that he had no problem with us doing the same. And best of all, he really seemed to make an effort to get us out the door as early as possible—which he also took great pains to reiterate at every turn. As in: “My only goal tonight is to get you guys out of here,” or “I don’t want you two working on the weekend if it can be helped. That’s not how I roll.”
Now, we didn’t realize it at the time, but Lauren and I were already being smacked in the face with a few Canada-sized red flags. See, one of the hallmarks of the Cool Partner is a pathological need to be liked, which often manifests itself in a few stock routines. One is the “working from home” bit. Of course they work from home. You can’t be a true Cool Partner without being a super-dad-family-man-work-life-balancer-extraordinaire—the most common front for the Cool Partner’s characteristic categorical avoidance of (i) actual work, (ii) the office, and (iii) anyone who might notice the avoidance of (i) and (ii). What should have been even more telling, though, was Kurt’s “that’s not how I roll” act. One of the surest signs you’ve got a Cool Partner on your hands is a series of repeated, unsolicited self-assertions of just how not douchey he is. And, just like when your new girlfriend suddenly blurts out that she’s “never cheated on you, just so you know,” or when some wild-eyed man, say, pushes you into a van filled with hacksaws and severed feet and assures you, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you,” you can pretty much count on being royally screwed from that point forward.
Still, despite the red flags, within only a couple of days, Kurt’s easygoing, über-camaraderie shtick had lulled Lauren and me into trusting submission. We were loyal fans, willing subjects. And, more than anything, we couldn’t believe our luck that finally, finally, we were working with someone who felt more like a peer than a Partner.
And then Satan showed up.
After a week of long but sane days getting the bond offering up to speed, Lauren and I steadied ourselves on Friday for a weekend of work. Turns out, though, there was no need—Kurt called around 7 to tell us that we were free to go; he had just spoken with the client and they weren’t going to have the documents back in our hands until Tuesday at the earliest, so we were off the hook for the weekend. Nice! After a happily unexpected, last-minute night out with a few friends, I got home around midnight, tired but energized by my newfound good work-karma. I barely noticed when my Blackberry dinged with an email message from Lauren. Finally, I picked it up, nightcap in hand, and checked the email. All it said: “We’re fucked.” Huh?
Just then, my phone rang—my home phone, a number that I’m fairly sure I’ve only ever given out to my doorman and possibly my mother. Before I could even say hello—
“WHERE ARE YOU?”
“What? I’m— Kurt? How did you get this number?”
“Decided to take the night off, did we?“
“What? No, um, I’m— You told us we could go home.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Um… but you did. Just a few hours ago— “
“ARE YOU CONTRADICTING ME?!”
It suddenly occurred to me that this might be some sort of Big Law hazing. A secret joke, maybe? Because this didn’t sound at all like our Kurt—not cool Uncle Kurt. Unless Uncle Kurt was somehow…bipolar?
“Um, no. Kurt, I mean, I’m sorry if there was a miscommunica— “
“I don’t even know what to say to you. I don’t know how I could’ve been more clear. Are you stupid? Are you both stupid? Is that it?”
Looks like Lauren had been conferenced in to the call before Kurt hunted me down. She piped up, “Kurt, I think there’s been a…misunderstanding. You told us to go pencils down until Tuesday, so we went home. I’m not sure what you want from us.”
“NOT SURE? I wanted the goddamn offering memo turned tonight, that’s what I want from you!”
“But,” Lauren stammered, “you didn’t— “
“Do you know what I’ve been doing for the past two hours, ladies? I’ve been marking up the offering memo and entering the goddamn changes myself. I am a partner; I shouldn’t have to be doing that!”
“No, no, you shouldn’t,” Lauren tried, “We can— “
“I AM A PARTNER!” He sounded like he was starting to foam at the mouth.
“Look, Kurt— “
“A PARTNER! Do you understand that?!”
Oh, we understand it alright. Finally, after a few more minutes of reiterating his job title and raging at us for what basically amounted to the crime of not being psychic, Kurt slammed down the phone, while I sat down and watched the trust and hopes that I’d pinned on him come crashing down around me as it became brutally obvious that we’d been duped. Despite his warm, shiny façade, Kurt had turned out to be nothing more than your run-of-the-mill, psychopath prick partner—a Big Law wolf in sheep’s clothing. Deceptively cool clothing.
The next seven or eight days passed by in a round-the-clock haze of pain. Four out of every five phone calls from Kurt eventually devolved, no matter what the topic, into the same basic script: the mutual realization that Kurt had forgotten to tell us to do something, followed by him screaming “Are you stupid?” then, “Really, are you stupid?!” followed by a protracted sigh and some muttering about how he’d have to make sure to be more clear when dealing with associates prone to such incompetence. And once a day or so, he’d also make sure to throw at least one of us under the bus in front of the client or opposing counsel for one of his obvious mistakes, just to keep things nice and well-rounded.
But, then, then we’d get that other phone call—that one out of every five. There, we’d get Uncle Kurt back—good ol’ bipolar, recently-back-on-his-meds Uncle Kurt, who, despite having just humiliated us for some reason or another, would open up the call with “My favorite ladies! What’s the word down there? Everything cool?” Um, let’s see: No. No, everything’s not “cool,” you schizophrenic lunatic douchebag. Things are pretty goddamn far from cool. After these calls, I found it best to take a few moments to duck under my desk to rock back and forth in a ball and wonder how I ever allowed this Machiavellian oxymoron on legs to give me hope that this job wasn’t the kind that eventually finds you…rocking backing and forth in a ball under your desk.
And see, friends, there you have the beauty—and the mystery—of the Cool Partner: Even after they’ve broken you, you’re still never quite sure if they actually buy their own hype. Maybe, just maybe, Cool Partners are insane enough to think that they’re just decent guys, men of the people who stand out from the archetype of the stiff, paternalistic Big Law partner. Maybe their charm offensive isn’t just a thinly veiled attempt to draw you closer only for purposes of more effectively tearing you to shreds. Maybe “Cool Partner” is really just another term for “borderline personality disorder”—and Kurt and his ilk should have our pity rather than our boiling disdain.
Then again, maybe not. Because at the end of the day, when it comes to the myth of the Cool Partner, take it from one who’s been there: The only thing we’ll ever know for sure is that “cool” doesn’t have a damn thing to do with it.