Losing Your Mind: A Primer
July 23, 2009 by Legal Tease
There are a few moments in any young lawyer’s life guaranteed to perk up the day. Closing a deal after a marathon of strained, sleepless nights. Winning a case after three years of document review and trial prep. Finding out you haven’t been included in the firm’s latest slaughter. But none comes close to the thrill of witnessing your opposing counsel have a public, full-out mental breakdown. Call me a sucker for schadenfreude, but there’s just a greasy comfort that sets in when you realize that there’s someone—anyone—outside of your own tortured corner of Big Law who’s closer to losing his mind than you are. Only thing is, that comfort comes with strings—and if you’re not careful, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll double back and take a nice, firm chokehold right around your own neck.
Don’t believe me? Imagine, if you will, the scene that played out in my office a few weeks back: I’d been working on a nightmare bond deal with the most repulsive type of cretin partner imaginable, a deal made all the more ridiculous by the incessant, obnoxious demands from the monumentally horrid senior associate first-chairing for the other side, a 6th-year I’ll call Mitch Haklafti. After a couple of weeks of his tirades, all it took was seeing “Haklafti, Mitch” in my Outlook inbox to set off a fresh round of stomach cramps.
So, around 2 a.m. the night before the deal was set to sign, after a string of all-nighters and increasingly hostile emails from all sides, when I saw a new message arrive from Haklafti, I took another swig of Diet Dr. Pepper and braced myself for what I assumed would be another dose of pain. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was this—including the 16-point, lavender script font:
“Assorted buddies, daddies and babies: please review and let me know if you have any nits by 4.45 a.m. e.s.t., at which time I will send to the totality of working group. Client hasn’t seen. Usual caveats.
-M.H., The WalruS. goo goo gjoob “
Clearly, this was amazing. Not only was this sent, period, but it was sent to about 50 lawyers and bankers on the working group list, not to mention both clients. After I barked out bits of Dr. Pepper spittle all over my monitor, I felt a ripple of glee tear through me. Honestly, folks, if someone had walked into my office with a bucket full of bottled orgasms right then, I think I would have been less excited. Daddies and babies? Goo goo gjoob, for chrissakes? This was just too good, too humiliating, too…deserved.
Within minutes, though, a cold realization sunk in: Haklafti had seemed like a normal enough guy—a tremendous douchebag, yes, but nothing much out of the ordinary Big Law mold—and he certainly didn’t seem like someone a few breaths away from being fitted for a straitjacket. I started thinking, Am I really that different from this poor slob? How many times in the past few years have I been a couple of billable minutes shy of giving in to some humiliating public meltdown? Four, forty, four hundred? You just never know. You never know when you’ll be cranking along in your Big Law cell one day when suddenly that one comment, that one 4 a.m. phone call, that one Sunday-night email will finally push you over the edge.
So, what do you do? What do you do when you feel the walls of your office start to cave in on your brain? How do you avoid joining Haklafti and his twitching, drooling ilk? Well, as a seasoned pro when it comes to navigating and—so far, at least—deflecting Haklafti-grade mental meltdowns, allow me to offer the following pointers:
1. For the love of God, don’t hit “send.” Recall, if you will, the most mortifying email you’ve ever fired off to an ex-crush/ hook-up/ boss/ lover at 3 a.m. after 11 rounds of margaritas. Now recall how you felt the next morning when you saw it in your outbox and barely remembered typing it. Now multiply the intensity of that feeling by 600. Look, feel free to get your crazy on and type up some insane email whenever the mood strikes—let out all your rage, frustration, lunacy on that keyboard. You’ll feel purged, vindicated, relieved that you had the nerve to type it all out. And then delete the goddamn thing. No harm, no foul, no need to quit your job and move to another state.
2. OK, so you did hit send. Time for damage control. So, you ignored the above. And now your email is being forwarded to every associate within a 5000-mile radius of your firm, not to mention to Lat and co. First things first: Do NOT try to “recall” the email. Cat’s already out of the bag, and worse, it admits defeat. Really, there’s only one way to handle this: Pretend it never happened. Assuming you haven’t snapped to the point where you’re too busy convulsing on the floor to get yourself home, just get up, splash some water on your face and get the hell out of the building. When you come back the next day, make sure to look everyone in the eye and act like things are business as usual. If anyone brings up your incoherent spew from the night before, just laugh good-naturedly, throw your head back and toss out an “Oh man, I know, right? Lack of sleep…” and change the subject immediately. If that fails, just say you have swine flu.
3. Ignore your firm’s advice at all costs. If your firm is anything like mine, when they sense that you’re a few days away from showing up at the managing partner’s office with a sawed-off shotgun, they’ll eventually send around a flunky from some associate-relations-type committee to “check in” and give you advice for how to handle work-life balance or some other nonsense. When it was my turn a couple of years back, for example, I was offered the tip to just “take a short walk around the block” when things got rough. Fantastic advice—unless, of course, you were hoping to gain anything other than, say, an extra chance to throw yourself in front of a bus. Remember, the firm is looking out for one thing and one thing only at all times: the firm. Keep that in mind when they come knocking with genius advice on how to preserve your sanity.
4. Spend time with some Russians. Maybe a few Poles, too. Stolichnaya. Belvedere. Chopin. This one should be self-explanatory. Just remember to stay the hell away from your BlackBerry when you do it (see item #1, above).
5. Polish up those handcuffs. I get it, the economy’s in the hole. Firms are laying off lawyers left and right. But hey, you still have a job. And if you’ve played your cards right, even with the latest Big Law salary gymnastics, you should still being pulling in a hefty six figures by now, easy. Sure, there may be moments when you may be crushed with envy for your laid-off friends, with their severance-fueled, funemployed lives, while you’re stuck working 100 hours a week. But sooner or later, severance runs out, and it’s nothing but sweatpants, ramen noodles and monster.com for their kind. But not for you! At least not yet. So, when you’re tempted to throw in the sanity towel, just whip out the Amex and spend like it’s 2005. Drop at least a few thousand on yourself. Maybe on your girlfriend, too. Don’t have one? Go buy one! Because you can. Remember, if you’re stuck wearing those golden handcuffs anyway, might as well keep them nice and shiny. At the very least, they’ll keep you from slitting your wrists.
It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. And a few months from now, when you’re sitting in your office in the middle of the night, running on zero sleep and a barrel of Red Bull and you feel a crack-up coming on, think of me—and think again. Or better yet, think of Mitch Haklafti—who, by the way, completely disappeared after the Walrus incident. Within hours, all emails to him bounced back with a vague out-of-office auto response, and the deal signed and closed without another peep from him. He’s been removed from his firm’s website and Google’s been no help with any clues. For all I know, he’s rocking back and forth in the corner of some white-collar psych ward right now, foaming at the mouth and looking for the Eggman. More likely, though, he’s probably just hanging out in a park somewhere, or maybe on a quiet beach, detoxing from the life that finally broke him and thinking of anything but Big Law and billable hours.
The more that I think about it, maybe he wasn’t so insane after all.