the coincidental career track (part 3 of 4)

Tip off number one that you work for a Big and Important law firm: five-day-a-week suit and tie requirement. I found this ironic since I can’t recall ever meeting a client in our office during the nearly 3 years I worked there, nor did I ever go to court. This disconnect between “looking professional” and meeting someone who might be influenced (positively or negatively) by my attire confused me. I never quite understood who I was trying to impress with my power ties.

The building in which we worked was a 12 story-high oval. I now realize that our office was a giant, elevated, 400M track. If I wanted to see someone, I could do 100M (down to the partner’s office), 200M (the library), or 300M (a random associate’s office from another group). Or I could cheat, and walk across one of the three corridors that transected the oval. Most lawyers took the latter approach.

Young associates shared offices. My first office mate was Jim, an Eagle Scout from Queens who had graduated law school a year before me and had a firm grasp on the subject matter I struggled to learn. Jim would watch, bemused, as I twisted myself into knots around the theoretical analysis underpinning whether a certain action constituted “advertising injury” within the meaning of a CGL insurance policy. He quickly became adept at doing impersonations of these mental gyrations, always ending by throwing up his hands in despair and shouting out, “But it should work!” (This accurately reflected my anguish when, as always happened, Jim would undercut analytical step number 54 out of 77 that I was sure would revolutionize this area of insurance law.)

Our partners described us as offering New York service at Long Island prices, which I soon figured out meant that we worked as hard as associates at big city firms for much less money. But I liked some parts of big firm life. I was a huge fan, for example, of Bagel Thursdays. It’s amazing how much happiness circular bread and cream cheese could bring me. Similarly, the weekly cocktail hour in the library provided a nice break from the late afternoon doldrums. (Watching the less mature attorneys get inebriated shortly before getting in their cars to drive themselves home always struck me as an interesting statement about the world of risk and liability, particularly in a firm that derived almost all of its revenue from representing insurance companies.)

And I did actually become somewhat of an expert in a unique area of law, albeit one that insurance companies would eventually render obsolete by revising their insurance policies to eliminate the linguistic ambiguity that allowed my group to exist in the first place. (In that respect, working in a group that focused only on this one issue in the late 1990’s was a bit like being a Blockbuster employee today – you could see that it was going to end (badly), it just was a matter of when.)

Other aspects of my work life, however, weren’t so wonderful. One of the partners in my group posted the number “1.1” above the inside of his office door in enormous numbers on a laser-printed page. When I worked up the courage to ask him what it meant, he told me that it represented the number of dollars, in millions, that he aspired to bill for that calendar year. In the work environment and corporate culture of that place at that time, it didn’t strike me as even remotely odd.

But then again, my “weird” sensor got recalibrated as early as my initial interview. After 30 minutes of the normal Q&A, during which I believe I distinguished myself as a sentient being, the other lead partner hit me with the following question: “How do I know you can think?” (My answer, for those who care, was that I hoped the previous 29 minutes provided objectively verifiable evidence that I contained a minimally acceptable level of intelligence.)

I felt a lot of pressure in this environment, and it eventually got to me. A blinking red light on my phone indicating a call  from one of my partner soon activated a Pavlovian response of simultaneous nausea and angina, a delightful combo that had the additional delightful effect of stopping my brain from working properly. (If I had been asked, “How do I know you can think?” after working there 9 months, my boss would have seen the following: (1) me, mouth agape, uttering animal-like noises for half a minute, followed by, (2) me, lurching out of my chair and rushing to hurl myself out of the 10th floor office, bouncing off the green glass, and landing unconscious on the floor. Fortunately, I never got asked that question again after my initial interview.)

But after my accident, the firm responded brilliantly. A small Christmas tree arrived, unannounced, at our house, beating me home for the holiday by about two weeks. My boss visited my bedside (I’ve been told), and probably found me considerably more charming and coherent in my pharmacologically-altered state than when we spoke in the office. A fellow associate traveled to New York while I was at Rusk Rehabilitation and presented me with a framed page from the New York Law Journal containing my name in the list of people having passed the Bar Exam.

As I reintegrated myself into the life of an associate a few months later, I felt a debt to the firm. At the time when I couldn’t do anything to help myself, the people there had provided me much-needed reassurance and support. At the same time, though, I knew that an unresolvable conflict loomed: my post-accident priorities had fundamentally changed how I viewed my life and what I wanted to do with it. I had to restrain myself from reacting when I heard my peers say that their lives would be over if they didn’t complete a project satisfactorily. I believed with a certainty that bordered on fanaticism that My Job, which had defined both who I was and my self-perceived value, was now just a job. In the world of competitive young lawyers looking to make partner, this was tantamount to an execution date.

My monthly billable hours, never spectacular to begin with, dropped to levels that would have gotten me fired if it wasn’t for my recent trauma. In my new single office – apparently, one of the benefits of losing a leg is you get your own workspace – I found myself staring at the lacrosse games going on at the high school 10 stories below, knowing that there was no billable hour entry for “Gazed wistfully at the potential of youth and questioned my current career track: .7 hours.” I came to the realization that I needed to move on before the firm asked me to.

And in late 2008, showing for the first time some tiny indicia of career intelligence, that’s what I did.

(Next week – Part 4: the transition into health care.)

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