You don't become a Big Firm Cog unless you fit a certain mold, and I do mean that literally.
By definition, we have to be somewhat interchangeable. We need to fit into the machine, churn out the work product, bill the hours and get up the next morning to do it all again. And again. If, perchance, we wear out, break, leave to work in another machine or just plain give up, we need to be replaceable.
Sometimes the loss of individuality associated with Cogdom causes some to try too hard to distinguish themselves: "What do you mean? My yellow Porsche is awesome!"
Others try so hard to fit in that they get lost in the crowd of Cogs: "Hi there, you must be our new lateral associate -- welcome aboard!" "Uh, no, it's my sixth year here, and I spent two consecutive summers here during law school. And I house-sat for you in '02."
A balance must be struck.
Most of us Big Firm Cogs share a common past. We were on student council, were captain of the football team (OK, maybe the debate club), were recipients of the Perfect Attendance Award in kindergarten and were named to "Who's Who Among [insert random subgroup here: College Freshmen, Law Students, Catholic Schoolgirls. Whatever]." I know, "Who's Who" is all about buying the stupid book, but hey, we were all sent an invitation at some point.
Sure, some of us may have had a wild hare in college by quitting the school band in favor of joining a metal band, or maybe we even took some time off before law school to live in Hawaii and surf for a few years before giving into our fate. Regardless, we all, eventually, went to the right law school, got the right grades and learned to dress and act so that we could slide easily into the Big Firm mold.
Law student applicants who exhibit rebellious individuality with a lip ring, a teardrop tattoo or a résum&é written in verse are vetted during on-campus interviews. Those who make it past the initial filters are further homogenized through careful training, complete with scripts for voice mail messages and templates for simple business letters. Yes, really.
Our genericness is further established through:
- Lockstep pay hikes: "Congratulations -- you survived another year!"
- Office décor restrictions: "Is that a lava lamp?" "No, Sir!"
- Behavioral taboos: "Is that your bicycle in the hallway? I am afraid it is a fire hazard. Why don't you just drive to the office like everyone else?"
But all the beige walls, black suits, Redwelds and green ferns can start to make you crack. One morning, you'll be so distracted checking your BlackBerry messages that you will follow the herd out of the elevator onto the wrong floor. But you won't realize it is the wrong floor because every floor in every office in every one of the firm's 75 worldwide locations has the exact same paint job, wood trim and plant selection.
As you simultaneously speed-walk, sip your steamed chai latté and open e-mail messages, you'll slip right into someone else's office without even knowing it is not yours. The mahogany furniture, leather guest chairs and meticulously maintained ficus tree will feel like your own until you reach into your top right drawer for your morning dose of aspirin only to find it has been mysteriously replaced by ibuprofen. "Hmmm ... what is this?" Then you will realize that the draft document on your desk is a lease agreement and not a settlement agreement. "Ahh! Wrong office! But yet eerily the same."
Yes, that is the idea. At any time, you could be plucked from your ergonomic desk chair and replaced by some other over achiever with a nice suit.
Please, don't let the sudden realization that you are just another number get to you.
I have seen this, and it is not pretty. The most common outlet for this attempt at self-expression is usually a wardrobe "statement." Cog No. 809 suddenly sheds her Burberry knee-length skirt and pilgrim blouse in favor of the "Pretty Woman" thigh-high patent leather boots, miniskirt and silk charmeuse halter top.
Ladies, you must always remember you're a Cog. You are not a movie star, an advertising exec or a member of the marketing department. You landed this gig by disguising your sexuality with a tailored manlike suit and ponytail. You can't go getting all sexy and feminine on us now -- the Firm does not know how to handle such expression (though some of its senior partners do, but I digress). And even if letting your hair down does curry their favor, this attention will only get you in trouble with everyone else, who will attribute any success you achieve solely to your good looks and not your skills. So hop back into the Ann Taylor fall collection and save your sexy clothes for the club.
Men enjoy even less wardrobe flexibility than women and so tend to express their individuality with sudden changes to their hair -- especially their facial hair. Gentlemen, muttonchops are not Big Firm approved. Goatees are creeping into the acceptability range, provided you keep the hair on your head short. We can't have those surfer days of freedom on the open water sneaking into the carefully maintained Firm environment. You should also refrain from giving up your black leather briefcase in favor of some colorful messenger bag. Clients have certain expectations. No work worth $250 an hour could possibly emerge from a canvas sack.
CHANNEL THE REBEL
Those of you struggling to find an outlet for your individuality must chose a more acceptable way to vent. If you must have body art, opt for a tattoo of the scales of justice in your nether regions. If you want to highlight your hair, go with a color that occurs naturally in the human gene spectrum -- magenta is not one of those, and, for some of you, jet black is seriously borderline. Rather than shake up the firm with a new wardrobe, channel "Pretty Woman" with your selection of undergarments, not footwear. In lieu of that new man purse, buy yourself some silky boxers. Come on, no one will notice.
Or you can always mix it up by changing your voice mail message or maybe even altering the Firm's letter template! OK, now you're getting crazy again. Just go for the yellow Porsche.
Do you have dirt to dish? Do you have a column idea? Or do you just need to vent in six-minute increments? E-mail The Snark at firstname.lastname@example.org.