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When you’re a little kid, your parents want you to be happy, and to have a nice job — in that order. As a young adult, both are still important, but it gets harder to separate the two. In college, you’re not exactly thinking about that fabled job, which means that in the long run, you’re getting ready to think about it for the rest of your life. Once you get out of law school, that job is reality. Happiness is still there — as an idea, as a weekend, as a perquisite. Are those junior associates who momentarily mistake their sudden salaries for their phone numbers happy with their new lives? That question depends both on the experience of the job and the expectation, or standard, of happiness each associate brings to his job. When Maya graduated with honors two years ago, her excitement was due to where she was headed, not where she was coming from. “There was only one firm out there for me. I told them that and I meant it. They were perfect. Reasonable hours, for a firm. Casual dress. Diversity of work from the get-go. I found out that what they were perfect at was recruitment that was as seductive as it was a deadpan lie.” “So the promise and reality were night and day?” “Not at first. They’re just so smooth about everything they do. I thought I would typically work 8 to 6, plus Sunday afternoons; they said about 55 hours except for emergencies. Turns out emergencies happen whenever a partner or senior associate has been blowing off his responsibilities and then drops a memo on you due in 36 hours when he knew he wasn’t going to get it done a week ago.” “Isn’t there anything you can do?” “Well, I can tell the dopeheaded delegator that I’m real busy bailing out other busy partners, that what I’m doing is important. He’ll listen and really convince me that he understands what I’m saying. Then he’ll look me in the eye and say, ‘Maya, this is important, too.’ And that’s my weekend. All of it. “You know what I do to take a break? I take the subway home. A whole half hour not spent reading or writing. Then I get to my apartment where work takes over. Again.” “Can’t you tell one of your bosses there are more efficient ways to utilize everyone’s billables?” “Get real. I go in as one of the youngest associates there and say something like that and I’ll get a reputation for not being able to hack the workload. There’s no complaining in law firms.” “Is it just the workload you want to complain about?” “I’m only working as much as possible most weeks, which is what most of my other firm-friends are working anyway. I thought I wouldn’t be one of them … . Those liars! What enrages me is the utter lack of accountability of all the senior attorneys. When they are hard-pressed to do their work, it floats downhill, like something else you’ll find a lot of in the firm. And if that underling has someone beneath him he can pass the buck along to, you had better believe that I’m going to be eating pizza at my desk Saturday night.” “Do they just not care about being irresponsible?” “They’re too aware of what they’re doing not to care. It’s all about payback. I can just see it in their beady eyes. When they were in my position, they had to take the abuse and get wrung dry just like I am now. They feel that now is their time to turn the tables.” I suddenly thought of togas. “Sounds just like how you used to gripe about that sorority in college.” “Right! It’s the same stupid game all over again. When you’re new, you get hazed to prove yourself worthy of hazing someone else in a few years.” “Did you end up a hypocrite in that sorority?” “No, I quit before I got high enough to do any real damage.” “And with your firm?” “If I last that long, I’d like to think I wouldn’t abuse my position. But all the hours and the stress and the pressure … it changes you.” There seem to be three approaches to going to work for a firm. There are those who will only work in private practice until their substantial debt is paid off, and then plan on a different direction for their career. Others want nothing more than to spend their lives rising in prestige, salary and position with the firm. Many aren’t sure what they want in the long run and plan for their versatile J.D. to clear diverse paths. Yet this last approach, while the most common, is dependent on an unpredictable economy. Ross comes from a blue-collar family. “I have no problems paying my dues. My father and I both come home from work exhausted, only I’m making four times what he is my first year of work. I have no complaints, no matter how hard it gets.” Yet Ross didn’t plan on working at his firm forever. “I’m used to a slower life. I like living in the city, but the scrutinization that goes on is just ridiculous. I feel like I’m back in high school with all the cliques and their gossip. The self-doubt is in the air, despite all the confidence they shoot off when they meet you.” “Because of the pressure to succeed?” “Succeeding is a relative term. Fundamentally, we’re all competing with each other to make partner. It’s not even mentioned. But you can feel people looking at you, trying to figure out if you stand better with the senior partner than them. “I had decided that I had had enough, that I was going to work somewhere more about cooperation. Maybe as a teacher. But with the economy being what it is, I may stick with my security. The hours may be insane, but so is the pay.” “I thought things were looking up with the economy.” “Eh. For now. But who knows when the next 9/11 will give us another recession? I’ve got a family to think about. There are a lot of grandparents and older relatives I want to help retire. They got overtime working in factories or roofing so I could go to a good college. For me, there’s something bigger than my own happiness at play.” “You don’t sound like you mind.” “That’s because I know what I’m doing this for.” Why did Ross seem so different? “Would you tell a fledgling law student that having a cause makes firm life worth it?” “That depends what their cause and what firm life mean to them. If this is paying my dues, I’m in great shape. When my father was my age, he was drafted. So was his father. They fought in wars and then they worked and worked for years. They never asked why life was so hard. They just tried to put what money they could save into bettering my future. I don’t look at it as giving back. I’m just following their example.” “Is it always that easy?” “The truth is that every day I remind myself why I’m not quitting, why I keep up with this high-paying charade. But I have no regrets. In a few years, the family will be better off, and then I can think of myself.” Sometimes, one just doesn’t know what to think. Nigel is overwhemed. “I worked here my 2L summer. They made a point of explaining that they weren’t paying us like junior associates [at $2,000 a week] to help the recruitment process; they were giving serious pay for serious work. They wanted to see how we would deal with realistic working conditions. So I gave them my all. I was proud that I had the stamina to be going just as hard at the end of my 50-hour week as at the start. I believed that had something to do with my getting an offer. Now, it’s a whole other world.” “Because 50 hours a week wasn’t quite ‘realistic’?” “We knew that all along, in theory. It’s just that there’s no let-up. Being done with one assignment that needs to be done well and fast means one thing: time to start the next one. I could handle all the work if I just had the time to breathe. I feel like there’s no time or space to do anything but pour myself empty.” “Is this what you expected?” “I haven’t even had the time to figure that out. Sounds sad after half a year [working for the firm] … . They had us fill out this questionnaire describing exactly how we spent our time last week. They know our billables, but they want to know about our time management, how much time we spent conferring with more experienced attorneys, or researching or revising or on the phone. I was stumped. I had no specific memory from the past week. None.” “What happened with the questionnaire?” “I went to the partner who was running the time management project and told him. He laughed. He said I was being more honest than all the other junior associates who had these meticulous responses. I guess they didn’t want to be thought of as unproductive.” “You weren’t afraid of that?” “Again, I didn’t have the time to consider. I was just trying to get the damn thing filled out so I could get back to work. I told him that, too, and he said that sounded like outstanding time management.” In law school, the tunnel-visioned focus is on getting that firm job. The astronomical salary suggests firms competing for the best candidates, but it also implies greater hardship, like police who garner more pay for working the graveyard shift in dangerous precincts. There is much to enjoy and suffer in the life of a junior associate. Those who go into the life with their eyes open keep a wider perspective on the drawbacks they are sure to endure. The suffering is no less intense with this context, but getting through the suffering can be made easier. “You get what you pay for” is the consumer’s clich�. The junior associate’s new mantra might be “you pay for what you get.” Free-lancer Mitch Artman is a frequent contributor to law.com. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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