Life in a big law firm is hard. At least that’s the case for Mackenzie Corbett, the protagonist of Lindsay Cameron’s debut novel, BIGLAW.
BIGLAW follows Mackenzie as she navigates her second year as a corporate associate at Freedman & Downs (“F&D”), a prestigious (fictional) law firm in New York City. Juggling family, a boyfriend, and the office, Mackenzie aims to find that perfect work-life balance, often falling short with work monopolizing her time and attention.
The novel opens with what could only be described as an associate’s worst nightmare, a surprise visit from the Securities and Exchange Commission. The firm, and Mackenzie specifically, are to be questioned about unusual trading activity concerning F&D clients. Left wondering, we then flash back some months to learn of the events that spurred the inquiry.
Through Mackenzie’s eyes, the reader is introduced to “life” as a junior associate at F&D. A rising star with an academic pedigree to boot, Mackenzie navigates all-nighters, sleep deprivation, and demanding partners, all while attempting to make time for her family, best friend, and needy boyfriend.
Mackenzie’s ultimate goal is to secure a prestigious secondment, which she hopes will not only provide her with a brief reprieve from the hectic office, but also will secure her position as an associate to watch within the firm.
Cameron’s writing is inspired by her background. Having worked as an associate at multiple New York firms, the author’s past experiences come through in her prose. Whether it be the depictions of the various methods used by associates to camouflage their offices to look as though they are still working (when in fact they have left for the day), the detailed description of the art of ordering using seamless.com, or Mackenzie’s expressions of exhilaration at being able to work on high-profile deals, portions of the novel reminded me of some of my own experiences as a commercial litigation associate (although I’m happy to say my work does not involve screaming or office-decoration related subterfuge).
Most of all, I enjoyed how Cameron weaves Mackenzie’s work and personal emails and text messages into the story, almost as guideposts. These messages help to highlight particular conflicts while painting a picture of Mackenzie’s mindset at any given point.
For example, Mackenzie wants to be able to enjoy dinner with a friend, or Christmas with her family, but she has a compulsive (almost involuntary) need to check her email. Work is always on Mackenzie’s mind.
There were moments that felt exaggerated. At times, the novel reads as a compilation of a lifetime of the “worst-of” office stories, as opposed to a recitation of a couple of actual months in the life of a corporate associate. The characters also feel a bit over the top. Aside from Alex Bourque, Mackenzie’s fellow corporate associate and confidant, the attorneys at F&D are some of the worst colleagues imaginable.
From Sarah Clarke, Mackenzie’s “mentor” who goes out of her way to make Mackenzie look bad, to the corporate partners who overrun Mackenzie’s time and life and berate her in the process, each character is more self-centered than the next. Is there no superior at F&D who is at least capable of acknowledging that their demands are at times awful and occasionally borderline impossible?
Of course, associates—especially those working on complex litigations or corporate deals—may, at times, work around the clock under tight deadlines, but it’s her colleague’s reactions to Mackenzie’s efforts that don’t ring true. She is constantly on the receiving end of temper tantrums and tirades, despite being presented to the reader as a quality associate worthy of an esteemed secondment. This part of the novel felt most foreign to me.
While associate life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, I have found my relationships with my colleagues, including partner and associate mentors, to be one of the more rewarding aspects of my job, particularly when working on smaller teams.
At the very least, my colleagues would be willing to appreciate my work ethic, especially if I (like Mackenzie) were forced to forego my Christmas holiday to fax a 100+ page document to a partner on vacation.
Despite its occasional hyperbole, BIGLAW is a novel worth reading—work permitting of course.