Sadly, the facetious answer is probably the correct one.
You’re someone’s bitch if they enjoy the fruits of your labors.
If you are an associate at a BigLaw firm, the people who most directly benefit from your labor are your clients. Chances are pretty good you are working on the defense side: you’re saving money for a big corporation or trying to get it out of a mess, small or large. The legal industry is a client-service industry–any of the partners around you will remind you of this constantly–which means your client is the most direct beneficiary of your labor.
At the same time, you also benefit the partners at your firm. By doing the assigned work, you take it off their hands. You generate revenue and bills, which usually translates into profit, which they share. Associates senior to you benefit by delegating their work to you, but don’t share in the profits. But all of these people enjoy the fruits of your labor indirectly.
“But wait!” you might think. “It isn’t like I don’t get paid for this job! My spouse and children benefit too!”
And so you are, and so they do. And so do your friends because you are a generous person. The firm pays you handsomely, and allows others to benefit from the fruits of your labor. Admittedly, you only get a fraction compared to the amounts you generate or save, but still, it’s a good lot of money.
The trick is, though, that your family and friends lose you in the process. More fruits come from more labor! And not laboring enough means you will likely gets your fruits handed to you on the proverbial pink slip. You spend hours protecting your job as well as working it, which means 1) not at home, 2) at home but working, or 3) at home but worrying, stressed out, or trying to escape from work.
If they’re getting the money you generate but not you, they’re getting less than the firm and your clients are.
Your clients and your firm get money you generate (revenue, profit, saved liability) plus you. Your friends and family get some fraction of the money you generate. Who is really winning?
Often, associates in BigLaw look forward and believe that all of this is a temporary sacrifice for a better life later. Brass tacks time: good luck with that.
- This plan only has a chance at working if you avoid attrition somehow. (And don’t think skill, talent, or a gold-plated resumé will save you.)
- If you avoid the attrition and become a partner, the work gets harder and you have to add on client development.
- Partners get fired too, or counseled out, or shuffled off into lower castes: not all partners are created equal.
- As work gets harder and longer, you get less healthy.
- Don’t forget the discount rate: a dollar today is worth more than a dollar a year from now. It is naive to take on faith that some magic pot of money that arrives thirty years from now will compensate for something lost right now. If you can’t put a good value on the future payoff (and #1-#4 make it pretty darned uncertain) and understand the discount rate, then you have no rational basis for thinking your sacrifice is actually worth it.
You are shortchanging the people you care about now. And unless you have done some real research it is irrational to believe that there is some future payoff that will make up for it.
It isn’t impossible to make a good life in BigLaw. People do it all the time. Just usually not on the terms that associates think are applicable when they join up.
If any of this reasoning provokes a strong reaction or seems angry, step back for a moment and analyze why. The basic propositions are pretty well-documentable (long, hard work plus stress undermines health). Some are propositions that may be unique to your firm (attrition rates, partner caste system). But some also blow up myths that may have a hold on your decision making (“it gets easier when I’m a partner,” “I’m saving now to enjoy later”).
Is this line of reasoning upsetting? If so, is it because it is wrong, or because it is leading you to realize you are someone else’s bitch even more than you thought?
You owe it to yourself as a person, much less as an officer of the court and a professional, to take an unjaundiced, unmythologized look at what is happening around you.
From that position you can start making clear-headed decisions. There are guideposts, and we’ll get to those.