Update, But No Good News

I have not posted any updates for a little bit, but it is only a temporary hiatus. I am taking a good look at where this blog will be going soon–there are big changes in store over the next few months. 

That’s the good news.

But I don’t want to leave you high and dry. Sadly, that is where the “No Good News” part comes in. The Citi Private Bank, which digs into law firm numbers to look at important revenue trends, has a dismal forecast (subscription required) in the Am Law Daily. In a nutshell, billable hours are at historic lows, demand is dropping (especially at the largest firms), and pressure to discount is increasing so much that realization–the firm actually getting paid by clients–is dropping again.

There is little question that firms will weather these shifts, but the pressures all point to a change of some sort.

And chances are very high that those changes will occur at the associate level, not the equity partner level. Demand for greater productivity (yes, even more hours), a compensation decrease, less work for younger associates (because clients won’t pay for it), or even more layoffs–they’re all on the table.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I hope to have more resources up and running for you guys soon, though. I am working on a questionnaire to help figure out your answer to the most salient question to ask in the face of numbers like this: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Regardless of what the answer is, I will have support for you, suggestions for how to make it work. I know what it’s like to face a decision like that and have staggering amounts of debt, because I’ve been there.

If you have ideas of what you’d like to see, please leave them in the comments. What do you need most to help you weather this market?


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“Just Be Thankful You Have A Job”

“Look, I hear you, but at least you have a job. Not only that, you have a rare job other people would give their eye-teeth for. Stop complaining. You won.”

If you haven’t heard this yet, you will. If you don’t hear it from others directly, it will most likely cross your mind.

The response is fairly simple, a throwback to playground admonitions about jumping off a bridge: Just because lots of other people want something doesn’t mean it’s right for you. But it is still true.

Would your friend be saying the same thing if you were employed as a superstore “greeter” with no benefits, barely-above-minimum hourly wages, and a workplace that smells like mouldering birthday cake? Maybe, but probably without much conviction.

Obviously it isn’t just having any old job that matters. It’s having a particular type of job. In this case, it is almost certainly the fact that your job pays by the bucketful rather than by the thimbleful. There’s also some prestige involved.

So right there, the question gets much easier: Is the money (and prestige) worth it?

Here’s where you know something your friend doesn’t. Every lawyer knows that the basic price of something isn’t always the true value: What is the opportunity cost of the wages you are paid? Time to put numbers on this baby.

  • If you didn’t have to work for your living at all, what would you be doing instead? What is that worth?
  • If you did have to work, but Warren Buffett promised to pay you fair value regardless of what you chose, what would you do? What is that worth?
  • Who are you not meeting, talking with, snuggling, or playing with? What is that worth?
  • Are there hobbies or talents you would do if you were not at work? What are they worth?
  • If you were not at work, what charities would benefit from your time or money? What is that worth? (Don’t forget to multiply that by the impact on the people who would receive it.)

You will likely be able to think of other foregone opportunities that you are choosing to pass up in order to do the work you do. Add them in also!

Now I don’t know what your total is. For all I know, it may be well under your wages, which means you’re getting a great deal and this is the highest and best use of your talents and time. In that case, your friend is right: this ain’t working out so badly.

But if, after sincere reflection, you realize you are not paid enough to compensate for the value you are foregoing in order to go in to work every day, then you have a very rational response to your friend: “Actually, it isn’t worth it. I’ve done the math. There is so much more I could be doing–for myself, my family, and others–if I weren’t doing this. So it isn’t worth it; not for me, at least..”

It’s worth being thankful if one is being used for the best purposes and making the world a bigger and better place. If that is the case, then you absolutely should be thankful for having a job. But if it isn’t, then there is no need to be thankful.

Don’t be resentful either, get all pouty, or sneer at passers-by. Simply acknowledge that this choice is not the highest and best use of your time and energy, and consider what the best next steps are for you.

This is not a matter for guilt. There are enough head-trips being laid on people of all ages about having the “right” job and growing up to be respectable and crap like that. When you actually have the chance to face one of those myths down and kill it, do so.

I know I felt a lot of guilt when I started realizing this was not the right path for me. I actually felt hurt when people chastised me for not being thankful to have a job–until I realized that it was a self-defeating and even a self-harming perspective.

Have you had an experience like that? Tell us about it in the comments, and how you dealt with it. Is there anything a sense of guilt is keeping you from doing?


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“Doing Fine”

The lobbies are always built for intimidation: marble usually, and either wood or metal. Sometimes an edgy use of glass. Ostensibly it is to impress client and cow the opposition, but I often felt it was pointed at me.

“Howarya?” someone might ask. “Doing fine,” I’d say. But the subtext of the firm itself was different:

“You don’t truly belong here. You aren’t one of us.”

Yes, I felt very successful. I came to law from other studies that kept me on a ramen diet for longer than I care to admit. I was definitely one of those students who cruised the hallways outside of talks for free pizza or subs.

So making $3,000 a week as a summer associate was a shocking change (that I tried to pretend was par for the course). And I tried my damnedest to make it work without getting changed by it.

And by the time I was getting onto the elevator with the other associates, I was looking around and thinking what a high-quality cohort I was working with, how much they all fit in and contributed to the graceful, respectable ethos of the white-shoe firms I was working at. I could recruit people to the firm without lying!

But I felt like an outlier, in that world but not of it. Something felt wrong–beyond just the obvious–and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Everyone has parts of their jobs that aren’t fun and that demand extra time, effort, care, and commitment. But even during the easy times, I felt like an impostor.

I’m a little slow, so it wasn’t until I started reading Barbara Sher’s I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was (check it out, no affiliate link there) that I realized I might not have been alone.

That’s the problem with wearing a mask: you usually can’t tell that other people are wearing them too.

I definitely fell into the “I’m Fine, Thanks” trap. Pat answers and increased spending on emotional band-aids: a nice dinner, better alcohol, and sometimes just straight up extra desserts. (Does it count as dessert if you just eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s for dinner?)

On the off chance you are at the desk of a BigLaw job–one of the few left, according to NALP–and this is resonating with you, come, sit down, get some coffee, and let’s think this through.

  • There are other people around you who also feel fake. This is the “You Aren’t Alone” moment, on a softly sympathetic blog. It could also be the “Don’t Be a Self-Involved Dumbass” moment on a more aggressive blog. Let’s go with both, and just realize that this sense of faking-it is epidemic, not isolated.
  • It doesn’t go away on its own. I started looking around me at the people I worked with and I realized that there was nobody’s career I would trade for. If I stayed behind that mask, I would never step out from it.
  • It is not selfish or spoiled to realize something is wrong. It’s the height of selfishness to complain about having a well-paying, prestigious job, right? No. As any ratfink attorney will tell you, “the facts are what the facts are.” The possibility that a gilded life turns out not to be all it was cracked up to be should hardly be surprising, and certainly isn’t a cause for guilt. Process the information, but get over the guilt part.

Now if I just said “rip off that mask and everything will be better!” I’d be lying and shortchanging you. The obvious first step is to be honest about what this means, but the more important steps come after that: what do you do now that you know you’re out of place?

That is a much longer exploration. As baby steps, that don’t involve a huge revolution, I would suggest some of the ideas I mentioned before: starting a psychic savings account and also a real one. If realizing this raises feelings of desperation, reassert control by making someone else’s day.

But I also want you to take one smaller step that will be even more significant: admit that you feel like you’re faking it to one other person. It could be a work-spouse or other confidant. Or just send me an email that says:

  • “I’m wearing a mask.”
  • “I’m faking it.”
  • “I feel out of place.”
  • “I don’t belong here.”

It doesn’t need to be more than that. Just get it out there, to me or to someone else.

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Unlocking Golden Handcuffs

Gold is a soft metal, so it would be really stupid to make handcuffs from gold if you really wanted to keep a hardened criminal in place.

But for keeping a professional in place? It’s perfect. Put golden handcuffs on a person who respects gold and they may even become proud of their handcuffs.

Being paid a healthy sum of money often means upping the lifestyle a little too. It’s easy to bash the most flagrant ways that happens, but it also happens in more fundamental ways.

  • Owning a home is important, and can even be a good financial deal in the long term. In the short term, it means a mortgage.
  • To be a good lawyer one must look the part. Even without buying Armani or Zegna, “keeping up appearances” adds up fast.
  • And let’s not even mention loans, because that’s obvious.

The $1,000,000 Question is how to get the handcuffs off.

Preferably without hurting the gold.

For once, there is a pretty easy answer: scrape away at the gold and make your own key. Save, save, save. Create a fund of money that you do not touch, and is pretty liquid.

“This is the same financial advice I got in college! WTF!?”

Yes. It still applies, but it has a special significance for someone in the position of an associate in golden handcuffs. Having a sufficient pad to know that you could live for six months or more without a job takes the pressure off of considering a career change.

Notice I’m not even talking about making one, just considering it. This is the financial version of the “psychic savings account.” It gives you breathing room to consider the possibility and make a decision on your own rather than on someone else’s terms. And if you ultimately decide not to make a change, then you have a healthy chunk of change to play with, or save for a future crossroads–not a bad thing!

The steps are pitifully easy for someone of your caliber (no, I’m not being sarcastic!):

  1. Figure your monthly expenses. Round everything up! Include discretionary spending and fun-money. Add $100 just so you don’t feel deprived.
  2. Figure your annual, semiannual, and quarterly bills (bar fees, insurance, licensing, etc.). Divide by the appropriate number and add to your monthly expenses.
  3. Multiply this total by 6. More if you want, and less only if you really think you’re an exception to the job market that sucks worse than it has in a good long time.
  4. Start saving toward that total. Automate it to the extent you can, so you don’t even miss it.

It won’t happen immediately–you’re scraping away at gold, after all–but soon enough the fund will start to pile up. You may even feel a weight lifting off your chest. Banking away this money will allow you to continue the life you have, however inflated it is or isn’t, while considering whether this is the right path for you to continue on.

That is about as secure as you can get. This fund also buys you out of the golden handcuffs. You will not have to worry about sustaining the life you have just so you can make the “frivolous” decision whether your life might be better spent doing something different.

Saving like this always hurts. That is why I didn’t put a time scale on it. You chose how fast to save to this point, because only you know how urgent your need is.

Finding a secure financial position plus clarity on the situation is like finding an Archimedean point, the one still spot from which you can move anything. Just get that far, and any choice you make will be fully yours.

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Whose Bitch Are You?

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.

  1. 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.)
  2. If you avoid the attrition and become a partner, the work gets harder and you have to add on client development.
  3. Partners get fired too, or counseled out, or shuffled off into lower castes: not all partners are created equal.
  4. As work gets harder and longer, you get less healthy.
  5. 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.

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One Step to Career Security

Lawyers care about free will. Just not their own.

Mens rea matters. Stunning securities suits are lost for want of scienter. What does the reasonable person think? Would an objective observer buy the stock after that earnings report? Who knew what when, and what did they choose to do with the understanding?

If it is good enough for your clients, it is good enough for you.

“But I do! I have all sorts of career plans.”

Bullshit. If you have made your plans solely on the basis of what you have heard from mentors, partners, senior associates, and other (authority) figures within your firm–and especially as part of the “annual review” process–then you don’t have a career plan by any sane definition.

That isn’t a plan, that’s an investment based on a tip you got through the fax machine. The reason is very simple, and you–any lawyer–should know better: you don’t have all of the relevant facts.

This isn’t rocket science, this is IRAC. How leveraged is your firm? What is the spread in partner compensation between the “haves” and the “have nots”? How many departing associates left under their own power, versus being pushed out? What percentage of associates in any given class make partner? Do you have a “sherpa” to go to bat for you? Do you really, or are you letting flattery and congeniality suffice as evidence?

Most of these facts, some of the most relevant to your future career, are things you will never find out or cannot know.

If you wrote an answer on the bar exam based on these facts, you would get a justifiable zero for the essay.

The easiest thing to do is not to care and to assume you already know what you need to know. It is so simple to push forward on the path defined for you. And believe me, your firm undoubtedly has a plan for you. (Do you know what it is? Does it coincide with what you think your plan is?) It is child’s play to avoid noticing the dangerously partial set of facts in front of you.

The one step you can take to improve your position is to educate yourself, so your next steps can be made deliberately, under your own power.

Do not assume you will be the “exception” to the rule that only 10% of an associate class makes it to partnership. Do not assume that everything will get better even if you do make partner. Do not assume your firm is telling you everything you need to know about its own health. Do not assume that gripe blogs or the beloved Above the Law understand the reasons that you got into law.

If you had a client making such blind assumptions, wouldn’t you be ethically bound to smack them (figuratively speaking)?

Whether you stay in a firm or not, the single step that will make the process worthwhile and valuable is to be able to make your decisions under your own power from a reasonably informed state. Get there, and anything that happens after that is cake.

What is the information you most wish you had about your situation? What facts do you need to know in order to answer this question fully? Let me know in the comments, and maybe we can think of a way to discover them.

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Random Act of Kindness: Chocolate

It isn’t Administrative Assistant’s Day, or Christmas.

Who cares?

There is no way you are an associate at a BigLaw firm and you have not benefitted from someone there cutting you some slack. And I don’t mean partners: I mean other associates, administrative assistants, legal assistants, trainers, paralegals, HR folks, library folks, and so on.

Look inside yourself and ask: Do I have the slightest doubt that what I did was the right choice?

Count to 10.


Now answer the question again, and this time be brutally honest. Write down the answer if you have to.

If the answer is yes, that even the slightest doubt exists, then do this: make someone else’s day by sending them chocolate. Anonymously if you want.

I’ve even picked one out for you. Only $25, and it is undeniably memorable.

Here is the place to go: Mini Exotic Candy Bar Library.

(I am not affiliated in any way with Vosges Chocolates. All I know is that they are magical. And that is all I need to know.)

Making someone else’s day in a completely unexpected way is within your power. And doing something like that feels undeniably good. It won’t answer your questions, or resolve any existential dilemmas. It just feels really good for everyone involved.

And let’s be brutally frank: if doing that is within your power, why would you not?

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