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.