I started this blog during a several month hiatus between finishing law school and starting work, with no thought that I would end up writing so much about my job. My job is not that interesting. I mean, it keeps me entertained for many hours every day and I have to stop myself from talking too much about work when I come home or go out with friends, but it’s certainly not interesting to anybody else. The thing is, I just can’t wrap my head around the fact of it, my job. I’ve said it before, but I didn’t go to law school to end up working at a firm, let alone a mega-firm like the one I just left. I had this idea that big law firms were all bad. Evil, even. I’d seen The Firm. Or worse, Philadelphia. I thought no amount of money could make me represent big union-busting, river-polluting, toxic-torting companies.
As it happened, it only took $30,000 for me to trade in all my big plans to do good. That’s how much a summer associate makes for 8-10 weeks of work during the summer between the second and third years of law school. I applied for a summer associate position thinking I’d take that money and run. The fact that I didn’t get any of the other jobs I applied for (including government and non-profit work) was also a factor. So I spent 10 weeks at a big firm and I didn’t represent any evil companies, or at least not any overtly evil companies. I worked on a patent case for a very small company started by two inventors. I represented an asylum applicant from West Africa and a woman facing eviction. I represented a snack company that wanted to trademark some funky trail mix flavors. It was all very benign. And I got $30,000 out of it, and an offer for full-time employment after school. So much for taking the money and running. I took it and hung around, waiting for more.
After a year at a big firm, I didn’t uncover an ounce of evil to speak of. I saw absurdity and inefficiency and things that pissed me off, but nothing evil. When a case gets to the point where its being litigated the way my firm litigated (read: expensively), there’s very rarely a side that’s all right and a side that’s all wrong. There is no good and evil. If that were the case, the parties would settle, rather than risking a ton of money and bad publicity duking it out in court. I also never saw any instances where a giant company launched all its resources to take down an individual, or a community, or some other sympathetic entity, like a church or a puppy rescue. Usually, it’s just two big companies or two wealthy individuals fighting over money. Sure, there are definitely better things to do with one’s time, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with representing one of those big companies. And the people I worked with put a lot of energy into doing good elsewhere. With massive charitable donations, hundreds of hours of pro bono legal services, and volunteer work at community organizations, like the food bank, or the Boys and Girls club.
It took me so long to recover from the shock of not working for a blatantly evil employer that I didn’t recognize the more insidious malevolence at work until it had worked its way into my life. I couldn’t have guessed it when I was in law school, but the problem with a big firm is that it will gladly take your life, if you will give it up, and it will do it for money. Yes, the firm will also pay you lots of money, but it will take much, much more for itself. Some of that money will go to build up the fancy office and pay for subscriptions to legal research databases and to recruiting and some of it will even enable you to provide all those hours of pro bono services to your third-world political refugees and wrongfully convicted felons. But most of it will go into the pockets of partners. And all that’s well and good if you’re getting something out of the deal, like money, or training, or a chance at partnership, or even a feeling of general satisfaction. But if you don’t care about the money, because nobody needs as much as a first year lawyer gets, and you don’t care about the work, because it’s got no soul, and you don’t want to be a partner, because the partners are insane, even if they aren’t evil, it starts to feel very wrong to sacrifice the parts of yourself that you love just to make some old guy another million. Looking around at all the unhappy partners who had their lives stolen away by the not quite evil but definitely not good organization only makes it more evident.
So if anybody was still wondering why I quit my job, let’s just say I realized that I’d already taken the money, and it was time to run.