McKenzie Brockman

The lead negotiator for my team was livid, looking like a cross between one of the Budweiser frogs and Don Rickles after a bad show at the old Sands Hotel. A torrent of ear-singeing Cantonese erupted out of his mouth. “Every time the same thing. Can’t you stupid Chinese ever learn?”

The victim of this tirade was not the other side of this deal but the assistant manager at the restaurant of the hotel where we have been negotiating for three days straight. Despite the huge amount of work left to be done, nothing was going to be accomplished unless we had a proper two-hour lunch. Indeed, our side’s team had moved to a different hotel so that we could get better breakfasts.

China has always been riven by distrust and antagonisms among the provinces, exacerbated by the fact that different Chinese dialects can be incomprehensible to each other, sounding even to the tutored ear like completely different languages. However, Hong Kong natives are one step farther along, considering themselves a breed apart from “the Chinese.” It’s hardly surprising that the most famous visitor to China was an Italian, Marco Polo; the Chinese have the same regional pride, volatility, and natural disorganization, in addition to the all-important love of food.

We have been making faster progress than I would have believed possible given the tortured pace of negotiations last week. Today we got through the Brockman document that we had started yesterday, a speed record for this deal. Now that we are on a roll, meetings have been scheduled through the weekend and into next Wednesday. The powers that reside in Black and Coen’s Hong Kong office are so pleased that they have agreed to support my bid for more money. It looks like I may survive my assault on the B&C hierarchy after all.

But do I care? What has kept me in law for just under a decade has been the travel, the salary, the prestige; pretty much everything except the work itself. I know of only two lawyers who actually like what they do. The first is a girl I dated in law school who is now an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. Married with kids, she puts perps away four days a week, with minimal night or weekend work. The other is an ex-UCLA cheerleader and classical pianist whose law-school essays I ghostwrote. After working two summers in large firms, she decided that she couldn’t tolerate showing up at 9 a.m. every day in an office. She went out on her own, and plays keyboards in an ‘80s revival band on the side.

What’s scary, of course, is that what I do is relatively high on the legal interest scale. This was brought home last week when I finished Cameron Stracher’s Double Billing, which is a kind of first person amalgam tale of the experience of himself and some acquaintances as they start their careers as litigators in a firm very much like B&C. Though billed as a tale with “greed, sex, and lies,” pretty much only the lies appear, and they are not much worse than the salary-containing excuses B&C employed on me. As a piece of entertainment, it is crippled by its accuracy–drafting briefs, writing pointless research memos, plowing through piles of documents; none of this is riveting. As a portrait of the typical big-firm experience for a young associate, it cannot be bettered.

Of greater relevance to me, as well as a better read, was Paul Barrett’s The Good Black. It’s the story of Barrett’s law-school roommate Lawrence Mungin, who sued his big-firm employer, Katten Muchin & Zavis, alleging that it failed to promote him to partnership because he was black. Mungin won the trial but was trounced by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which made a rare reversal based on the weight of the evidence rather than on grounds of legal error by the judge. Barrett asserts at the end of the book that the D.C. Circuit was wrong to reverse, but the facts–Barrett, who works for the Wall Street Journal, is an excellent reporter–show otherwise. Mungin was hired for Katten’s Washington office by a megalomaniacal insurance lawyer who thought he could add a bankruptcy wing to his practice. The practice did not pan out, so Mungin was left to drift. When the insurance lawyer took his group away from Katten’s Washington office to form a new firm, Katten told Mungin he could transfer to a different Katten office, pretty much starting from scratch in terms of reaching partnership, or be let go. Denied partnership for reasons clearly not related to his competence as a lawyer, Mungin believed racism had to be the reason.

I’m basically where Mungin was–at a shaky branch office of a firm that is setting the gold standard for churning through associates. But I’m better armed, because I know where I stand.

Looking back on this week and my record of it, I have to believe that the law, at least in its big-firm incarnation, is not so much Hell, as New York magazine asserts, as it is Purgatory for the sons and daughters of the middle to upper class. We go in for a while, get burned for our greed, or our lack of direction, or our lack of self-knowledge, or our lack of courage, and when these sins are made ash and our self is tempered, we can leave. Those who never achieve grace stay in Purgatory, becoming partners and keeping the flames hot.

Well, I’m getting ready to go now.