Don DeLillo, the novelist of systems, risk, processes–all the abstract underlying forces that lawyers doing big deals are trying to harness–begins one of his best books in the suspended safety of an airplane during the in-flight movie. It’s the technological womb from which his character will be expelled to face the big forces, the deep structure of his life.
The companies behind international business travel are in fierce competition to get the person able to pay $4,000 for a round-trip ticket back to the comfort of a newborn. British Airways advertises its “cradle seat”; Singapore Airlines pushes its fully reclining bed. The original image of Pan Am Clipper-era airplane flight was as a faster version of the ocean liner, where people met and mingled, trading bons mots over the drone of propellers. The apotheosis of the modern ideal would be an airborne isolation tank with live Internet connection.
But at least my flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong was a reflective regression of reclining seats and attentively served (though always reheated) nourishment. Yesterday’s career-maiming fit of pique displayed the other kind of regression, the bizarre magic of the profession to turn gifted adults into snarling first-graders.
The instances from my own personal experience are too long to list. Some are clichés–the associates (or sometimes partners) who sleep in their offices; the rampaging bullies; the associates who break down in tears. Others are more unique. One of my former colleagues would put the Wu-Tang on the door to the men’s bathroom; it was only replaced after his punches created a ragged peephole. Another lawyer I was familiar with would pull out her hair in tufts (she quit the profession when a wig became the only option). One evening I had two partners, one in a rural motel and the other on a transcontinental flight, alternately screaming at me to fax a filing and to stop the fax.
One explanation is that the law simply attracts these personalities, but I think it is the profession. My boss is ordinarily the poster boy of pleasant, but I once saw him crack. Two months ago we were in New York and I had told him at dinner that I would not be able to stay on the next morning’s conference call past 11. He nodded. I had set up a quick lunch with a friend and a brief visit to Slate’s offices to talk about this Diary. As I packed up at 11 sharp, he looked at me, put the phone on mute, and demanded, “Where are you going?” I told him I was off to a meeting, as agreed, and headed out the door. He chased me, hoarsely shouting that I had to come back and stay on the call. I asked if I could leave for a few minutes to make some calls–he shook his head and ordered me back. For the next hour, the call appeared to wrap up four times; each time as I inched out of the office, I was verbally and physically restrained as new issues were raised by my boss until, at 12:30, he ran out of issues.
This devil, I think, comes first from the details. Lawyers spend an inordinate amount of time debating commas, shading phrases, and checking citations. In a business where reaching a high level of competence is within the reach of any reasonable combination of intelligence and diligence, the standard dividing first and second rate becomes, for many, the typo-free document. To excel as a certain kind of big-firm lawyer, you have to believe that small things matter. A lot.
The devil comes, second, from the loose hold that lawyers have over their clients. Supposedly, clients once were more loyal; I have my doubts. What is certainly different today is that even the most solid law firm-client relationship will disappear if the client is merged out of existence. Every client becomes that much more valuable, and the ability to generate new business the only guarantee of survival. Thus partners become preoccupied by image-burnishing and credit-taking; any signs of weakness will only bring on the wolves, many from your own pack.
Having breached the chain of command yesterday, I managed to fire off from home another e-mail asking that the conversation over my salary and status be pushed back until I return. That should give me time to raise the issue at the bottom of the chain first.
After landing at the new Hong Kong airport Wednesday morning–it looks like one gray hallway to me–I checked into the airport hotel next door, which is one long purple and blue frosted glass hallway. A few hours rest, then back on a plane with my translator for central China. No cosseting here–the only newborn that would feel at home in the cabin would be veal calf.
Every so often one will read a small item in the New York Times like “Flooding in China–10 Million Dead.” My destination is one of those spots, reputedly one of the hottest cities in China. True to form, it is both stifling and raining when we land. We are met by a taciturn driver who seems to have had the accelerator pedal transferred to the horn button. I make the mistake of sitting in the front, perfect for absorbing the stares of People’s Army draftees who glare at me from the backs of trucks as our driver blares by them. The few crosswalks are completely ignored; pedestrians saunter across roadways with no fear. The stoplights have one fabulous innovation that bears exporting to Los Angeles: Once the light turns red, a digital countdown starts, drag-racing style, and once it hits zero the light turns green. Gentlemen, start your engines!
The hotel is a bright-red resort on a lake. The roof leaks like a sieve, but at least that water is fresh; the taps turn out brownish-tinged water that contains … well, all I know is that last time I was here, two negotiators, both sturdy Hong Kong natives, were felled in three days. I head for dinner to meet the clients–as I enter the restaurant I glance at the house specialty, live inch-long scorpions ready for the wok. I don’t eat much–I’ve been sneezing all day and I’ve got a sore throat. An early bedtime seems the ticket.
Negotiations start tomorrow. I’m psyched.