McKenzie Brockman

After a 7 a.m. start, I called my boss to say I would be late, as I had to take care of errands before leaving for Hong Kong. By 10 a.m. my girlfriend and I had packed my bag, and I was able to spend two hours buying last-minute necessities (anti-bedbug ointment), dropping off items for repair, and all the other weekday activities that the 9-to-5 world (or 9:30 to 8, in my case) tries to get in during lunch hours. One of the consequences of making oneself into an hourly billing machine is the sense of unease when you are not working at the usual time, a combination of paranoia and Calvinist guilt.

Nothing compounds this feeling like having to face a handful of reminders from your secretary to catch up on two weeks of billing. The most frequent reason given for leaving a law firm for an in-house position is the billing and the need to justify one’s time. I don’t mind billing that much, but the demand it creates for putting in face time is the most corrupting feature of working for a big law firm. It’s like a tractor collective, with each department bragging about how many tons of farm-fresh legal product have been created last month. The quality of law firm billing is similar to Soviet accounting numbers as well; when every associate claims to be doing 2,500 to 3,000 hours a year, they have either turned the office into a hotel, or someone is billing their Sopranos fix as legal research.

Fortunately, when you are recording hours for a week of travel and negotiation, time-keeping is easy–you count hours spent traveling and at the conference table. Sixty hours–a good week.

I look over some e-mails from a client. They have revised the draft version of a closing checklist rather than the final draft I had created for them. When I point this out by e-mail, I am invited to clean it up. They also have various questions about the agreements (some of which I drafted). Over the next few hours I chat over this matter with my boss between phone calls.

At 1:30, I call in the always frightened Caitlin, the summer associate. A soft-spoken girl from the East Los Angeles County suburbs, she has the Calista Flockheart thing down, in body (a full meal would kill this girl) and in soul (her desire to be liked and to please is so strong I can feel its gravitational pull before she quietly knocks on my door). We talk about a legal opinion on which she is doing the schedule of UCC-1 security interest filings. She also gives me an evaluation form for an earlier assignment I gave her. There are four categories for each skill or trait, Outstanding, VG, G, and Unsatisfactory. I would call her work good, but that might not be sufficient to get her a job offer. I give her mostly VGs and Outstandings. I make a mental note to find out what these mean from the hiring partner.

I decide to dedicate the waning afternoon to ordering additional searches for security filings, checking up on clients, and pushing paper from my desk to the client or another lawyer.

I’m interrupted by the personnel assistant dropping my direct deposit slip on my desk. I’m nauseated every time I read it.

When I was given my offer, I was told that the firm was moving to a new Los Angeles-based compensation system. Though New York- and Los Angeles-based associates usually start at about the same amount of money (these days a thin Gucci briefcase above $100,000), New York compensation soon shoots significantly higher. B&C’s new pay scales were lower than Edison & Poussaint’s, itself not a high-paying firm. I asked if I would get an increase if the scale was adjusted, and was told, of course, it needed fine-tuning. Two months after I get to B&C, I discover that the new Los Angeles pay scale, c’est moi. Everyone else in the office was grandfathered. There would be no adjustments, since my present salary was all they could afford in the budget until year-end, assuming the practice was not shut down, of course. There also would be no new associates until a hiring freeze was lifted, thus McKenzie scale would not be breached by market movements.

While the amount I am being paid may still appear generous–with my bonus, I beat a Federal judge’s salary–it still rankles. But for B&C, such treatment is par for the course. The firm was identified as having one of the highest associate attrition rates in the country by several legal papers, and the constant buzz of negative press is starting to annoy the management committee. They regularly issue internal rebuttals explaining why a particular story is off base or unfair. But partners are treated little better. Last time they denied merger rumors, a partner told me, “All I get is the party line. I don’t know of any merger, but I’m sure they are discussing it. But hey–I’m just a partner.”

On my in-tray I see a note that my request to have my firm pay my bar dues has been rejected. After paying the first installment, the office manager has decided that the new policy–common only in New York–of not paying bar dues will be enforced against me. At Edison & Poussaint and every other California firm, bar dues are paid by the firm. As the unpaid invoice has taken four months to get back to me, I now owe a 50 percent penalty.

I stare at this, reach for the open Snapple on my desk and take a long swallow.

I type a note to the head of the department in New York, saying that I have a number of concerns about the firm, and that I would like to talk to him after I get back from China. When he calls back in 20 minutes, I know I am in deep trouble. I charge ahead anyway, explaining the circumstances of my hiring, how I was saddled with a below-market deal, and that I was told there was no money to pay more, even though my billing rate is higher than at Edison & Poussaint. What does this say about the stability of the firm? Combined with the constant rumors of shutting down the Los Angeles office or the merger of B&C with a healthier (I don’t say better-managed) law firm, how can I have any confidence in my place?

Silence from the other line, and then he says: “Let me talk it over with your boss.”

By breaking the chain of command, raising my voice against my boss and mentor, I have committed law firm lèse-majesté.