At 10:30 last night, on my return from the wedding of a close friend, there was a message on my machine from a partner in my firm’s Hong Kong office. “Mac, I am very delighted to hear that you can make it back this week for the meetings in China,” the partner said with the sincerity of one spared the equivalent of a fortnight’s forced inspection from the in-laws.
I barely made it back from China last Friday to attend my friend’s bachelor dinner and lap-dancing expedition. I had been in Hong Kong and central China, negotiating a joint venture worth hundreds of millions of dollars between a U.S. and a Chinese company. In April, I logged a few weeks in Hong Kong on it; now, after several years of on-again, off-again discussions and government-approval-seeking, the Chinese want the deal closed, and the Hong Kong partner wants me to get them there (or as close as I can in two weeks).
I called Hong Kong back to confirm the news. The partner I usually work with had succumbed to Hong Kong’s entreaties and agreed that I could go back for two more weeks to conduct negotiations in place of the Hong Kong partner. In order to make the Wednesday meeting in central China, I would have to get my travel arrangements squared away tonight.
As I talked to Hong Kong, discussing hotel and flight options, I stripped off my bow tie and cummerbund and sat down on the sofa. On the coffee table was last week’s New York magazine. The cover, more cheeseball-era Spy than the usually sleek layout, has one gray-haired suit putting the Stone Cold Steve Austin power choke hold on a more middle-aged gent, perched precariously on a pile of prostrated thirtysomethings also clad in suit and tie. The headline: “LAW IS HELL–With partners in constant battle over clients and associates worked like slaves, life at the city’s top law firms has become a state of war. No wonder they charge $400 an hour.”
The article, written by a one-year veteran of big firm life, is essentially faithful to the headline, and is only one of a number of recent features and books on this high-earning misery. But these are lawyers, who by profession file complaints. I’ve taken an interest in this question myself, surveying, like Carrie Bradshaw (another pseudonym), the life of myself and my acquaintances in the profession to evaluate the proposed universal truth that “Law = Hell.” I am both the right and wrong person to answer this question. I’m a senior associate at the Los Angeles branch office of a New York firm, which through some geographical and multilingual word association I’ll call Black & Coen. B&C gets mentioned in the New York magazine article, so I guess it is one of the city’s “top law firms.” I have toiled only briefly in New York, however, as a summer associate at a different “top law firm.” I joined B&C at the beginning of this year from a California firm that, by way of mythological nicknaming, shall hereinafter be referred to as Edison & Poussaint. I worked only about 1,700 hours last year, not the 2,000 to 3,000 claimed as typical in the article. And my top hourly billing rate is only $360.
On the other hand, prior to Edison & Poussaint I worked as an in-house lawyer for a large multinational, and before that I worked at a small international boutique law firm. So, I know what the alternatives to working at a big firm look like, and I returned to the fold. Something drew me back.
But what was it?
It took me about 20 minutes on the phone to thrash out travel plans, meeting agenda, and most important, hotel choices with Hong Kong. Add to that my listening to the original message and dialing the phone, and I got a good 30 minutes of billable time. Best of all, I was in my robe and had fired up the PowerBook by the time I hung up. A small victory of sorts? Or a pathetic example of trying to compress the mundane tasks of life into the tiny window unoccupied by sleep or my job?
My last waking thoughts were about the wedding. Besides the thick spew of post-irony hurled at bride and (mostly) groom from my friends, you could not mistake the warmth and affection between the families and their friends. This was a happy crowd, about 200 strong, and I knew about half of them. (The bride’s side was pretty much unfamiliar to me; during the rehearsal dinner on Saturday, I was revising one of the joint venture’s contracts.) Everyone was doing well: The doctors were saving lives, the teachers were teaching, the writers writing, the investment bankers counting their millions. Of those I knew, only two are practicing lawyers, out of about a half-dozen who had attended law school. As I left the party early so that I could talk to Hong Kong, I saw that the other lawyer had beat me out the door.