Will Meyerhofer: A Bucket of Cockroaches

Will MeyerhoferMy client – a second year corporate associate working in a foreign office – compared remaining at her biglaw firm to eating cockroaches.

“You know, on one of those reality game shows where they dare you to eat a bucket of cockroaches and they’ll pay you a million bucks if you do.”

I requested she elaborate.

“My point is, at some juncture you stop and think – and this is probably a rational part of your brain: Hell, for a million bucks, I’ll do it. I mean, for a million bucks, you’ll do anything, so long as you can get it over with in a minute or two. The plan is to keep repeating in your head a million dollars a million dollars a million dollars until – bingo! – all done, and you’re rich.”

Alas, there’s a wrinkle.

“It should only take a minute or two to eat a bucket of cockroaches. You hold your breath, close your eyes, keep swallowing, and a minute later you’re a millionaire.”

“Then you realize it’s not so easy. The problem is, once you’re actually there, faced with the situation, you can’t get them down. Maybe one or two cockroaches, but then you’re gagging, and it all comes back up. And then you’re on all fours puking your guts out with half a bucket left to eat and you realize this might not work out as planned. You can think to yourself – I can do this, I can do this…a million bucks, a million bucks…but the fact is, you can’t pull it off.”

Why does eating a bucket of cockroaches serve as an apt metaphor for working in biglaw? Because at some point in many lawyers’ careers, you’ve paid off – or mostly paid off – the loans. And you know you’re not sticking around for much longer, because you hate it more than anything you’ve ever hated before in your life – it’s literally unbearable. On the other hand, without the loans, you are faced more starkly than ever before with the reality of why you pursued a career in the legal profession in the first place: Money.

Remember money? That was the whole point. Back when you thought a law degree could actually earn you some.

So here’s your chance. All you have to do is stick around for another – what? Six months? Eight months? A year or so? A year and a half? Pick a date – maybe the end of this year, until just after bonus time. Then you could have something like $100k in the bank. We’re only talking about a measly few more months – the money is hitting your bank account now, not going off to pay loans. If you could last a couple more years – no, that’s unthinkable, you hate this job with every cell in your body…still, if you could, how about a quarter of a million dollars luxuriating in an S&P index fund, accreting value for a rainy day? You’d only have to suck it up and suffer through two or three more years. How hard can it be to focus on the money the money the money the money the money…and then Bob’s your uncle! A quarter of a million bucks. That’s the down payment on a house – a nice house.

Mmmmm….money. Money good.

There’s just that little problem of the cockroaches. Eating the damned cockroaches.

Does the following monolog sound familiar? I’ll say it’s one of my clients talking, because that’s what I always say in these columns, but in reality of course, it’s a chorus, a collective unison chant, the composite harmony produced by the voices of dozens of miserable lawyers all complaining at once:

“I haven’t had a day off all month. I’ve worked back to back all-nighters. The partner is an irritable, unpredictable, condescending, unpleasable psychopath. And that’s not the bad part. Deep down, from the day I got here, I realized I loathe this work. I hate law. I hate detail-driven, obsessive paperwork – the heaps of pointless minutia that no one ever reads, the noxious waste product of billionaires grinding their way through the economy in search of more money to stuff into their bulging off-shore tax shelters.”

Oh, c’mon, we collectively respond, in high dudgeon: Quit whining. You’re collecting beaucoup greenbacks to compensate for any inconvenience. Plenty of people – unemployed real people in debt with degrees from third-tier schools – would donate organs for a chance at your job. So shut the fuck up.

But we needn’t waste our breath chiding biglaw senior associates for whining. I work with plenty of these folks, and they acknowledge you feel no sympathy for their predicament. Any elite associate in a position to contemplate injesting a bucket of wriggling insects realizes no one else – including you – is willing to evince a shred of pity for what he’s attempting to do. He gets it – you’re jealous. You want a chance to gobble the little buggies and pocket the quarter million bucks too.

So, yes, we’re all on the same base, and no one’s kidding anyone – and yes, it all seems rather simple. It appears axiomatic that, should one find oneself getting paid a ton of money essentially just to keep doing what one is already doing, then one should stay as long as possible – at least until they fire you or lay your ass off – and pocket aforesaid ton of money. You play a tape in your head that sounds like “one million dollars one million dollars one million dollars” – and eat the effing roaches.

That’s because money is fun. One lawyer client recently admitted to me she’s putting away roughly $10k a month in savings right now. We take turns intoning that figure in our “Dr. Evil” voices: TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS!!! Then we emit diabolical cackles.

And yet. It’s awkward to point out…but there’s that wrinkle again – neither one of us is certain she can make it to the end of the year to collect a delicious bonus on top of the other goodies. That sort of amazes us both, but there it is.

Don’t get me wrong, the money is obscene. But then, so is eating cockroaches.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell, according to yet another client:

“You stare at the jar of cockroaches and you think – there’s got to be an easier way to earn a million dollars. And maybe, if I’ve been reduced to this, I don’t really need a million dollars. Maybe what I really need is a life I’m not terrified to face each day, where I don’t have to go to a place that’s making me sick. Today I ignored my email – just ignored it. I thought, fuck you, and waited a few hours. Last week that was unthinkable, but today I did it – I went back to sleep. Fuck them, and their money – I don’t need it that bad. Not bad enough to eat a bucket of cockroaches. Last night I ignored a document I was supposed to proof. You know what? Fuck it. It’s probably okay. If it isn’t, I’ll be long gone by the time they find the typo.”

This client is leaving her firm. She isn’t sure when, but she’s leaving – that much she’s certain of. The loans aren’t completely paid off, but she’s managed to reduce them to…well, it isn’t about that anymore. She simply can’t eat any more cockroaches.

Our agreement at this point is to take it one week at a time. If the partner’s out of town – that’s a good week. If the partner comes back and my client gets assigned to a deal from hell – that’s a bad week. If the deal dies and things are quiet – that’s a good week. If she has a vacation and can actually take it – a really good week. If the deal re-opens and she’s working all-nighters, for the other partner, whom she hates above all, the one who makes sarcastic comments about her work and emails her in the middle of the night and expects her to reply immediately and piles on work without checking if she’s already buried….That might be the breaking point. That might be the cockroach she can’t choke down.

I can already envision the letters I’ll receive from biglaw attorneys insisting they love their jobs. Well, okay – there are also people out there who enjoy eating insects. Travel to Ghana or Thailand or even Mexico and you’ll find contented diners chomping grasshoppers and bamboo worms. My client admits there are people at her firm who enjoy their jobs – or say they do. They like the money, and the status that comes with working around the clock for billionaires. A certain type of slightly dorky, detail-driven, competitive personality thrives in the corridors (and tiny, colorless offices) of biglaw. It’s a matter of taste – or predilection.

However, for most of us, working in biglaw appears to resemble eating cockroaches when you’re one of those people who doesn’t like eating cockroaches. And the answer to the question, Why would we then eat a bucket of cockroaches? is simple: The money.

If you need to pay off loans, then they own your ass, and you haven’t much choice.

If you’ve killed off the loans, you’re probably feeling it’s payback time. So if you’re like most of my clients, you’ll hang in there as long as you can bear to – you might even go for the gold, aim for the dream – make it to the end of the year and that sweet, juicy (though by Wall Street standards, paltry) bonus. At very least, you won’t leave that god-awful law firm until they fire you or you’ve stowed away $100k minimum in non-retirement savings. That’s non-negotiable. That’s axiomatic. You’re determined, and it’s time to cash in and you are committed one thousand percent to money money money money money.

Then they hand you that bucket filled with fat, wriggling legs and feelers and wings and thoraxes…and it dawns on you some trade-offs aren’t worth the price.

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My new book is a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls in love with a blue alien from outer space. I guarantee pure reading pleasure: Bad Therapist: A Romance.

Please also check out The People’s Therapist’s legendary best-seller about the sad state of the legal profession: Way-Worse-Than-Being-Dentist

My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy: Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

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