Will Meyerhofer: Encountering Vishnu

Will MeyerhoferSpectating upon the atom bomb ignition at the Trinity test site in New Mexico, Robert Oppenheimer was reminded of a scene from the Bhagavad-Gita – an encounter between the prince and Vishnu, the latter apparently in a cranky frame of mind. The scene culminates in Vishnu, who is attempting to persuade the prince to do his duty, assuming a multi-armed form and intoning:

I have become death, destroyer of worlds.

There are lawyers out there who remind me of Vishnu in his multi-armed form. No, they don’t sprout extra limbs, or destroy entire worlds. These Biglaw-inspired incarnations of Vishnu merely assume the form of senior female attorneys to become career-death, destroyer of junior associates.

Behold the Biglaw Vishnus! (And trust me, within their personal sphere of destruction they give the real thing a run for his money.)

One of my clients fell victim to a Biglaw Vishnu – and his story is, as they say, far from atypical and so merits recounting.

He went, if not to a first-tier school, then to a first-and-a-half tier school, and by some rare stroke of fortune managed to locate a job, (if not at a first-tier firm, then at a first-and-a-half tier firm.)

It’s fair to say this guy was riding high – and gloating appropriately – when he happened to notice a problem: The firm had no work. His response was the same as everyone else’s around him – he twiddled his thumbs, wondering if he somehow smelled funny, or if, in fact (as it appeared) everyone else was twiddling their thumbs too (all while studiously pretending to be busy busy busy.) That situation endured for a year and a half, until my client was rudely stirred from this idyll by a partner, who delivered to him an awful review of the obviously-staged variety. (My client can’t remember if the problem they identified was that he asked for help too often instead of showing initiative or asked for help too rarely and wasted time by being too independent. He hadn’t billed an hour for months so he could hardly blame them for making something up.) As they say in California, “whatevers.” There was, however, a modicum of “fall-out.” Icarus-like, my client found himself plummeting in the unmistakable direction of every lawyer’s ultimate nightmare (at least officially): Unemployment. We all know the rules of this profession – five minutes of unaccounted-for time on your resume and it’s game over; you’ll never work as a lawyer again (well, maybe a staff attorney or doc reviewer but that hardly counts, does it?)

My client had three months to drum up a miracle. Following the world’s most intense job hunt, something came through at the eleventh hour. But there was a catch: He had to work for Vishnu.

In fairness, the job itself was a nightmare – one of those high-volume, low-pay law gigs along the lines of insurance defense, the kind you take purely because, first, you’re desperate, and second, it (at least on paper) appears to be a “real job” instead of hourly temp work, like staff attorney drudgery or doc review.

My client signed on the dotted line and was at once assigned to foreclosing on the homes of those recalcitrant little people – typically defending themselves pro se – who flail like half-crushed bugs beneath the heels of faceless mega-banks (his clients.) The goal was to kick the hoi polloi out of their homes and into the street. It did not warm his cockles, but my client had loans and so, “thinking like a lawyer,” he set his nose to the grindstone.

The twist – the reason this job super-duper sucked, instead of merely sucking – and the reason he lasted a couple months at it instead a year or two – was Madame Vishnu. He knew right away he was doomed – because she told him so.

“I should warn you,” she intoned, “I go through a lot of associates.” This was during his interview, no less. Then she added: “You’re number seven.”

I have become death, destroyer of worlds.

Just like Vishnu, this chick sounded like she was bragging. And – as I’m forever reminding people when I write about Biglaw…I’m not making this up. I would be embellishing if I were to add that she keeps her victims’ shrunken heads on a shelf in her office, but then, who knows, perhaps she does…

The real point here is that Vishnus – like her – who brag about “going through a lot of associates” aren’t unusual in Biglaw. Junior associate kill-trophies might follow as a logical next step.

Even without grisly embellishments mounted on a credenza, this not-atypical anecdote demands attention. Why? Because in other fields they talk about “management training” and “human capital” and “creating success.” In Biglaw, they brag about derailing careers and firing people – as in, brag to the victims themselves about derailing their careers and firing them. That’s…uh…gumption for you.

At this point you might be attempting to imagine what it’s like to work for a Vishnu. For starters, there is no pleasing her. If you do your best, she will feel threatened and tear you down. If you mentally check out and turn in the bare minimum, she will excoriate you, obliterating not merely your confidence in your abilities as a lawyer – oh, little grasshopper, you knew enough to kiss that goodbye as you passed through the gate, didn’t you? – but your confidence in your own good faith as well. Vishnu will inform you your work is sub-par and disappointing – then she’ll confidently assert that you don’t care, aren’t putting in an effort, and hence rightly merit dire moral obloquy. At which point, choking down your indignation, you’ll realize she’s correct, at least with regard to the “no longer giving a shit” part. How’s that for “creating success?”

Go ahead and try all the familiar tricks. Ask around, scramble to find work with someone else – anyone else – any other department, any other partner, any other lawyer, anything. It won’t work. All roads lead back to Vishnu. That other partner who mumbles sympathetically about “speaking to her on your behalf” might detest Vishnu just as much as you do, but that doesn’t matter. Money does. Every law student wants to be an international human rights attorney, and every actual lawyer in the real world wants to make money. These are eternal immutable truths. And Vishnu makes money (that’s why she’s senior) – so she stays, and you go.

Why do you think you got that job in less than three months when every lawyer on the face of the Earth is looking for work? Not just because the work sucks and it’s evil and the hours are hideous. Vishnu’s also a factor. She “goes through a lot of associates.” That’s why she’s always hiring. That’s why you got this job – and why you won’t last long at it. You’re not supposed to last long at it.

You’re probably noticing my repeated use of the female pronoun in reference to Biglaw Vishnus. Why am I implying that these fearsome lawyer destroyers are all women?

Because it rather seems like they all are. Or at least a hell of a lot of them.

Why should that be?

Short answer: I don’t know, and I’m not sure it matters.

They don’t look like stereotypes – haggard crones, or harridans or termagants or viragos or whatever. And no, I’m not a runaway misogynist. I’m naming these creatures after Vishnu (who isn’t even female) rather than, say “the black widow” or “the medusa” or “the gorgon” or “the harpy” as a way to steer clear of misogynist stereotypes. And many of the Vishnus’ victims are other women – it isn’t all men complaining about women in these stories. And every senior woman in Biglaw isn’t a Vishnu. There are plenty of nice ones out there (well… a few.) But there’s something about a Vishnu. The senior men can be awful, but it’s more likely to arrive in an “I don’t even notice you exist” or “I’m yelling at you because you’re someone to yell at” sort of way – absent the tender frisson of gleeful sadism distinguishing the echt vengeful Hindu deity var. Biglawiensis.

I can float all sorts of theories to explain the creation myth of a Vishnu – maybe as a woman you just give up a little something extra to get senior in Biglaw – dealing with sexism, dealing with trying to raise kids or giving up on having kids or trying to maintain a relationship or giving up on having a relationship – I don’t know. Maybe sitting at your desk seven months pregnant, pulling all-nighters can do, well, something to a person. But, as they say in AA – those are excuses. Whatever it is that happens to these women, the important thing is that they start growing extra arms and talking about “going through a lot of associates.” They turn into Vishnus – lawyer-destroyers – and destroy a lot of lawyers in the process.

Lately it seems there’s a Vishnu pandemic. The economy makes it easy since – do I have to say it again? – you are expendable, setting the Vishnus free to play with no real consequences. There are too many lawyers anyway. You can be fed to Vishnu. There are others lining up to take your place.

The evidence for the existence of an outbreak of lawyer-destroying senior female attorneys in Biglaw? My conclusion rests entirely on anecdote from a self-selecting sample and is, furthermore, heavily based on stereotypes. But let me tell you… hear enough of these anecdotes and you start to see a pattern, even if it only exists in one psychotherapist’s practice (well, okay, a psychotherapist who works with dozens of lawyers each and every week, but still.) And there’s usually a nugget of truth in stereotypes.

If you don’t believe me, ask around. You’ll hear some Vishnu stories.

Here’s another wrinkle – a juicy one: I have an axe of my own to grind. I fell victim to a Vishnu, in full destroyer-of-lawyers mode, way back in the day. It was 1999, and I was in my second year at Sullivan & Cromwell, when I got assigned to work with a recently-divorced senior attorney. The rumor (I never found out if it was true) was that she’d actually been a partner at another top Biglaw firm, but resigned rather than let her husband receive any money in their divorce. That sounds crazy, but then we’re talking about a Vishnu…

The long and short of it was that she was smart and attractive and initially we seemed to get along. I’m a natural therapist and I’ve always been the sort of person people open up to, so we spent long hours in her office together late at night, and she opened up to me about her dating frustrations and struggles raising her children, etc. Nothing dramatic, just talking. And then she turned on me and the relationship headed south – nothing I did was ever good enough again – and she gave me a review so bad her secretary took me aside to confide she’d never seen anything like it. “Brace yourself,” were the words she employed. And then I was out.

A year or so later I bumped into another lawyer – a woman who’d worked as a mid-level associate at S&C. She ushered me aside to offer an apology. I asked why. She explained that she’d worked with my Vishnu and went so far as to side with her against me, snickering at my incompetence. Then her turn came – complete with the icy treatment followed by the whispering secretary. From what she’d heard, we weren’t the first and we wouldn’t be the last, either. This lady “went through a lot of associates.” And she went through us.

Back in my day, Vishnus sailed slightly under the radar. It wasn’t yet comme il fautto brag about destroying the careers of young attorneys.

I don’t understand Vishnus any more than I understand sociopaths. The real issues, so far as you, the reader of this column, are concerned, are binary:

First, keep an eye out for Vishnus, so you can minimize the harm to you and your career; and

Second, don’t wake up one morning and realize you’ve turned into one.

Look, I get it: Biglaw is a tough place to be a woman. It’s a tough place to be anyone, frankly, but everything’s a little tougher in most places on this sexist planet without a Y chromosome. That’s still no reason, if you are a woman in Biglaw and starting to realize you might be sticking around past your sixth or seventh year – to start growing extra arms and unleashing thermonuclear destruction onto other people’s careers.

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This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.

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

(In addition to Amazon.com, my books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)

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