Will Meyerhofer: Evil Middle Management

Will MeyerhoferWhen I launched The People’s Therapist, my intent was to get stuff off my chest – process a smidgen of psychic trauma. I’d write a column or two, exorcise the odd demon, piss off Sullivan & Cromwell and call it a day.

It never occurred to me I’d be deluged with lawyers as clients.

It never, ever occurred to me I’d be deluged with partners as clients.

It never so much as crossed my mind they’d be so unhappy.

It turns out being a partner can be…not all that. For many of my clients, the job boils down to evil middle management.

Permit me to explain.

Biglaw associates resemble the low-level evil henchman in James Bond movies – those omnipresent guys in jumpsuits who all look the same and do what they’re told. They drive around evil headquarters in little golf carts, manipulate dials in the control room, shoot at James Bond (always missing) – then get shot themselves. Presumably – like biglaw associates – they’re mostly in it for the money, rather than a genuine penchant for evil.

I felt like an impostor at S&C – only pretending to be a genuine low-level evil henchman. I was more like James Bond after he bonks the real low-level evil henchman on the head, then reemerges strolling through evil headquarters sporting that guy’s jumpsuit.

I was an impostor – trying to look like I drank the Kool-Aid, going through the motions. I wasn’t even a clandestine agent, battling evil, like 007. The plan to blow up the moon wasn’t my problem. I just wanted a way out of that crummy job – one not involving a fatal dunk in the evil piranha tank. Somewhere in that evil-lair-secreted-in-a-hollowed-out-volcano there had to be a door marked exit.

Most of the partners I work with are looking for the same thing. The difference is, as a partner, you’re not an impostor pretending to be a low-level evil henchman – you’re an impostor pretending to be evil middle management.

“Preposterous!” you sputter, outraged. “Partners never condescend to be middle anything! They crouch, smugly, at the pinnacle of the evil pyramid! With one wiggle of their evil little finger…they manipulate human life!”

It can look that way from the bottom rung, whence a partner appears as far removed from a low-level evil henchman as a junior associate from a positive bank balance.

From the vantage of the pyramid’s sub-sub-basement, all partners appear interchangeable – the unifying feature being their utter dissimilarity from anyone like you. A partner’s one of them – evil incarnate, possessing his own evil headquarters – his own creepy evil white cat (for stroking purposes) – and his own weird evil European accent (with which to mutter, “Come now, Mr. Bond…”) A partner doesn’t have to drink the Kool-Aid – an iv bag of the stuff dangles by his bedside.

If only that were true. After getting all up-close and personal with a bevy of partners, I’ve caught wind of a terrifying reality: All partners are not the same. Most are nothing more than evil middle managers.

It turns out – I swear on a stack of Books of Mormon – there’s only one guy per law firm who actually owns an evil headquarters.

He’s also the one guy who gets to stroke a cat and mutter diabolical threats. At most, there are six or seven guys (yes, they’re always guys.)

The other, lesser partners aren’t diabolical geniuses – or low-level evil henchmen. These so-called “partners” only get to act like they personify evil – they’re hardly Dr. Evil himself. They’re more like the bland guy sitting in the wrong chair in the evil boardroom when Dr. Evil presses that discreet little button – the one that activates the steel wrist straps and the trapdoor in the floor.

I’ve worked with partners so traumatized by the situation, it’s shaken their faith in global organizations dedicated to evil.

It’s dispiriting.

Here, in a nutshell, is how you end up in evil middle management:

Over the course of years of slave labor, you make yourself indispensable to a rainmaker (your “rabbi”.) He elevates you. Then two things happen: First, you acquire the title of PARTNER and all the rights, privileges and immunities (and status and money) thereunto appertaining; and second, the ink begins to dry on a binding contract with Beelzebub.

Mr. Rabbi doesn’t share his clients with you. You’ve never spoken to them. He elevated you to do his work, transforming you into a glorified senior associate (glorified = overpaid.) Since the downturn in 2008, there are no longer any actualsenior associates at the firm – they’ve been fired – so the actual partner reduces your points (partner-speak for money) and increases your workload.

It’s getting to where you’re not even overpaid, let alone glorified.

Don’t like it? No problem. Do what they keep telling you to do: Find your own clients. Generate business. Pull your weight. Do some marketing.

There are issues. First, you don’t know how to market. They didn’t have a class in “marketing” at your evil law school. Second, when you try marketing – which seems to mean pointless research, then taking people you hardly know out to lunch – you feel like an idiot. Third, it doesn’t work. They don’t suddenly call with a pile of overpaid legal stuff for you to do.

This is not entirely surprising. In a domestic market containing, at minimum, twice the lawyers the entire planet could possibly utilize, clients aren’t sitting around waiting to be asked to hire over-priced outside counsel. Many are bringing work in-house to cut legal bills – or strong-arming outside counsel to trim prices.

You could offer to reduce your fee – slide your price to bring in work – but your rabbi won’t hear of it. It would “degrade the firm’s brand” – which means it might affect his fee. He’s got his own book of business, and doesn’t give what we’ll euphemistically refer to as a “hoot” about your book of business. You’re competition.  He’s content having you do his work.

That’s evil middle management. You’re a partner, but you don’t feel like it. Your friends and family assume you’re rich and powerful. Your car mechanic tacks on made-up charges when you take your Benz in for a tune-up. Obscure charities guilt you into tickets to their annual ball thingamabobs. Even your therapist considerately slides his rate up for you.  : )

The truth is you’re rich-ish – or used to be, or were heading in that direction. But you earn a tiny fraction of the rabbi’s take and that keeps declining. And power? You hold none whatsoever, beyond the ability to torment associates – which isn’t as much fun since they fired all the associates.

Things get worse as the recession deepens. The plan to build your own book of business seems more and more like a pipe dream.

You have no actual idea what’s going on at your firm, since no one shares information. The other partners in your group tell you nothing. Without warning, five of them took off from the LA office last month. You found out by reading AboveTheLaw.

Scarier still, the rabbi isn’t sending you as much work. You hear about partners at other firms – and your own – getting pushed out. First, they’re hunched at their desks, playing computer solitaire – then they’re no longer with the firm. You recall that discreet little button.

There are additional indignities. Your secretary is fired. You come in and she’s not there. Yeah. That happens.

But you’re a partner! You can say to heck with it, and take off. If this is how they treat a co-owner of the firm, you’ll go somewhere else, where partnership still means something.

Nice try. You’re a service partner. You have no book of business. No other firm is going to greet you with open arms. They will buy a book of business – and probably overpay, since it will be inflated with clients who aren’t actually portable. But no book of business? No evil headquarters.

How about going in-house? Sure, you’ll take a pay cut, but a senior vice president job would be cool, or even general counsel. You could frame it as a lifestyle choice – something you’re doing for the wife and kids. You’ll work nine to five, get a company car, attend conferences. Might be refreshing.

It would be…if everyone else hadn’t thought of it, too. Service partners are lining up for those jobs.

Where to go?

Nowhere. You’re stuck where you are. Let’s face it, resigning your partnership isn’t a step you’ll take lightly. You worked your ass off for the ultimate lawyer honor – to become a would-be diabolical genius. You don’t give that up.

One client – a mid-level associate – recounted being taken aside by a female partner, and given a speech about the meaning of partnership. The partner intended to inspire.  She came across as unhinged.

“She said making partner was better than I could imagine,” my client recalled. “It was the greatest day of your life. It was better than sex. It was better than getting married. It was better than having a child.”

“At some point, she got this weird look in her eyes – it creeped me out. I listened with a frozen smile and thought, I’ve got to get out of here before this happens to me.”

Okay, so some partners are a little…touched. Evil genius is a difficult job description. And maybe it isn’t better than sex. But you shouldn’t under-estimate the degree to which making partner is played up in the world of biglaw. It’s the beginning of everything – wealth, power, respect. You become a real person – someone who can hold his head up. You go to private clubs, buy bad-ass apartments and vacation on Mustique in a rented villa. You’re “in” – a made man – sitting at the table with Dr. Evil (no one mentions the discreet little button.)

The truth is, I hear a lot more partners talking about resigning their partnership than I see actually doing it. One guy who did resign from a major firm was literally covered in shingles and having a nervous breakdown when he quit. He couldn’t get out of bed or stop crying. (No, he wasn’t my client.) I got the feeling he felt obligated to reduce himself to that state to earn permission to do the unthinkable – or convince his wife (who wasn’t terribly sympathetic.)

To make partner, you elevated the goal of earning major bucks into the focus of your life for an endless string of god-awful years. Along the way, you picked up a spouse and kids and a mortgage. It ends up like everything else in biglaw – all about the money.

If the rabbi’s happy and has work for you, then you still count as a partner at a big law firm. You are evil middle-management. You can wear the fez and dark glasses each day and maintain the facade. You’re a partner. You were elevated.

Meanwhile, you daydream about killing the rabbi with an ax. You hate handing your life over to that condescending windbag.  You moan to your wife about how you can’t take it anymore. How many partnership meetings can you attend in the evil boardroom, watching him toy with that discreet little button…wondering if you’re sitting in the wrong chair…

Partner isn’t a title. It’s what you do. Unless you go out there and – by some miracle – bring in business, you’re not really a partner, equity or otherwise. You’re someone who gets called a partner for working for a partner.

Even if you have a book of business, it can be tough. I worked with a junior partner with a growing book of business.  He hates the grind.  Being on-call 24/7 triggers anxiety attacks. He debates quitting, going “part-time,” trying for a government job or taking the leap and starting his own firm. With a book of business, he’s got options.

Other partners have fewer options.

One service partner client discovered her rabbi was defecting to a notorious sweatshop. He offered to bring her with, but she couldn’t stomach it, and stayed behind.

Work dried up. Now she’s at another firm, on her own, unable to drum up business. In-house jobs aren’t materializing. She talks to her husband about moving to the country, giving the whole thing up, getting out of law…

Like many partners, she’s looking for an exit – one not involving a fatal dunk in the evil piranha tank.
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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.

If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book,Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning

I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.) 

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