Friday, April 28, 2006

A Dwindling Group Of Unwilling But Morbidly Proud Survivors

I just got back from a Litigation Lunch at my firm, during which we listened to presentations on such fascinating topics as billing, time sheets, and the accomplishments of the associates Committee. Earlier, I mentioned the incredibly important work that our Associate Committee has worked on over the course of the last year. Today I learned that in addition to bringing us medium post-it notes, the Committee is also responsible for bringing us mechanical pencils, more cars to ride home in, and more loaner laptops. In sum, all the Committee has worked on is improving the perks of this job, without tackling any of the larger life issues such as work-home life balance, hours, the case assignment process, or training and experience.

Listening to them talk of mechanical pencils, I glanced disgustedly at my colleague sitting next to me and caught his eye. He, I, and Prue, and a few others, started on day #1 together on the Big Securities Case (the "Case From Hell") that defined my existence for the first year and a half at this job, and continues to plague my existence. He looked back and me, smiled, and rolled his eyes. What a joke. He told me during lunch that he had been placed on another gigantic case that is just about to start Discovery. The assigning partner called him up and said that she thought it would be a "good fit." Give me a break. After spending a year and a half doing discovery on the case from hell, he has now been thrown on to another one. That would be aggravating enough, but they add insult to injury by trying to shovel b.s. down his throat. And the Associates Committee worries about post-its and mechanical pencils. It's enough to make anyone gag.

But then a part of me thinks that maybe I'm being too pessimistic. What's happened to me? Have I really been so crushed and drained by this job that I no longer have within me the desire to try to make things better? The desire to do what I can to effect change from within? Isn't it a positive sign that the Firm finally started an Associates Committee, and that they're working on addressing some issues, even if they are rather small in comparison to the large problems that still need to be addressed? For example, I'm really pleased to have medium post-it notes. It was undeniable an improvement. A small one, but an improvement nonetheless. But then a voice says: Silly, silly little girl. This is a law firm. This is the way things are. What did you expect?

Last night during therapy, I was crying and telling CG that I had reached the point where I did not think that I could make my life the way I wanted it to be while staying at this job. I don't know if that's true (and I'm not sure if that's wrong - maybe I should be able to make everything OK while staying at this job?), and it was really difficult to admit. It felt like failure, like I couldn't hack it. It also felt freeing to admit that this firm and this job were not for me.

Even though I know it's time to leave, I have ambivalence. Part of me feels like I'm a failure for not having succeeded. "Succeeded" to me would have been coming to this firm and thriving in its embrace. I have most definitely not thrived. But maybe my definition of succeeding is too harsh? I have succeeded in the sense that (1) I have given everything I had to this job (for at least the first 13 months), (2) I have gotten a TON of practical experience doing everything from research, writing, drafting pleadings, client contact, and taking depos, (3) I have helped people, (4) I have learned an incredible amount about things that I didn't want to, and hope one day to forget, and about things that have enriched me, and (5) I have met a few great people (some of whom, like Prue, left me - boo hoo).

Most of the people I met here were on my Case From Hell with me. We were a big and isolated group and for the first 13 months of my employment here, I basically did not see anyone else from my firm. There quite simply was no time. We were in hell and we were all scrambling to come out to the other side. My colleague that I was sitting next to at lunch is one of those people. Since the case quieted down a bit, and since certain people were let go to do other assignments, I've seen a lot less of the Case From Hell people. Part of this is deliberate avoidance. At any moment, a call from one of them could mean being drawn back into hell. Though I have more time now, I have not seen more of the other people that work at the Firm. During the last few months, I have felt so done with this place. I've had no desire to connect with others and develop new relationships at a point where I hope to soon be on my way out.

I almost didn't go to the lunch, but I'm glad I did, because I found to my surprise that I enjoyed seeing my colleague, and even enjoyed being reminded of what an effed-up place I work at. My colleague asked me how Prue was doing and I said that she was enjoying Houston and being free of this place (I have yet to hear all the details from Prue, so I was doing a bit of projecting, truth be told). My colleague exhaled and shook his head, in a way that I knew he was thinking how lucky Prue was to be out of here. Many of the people who started with us have started to leave. The turnover in law firms is quite extreme, with almost 100 people leaving and coming in each year. Many people stay only 1 or 2 years. I'm on MONTH NINETEEN. Thinking about how long we have been here and still shaking his head, my colleague said to me, "We're survivors," and we both laughed at the melodrama and the truth underneath that statement.

I do feel as if I have survived something being here. There were so many days last year I wanted to quit, but I didn't. I stuck it out, and more than a little part of me is proud of me for that. I have made this situation work for me as much as was possible under the circumstances, and when I finally do walk away from here, I will be walking away a far less naive experienced individual. In addition to the work experience, I've worked for an individual who I know I will view for the rest of my professional career as the most horrible, nastiest excuse for a boss that I ever had the misfortune to work for. There's something positive, though, even in that. Because even though it wasn't pleasant, and even though my spirit has been brought low, I still did it. I took everything that they threw at me and I did a good job.

My colleague and I have been through something, that like all kinds of hellish hazing experiences, tie us together because of what we had to endure. The type of experiences that no one on the outside can truly understand (unless they try to listen very very hard). It made me happy to see him - someone who understands what the last 19 months have been like - and it felt good to laugh with someone about our common circumstances. It reminded me that there are some good people here.

At the same time, based on the work of the Associates Committee, which presumably is responding to the bulk of the Associates' requests and complaints, I'm left with the unshakable feeling that most people in my firm - the ones concerned simply with perks - do not view themselves as being in hell. They are not like my colleague or I. Maybe that's because they weren't on the horrendous case that we're on, or maybe it's because they actually like Law Firm Life. Or maybe they do dislike LFL as much as I do, but they are somehow able to protect their spirits from getting crushed better than I. I still haven't decided if I want to get to know any of them.

I never thought I would have a problem protecting my spirit. It turns out that I do. But that doesn't take away the fact that I have made it through this, and will continue to do so. It hasn't been pretty, and it has forced me to confront all of my weaknesses and all of my insecurities (especially during this last month when moving in with someone has compounded all of the stresses attendant with work). But in so doing, I continue to find my strengths.

I like remembering that I'm a kick ass grrl. No matter my current job, no matter my weaknesses, and no matter that I have no effing idea as to what the future may bring.


Tracy said...

Just like we have to protect our bodies (from say getting run over by traffic when we cross the street), we have to protect our spirits (from say Dragon Lady and LFL) in order to be healthy and thrive. It means that we love ourselves enough to protect ourselves from harm. That doesn't make us weak. That makes us smart. And strong.

wordnerd said...

Buttercup...I wonder why you feel that your success as a person is tied to this firm....a firm you don't own (i.e. didn't start as a partner or successive family member)....a firm you don't even like....and a firm that appears objectively to be not universally loved (from what you describe...high turnover = poor firm managment).

I am not trying to be a therapist.....I have a hard time just keeping my head straight..I just wonder why you've put so much importance on making THIS place work when there are so many other places to work. I understand that when we study for a long time it's easy to define ourselves by what we do and where we do it....but it really is only a small aspect of who you are.

From what I have read so far, you are obviously very smart, funny, well read, well travelled, curious and introspective.....that is so much more than just being an Associate. NON?

Heather said...

Wow. I could have written that post. There are a lot of similarities between how I felt when I was still working at my old firm and how you feel at yours. I was so disillusioned by the time I quit, and I was so miserable. There were a lot of problems (hours, work assignment, favoring of white and male associates) and when I first started I would speak up and try to change things. Eventually I realized that the firm doesn't really want to change. I also realized that I am the type of person who really needs to believe in the organization I work for, and I just didn't believe in the firm anymore. It is so hard to leave though. Luckily I got pregnant, and I am so glad to be out of there.

I know several people who have worked at one firm where they felt like shit, or ignored, or not valued, but then went on to find another firm that makes them happy. So I know it is possible. I'm not working right now, but I am afraid of finding myself back in that situation you describe where you have to protect your spirit from the job. It SUCKS.

The best part of hating your job is finding kindred spirits who also hate it. I made some of my best friends at work commiserating over the myriad reasons we hated the firm.