Friday, May 05, 2006

Fighting The Tide

The shit is hitting the fan today at work. Last night, I got an email from a partner requesting my assistance on a matter that would require approximately 50% of my time for the next 3-6 months. My reaction to the email was "shit," along with a sinking feeling in my stomach. It would be impossible to do 50% more work, while continuing to do all of my pro bono cases, and doing all the positive life things I have been trying to do (i.e. therapy, acupuncture, yoga, the gym, blogging, writing, reading, hanging out with Raj, socializing, etc.). In other words, it would seriously cut in to my efforts to have a life. Yes it's true, I am a law firm associate, but I want a life. Is that so wrong?

This morning, I responded by committing the cardinal sin for associates. I said "no." Politely, of course. But I still said "no." It didn't go over so well. The partner wrote me a stern email in response which included, among other things: (1) a reminder that while pro bono work is encouraged, it should never take precedence over work for paying clients; (2) a summary of my billable hours pointing out that I had only spent approximately 1/4 of my time on paying clients during the last few months, and 3/4 of it on my pro bono work, and that my billables were "below the average" for the department (that one stung); and (3) an admonition that the amount of time I was spending on pro bono work was unacceptable, and that I would need to get assistance with my pro bono work so that I could take on more work for paying clients. In other words, the message was: cut down your pro bono work, and take on additional work from paying clients.

Stab me in the heart. Nothing in the email was a surprise, nor even unreasonable, considering that I'm working for a firm that likes to make money. It was a bit unreasonable in light of the fact that I billed over 3,000 hours on my large case from hell last year, but partners don't care about that. While the billing is good, the partners don't care. They don't care that I bleed myself dry last year. They only care now, when they see my hours are down, and that the hours that I am putting in are 75% for pro bono work. (I actually didn't know it was so high for pro bono. Yikes. On the other hand, that's what I actually want to do, so perhaps I should be pleased.)

A few days ago, Wordnerd left me the following comment: "I wonder why you feel that your success as a person is tied to this firm....a firm you don't even like...I just wonder why you've put so much importance on making THIS place work when there are so many other places to work." It's a good question, and this morning I started thinking about it again. The quick answer is that I don't want to be a "bad associate." I don't want to be a person who doesn't do well, and when a partner tells you that your hours are not up to par you feel like a loser. Or at least I do. At least initially. I like succeeding, not being a loser.

Six months into this job, I had a breakthrough in understanding why I hated working in this law firm so much while talking with Valley-Bee, a woman who co-clerked with me for my Judge my first year out of law school. She told me that it's not that I'm a failure, it's that my law firm and I are operating on different standards. My standard is merit-based. I want to do my best work, and I want to be appreciated for that work. I also want to work on things that I care about that make a difference. My law firm, however, doesn't give a shit about associates doing their best work. They want associates to do good enough work, and a lot of it. They want to see hours, and they want to see the cash rolling in from their paying clients. They don't care - not really - about pro bono work because pro bono work has nothing to do with their bottom line. And they don't care about associates having enough time to do their best work, because that gets in the way of associates flipping from project to project, churning out as much work as possible for as many paying clients as possible.

Talking with Valley-Bee almost thirteen months ago (holy shit the time has flown!), I finally felt like I "got it." I'm a perfectionist. I can work quickly and I can multi-task, but my version of multi-tasking is not doing two things, or nine things, at the exact same time. Who can do that really? My version of multi-tasking is having a long view of what needs to get done and when, and organizing and dividing my time so that I can get everything that needs to get done, done. Here, at the law firm, they don't like associates planning their own schedules. They don't like perfectionists who draw boundaries. They like to micro-manage, and when they tell an associate to jump, they expect that an associate will ask "how high." I did that for the first year. But now, not only have I stopped asking "how high," I've stopped jumping. They don't like it. Not one bit.

They don't like associates following their own standards of excellence or meaning. They want their associates to follow their standard, which is putting in a lot of hours for work that pays. I want quality and significance. They want quantity and money.

Even though I know this intellectually, my partner's email made me feel, emotionally, like a failure because he told me that my billables were below where they should be. He told ME that I was "below average." I've never ever been below average in anything that I have ever done. Never.

The over-achiever in me started jumping up an down, yelling, "I can do it! I can suck it up! I want to do good work! I want you all to think I'm a stellar associate! I want to be powerful! I want to get to the top! Give me more assignments! Give me more work!." The over-achiever has been running the show since I was 12 (or earlier), and it's hard for the softer side of me - the one who knows what's really important in life - to fight her sometimes. It's so easy to get swept up in her confidence, strength, and ambition. She doesn't know that what she seeks actually hurts me. "Success" in this firm, the way they define success, has only brought me unhappiness.

(The over-achiever wants me to remind you all that success has also brought me a ton of practical skills, a loaded resume, the ability to do my pro bono work, money, and has toughened me up. Thank you over-achiever for sharing that. Now please sit down.)

Wordnerd is right. I can't let them make me care that I am not living up to their standards. I can't let them manipulate my desire to want to achieve and do well. My desire to be seen as a success. As long as I am living up to my standards, I am not a failure. Far from it.

My amazing powers of diplomacy bought me a little more time, but another assignment is just around the corner. I can feel it coming. Probably next week. In addition to that dismal prospect, the Dragon Lady continues to terrorize my days of late. I had to go to the She-Beast's office yesterday. I diligently pressed my ear, but it had little effect. Perhaps I need a larger needle?

I'm fighting the tide so that I can do the work that I need to do for the clients that I care about. The ones that actually need me. My clients who don't want to go back to the Middle East to be sold into prostitution or sold into a marriage they don't want, my Tibetan mother of 3 who hasn't seen or heard from her husband and children since she fled Tibet 3 years ago, and my client who is trying to get a divorce from a horrible man who beat her throughout the 8 years that she lived with him. Yes, law firm, by your standards I am doing too much pro bono work. I admit it. You found me out. But it's not too much for me. It's the one thing at this firm that consistently brings me a feeling of joy and fulfillment.

My partner told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to cut back on my pro bono work. I can tell you all that that is the last thing that is going to happen. If I have to take on a new case, fine. The next few months will suck, but I will do what is necessary to keep doing the work that I want to do. And then I will leave, triumphantly.

That will be glorious.


Gypsy said...

That couldn't have been more rousing or inspiring if you'd been Sally Fields as Norma Rae with a "union" sign!

Now, while you'd doing all this work, can you squeeze in some job searching and resume sending time?

wordnerd said...

Oh Buttercup, I really didn't want to be right on this one...god I also didn't meant to be preachy or anything. If I came off at all like that, please accept my appology. I am far from having it 100% together on this one, I've just learnt (the hard way) the importance of remembering that everything we do is by choice. Sometimes the choices suck donkey balls and are difficult, but they are still there....right?

You just strike as so bright and so "with it" , I really do wish you good things and to find a place where the kind of work you are doing is not "tolerated" but VALUED and REWARDED. Because in the end, we all work for ourselves primarily but it's human nature to want to please others and feel successful.

Last but not least, I will raise my glass to you tonight for having the balls to stand up for yourself. It sounds like the road ahead might be a bit bumpy....but it sounds like a light went off for you...the light that reminded you that YOU are the driver, not the passenger (ok, end cheesy quote!).

Have a godo weekend, hope you get lots of wine, snogging and sunshine!

Buttercup said...

Thanks Gypsy and Wordnerd! Cheers to both of you.

Gypsy, Girl, you're such a task master. Yes, I am going to try to send out one more application today. The She-Beast always inspires me to such action whenever I have the pleasure of her company.

Wordnerd, no worries. I didn't think it was preachy at all. It was spot on and an excellent point. I really appreciated your comments.

Many thanks to both of you!

K said...

WOW you sound like me two years ago. Even though, thankfully, that is behind me. I still feel failure aches. Which are unwarranted, BTW ;).

Hang in there it's friday. Find a yoga class, grab a chai, shower, and watch office space. :) You'll feel better.


Dutch said...

I learned long ago that if you say "no" to those soulless cunts they just go down the line and fine another of your ilk to pressure into doing shit. ultimately you are nothing but a hamster on a wheel to them. it helps a lot if you don't care whether they think you're a good hamster or a bad one.

Tracy said...

Boundaries are a beautiful thing! I'm proud of you for using one with your partner. It is your prerogative as a human being to say "no". Have a wonderful weekend!

This might sound idealistic of me, but at the end of your life, I don't think you're going to care if you billed more hours for your firm. Instead, you'll feel good about leaving behind a wonderful legacy of hope that you extended to people who you helped to create a better life.

Buttercup said...

Tracy, That is a beautiful way to say it. Damn straight I won't care how many stupid hours I billed for this stupid firm. Have a wonderful weekend too!