Tag Archives: Law firm

I Have Moved Around A Lot

I currently live in a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina. I have been living here for about two years. Like most people who live in this area, I am not originally from here. I grew up in a town called Avon, Connecticut. I went to college in Boston. I lived in Washington, D.C. for a stretch and then went to law school in New Orleans. While in New Orleans I met and married my wife who grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. After law school we moved to Scranton and lived there for a year. Then we moved to Philadelphia and lived there for ten years.

In Philadelphia I worked for a big, corporate law firm performing a job I hated. It paid me well but I hated it. I felt unappreciated, made to perform mindless work and trapped because I had upgraded my life style to match my income and could not move to another job that would pay me as well.

In 2009 the recession put an end to that misery because my wife and I both got laid off. We then moved to Connecticut thinking we could live with my parents for a short period of time until we both found work. That short period of time lasted longer than we expected. But eventually we both landed work from home jobs. Suddenly we were in a position to move where ever we wanted to. After some research we picked a place with good schools and a low-cost of living and here we are.

I look back on all this moving with some regret. Everywhere I lived I always felt like I was trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time. If I had to do it all over again I would definitely have made different decisions.

Now that we live in North Carolina I find myself constantly amazed by how nice people are in comparison to all the other places I have lived. When I first moved down here I found myself in situations where I expected people to  f#!@ with me and surprised they didn’t.

I suppose there is some Wizard of Oz message in all this. That I can travel the world looking for happiness but I really only had to go no further than my own back yard. I did move back to my own back yard after I got laid off and it was miserable. But the message is not literal. Dorothy is referring to the back yard of my soul I am sure. I think that is true to a point. Certainly, if you are miserable you are most likely going to take that misery with you where ever you go. On the other hand, if you are miserable there is something about your current situation that is making you miserable so shaking things up can be a good thing. Certainly staying put will probably not change things as I learned from staying at that law firm in Philadelphia for ten years.

I think change can be made, but it has to happen from within and sometimes outside help is needed to make that happen. Growth is possible. I am not the person I was twenty years ago. There’s nothing to do but look forward and keep moving.

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Getting Laid Off After Eight Years of Misery

Trolling does not have the same hold on me now because I have made progress with shame.  To make progress I first had to hit rock bottom, which occurred between 2009 and 2013. In 2009 my marriage was horrible.  My wife and I did not get along at all.  I was stressed out of my mind from my job and my home life.  I remember thinking at the time the best part of my day was the time I spent commuting on from my house to work.  I smoked a cigarette on the way to the bus.  I spent a large part of my workday trolling Sistertrek.  I drank at least five alcoholic drinks practically every night.  I was a mess.

At the time I was working this pharmaceutical document review in a building near Logan Circle in Philadelphia.  This was considered to be a high-end document review with a million different rules that I never fully learned and I do not think most people really understood. I could tell my supervisor thought I did not know what I was doing which made me depressed and anxious.  Looking back on it I could tell I was self-sabotaging.

The building I worked in was near the basilica in Logan Circle.  I went to the basilica during my lunch hour and prayed a novena to St. Jude the patron saint of lost causes that something would happen to change my career and my life.

 St. Jude, glorious apostle, faithful servant and friend of Jesus, the name of the traitor has caused you to be forgotten by many. But the Church honors and invokes you universally as the patron of hopeless cases, and of things despaired of. Pray for me who am so distressed. Make use, I implore you, of that particular privilege accorded you to bring visible and speedy help where help was almost despaired of. Come to my assistance in this great need that I may receive the consolation and succor of Heaven in all my necessities, tribulations and sufferings, particularly, to bring change and progress to my career and my life and that I may bless God with you and all the elect throughout eternity. St. Jude, apostle, martyr, and relative of our Lord Jesus Christ, of Mary, and of Joseph, intercede for us!

On the ninth day of the novena I received a call from human resources to come to the main office building of the firm which at this time was in the Cira Center next to 30th Street Station. I knew why they called me.  People had been laid off in waves for months.  I feared the day but thought I was safe because I actually had work to do and real billable hours.  I figured the people they were letting go could not bill enough to justify their salaries.  At the time Dechert was all about streamlining expenses and cutting perks that made life less miserable for the employees.  After receiving the call I deleted all the personal files on my laptop and walked down JFK Boulevard to the Cira Center.

When I got there I was ushered into a conference room with two human resources people.  They had empathy plastered on their faces.  They seemed surprised when they asked me if I had any questions and I said no.  I am sure they were used to people blowing up at them.  On some basic level I felt relieved.  I had spent eight miserable years working at Dechert and this day would be my last.  Although there was brightness associated with closing this miserable chapter of my life I was about to begin a hellish, four-year period of being unemployed and underemployed.  Everything was about to get worse before it could get better.

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The Shame of Document Review

In February of 2001, I joined a team of seven other Staff Attorneys on the 54th floor of the Bell Atlantic Tower. At first I was relieved to no longer be unemployed and happy to be starting a new experience that could potentially launch my professional career as a practicing attorney.  For the first few days I attended orientation sessions on the lower floors and felt like I was being integrated into the firm.  But after that I spent my time on the 54th floor and rarely visited the floors below.  I quickly found out that the rest of the firm looked down upon us (even though we were physically above them) because we did not have the pedigree they had (that is, the Staff Attorneys did not graduate at the top of their class from a top-tier law firm).  For a time, I was fine with this as I thought this job would be temporary.  I knew I would not be getting a lot of legal experience but the pay was a lot higher than I could make at any other firm that was willing to hire me at the time.  Furthermore, the fact that I worked for Dechert seemed to impress a lot of people.

The truth turned out to be different from the image this job seemed to project to the outside world.  Dechert hired Staff Attorneys to perform a function that was below the dignity of the associates who had the correct pedigree. That function was document review.

The document archive on the 54th floor contained hundreds (perhaps thousands) of bankers’ boxes filled with documents.  The firm hired me just before the mainstream application of electronic discovery.  As such, most of the documents I reviewed were actual, physical pieces of paper.  The documents were collected from the paper files, desks and computers in the offices of various high level (or otherwise important to the litigation) employees of the tobacco company the law firm defended.  The plaintiffs requested these documents be produced during the discovery phase of the litigation.  My job was to review the documents to determine if the tobacco company could withhold the documents based upon the attorney-client privilege.

The attorney-client privilege (basically) applies to all communications between an attorney and client.  The purpose of the privilege is to encourage the free communication between an attorney and client, which in theory allows for more effective representation.  The tobacco company could claim a privilege existed if a document involved an attorney in the distribution list of the document or the document related to instructions or advice from an attorney.  These attorneys could be either in-house lawyers managing the day-to-day legal affairs of the company or external attorneys hired for litigation purposes (as was the firm I worked for).

Attorneys were required to determine whether the attorney client privilege applied but the tobacco companies did not want to pay an associate $200 an hour to review documents.  So this work was performed by Staff Attorneys specifically hired to perform this function and no other.  Later, law firms like Dechert would figure out that they could hire contract attorneys to perform this function and pay them even less than staff attorneys.  This would provide level below the Staff Attorneys that they could look down on.

In one sense it was a mistake for me to take this job because although the pay was great and the firm sounded prestigious, it was a dead-end position and effectively ended the possibility of advancement as an attorney within the legal community.  On the other hand, it makes sense that I did take the job.  It was a safe decision.  I would not be challenged and therefore not have a real opportunity for failure.  It was the culmination of my shame journey because by taking this job I had to finally face all the demons in my life that caused me shame.  This would end up being an excruciating eight-year journey.  But I believe in some strange way it was necessary to get to the point where I am now.

Here are the reasons why this job was particularly shaming to me.  First, document review (for me) was the most boring, dehumanizing, depressing activity I could ever have conceived in my life.  I had graduated from law school.  I passed the Pennsylvania bar on my first try. I wrote opinions for a judge and now I was sitting in a cubicle reviewing boxes of documents day after day within a law firm that treated me as if I were a lower form of life and did not really deserve to be there.  Furthermore, I was not expanding or developing my skills as an attorney and therefore becoming less and less marketable the longer I stayed in that position.

Second, Law firms are very hierarchical and uniquely tailored to humiliate someone with a shame-based personality.  Because Dechert was one of the more prestigious law firms in Philadelphia, many attorneys who worked there took a snooty, condescending attitude towards other less prestigious firms.  Within the firm itself many of those at the top of the hierarchy looked down upon the ones below.  Part of this had to do with the legal pedigree but it also had to do with the amount of money they made relative to one another.  There were the partners on the top making millions of dollars every year.  There were the associates making hundreds of thousand every year.  There were paralegals and secretaries making tens of thousands every year. Staff Attorneys (the group I belonged to) were a new development and were wedged somewhere in between the associates and the paralegals.  Associates especially looked down on the staff attorneys not only because the staff attorneys lacked both the pedigree and made less money but also because the associates existed underneath the partners who looked down upon them. The associates naturally wanted to pass this shame along to the next rung. Such is the dynamic of shame.

Meanwhile, if I told someone who did not work at Dechert that I worked at Dechert they would always be very impressed.  I always felt ashamed and tried to down play it by explaining that I was a Staff Attorney performing document review and not really a part of the firm.  For some reason, these people usually would not accept this.  They would tell me I was cutting myself short.  But to me it would be too shameful to take credit for working at a firm that I felt did not really want me as an employee.

I must answer the eight hundred pound elephant of a question.  Why did I not leave this job for another job that would give me legal experience and less misery?  Shame kept me there. I did not feel like I could go out on my own because I did not have any experience.  I wanted someone to take me under their wing.  At the same time I did not leave because the salary was too good but the longer I stayed, the less experience I had and the less likely I would be able to get a job with a different firm who would give me experience.  Ultimately, it was safer to stay there than to leave and I was afraid of change.  In this sense I cannot really blame Dechert.  That firm employed me after all.  For a shame-based person it was not a pleasant place to work.

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Moving to Philadelphia and More Interviews

My wife and I drove down from Scranton to Philadelphia to find an apartment.  We found a place in a yellow brick, art deco, high rise across from the famous art museum where Sylvester Stallone ran up the steps in the movie Rocky.  The weekend before my wife started her job we rented a Uhaul, packed up our stuff and drove it down.  Hughey, our dog, was young at the time. I remember the day we moved in and were in the process of unpacking, my wife and I went out to dinner.  When we returned to our new apartment we found Hughey nested in the clothes in our open suitcase.

My wife left for work Monday morning.  I spent my days sending out resumes, listening to Howard Stern in the morning, walking Hughey and playing Civilization on my computer.  I started to get worried that I was not bringing in any income.  Our bills continued to rise and I began to sink into depression because I felt I had no options.  But then suddenly I received a call from a law firm called Dechert.  I had never heard of this firm.  I did not even remember sending a resume to them.  My wife (being in the recruiting business) recognized them as one of the most prestigious firms in Philadelphia.

I interviewed first with a partner on the 54th floor of the Bell Atlantic Tower.  This partner ran the document archive the firm maintained as part of the legal defense for a prominent tobacco company.  At the time I interviewed (the year 2000) the tobacco litigation had been going on for some time and was in the final stages before it wound down.

The partner who interviewed me was a Harvard graduate.  Most of the attorneys who worked at Dechert graduated from Ivy League or equivalent law schools.  They were all very proud of their pedigree.  I felt insufficient having graduated from a third tier law school in Louisiana.  This partner, however, seemed interested in me precisely because I had gone to law school in Louisiana.  It was like he thought I was an exotic species.  During the interview he told me that the position was not a regular associate position but rather a Staff Attorney position where I would perform work that was below the Associates and that I would never be eligible for a promotion. What I did not totally understand was that I would also not receive the experience I would need to fully become an attorney. But at this time I was more interested in earning money than gaining work experience.

At the same time I interviewed with Dechert I also interviewed with another smaller firm.  This firm was on a lower level than Dechert and seemed ashamed of itself in relation to Dechert and impressed that Dechert was interested in me.  It was clear that this firm would have given me trial experience and put me on the partnership track (something that I would not be offered at Dechert).  On the other hand I would have been paid half as much as what Dechert offered me.  At the time, both my wife and I had student loans we were paying off and the money Dechert offered me was too much to pass up.  I remember talking to my friend Tim who lived in Washington, DC at the time.  I told him I could take the difficult job with the firm nobody heard of that paid less or the easy job with the prestigious firm that paid more.  At the time it seemed like a no-brainer.  I would later learn that I had made a mistake.

I remember my father congratulated me and told me he was proud of me for getting a job with such a prestigious firm.  I should have known that was an indicator that I had made a wrong decision.

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10 Reasons to Rethink Going to Law School

1.  The school you attend is not in the top-tier.

I went to a third tier law.  This was a bad move from a career standpoint.  I think I received a fine education from this school.  I think I learned to think critically, write concisely and communicate effectively.  But law firms do not respect third tier law schools.  If I planned to start my own law firm or just needed a law degree so I could work for a law firm that would guarantee me a job (a family firm for example) then it would not matter what law school I went to.  For me this was not the case.

2.  The law school you attend is in Louisiana and you do not plan to practice there.

Not only was the law school I went to third tier, it was in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Don’t get me wrong.  Living in New Orleans for three years was a blast and I toyed with the idea of staying there.  But then I met my wife and married her between second and third year (something else I would not recommend doing from a career perspective).  After her mother died we moved to her home town of Scranton, Pennsylvania.  Her father, a reporter for the Scranton Times and covering the courthouse got me a job clerking for a judge he knew.  All that said, if you don’t plan on practicing in Louisiana it probably is not a great idea to go to a law school there because Louisiana is the only U.S. state following the civil law (based on the Napoleonic code).  Other states think this is weird.  Even though the school I attended also taught common law I still had to deal with this issue in interviews.

3.  Practicing law is boring, tedious and depressing

I loved clerking for the judge.  I researched the law and wrote opinions.  It did not pay the bills.  We moved from Scranton to Philadelphia and I managed to land a job with a prestigious law firm as a Staff Attorney.  This firm only hired Associates from top-tier law schools.  However, they had a special group of attorneys they called Staff Attorneys to perform document review for the tobacco litigation.  It paid great but the job was boring as hell.  For nine hours a day I looked at corporate documents to determine whether the attorney client privilege applied.  If so, the opposing counsel did not get to see them.  I don’t think this privilege legitimately applied to even one out of a thousand documents.  A few months after working there I felt trapped.  I hated the work but felt I could not leave because of the salary.  At the same time I was not learning how to be a lawyer.  I ended up working this job for eight years before being laid off in the recession

4. Too many lawyers makes it hard to find a job

There are lots of law schools in the U.S. creating more lawyers than there are positions to fill.  Again, if you go to a lower tier law school it makes it all the more difficult unless you go out on your own which leads to the next reason to rethink going to law school.

5.  Too many lawyers are not good for society because it encourages frivolous lawsuits.

Lawyers who go to lower tier law firms who then go out on their own generally become personal injury attorneys.  This is not always the case but I would venture to say it describes 90% of them.  And of course the world needs personal injury attorneys to protect the rights of ordinary citizens without the means or expertise to fight back against the man.  But if there are more personal injury attorneys than there are legitimate plaintiffs to represent, in order to make a living they are going to have to invent cases.  I don’t think this is a good thing for society.

6.  Lawyers are assholes. 

Not all lawyers are assholes but most of the ones I ever dealt with are.  On one hand this is easy enough to understand.  Lawyers argue for a living.  To be effective they probably have to enjoy what they do.  On the other hand I have experienced an unnecessary amount of scorn and judgment from the lawyers I worked with.  The firm I worked for was all about status and hierarchy.  The partners looked down on the associates because they made more money.  The associates looked down upon the staff attorneys because they made more money and went to better law schools.  The staff attorneys looked down on the contact attorneys  because they could.  It was all shame based when it did not have to be.  Technically we were all on the same team but you would never know it based on the daily interactions.  Of course there were exceptions but this was definitely the case the majority of the time.

7.  Your father was a lawyer

My father was a lawyer.  I thought being a lawyer would make him respect me.  It did at first, especially when I went to work for a large firm.  But it did not last long especially after it was clear I hated what I was doing.  If there is something else you are good at and enjoy I highly recommend following that path and wish someone had given me that advice when I made the decision to go to law school.  Although I probably would not have listened to them because of the next reason.

8. You are motivated by having a respectable answer when someone asks you what you do for a living.

If this is your reason for going to law school you are living an inauthentic life.  I say this not to shame you.  I say this out of compassion because I know what you are going through.  Your issue is shame.  See a Gestalt therapist before you go to law school.

9.  You will have to take out student loans.

I know lots of people still paying student loans 15 years after graduating.  This is definitely something to consider.  This also relates to reason number 5.  If there are too many lawyers out there who need to pay off student loans they are going to pursue the money-making opportunities.  Not everyone will do this but most certainly will.

10. Lawyers in general have a bad reputation.

I run across many people who have reacted scornfully upon hearing that I am a lawyer.  This, of course, is a shame based proposition.  The person with the scorn is shame based otherwise he would not be so judgmental.  If you are shame based you probably don’t want to be in the position of being judged because it is hard to handle.  If you are not shame based then this reason does not apply to you.  You probably went to a top-tier law school and when you go to work for a prestigious law firm you will have enough sense, integrity and compassion to treat those below you on the hierarchy with the decency and respect everyone deserves.

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