I'm not a doctor. I just see them often.
I’m no expert in organizational dynamics, but I don’t need any specialized training to recognize that the culture of a business, a sports team, or a law firm starts at the top. Unfortunately, lawyers can be possessed of very strange personalities and idiosyncrasies. When the partner, or partners, in control of a law firm have some serious character issues, personality flaws, or heath issues, they can prove to be an occupational hazard for associates.
I’ve only worked at firms with 10 attorneys or fewer during my eight-year career, and I work in one of the most competitive and scorched-earth jurisdictions on the planet- Philadelphia. I was trained by some great litigators during my clerkship in law school, which was 20 hours per week during my 2L and 3L years and two full summers. Since it was a small operation, I was writing appellate briefs in some complex commercial matters and preparing cases for trial well before I ever sat for the bar exam. This lead to a flaw in my own personality in that I’m generally inflexible. I’m not afraid to ask questions and always seek guidance of my superiors, some of whom have forgotten more about the law then I’ll ever know. I just don’t always tend to follow their advice, but more on that in my next column.
The plaintiff-oriented firm for which I clerked in law school had only two partners. Fifty percent of the business was brought in by a partner that I’ll call Frank. They were mostly personal injury matters ranging from $5,000 to $1.5 million. The other partner wasn’t a rainmaker; he was just a damn good litigator. ‘Mike’ took primary responsibility for all of the commercial cases referred to us by the transactional firm down the hall. Mike graduated with a 2.4 from a Tier II law school and regularly whipped partners at big firms that never would have hired him. He shook down one Big Law partner for $400,000 on some case that had a big weakness that escapes me now. She was later appointed to the Third Circuit.
A few months into my job as a full-fledged associate, Frank decided that I would be his whipping boy. He was a firm, tough but respectful guy while I was a law clerk. That changed quickly. He used to count the number of times each day that I would walk by his office, which was quite regularly because trips to the law library and the bathroom required that I do so. He would sometimes ask for written explanations for each time I walked past his office during a particular day. He once accused me of not making his requested changes on a Memorandum of Law. The marked-up draft was in his trashcan. To clear my name, he placed the trashcan in the middle of his office and made me root through the coffee-laden, used-tissues-full-of-snot receptacle until I located the draft. I was vindicated, but I now realized that Frank was fucking insane. So was I. I had undiagnosed major clinical depression since my 2L year. The firm’s culture did nothing to help my well-being. Neither did the $45,000 pay when I was working on cases that were sometimes far beyond red light/green light. Partner Mike told me point blank, “You have a brain, but you won’t be able to prove that to anybody. You graduated with a 2.76. You can work for us litigating real cases, or you can walk down Market Street to an auto mill for the same pay and longer hours. Your choice.” He might as well have put a gun to my fucking head.
Frank held this odd belief that being outside of the office was not considered “working.” Sitting for three hours in Discovery Court on a contested motion was not work, even if I brought along a draft of a brief to review. (Contested motions were always heard last as punishment for forcing the judge take the bench to render a decision.) I’d excitedly walk back into the office with a signed Order in our favor, and Frank would look at me like an axe murderer before asking me when I was going to make amends for the three hours I just spent in court. My answer was usually, “Never. Here’s your Order.” Then I run as quickly as possible to my office while muttering audible curses in front of the secretaries.
This all came to a head, of course. People who are clinically depressed generally don’t fall into the REM phase of sleep. Studies using animals that were purposely deprived of the ability to fall into REM sleep sometimes resulted in the death of the subjects. For me, this meant that my body rebelled against me by Thursday and Friday morning. I’d stumble into the office looking like the mental patient that I was around 9:15 a.m. on some days. Frank and Mike had been at work since 7:45, although Frank, who was 45 and fit, was sometimes having trouble walking. I was politely asked to leave after seven months on the job. No reason was ever given, except it was for “reasons other than my work product and performance.”
A subsequent MRI of Frank’s brain revealed lesions indicative of MS. His difficulty walking was a result of swelling in his spinal cord. He literally was losing his mind. Two years later, with Frank and me both straightened-out mentally, I worked for the firm for 18 months with only one minor incident. The firm closed up shop when Frank became too ill to work, leaving only a shell through which Frank could continue to receive his medical benefits. I was unemployed for six months before landing a position at one of America’s legendary law firms. We’ll save that seven months of madness for next time.