One rainy Saturday, in my first year of law school, the Career Services Office had a big Career Day event. One of the presentations was by a lawyer who had recently gone solo after working first at a large firm and then at a mid-sized firm.
I’ll never forget it. The man laid out, in no uncertain terms, what life is like for a new associate. I still owe him thanks for that. He came across as an arrogant jerk. But one can forgive that if the jerk tells you important truths.
This is what I learned from the Man in the Grey Suit.
He walked into the room expressionless, his suit looking expensive and tailored. He looked fit for a forty-something who sat at a desk all day. He set up one of those analog precursors to PowerPoint: the giant pad of paper on an easel. And then he began to speak, not about how to get a law firm job, but how to survive and maybe, just maybe, rise, if you somehow did manage to get one.
The first page he showed read, “Do Not Fight the Power.” He then described how much those of us who got law firm jobs were going to hate going to work every day. And how we would quickly figure out how our ridiculously long hours and soul-crushingly dull work were required for the partners to make as much money as possible.
So, he added, it’s natural for a young idealistic lawyer to try to improve the situation (or fight the power). But his advice was to not do that. Instead, he revealed his next page. It read, “FIND the power and SUCK UP!” A few nervous giggles bounced around the room for a moment. He smiled, knowingly.
In order to survive at the firm, he explained, one must quickly (as in faster than the other new associates) determine which partners matter and which ones don’t. Mattering as a partner, of course, means (among other things) being a partner that determines which associates rise, which ones survive, and which ones fall into the “hire ’em, tire ’em, fire ’em” category.
To matter, you must matter to a partner who matters
An associate must make herself invaluable to the partners that matter. An associate needs to pick one particular partner and attempt to become that partner’s right-hand person, bottle washer, dry cleaning fetcher, spouse-caller (delivering bad news only, of course) whatever it takes to try to ensure that when the meeting happens (and it will) when the partners are discussing which associates will rise and which will fall (with a few hanging around in limbo for a while), your “special” partner will say, “If you idiots don’t agree that (your name here) is on the partner track, I’m leaving the firm!”
Then he provided an example of proper sucking up. The Man in the Grey Suit was interviewing a potential hire and praised the applicant’s law school. The applicant said, “It is a good school. But it’s not Duke.” You see, the applicant had done his homework. The Man in the Grey Suit was a Duke law grad. And he was pleased.
Do you like trivia games? Now you do.
He went on to describe other important requirements, like how the second firm he worked at had a Thursday afternoon trivia game. Attendance and participation were voluntary. Unless, of course, you wanted to keep your job, in which case attendance and participation were mandatory. The partners thought Thursday afternoon trivia was a great idea, lots of fun, and helped build team spirit and improve morale. One new associate hated trivia and preferred to work Thursday afternoons so she could leave the office at a reasonable hour on Friday. Her time as a member of the firm was a short one.
Then the Man in the Grey Suit talked about the hours associates work. He gave three categories one could fall into. They were Very Bad, Awful, and They’re Killing Me. He described how hours not spent at work are spent sleeping or trying to think about something other than work, which is of course impossible when you spend all that time working and trying to make yourself invaluable to the partners that matter.
Eventually, after 15 years, The Man in the Grey Suit escaped firm life and opened his own shop. He said he was doing pretty well. I asked him about the hours he put in. He said he worked as much as he ever had, partly because he wanted to succeed as a solo, but mostly because he didn’t really know any other way to work.
I made a few attempts at sucking-up-based-humor, complimenting his suit, asking when he’d be hiring his first associate, and so forth. His thin smile didn’t change. As I got up to leave, the head of the Career Services Office said to me, “That was good sucking up!” I laughed. Then I realized she was completely sincere.
So you can imagine my relief when my middling first-year grades combined with my decision to attend a 4th-tier law school promptly and forever foreclosed any opportunity I might have otherwise had to take my shot at being an Associate that Matters.
And that is why I owe thanks to The Man in the Grey Suit. He made me realize that I’d rather not matter, at least not in the way that so many law students are dying to matter.
Originally published on April 25th, 2013 and updated on July 18th, 2019