Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Fear

The Fear is real as a big-law associate.  It is a fear that constantly lurks at you from your calendar, lurks from the quiet phone at your desk, and most of all, lurks at you from the email in your iPhone.  The Fear is smallest on a Monday morning and grows with each day of the week, becoming its largest the day before you leave for a vacation planned months ago.  And now, as a new parent, it lurks everyday behind the pictures of the little man, ever threatening my few hours with him in the evening and on the weekends. 
The Fear is not that something will happen to the little man (but, oh do I have that fear too, but that is the subject for another time).  It is the Fear of being assigned to THAT CASE or THAT PARTNER.  I have had the Fear come to life several times in my big-law career.  It happened one evening in May:  I was at a social gathering at the Firm having a glass of wine on a Friday evening, when the bb buzzed.  I returned to my desk and awaited the call: "So I'm going to need some help this weekend."  And in a flash, my weekend was gone.  Instead of spending time with J, I spent my weekend searching down every possible nuance to some archane legal question because the big-mean, higher-up partner was displeased with a prior associate's "merely adequate" research.  Come Monday morning, I had a chart (there is always a chart), a four-inch indexed binder and summary of my research.  But that materialization of the Fear wasn't too bad.  It lasted only a weekend. 
One day in April, I received the call.  Senior Associate needed help with a bit of doc review.  We met in the firm library with the associate who was getting ready to leave the Firm.  Senior Associate told me, "This is just a bit of doc review.  Not a twelve hour a day, gig.  Oh, and maybe some help with stuff down the line."  Five months later, I had met my billables for the year, I hadn't had dinner at home with J in months and I had learned to sleep in my office (at another Senior Associate's suggestion).  The real low-point was when I growled (yes, actually growled) at a paralegal in the hallway and then chewed out the food delivery guy for bringing the wrong pasta.  It was not a nice, "hey, I ordered eggplant parm and you brought chicken parm."  It was a full forced blast of the poor delivery guy, and the manager.  Sigh.  Not a high point.  In five months, we went from discovery to trial.  After the trial, I took a week off.  It was the only time (other than maternity leave) that I have taken a whole week off from biglaw, and it was at the blessing and encouragement of the powers that be.
With the PARTNER, the case itself may not be that bad or demanding, but the PARTNER is.  She gives vague instructions, tells you to pester someone else with the "minutae" and then blasts you for not having read her mind.  She makes the criticism personal:  YOU are not doing well.  YOU are inadequate.  Sometimes, she tears you down "just to see how you handle it."  When you are assigned to the PARTNER, other associates "check-in" with you to make sure you are o.k.  Some partners insist that you produce 2 + 2 to make 4, in four hours when you need six.  Those partners are tough.  This partner insists that you make 2 + 3 equal apple.  And there is no way to convince her that it just can't be done.  While you may make it home for dinner, you are a puddle of self-doubt.  You emerge a bit stronger, and with a stronger resolve to quit.  Soon.
The outcome, or materialization of, the Fear is that in a moment's notice, your next weekend, month or year is no longer your own.  You are at the mercy of the CASE or the PARTNER.  "No" is not an acceptable response when you are on the CASE.  It must be done.  Now.  The letter cannot wait until tomorrow morning.  It must be drafted tonight, at 9 p.m., to await Partner's review when she strolls in tomorrow morning.  The CASE does not care that you also have a motion due in two weeks.  Figure it out.  Get it done.  There are twenty-four usable hours in every day.  The CASE does not care that you haven't seen your husband or child in a week.  Your personal problems are not the PARTNER's problems.  When a friend turned down an assignment, a partner actually asked her to account for every hour in her day.  And then told her she had more time.  Two weeks before her wedding.  When the Fear materializes and you are assigned to the CASE, you become someone you used to loathe.  You become a raging jerk, to everyone: the paralegals, your secretary, your spouse, the innocent guy at Sbucks (who doesn't understand that you need your coffee but the PARTNER has just asked you where you are).  You become someone that under other circumstances you would disapprove of, and then pity.  The taste left in your mouth and head from the CASE lingers for months and years.  You look back with horror at how you treated others and how you treated yourself.  Yes, you may have valuable experience and war stories under your belt, but your soul will never be the same.
The Fear keeps me cowering at my desk.  Although I have no work as of yet, the Fear keeps me from requesting an assignment.  For if you press to hard, you may be assigned to THAT CASE or THAT PARTNER.  Now that the little man waits at home, unable to understand that saying "no" is not always an option, the Fear is nearly crippling.  Toward the end of the five months, J looked at me late one night, and said "I want my wife back."  I refuse to put the little man through the horror of the CASE or the PARTNER.  I do not want to become who I was.  I try to create an alternate me for work.  Someone who is strong, can manage it all and is ready to take it on.  But in reality?  I'm terrified.  Terrified of days passing without seeing my son.  Terrified of when the call or email will come.

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