Law in Contemporary Society
*So I found this article "When the Emptiness Swallows You" on abovethelaw.com today. It was written by a former big firm lawyer who went to NYU law school and now is a psychotherapist. I think it's relevant to what we've been talking about in class. Just wanted to post for people's reading pleasure/displeasure.

I've cut and pasted the text of the article here because I don't know if it will remain the top part of the blog's homepage so this just makes it easier for access. I bolded quotes I found interesting.

"Last October, a law school placement director friend of mine forwarded me an email with a juicy piece of big law gossip. A former associate at Sullivan & Cromwell had offed himself. He was 39.

The body was discovered beneath a highway bridge in Toronto. A few days earlier, it was revealed that since the mid-90’s, he and a co-conspirator made ten million dollars on an insider trading scheme. He’d stolen insider information from S&C, arriving early in the morning to dig through waste baskets, rifle partners’ desks and employ temporary word-processor codes to break into the computer system.

“You can’t make this shit up,” was my friend’s comment. “Wasn’t he from around your time?”

It took a minute to locate the face. Gil Cornblum. Jewish, a bit pudgy, with big round glasses. Gil, in that ridiculous little office two doors down from mine.

What was Gil like? Mild-mannered, pleasant, always smiling.

I should have known something was wrong.

The pieces fit together.

Gil kept weird hours. He used to chuckle that he liked to get in early so he didn’t have to stay late. It turned out he was in at 5 am, combing the firm for insider tips.

The lavish wedding, too. A mutual friend was invited up to Canada to watch Gil tie the knot, and was blown away.

As people do in these situations, I stopped for a moment to contemplate Gil’s death. His body was discovered at the bottom of a highway bridge. He was still breathing, according to the bits of news I found online.

So far as I could tell, that meant portly, lovable Gil Cornblum threw himself off a bridge on a Canadian highway in the middle of the night and lay on the bottom – of what? A rocky riverbed? – shattered and dying.

Suicide amounts to punishing whoever is supposed to take care of you because you feel their care is inadequate.

Certainly, the care we all received at S&C was inadequate, and we committed suicide a little each day just by staying there and putting ourselves through that abuse as our lives passed us by. Our slow suicide manifested in other ways as well. Most of us mistreated ourselves by neglecting our health, letting our friendships die off, ignoring our families, our hobbies, our lives.

Maybe insider trading was Gil’s grand suicidal gesture, his protest against the abuse he received. He put his entire life on the line, knowing he might well be caught, end up in jail and lose everything. He was playing Russian roulette, and maybe he knew he’d kill himself if he got caught.

And all for what? Money.

In psychotherapy, money is a surrogate for love, for security. We all felt insecure and unloved at S&C. Maybe insider trading and stolen money gave Gil a counter-balance. Maybe it was supposed to compensate for everything else missing in that pointless existence.

Were the rest of us so different? Weren’t we all trading our lives for money? No one would have been working in that hell hole if they hadn’t waved six-figure salaries in our faces.

The high suicide rate among lawyers isn’t hard to explain: you trade away your life for money and clutch at possessions to substitute for what’s missing. You’re already dying.

When it doesn’t work, and money fails to answer your needs, the rage overflows. You punish the world for denying you the care you crave.

End result? The ultimate victory through defeat. You take your own life.

Discharging unconscious anger feels good. It’s a primitive, simple pleasure. It’s also incredibly destructive. Gil – who seemed like a mild-mannered, pleasant Canadian – was probably high as a kite on the rage he was discharging by stealing millions of dollars right under those partners’ noses.

But his rage consumed the money and kept going. It finally consumed his life.

I remember Gil Cornblum as a nice guy. I can’t find it in me to come down on him too harshly for his crimes. I suppose he had to steal money to keep himself happy at a place as miserable as S&C. He was doing what he had to, to fill the emptiness we all felt working at that place.

Goodbye, Gil. I’m sorry that emptiness finally opened up wide enough to swallow you whole.

[Editor's note: this piece is part of a series of columns The People's Therapist will be posting in cooperation with AboveTheLaw? .com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series - and a big People's Therapist welcome to ATL readers!]

- http://thepeoplestherapist.com/2010/02/16/when-the-emptiness-swallows-you-whole/#more-883

thoughts?

-- KrystalCommons - 17 Feb 2010

Unfortunately, this scenario happens all too often (including an attorney I worked for while a paralegal), and it begs the question which none of us can answer (yet) except Eben- what is it that makes working at a big law firm so depressing? Is it just the hours? The work you're doing, or who you're doing it for? The knowledge that you could be doing so much more but aren't? Plenty of people work crappy jobs that they hate, but it seems corporate lawyers are disproportionately affected. I know none of us (except maybe any LLMs out there) can answer the question, and perhaps it's different for everyone, but I do wonder what it is about BigLaw? that makes it so much worse than most other jobs.

-- RorySkaggs - 17 Feb 2010

Maybe this is essentialist or reductionist (etc) but I think it has something to do with what Eben discussed a few weeks ago -- we're for the most part creative, free-thinking, generally liberal, and seeking justice when we enter law chool. I think that what's so depressing about "BigLaw" is the awareness (on the part of the attorneys) that the spirit and promise and ideals they used to have - or have somewhere buried very very deeply - are completely irrelevant and even undesired. That's what I'm most afraid of, at least.

-- JessicaCohen - 18 Feb 2010

I think it is good to discuss this topic in terms of what we are afraid of since, like Rory said, we haven't been through it. One thing I am afraid of is believing the dichotomy between having a personally meaningful life and having a wealthy/"prestigious" life then self-loathingly choose the latter. Honestly, this article scares the hell out of me with regards to working at biglaw.

-- RobLaser - 18 Feb 2010

A lot of people hate their jobs. It's unfortunate, but its true. While trying to avoid pseudo-psychology as much as possible, I will say that I attribute much of it to cognitive processes which people allow themselves to become trapped within, and then can't find their way out of. It's already begun in law school (ignoring, for the moment, that it probably began far earlier). So much of our time and energy, not just in this wiki but in the hallways and elsewhere, is devoted to venting about school, work, briefs, moot court, job searches, grades, etc etc. Why?

@ Rory, I think (I imagine) that what is most "depressing" about BigLaw? is the awareness on the part of the attorneys that you are referring to, that they never intended to realize their promise and ideals in the first place. They knew they were going to pawn their license, they just have the unfortunate luck of regretting it. I'm equally sure (still imagining of course) that there are some attorneys who are quite content having pawned their license. Sure, they sold their principles and ideals along with it, but they never valued those very much anyway.

So to me, those who are unhappy are simply those who have yet to understand who they are and what they want, and have made some bad choices in the hopes that when they figure all that out they will suddenly become good choices. I don't think there is anything wrong with a BigLaw? job. I just think its a certain shape hole in which way too many pegs of a different shape are forcibly trying to occupy, to the detriment of themselves, and perhaps Eben would say, their ability to do "justice."

-- ArtCavazosJr - 18 Feb 2010

Regarding Rory’s point of what is so depressing about working in the big law firm, I will share my experience which may be different to other’s.

I worked one year as a paralegal and returned after the bar for another year and a half, when I decided to take an offer outside the firm.

What bothered me the most was to feel that I had lost all my freedom. I had no control of my time at all. Whatever plans I had (a dinner, a trip during the weekend, or even to celebrate my own birthday) at the end depended on what the lawyers above my said in the very last minute. I missed a lot of things that where really important for me and for other people and I still regret it.

I remember one Friday afternoon with my wife sick and asking me if I could get home early (at 8:00 pm). Of course something came up in the office and I was asked to stay. When I mentioned the situation all that I got by answer was: is she very sick? Otherwise you should stay.

Another example: there was a lawyer whose grandmother had died. As he went to the funeral and missed a meeting, the partner asked: but was he so close with his grandmother that he is not here?

There are many examples like these. At the end I felt constantly treated as an object and the only thing that mattered were the clients and the hours billed. I felt so disrespected the whole time and apparently no one really cared about me or the others at all. I completely understand Gil Cornblum’s story posted here.

Another thing that I hated is related with Eben’s story last Thursday (the partner who told the associate that it was going to be his last time in the partner’s bathroom). The argument that many of these lawyers gave to treat associates like crap was that “in their times they were treated much worst”.

Lawyers within these firms are so used to fight every day their way trough become a partner that they think it is natural to make other people suffer and attack their insecurities. I believe that only really insecure people make others feel bad without any legitimate purpose.

I do not know if there are big firms that are nice places to work, I have only worked in one. In any case, stories like the one posted here confirm that there is a common pattern in our profession.

One final thought, I really like being a lawyer and I enjoy a lot being back to law school. There are opportunities out there, but the problem is to find the one that fulfills your needs, I am still searching for mine.

-- FranciscoGuzman - 21 Feb 2010

Color me crazy, but I just don't understand this fella's suicide, or, I don't buy that it was because his job stole his soul. On that same general line, I don't understand the dissatisfaction everyone seems to express concerning working at big law firms (no one is forcing them to work there?). I'll do my best to articulate, but no promises.

Concerning Gil first. If he was so unhappy with his work then why didn't he simply quit? I mean, the author of the article obviously had a very similar experience, and instead of sitting there taking it day after day, quit and became a psychotherapist. Yes, ok, so instead of quitting Gil started stealing money, and that was supposed to express his rage/make it better? I'm going to assume that Gil, being able to pull off the insider trading scheme to the tune of millions of dollars, was a pretty bright guy - so wouldn't he, at some point, realize that stealing money from a company he hated wasn't making it any easier to sacrifice his time and energy, his life? I suppose I mean at some point before hopping off a bridge. Additionally, since he had the money from his inside trading scam, it seems he would have been able to quit his job straight up and still live a life of absurd material wealth. I feel like, in this case at least, the suicide had to be something outside the hatred of his job. It would have been too easy to walk away and start over.

Ok, on to rambling about generally everyone who works at a big firm and hates it. This may confuse me most of all. Mainly, because there's no good reason (read: huge debt) for them to be working there after a fairly short time. Let's go with your nameless student graduating from Columbia Law and starting up at whatever big firm in NYC, at the going rate of $160,000. Humor me for a second and let's just keep that figure static. Also, let's say that they make it out with debt in the ballpark of $150,000. Given these figures I'm here to tell you it should be possible to work at a big law firm for three years and eliminate damn near all that debt if you live modestly. And, for goodness sake, who can't do something they hate for three years to own themselves? It seems to me that there's no good reason for anyone to work at a big law firm and hate it after about three years or so, five at the most.

Here are my numbers. No, they're not exact, but should be close. Income tax, all told, should add up to around $16,679 for NY/NYC, and $52,800 for federal, totaling up to $69,479. That'll leave the lawyer with $90,521. Take out $12,000 for food (being generous here and assuming take-out/eating out) and $15,000 for rent (though it would be easy to find cheaper housing, again I'm being generous), that leaves $63,521. Assuming an interest rate of 13% on the $150,000 across three years, that'll end up being $208,500 (I didn't bother subtracting the amount possible to pay every month and then recalculating the amount of interest that would be added the next month because I don't feel like that much math). The lawyer, in this three years' time, can expect to have saved $190,560 if unnecessary expenses have been avoided. That'll leave $17,940 worth of debt in three years, assuming no bonus, no pay increase (though no deductions for retirement/insurance/very expensive fun). That's a pretty easy sum to handle across the remaining years (probably more than 20) left in the payment period.

So, why do people work at a job they hate, making money they don't need, and let it eat at them till they seek solace in the distance between the edge of an overpass and a dry creek bed? Ya got me.

-- MichaelHilton - 22 Feb 2010

I don't know anyone who grew up saying they wanted to be an M&A lawyer. Big law firms are far from my point of self actualization, but other factors (family, community expectations, financial obligations) can help bridge the gap between where I want to be and where I am.

-- MikeAbend - 22 Jun 2010

A French Friend of mine sent me this link. I don't read French, but the main idea is that an American big law firm is sued in France by its former associates for slavery.

-- WenweiLai - 02 Jul 2010

 

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