We Were Lawyers Once


Brigitte, Jan and I started as summer associates on the same day. We met over a group orientation lecture at nine and by noon were having an exclusive tell-all lunch. We went to different law schools, but were about the same amount pretty. We hoped to have successful summers, return after our third year of law school and make partner in seven years. We had high expectations, despite the low odds.

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Brigitte was French. She had silky black hair cut in sharp ledges. She had a lean body, a decisive manner and a plush accent. She wore stylish dresses and pointy shoes. She had cat-eye glasses she didn’t need and a pocket pup she never saw. To relax, she sprinted on treadmills and skimmed gossip magazines. She went to Columbia Law School and was married to a nice banker from a rural family in Kentucky.

But Brigitte didn’t like Kentucky, and she didn’t like rural. Within a few weeks, she told us she didn’t like her husband, either.

Jan and I were single, and we didn’t like being single. Jan grew up in hallowed circles which bored her. She had a socialite mother and a reclusive father; she wintered in New York City and summered in Maine. She disappointed her mother because she didn’t care about parties, and she disappointed her father because she didn’t make valedictorian. She devoured her first book in kindergarten and her first kiss in college.

I was a farm girl from the Midwest who was allergic to animals. I came to New York City to till a more fertile soil. I browsed the dictionary for fun and found going to bars hard. I had five brothers and craved a sister. I had a subscription to the New Yorker by middle school and wrote bad poetry about the bad boys I worshipped from afar in high school. I was good at close textual analysis but found summarizing cases hard. I was adept at painstakingly looking for clues. I favored navy and voted Democrat—but occasionally Republican—and my name is Margaret, but people called me Meg.

We learned the ways of the firm quickly. We billed our hours. We billed our dinners. We billed our rides home in dark cars along the dark river, glittering with bright lights. We were type A to a tee. We worked in a tall building with a marble lobby. Our conference room walls held sepia photographs of costumed conquerors: a helmeted Ghenkis Khan, a curly-headed Alexander the Great, a one-handed Napoleon.

We let our other lives dwindle away. We lived only for ourselves, our firm and our clients. We knew our clients by number, each by each. We lost ourselves in our work. We delighted in losing ourselves, for in that, we sometimes imagined we found ourselves.

We watched lawyers flirt with other lawyers, date other lawyers, marry other lawyers and have affairs with other lawyers. We heard lawyers say bad things about other lawyers. We bragged about which partners worked us the hardest. We bragged about which partners were called off of yachts in order to return to work alongside us. Vacations were expendable. We believed we weren’t.

This was in 1989, after the first wave of feminists had paved the way. We felt our way was clear: We knew that making partner was part luck; we had to peer into the crystal ball of business and predict which practice areas would be harried in the future. We were banking on a frenzy of work so ferocious and fierce that it could include us.

Brigitte figured out the finances first. Our firm had a strict hierarchy—the partners were paid in lock step, so first-year partners made two million dollars, second-year partners made two million and change, and so on. First-year associates could boss secretaries and paralegals and no one else; second-year associates could boss first year associates plus secretaries and paralegals. Paralegals could boss new paralegals. Secretaries could leave at five.

Our offices had windows that looked out at other windows. The partners had more of these windows. The most senior partners had corners of windows. We had doors that led to halls. We had doors that we could close but that everyone left open.

Jan, like all skinny women, fixated on our cafeteria. It served food from around the world on our fortieth floor. I, like all tired women, focused on places to sleep: The firm had built cubbies for napping, like in Japanese train stations, but no one was caught dead in those cubbies.

We arrived late. We left late. We were on time to meetings. We watched suns set, moons rise, stars fall. Out of the ashes of other companies, our bank account balances rose. We had lovely friends whom we rarely saw. We made plans we always cancelled. We stopped making plans.

We could see the trajectory of our lives, how we would rise in the ranks because we had what it took. Actually, we weren’t sure we had what it took. The thing was, we loved the work. We complained. We grumbled. We gnashed our teeth. But deep down, we loved opening boxes. We loved sorting files. We loved solving other people’s problems. Sometimes, we imagined that we could apply the same rigorous logic to our own problems. Better yet, when fully immersed in the problems of others, we imagined we had no problems. Tethered to our clients, we floated free.

We envied and scorned the paralegals. We handed them the boring work that we didn’t want. They stamped papers and kept lists, but they had deep friendships born of shallow occupations. They had a camaraderie we envied. Theirs was a one-year job, two years at most—then they would be released to travel wherever they pleased. Some of them went to law school; many of them did not. They had been cured of the legal bug by being given the most boring work. They had no idea how exciting the difficult work was. We shielded them from the excitement.

Our job was more like swimming down an ever-narrowing channel, where we watched other people gasp and head for the shore along the way. Only a few of us would be hardy enough to handle the work, the stress, the late hours, the early mornings, the lack of outside friendships and inner love, the excesses, the deprivations and the expectations—our own expectations most of all.

Some lawyers told war stories about how they had been summer associates in the lean years. They’d been channeled into departments instead of sampling them all like ice cream. They were told to curb their interests for the sake of the firm’s interests. They were to tighten their belts and fix their eyes on the shiniest prizes. They worked inside and didn’t go out.

We had the good fortune to be summer associates during a fat year. We had a happiness committee whose sole job was to lure us with merriment. The happiness committee bought us box seats at the Met and the Open. It organized jubilant dinners at upmarket restaurants where we ate cured fluke and skewered shrimp.

The committee hosted cocktail parties at partners’ gracious Upper East Side apartments. We reached these dwellings by giving our names to doormen who wore uniforms that struck us as vaguely military. We swilled our drinks and milled about, chatting casually as if we had grown up in formal homes with Stark carpets and opulent fabrics.

Even Jan, whose home sported five Stark carpets, seemed caught up in our whispered admiration. Brigitte turned the bone china upside down to check its provenance.

We heard loudly the silent message: if we worked hard enough we, too, could make partner, buy these apartments and eat in these restaurants. It was a package deal.

We were entranced and ironic. We mocked and yearned. Afterwards, when we returned to our walk-up apartments, we saw that our windows needed treatments. Blinds no longer satisfied us. Our eyes were opened.

We knew everything there was to know about our partners. We knew their middle names. We knew their children’s middle names. We knew where they bought their first Porsches and their second homes.

Sometimes, we were left open mouthed about the expansiveness of other lawyer’s brains. We could tell within minutes which of us would make partners in seven years, in a bright line. We repeated stories about our partners’ quirks. We hoped that one day people would tell such tales about us, but we doubted it—for to become partner, we had to suppress our louder laughs and our most peculiar peccadillos. Once we made partner, we knew we could let rip. But we worried that if we suppressed something too long, we’d never get it back.

We remembered with misgiving the stories in our biology textbooks about the kittens whose eyes were sewn shut at birth by curious heartless scientists. After six weeks, when the kittens’ eyes were finally released from their stitches, they were blind. They had lost their chance to learn to see, poor kittens.

Here are some of our partner stories.

Jeremy Gilmartin was said to have taught himself to read upside down so that he could spy on the notes of the opposition. We wondered how hard it could be to read upside down. We tried it and failed.

James Peapoint took to rollerblading down the firm’s long halls. James was good at law but not so good at rollerblading. We flattened ourselves against the walls when we caught sight of him, his dark suit jacket flapping and his elbows jabbing at the air. The secretaries laughed politely into their headsets when he creaked by.

Freddy Smith the Fourth gave all the firm speeches. Freddy Smith the Fourth was first rate funny. He gave off the cuff sounding talks which he practiced for hours. Those of us who worked for Freddy Smith the Fourth loved him. He got leaping-out-of-his-shiny-shoes excited if someone else did a good job. He had enough confidence to go around. He praised us for excellent work. It made us do our best. We loved him. We praised him back. Praise and love was in the air for any of us lucky enough to work for Freddy Smith the Fourth. He napped in his office every afternoon. His secretary warded off visitors. She loved him, too, in that platonic way Freddy inspired so generously. Freddy had a good wife whom he loved. We loved him most of all for loving his wife despite the feminine bright-eyed adulation. It gave us hope.

Freddy Smith the Fourth always settled his cases. He told us there was too much risk in litigation, because he couldn’t control the outcome. Sometimes Freddy Smith the Fourth said racist things under the guise of telling us what his grandmother used to say. Sometimes he said sexist things under the guise of telling us what his grandfather used to say. We shifted in our shallow seats. But Freddy was a senior partner and smart and his clients loved him, too. We wondered which of these qualities protected him most.

Whenever he had a speech to make, he would skip his afternoon nap. We heard him practicing his jokes aloud behind closed doors. We heard his pregnant pauses. We heard his calls and his responses. We learned more from minutes spent listening in at Freddy Smith the Fourth’s closed door than from hours opening gilded cumbersome volumes in the law library. Even the smartest funniest lawyers had to practice and pretend they didn’t. We learned that being the best wasn’t natural.

A partner named Jack Tripper married first a fellow partner, then an associate, then a paralegal, and finally his secretary. We saw the trajectory of the Tripper’s choices, how he climbed his way down the firm’s ladder. A partner named Jerry Jones dated first a paralegal, then a partner, then an associate. Unlike the Tripper, we who were expert pattern detectors could see no pattern to Jerry’s dating choices. Jerry seemed blind to hierarchy or decorum and had eyes only for beauty. Jerry was good at making women fall in love with him. He told every woman he dated that he wanted to marry them. It was his signature sexy move.

One evening, under the glaring lights of a cheerful conference room get together, Jerry moved close to Jan. Brigitte and I backed off, while Jerry told Jan that his wife had never understood him. Then he offered to lend Jan novels. A week later, Jan told us, breathless and blushing, that she was in love with Jerry. Brigitte and I said we knew. We didn’t tell her that everyone knew. Jan told us that two days after sleeping with her, Jerry told Jan that he wanted to marry her. But Jan didn’t know yet that Jerry hadn’t finished finishing his first marriage. He was only separated from his first wife. By the end of June, he let this choice morsel drop. By July, Jan discovered—and not from Jerry—that his current wife was actually his second wife.

Jan was mad at Jerry.; she didn’t understand how you could forget a marriage. Jerry didn’t like to date women who were mad at him, not when there were so many other beautiful smart women in the firm for Jerry to date, so by August, Jerry dumped Jan and started dating an associate.

In September, Brigitte, Jan and I hugged each other good-bye and returned to our separate law schools. But Jan wasn’t over Jerry. Every morning, she got out of bed and attended class in the humidity of Virginia, gripping her slick notebooks. By noon, she broke down and called Jerry, clutching the pay phone. Jerry spoke to Jan in a low seductive voice. Overcome by how male and sexy Jerry was, and how much more grizzled he was than any of the male law students, Jan had to take a depression nap after speaking to him. She missed constitutional law lectures for an entire month because of these naps. But Jan got an A+ in constitutional law. Now, years later, Jan has forgotten what it felt like to be in love with Jerry, but she still remembers that A+. She wonders what it says that she got the best grade in the class she taught herself.

After graduating, Jan, Brigitte and I returned to the firm. Jan now avoided Jerry. He had a way of looking at her like he still wanted to date her. It unsettled her. It tricked her into thinking Jerry pined after her. But Jerry had forgotten her. He just wanted her to think well of him. He liked everyone to think well of him. Jan complained to Brigitte and I about Jerry, and we agreed. We always agreed.

A female partner took us on as mentor. She coddled us and fed us lavender tea and purple-prosed slogans. Her name was Esmerelda White, but her nickname was Tappy because of her legendary speed at the keyboard. Tappy told us to resist the urge to tend to relationships at the firm. She told us the men wouldn’t respect us if we let them funnel us into administrative work. She said that the men respected only legal work. She said that if we wanted to make partner we had to bring in business. She said we had to make money. We had to work harder than the men. And we had to dress like ladies.

Together, trying to see Tappy past the stacks of documents on her desk, we laughed at those aging feminists, the ones who had so courageously carved the way for us. Those women had worn man suits and tied floppy bows around their necks. They’d tried to win in a man’s world by out-manning the men. We were determined to outman men by being women. We wore dresses and heels and pearls and, sometimes, pant suits. We walked to work in our sneakers and kept two pairs of dress shoes in our desk drawers—one navy, one black. Those shoes went with everything.

The junior male lawyers had their own outfit battles to wage. They biked to work in clip-on shoes and Spandex shorts. They kept dress shoes in their backpacks and suit jackets and ties behind their office doors. They changed when they arrived, but the sweat remained. We could smell it, but we never mentioned it. We never mentioned anything. It was a white shoe firm. A shoe polisher made the rounds once a week and bent over the lawyers while they worked. It was efficient. The lawyers tipped him well.

We kept toothbrushes and toothpaste and hairbrushes in our desk drawers. We groomed at work. We found our groove at work. We were often unhappy unless we were at work. We were often unhappy when we were at work. We were also happy at work. We had a love hate relationship with work. We loved the work. We hated that we loved the work. We told other people not to become lawyers. But we weren’t credible. We could have left law at any time but didn’t. We were like high school kids who said we didn’t study and pulled all-nighters.

We made a lot of puns. We had punny brains. We saw the potential in words. We could always hear what would happen if we twisted just one letter. Puns were revered by us, even as we mocked them. We couldn’t help ourselves. It was how we were wired.

We who were litigators wove plausible narratives to explain our clients’ more dubious decisions. Sometimes our clients turned blind eyes to the traders who made the most money. The bosses forgot to ask questions about how their junior traders managed to make exponentially more money than anyone else. The bosses ignored the security systems we had put in place for them. It wasn’t normal to make that much money. Those junior traders were cheaters. This was their downfall and our making.

One day, Brigitte let slip that Jerry had lent her a novel. Jan stopped wanting to have lunch with Brigitte. I had to see each of them alone. Jan wanted to talk about how nice Brigitte’s almost-ex was. Brigitte wanted to talk about anything but her almost-ex. I didn’t want to talk to either of them. We were tired of work and of each other.

The relationship became public. Brigitte finished divorcing her nice husband and married wicked Jerry. Brigitte and Jerry moved into a nice big apartment where Jerry’s nice six children came for nice short visits. Jerry said he didn’t want any more children. Brigitte said she didn’t want any, either. She ran faster on treadmills and her clothes became looser.

One day, one of the female partners, Magda, had a nervous breakdown. She was carted out of her home under cover of night. By daylight everyone knew. We knew because we were connected like an organism. A breakdown in one part of our firm meant a breakdown in all of us. We felt her cry as if it were our own.

Within a week, Magda recovered. She returned to her office and her workload. But we could see new twitches in the corners of her mouth. She couldn’t seem to control these twitches. Watching her, we felt our own mouths burn. Some of us, chastened by Magda’s breakdown, took meds and breaks. We made time to visit counselors, who told us that we needed to play more. So we stopped seeing counselors and worked more. We sensed we needed to spend time with people we didn’t have to pay to listen to us. Instead, we spent time with people who paid us to talk.

A few years after marrying Jerry, Brigitte made partner. Jan left the firm and became in-house counsel at a big bank. She married and divorced and moved house and forgot her first husband. She finally understood how you could forgot a marriage. She understood how it was better not to remember.

I stayed on but was passed over for partner. That’s what we called it. Being passed over. It meant I had been left behind. Instead of making me partner, they made me a senior associate. That’s the name for lawyers who were not good enough. Senior associates had two choices. We could leave or we could stay. I stayed.

I married a well-read accountant I met in a rare book store. We had three boisterous children whom we raised in a placid Fifth Avenue apartment. I ran in Central Park in the dark and squeezed an entire week of life into my weekends. I loved my husband. I loved my children. I loved my job. I hated that I wasn’t partner. It hung over me like a shroud. But I only hated it on the days when I thought about it. When I chose to count my blessings and do the work, I felt blessed. I had a choice. I could choose to be happy or to be sad. Every day, this choice confronted me.

Brigitte had a choice, too. She could turn a blind eye to the way Jerry’s eyes lingered over the long legs of the younger lawyers, or she could leave Jerry. But Brigitte thought she had a third choice: She thought she could get angry at Jerry; she thought she could yell. Jan could have told her that this was a bad choice, but Jan had left the state. Last we heard, Jan was living in a yurt in Wyoming with a park ranger. The more Brigitte berated Jerry, the more Jerry started hanging around a paralegal named Bambi.

I decided Bambi was too young to know Jerry’s history. I was wrong. Bambi knew because everyone knew. Bambi was one of us. But Bambi had something Brigitte didn’t have. Bambi didn’t care two hoots about Jerry. Instead, Bambi had an affair with Jerry but flirted with the male paralegals.

They were very cute, those male paralegals. They rolled up their shirtsleeves and loosened their ties. They carried litigation boxes for Bambi as easily as if they were filled with air instead of legal problems. Jerry grew his hair longer and dyed it blonder. He ate chemicals that made his diminishing hairline move backward, lower over his forehead like a time lapse camera. He switched brands of sports car and bought an Aston Martin. He eschewed his fitted Paul Stewart suits in favor of shapeless shiny Armani ones. He joined a gym and pursued the burn and the build and the playground experience.

We could have told Jerry that he was going to lose his battle with the paralegals. They were always younger than Jerry, every single year. And Bambi had no intention of marrying Jerry. Bambi was too smart to trust a man who’d an affair with her. She had a logical brain.

I was floored by Bambi. She felt like a new breed of woman. She was a fierce, independent woman, free of need, free of love, free of hurt. It hurt me to know there were women like Bambi in our firm. I thought that being hurt by the male lawyers was necessary. Bambi implied that there were choices we hadn’t known about.

One day, Jack the Tripper summoned me and some of the junior associates into his office. He’d lost a case we’d worked on together. “I’m going to call the client and tell them I lost,” he said. “You need to learn how to handle failure.” He called the client on speaker and we listened silently. The Tripper did a good job. The client accepted his loss. The Tripper rose in our estimation.

Brigitte stayed on as partner in our firm even though Jerry, from whom she was now separated, was still dating Bambi. Brigitte watched Jerry hang out with the female paralegals, leaning on their cubicle desks, and her heart grew hard. She decided Jerry was pathetic. It was either that or stay in so much pain that she couldn’t work. For Jerry was smart, sexy, funny and cute and couldn’t help his need for approval. Deep down, Brigitte knew that she suffered from the same need for approval. But Brigitte’s misfortune was that she wanted approval from Jerry, and Jerry kept shifting his targets.

One day, the Tripper called me on his office to staff me on a new case. “I need a warm body,” he said. The Tripper looked at me expectantly from across his leathered partner desk. A smile twitched in the corners of his four-times-married mouth.

My smile froze. I could tell that the Tripper had practiced this line. The Tripper knew that I’d get the joke, even though the Tripper knew that he would never be as funny as Freddy Smith the Fourth. It was an inside joke, after all. We were all warm bodies. We went where the need was greatest. We were interchangeable.

I told myself to be a professional. I had to sit down but was already sitting. I took notes and documents. I returned to my desk. But instead of putting together a team, I put on my coat. From the elevator, I called my husband. He told me to calm down and not take it personally. I called Brigitte. She told me that the Tripper only said out loud what everyone thought. I called Jan, but she was unreachable.

I was hurt. I was hurt by my husband and the Tripper, but most of all by Brigitte and Jan. Because always sympathizing, always being reachable, anywhere, anytime, was our mantra.

In midtown, commuters walked uptown with their gazes fixed down. They bumped into me and didn’t slow. I headed to the park in my heels. I’d already run this morning in my sneakers, and I was tired and it wasn’t even ten. Halfway across Fifth Avenue, I decided to leave the firm. It wasn’t because I’d missed my middle child’s school play. It wasn’t because I’d missed my youngest child’s first steps and words. It wasn’t because I’d missed my eldest daughter’s first period. It wasn’t because I missed my husband. I missed all of this, all of them, so much, and I asked myself again if this was why. It wasn’t. It was because the Tripper had spoken from his heart and broken mine.

In the park, I lay down in the grass and looked up at the sky and spoke firming slogans to myself. I wouldn’t quit. I’d return to work. I’d be fine. I wouldn’t feel cold about the Tripper’s request for a warm body. I’d be a nameless cog in the firm’s well-oiled wheel. I got to my feet and trudged along slanting sidewalks. I followed a pigeon. It was a drab grey thing with an iridescent purple sheen. Its head bob-bobbed into the empty space in front of it as it walked. It looked silly, as if it were pecking for food in the air. It couldn’t help seeking with every step something it would never find. It was the fault of its architecture, the way it was made, to peck at nothing like that, over and over, forever and ever, Amen.

I worked on the Tripper’s case. I lasted a little longer. And then I didn’t. Brigitte stopped watching Jerry and became in-house counsel at a bank. I served on boards and did planks. Jan left the ranger, set out her own shingle in Jackson Hole and built her own business.

Now, years later, from the quiet of my apartment, hearing construction noises in the street below, I remember that I loved them all. I loved Brigitte, Jan, Jerry, the Tripper, Freddy Smith the Fourth, Tappy, Bambi—well, not really Bambi—the male paralegals, Jeremy Gilmartin, Magda Fernandez, James Peapoint, the scent of cardboard, the quiet eager tapping of keyboards and the way my heels sank into the carpets unless I walked on my toes. I remember countless cups of bad coffee and my shifting secret crushes and the calm logical discussions of our clients’ irrational choices. I remember each night seeking the warmth of my husband’s soul-cycled body, listening to my children’s heedless high-pitched giggles and being excited that the next morning I would get to dress up as if I, too, were going to a party where I belonged.

Caroline Coleman is the author of LOVING SOREN. She has an English degree from Princeton and a fiction MFA from Brooklyn College: www.carolinecoleman.com

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