It's rude to stare
In addition to gaining 45 pounds via lunch, summer work at a law firm is largely about meeting the other people in the firm and seeing if you'd be a good "fit" for them- that is, ensuring that they don't hate you too much to give you an offer. To that end, the firm sets up lots of opportunities for young associates to hang out with the summer associates and "see what it's really like." I am not knocking these opportunities. (One of these events is this week's Madonna concert, so I'd be the world's least grateful person if I complained.) But it is clear that young associates are human, and as such they want to try to put the best face on things that they can, particularly if they're happy with their decision to work at the firm. This is natural. When you invite admitted students to campus for the weekend, you spruce up the place and you don't tell them about the one truly bitchy administrator, and when you invite summer associates to the firm for the season you give them nice gentle assignments, feed them every 20 minutes, and tell them how much better This Firm is than That Other Firm. At one of these associate-summer associate lunches the other day I had my first "holy crap, this is what it's really like" moment, and I think it was totally by accident. I was talking to a young female associate of color, (or should I say "the" young female associate of color? It's not like the firm is teeming with them,) about her experiences in pro bono in the firm. She told me an amazing story about how she represented an African woman in an asylum case, who was appealing from a judge's initial decision that even though she would, in fact, face persecution and physical danger if she returned to her home country, she nonetheless should not receive asylum. This young lawyer told me about working nights and weekends in the weeks leading up to the trial, all of which counted toward her minimum annual billable requirement, all with the firm's support. She told me about walking into the court, terrified, and arguing before the judge on behalf of her client. She told me about winning, and having her grateful client collapse in tears into her arms. She told me how the partners at the firm took her out to lunch to celebrate her achievement, and announced it at a firm-wide event. "Wow." I said. "That is so amazing, to have all the resources of the firm behind you like that, to be able to do that for your client. You must be so excited to take another case." "Another case?" she replied. "No way. I mean, it was the best day of my life when she won, but it was too scary. I mean, most of the pro bono cases are criminal or asylum cases, and when you take one of those cases, it's someone's life you're affecting. If you lose, that changes that person's life. That's way too much pressure. I'd rather stay here, where even if I screw up, it's just money. That way I don't have to worry, or feel too guilty if I lose or make a mistake. That's one of the best things about working for The Firm, is that you get to be a lawyer and make great money and you don't have to worry that you're affecting anyone's life too much. Even if you lose, it's just money." I sat there, gaping at her, until I remembered that it's rude to stare and I shoved a 2-pound fudge brownie from the dessert tray in my face. Who knows whether her reaction to pro bono is typical. I certainly don't want to overgeneralize. But whoa, are we ever different. I have a harder time getting up and going to work with each passing day because the work that I'm doing? The research? The memos? It's all about money. It's just money. Who cares? It seems so silly- almost pointless. It feels embarassing to get paid so much to do it. It had never occured to me that that might actually be a selling point.