Back to blogging with my three co-bloggers! Each week, one of us chooses a topic and we all post a blog entry on that topic, usually on Thursdays. (Usually we are on time. Usually. Ok, mostly. Sometimes? Don’t judge me.)
Here are the links to the other fabulous blogs:
This week, I chose the topic, and I asked everyone to write about an unexpected outcome.
The subject came to me after a conversation with my friend Karen, a close friend who I met at work almost exactly eight years ago. Karen is also an attorney, and together we worked at a smallish law firm in Chicago.
Ah, that law firm.
To steal (and re-write) a line from The Great Gatsby: “It was a matter of chance that I should have rented a house in one of the strangest communities in North America.” Replace “rented a house” with “accepted a job” and “communities” with “law firms” and you’ve pretty much got it.
I could literally write a book about that firm. You’d think it was fiction, of course; we attorneys often joked that our lives would make a great reality show, but no one would believe it were true. I won’t burn bridges and get into dirty details, as much as I kind of want to. I will only say that working there was a challenge, and it was not suited for everyone. Indeed, in my nearly five years there, I witnessed a 100 percent turnover in support staff and twice that in attorneys. The pace was fast, as it was a very active litigation firm and we took cases to trial. The firm administration was … well, it was interesting. HR consisted of the firm owner’s brother (need I say more?). Expectations were high, but pay kinda wasn’t. It wasn’t a place to get your feet wet – you had to hit the ground running. As such, tears were not uncommon, nor was frustration. Or yelling. Or drinking.
Now, one might imagine that in a setting such as this, co-workers might not get along. You might imagine backstabbing, pushing others under buses, maybe even fistfights. And you wouldn’t be completely wrong. As in any workplace, not everyone gelled. Some people stepped on others to make themselves look good, while others did the bare minimum and rode co-workers’ coattails. Fingers were pointed, fists were waved, hard words were hurled; hell, I broke up a fight in a restaurant ladies’ room during a holiday party. It was to be expected, I suppose, given the powder keg and the “interesting” firm culture. Those things did happen – but so did something else.
The outcome I didn’t expect – the impetus for this post – was that, for the most part, we employees bonded. Our feelings of oppression and frustration pushed us together instead of pulling us apart. We spent time in each others’ offices, chatting, commiserating, sometimes hiding. Many attorneys went out together for lunch, or after work for drinks or dinner. We addressed each other by nicknames, or at least by last names, or by the initials we used when entering info into our shared databases (I was DDK and remain so). Our Christmas parties were legendary, almost beyond belief, and for years, a group of the firm “alum” would have its own holiday party the same night in a nearby location, so close were the ties. Many of us became friends, good friends. And many of us stayed friends, even after we left, even after many years. Karen is my best example: we not only remained friends after she left the firm, but our friendship also grew. We talk almost every day, via text and phone call. And we both stay in touch with other former co-workers. Two of our former associates are now wed to each other, and many others work together at other firms. I do legal work for another former associate who started his own firm. I consider two of my former partners to be my dearest mentors, and I continue to talk to both men.
I’ve wondered why we came together in a setting that could just as easily have bred contempt. In my mind, what makes the most sense is to compare it to what I imagine it’s like being in the military. Severe, less-than-ideal circumstances, high expectations, loads of stress, even sleep deprivation (when on trial). Perhaps we felt safety in numbers, or perhaps we knew the best way to survive was to stick together. Then, too, although the law firm wasn’t run the way we’d have liked, it attracted many talented, intelligent people, and the hiring partner did an amazing job choosing some honestly impressive candidates. Our intelligence and skill bonded us; we could talk and bounce ideas off each other – really, truly practice law together. I’ve long believed you have to be smart to be funny, and we were funny. We referred to our company as “The Island of Misfit Toys.” We labeled the most undesirable office (the one located between the firm owner and his brother) the “penalty box” (I got scolded for that). We played practical jokes on each other: nameplates ended up adhered to bathroom stall doors; MMF programmed DC’s computer to play the A-Team theme song whenever DC opened his Internet browser. To this day, Karen and I use a former co-worker’s last name as a verb to describe the act of falling asleep while sitting upright at one’s desk. Because our cases almost always involved bodily injury, we shared a gallows humor. We had no choice – it was a matter of survival.
We also did some amazing work. We won NGs (“not guiltys,” which are few and far between). We wrote impressive briefs and crafted impressive arguments. We were truly good at what we did, even when it was hard, even when we were tired, even when we were sick of the law and the firm and each other.
Although my exit from that firm was less than ceremonious (oh, now that’s a story), I’ve never regretted my time there. I learned a great deal, made some great professional connections, and even better personal ones. I pushed myself and ended up a better attorney for it. I don’t believe in fate or that I was “meant” to work there or any of that, but even given all the negatives connected to my employment, the positives prevailed. And they continue to do so now, years after I last walked through that revolving door.
I am sure there are co-workers who left the firm and never looked back, ones who regret every moment spent there, who continue to taste bitterness at the powers that were and continue to be, people who’ve severed all connections and ties. I get that, I do (I’m for sure in on the joke about the line at a certain person’s funeral, not to say goodbye, but to make sure he’s really dead). I, too carry some regret, but only a little. I choose not to feel too bitter. I choose my friendships, my professional development, my memories (even the one of being felt up at a holiday party by a female co-worker. I told you, those parties were legendary.). I choose to recognize those five years for what they were: a step to somewhere else, a unique experience, a challenge. A success. I choose to be grateful that I met Karen, that I walked away with what I know will be a life-long friendship, one in which we will share many “remember whens … ” and inside jokes that few others will understand (or find funny), like the time she spilled gin on me at a party, or her “train station” story, or the creepy kid photos, or . . .
Though I may need some therapy to work through the holiday party memories. Because I sure didn’t see that stuff coming.