My client said her firm had, more or less, a checklist of what they wanted in a lawyer they made partner. And she had knocked herself out checking off every last damn item.

  • Helped with firm marketing efforts (including hundreds of non-billable hours)? Check.
  • Worked with a variety of partners in various areas, including powerful group leaders and major rainmakers? Check.
  • Logged long hours – and billed those hours – including nights and weekends, producing top-quality written work that was universally praised? Check.
  • Cultivated positive relationships with existing clients, who produced enthusiastic feedback about her work? Check.
  • Worked on important matters in a variety of roles, including stuff like taking part in trials and depositions and handling matters relating to complicated, highly regulated industries? Check.
  • Brought in her own clients and began developing a meaningful book of business? Check.
  • Tackled meaningful pro bono work? Check.
  • Participated in events with summer associates and recruitment efforts? Check.
  • Supervised and mentored juniors and ran large teams on big cases? Check.
  • Anything else you can think of? Check.

Other folks in her class, even junior partners at her firm, considered her promotion, at least to of counsel, to be a given. As one put it, “if not you, then who? You’re the dream associate, a superstar.”

The logic was simple: They have to promote someone, and if it’s anything even vaguely resembling the meritocracy they claim it is, she had to be that someone.

But no, as you might be guessing, that’s not how things worked out. They promoted no one.
After a year, or two or (really) many years of “making the partnership sprint,” the firm told her she wasn’t up for anything – not partner, not of counsel, not senior attorney, nothing. At her review, she was informed she could remain at the firm, as an associate, for as long as she wanted. That’s what they were offering, in gratitude for years of devoted labor – more of the same.

Oh, and there was one more thing: They needed her to work late that night on an important, complicated filing due the next morning. (No, I’m not making that up.)

My client recounted that part with a wry smile: “The new ‘I made partner!’ is ‘at least I’ve got a job! (Oh, and I’ll be there all night.)’”

“It’s like they took away the dangling carrot, and replaced it a kick in the stomach, and suddenly I realized, it was only an illusion anyway. They never had any intention of giving me anything. How could I have been so naïve as to believe they did?”

To her credit (in my opinion), no, she didn’t stay late that night. She told them to assign the filing to someone else, and suggested a male mid-level they’d just hired.

“The partner objected – but the mid-level’s never done this before! So I explained something to him that should have been obvious – neither have I. I do stuff I’ve never done before all the time for him, and I stay up all night figuring it out, too. I told him this time someone else is going to have to do that, because Cinderella is sick of jumping to attention every time he snaps his fingers.”

That’s how she felt, she said – like Cinderella, slaving away, taken for granted, while everyone else left to the ball. But not that time. She went home, took a long bath, and got a good night’s sleep. It had been a while.

We talked about how I’d seen a lot of this syndrome lately – to the point where it seemed like no one in biglaw was being elevated from within their firms to equity partner anymore. Partners weren’t people promoted from within – partners were rainmakers with huge books of business lateraled into firms via expensive M&A deals, often with entire departments of junior lawyers arriving together with them en masse.

We talked about how it seemed especially tough this year, since folks like her were the most talented, most resilient survivors from classes that graduated back in 2010 or so, into the direst years following the financial crisis of 2008.

And we talked about how biglaw firms lie about stuff. How they talk a good game around promoting women, but somehow when push comes to shove, men make partner and women (it’s implied) wouldn’t want that anyway, since they need to be home for their kids.

The same sort of lie bothered another client I work with, who is living with a physical disability. His firm assured him they were grateful for his dedication, and his terrific reputation for providing superb work product despite his disability. They promised him that disability would play no role in their partnership decision. Then, when it came time to name partners, his physical inability to bill as many hours as his non-disabled peers became the decisive factor in his being passed over, and everyone knew it.

The easy conclusion to draw is that, at least in biglaw, everything boils down to money. This is the age of Trump, where a billionaire bragging about his own greed somehow gets elected President. Why shouldn’t law firms jump on the bandwagon and make putting as much money as possible into the pockets of the fewest people possible their ultimate goal? If you’re not at the top of the pyramid, you’re expendable. Which is why, even when law firms are forced to announce a raise in associate salaries, or a bonus, somehow (as the saying goes) they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The raise is always a little less than expected, or kicks in a little later than expected, or the bonus is “merit-based” (meaning no one will actually receive it.) And, of course, if they’re going to increase salaries a smidgeon for associates, that money will have to come from somewhere, so typically, they’ll deduct it from the bonuses given to “non-equity partners” (who, in many firms, are a euphemism for senior associates, except they’re required to pay for their own benefits and then wait until March to see an “end of year bonus” that’s really just a big, arbitrarily delayed, chunk of their salary – a chunk that just mysteriously shrank.)

When it comes time to actually share the profits by recognizing a talented, hard-working, dedicated lawyer in their ranks (i.e., make someone equity partner) biglaw firms never miss an opportunity to miss the opportunity entirely.

Yes, this is short-term thinking, and it might not end well. As one of my clients joked recently, I guess we’ll find out how it all works out when we get to the next recession.

I wondered aloud to my recently disappointed client whether being a good lawyer, simply having strong legal skills, was really worth much at this point in the legal marketplace. She recounted how a well-connected, wealthy man was made partner at her firm despite his written work product being so poor that a client actually complained about it to her. The firm apologized, then quietly ordered her to work through a weekend re-drafting all the partner’s documents. He wasn’t told – they didn’t want to embarrass him. The understanding was that this guy (with his wealthy connections) brought in work, and that’s what counted. Documents could always be re-drafted, but originating business was sacred.

As I listened to my client bemoan this sad state of affairs – all her hard work getting her nowhere, while some well-connected incompetent soared to new heights of wealth and status – I was reminded of something I’d heard Taylor Mac, the drag queen/playwright/MacArthur “genius” fellow, say during a performance in one of his shows. Mac was being a bit nostalgic, looking back on his first days in New York City, when he struggled to establish himself as a non-conventional, rule-breaking performer. Everywhere he went, he was turned away, rejected and ignored. He just couldn’t find traction for his work – no venues, no producers, no opportunities at all.

“The problem,” he explained, “was that I was asking for permission to be creative.”

When recounted Mac’s story to my client, it seemed to trigger an epiphany.

“Oh, boy,” she said. “That’s my problem: I’m asking permission to be successful.”

We sat in silence. This was what psychotherapists call “a re-frame” – nothing more than a different way of looking at something. But sometimes looking at something differently works. It changes everything.

“For the past nearly ten years, ever since I summered at that place, I’ve been trying to please them, give them what they want, run around with my tail wagging, hoping they’ll finally reward me, make my dreams come true.”

She frowned. “Now I’m thinking maybe I should be using that law firm for my own purposes, as a resource, at least for the time being, while I work on making my own dreams come true.”

That sounded about right to me.

Sometimes, when the going gets rough and you really lose your way, it’s best to seek guidance from a drag queen.

The going has been bumpy lately. The end of the year is always a tough time to be a therapist working with lawyers. Not only are people racing around trying to log billable hours to reach requirements for making bonuses – they’re also racing around trying to please the powers that be to make partner, or at least get promoted up to whatever quasi-partner-esque title still exists at law firms nowadays.

It’s hard to watch so many hard-working, responsible, dedicated people run smack into the awful reality that law firms aren’t about rewarding people, or recognizing people or even cultivating the most talented people. Law firms are about profits, money going into the hands of the owners at the top of the totem pole – the very people who already have the most money and least need more of it.

No, they don’t see an “economic justification” for making anyone partner, at least unless they’re buying a massive book of business along with an established rainmaker, in which case, they’ll likely overpay by several million and think nothing of it. The most honest firms state it simply: Bring in business worth a stated dollar amount and, voila!, you’re an equity partner (meaning they’ll hand you the title, then pocket most of what you brought in.) How generous. As one of my clients quipped, the logical thing to do in the face of such munificence is take yourself and your team to another firm…which is why we see partners hopping from firm to firm like so many frantic frogs off over-crowded lily pads.)

But where does all this leave those talented survivors, the best and brightest of the class of 2010 or so, who have endured so much…only to arrive here, with the door ahead shut in their faces, their chances for advancing from associate to the far more grown up, stable and respected role of partner apparently barred to them forever?

The answer is they have to stop asking for permission to be successful.

The answer is that there really are innumerable paths ahead, many of them exciting, and some so far untrodden, but they have to be found, often by groping around blindly in the dark or even taking a leap into the pretty darn close to dark and hoping for the best.

Did you really think it was going to be that easy? You’d just wait to be recognized and validated and acknowledged (at a biglaw firm, no less!) and then (boom!) you’d be all set?

Doing what you’re told is a terrific plan of action for a child – that’s how you become “a good kid.” You do what you’re told. That’s how you wind up getting good grades and going to law school. It works pretty well for junior associates in biglaw, too.

But for an adult (and aspiring law partner), things are different. You’re going to have to stop doing what you’re told and start doing what you want to do, including (sometimes) expressing who you are in everything you choose to do, making other people angry, or just plain disappointing them, or even competing with them, and (sometimes) not worrying too much about what they think one way or another.

Yeah, you can steal those clients and start your own firm with a bunch of other biglaw refugees and de-emphasize the billable hour and re-emphasize flexible hours and time with your families and compete against the jerks who didn’t make you partner and take some satisfaction in sometimes winning.

Yeah, you can go in-house somewhere and see what your worklife can be like when everyone isn’t a lawyer. Oh, and yeah, you can not send work to your old firm because no, you don’t owe them a damned thing.

Yeah, you can leave law and study flower-arranging. Or stay in law for a while, not kill yourself, but pile savings away until you have enough, then take acting classes and write a comedy screenplay or code at a meal delivery start-up or open an online used furniture business.

You can ask yourself who you really are, and what you value, and what authentically reflects the person you want to be. Nobody “elevates” you to that place. You self-actualize to get there (which means you visualize who you really are, then start being that person.) It’s about you, not them. You don’t need anyone’s permission to be successful. Permission has been granted.

This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.

Please check out The People’s Therapist’s legendary best-seller about the sad state of the legal profession: Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning

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And now there’s a new Sequel: Still Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: (The Sequel)

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My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy:Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

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I’ve also written a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls in love with a blue alien from outer space. I guarantee pure reading pleasure: Bad Therapist: A Romance