The world as we know it has, it seems, ground to a screeching halt.
Countries, clients, credit markets and, yes, even Biglaw Cogs are in full crisis mode. Everyone from partners to the security guard is showing signs of extreme stress. I wish I had some words of wisdom to offer, but alas, like most of our world leaders, I have no clue what to do.
In lieu of wisdom (hey, a lack of wisdom works for politicians, right?) I will attempt to explain the stress and offer my best guess at how to survive.
Stressed-out lawyers are as common a sight in the halls of Biglaw as mahogany paneling. But they usually are stressed out from being overworked or having to make decisions that could costs their clients bazillions of dollars.
Couple this day-to-day stress with the big-picture stress of an economic crisis that is undermining clients around the globe, and you have the foundation for a Cog's nervous breakdown.
Think about it.
A Cog's stress, right now, comes from knowing he must bill an additional 600 hours in the next three months or else he won't hit his annual billable requirement. That requirement doesn't change -- even though he only has 25 hours worth of work to do.
As a Cog, you have yearly billable requirements in excess of 2,000 hours, but no control over having enough work to meet those requirements -- subjecting you to potential "smartsizing," pay freezes or a straight-up invitation to pack your bags. After all, if you can't bill enough to cover your own inflated salary, you've got to go.
This means boredom is bad.
To put it bluntly: Boredom = no Biglaw job.
That's why anything less than a solid 10-hour billable day creates not just boredom but also extreme anxiety. Our minds start racing: "As soon as I finish these revisions, I only have one more small research task. That will only take me 4.9 hours, but I must bill another 5.6 hours today to stay on track!"
We must be constantly stimulated, overworked and challenged. If we have time to pause and wonder what we will do with ourselves after we finish a project, something is amiss.
Bored stress is not limited to Cogs, of course. Partners also are expected to bill hours and bring in work. When their top business-generating clients impose across-the-board budget reductions and freeze all nonessential legal work, partners also get stressed by the fear of boredom -- and de-equitization.
Bored partners are the worst because not only are they stressed, they also are not bringing in business. That means they're angry at you, Cogs, because when they stalk the halls they will see that you are not busy, either, which means you are not billing enough hours to ensure their paychecks will sustain their previous levels. See, partners who have an equity stake in the firm don't get a regular paycheck like the rest of us plebes -- their pay rises and falls with the profits (or lack thereof) generated by the firm as a whole.
Partners in an economic downturn hate Cogs more than usual because of the steady income Cogs receive: "You little twerps got these huge pay raises because of all my hard work, and now that times are lean and my own paycheck has plummeted 25 percent, you little brats still are getting the same, safe, direct-deposit check, even though you are not billing enough hours. It is just wrong, and you will pay."
This rationale leads to Cog layoffs -- fewer mouths to feed means bigger pieces of the profit pie for partners and more billable hours for the Cogs who remain.
Of course, not everyone is bored right now. But even those of us with work stacked on our desks still stress about being bored -- and broke. The matters we are handling take on a whole new significance. "We MUST win this lawsuit for Big Corp, or it will cease to exist, we will have no more billable work and our children will have to ... gasp ... quit piano lessons!"
Biglaw clients also are feeling the stress of an economic crisis. In-house counsel not only have budgets to meet, they also want to avoid being a casualty of the crisis. This means they may be keeping more work on their own desks and spending more time scrutinizing the monthly invoice from Biglaw.
This often is when formerly happy clients stop appreciating the thoroughness of Biglaw legal work.
Client: "Partner, what in the world is up with this $845,987 legal bill for last month? Why were you drafting anything? Can't you delegate? Do you really need to have so many conference calls? Who are all these little Cogs, and how on earth can you justify charging $250 an hour for anything done by a lawyer six months out of school?"
Partner: "Want to go to a Falcons game? A little Brady Quinn will cheer you up!"
Angry clients yelling at partners causes a downward flow of anger that lands on Cogs.
Partner: "Cog, why in the world did it take you 12.8 hours to draft a 20-page memo? This is unacceptable, and the client is furious. I am writing your time off."
So, what is a Cog to do? Here is where my one piece of advice comes in. Do not -- under any circumstances -- answer the partner's question honestly.
Do not tell her it took you 12 hours because she kept changing the project or because she asked you to re-write it four times. In times like these, you must smile and apologize. "I apologize, Partner. It won't happen again." Practice these words -- they come in handy.
Other than groveling and keeping your nose in the Code, I recommend not standing out in these times of crisis. Come into the office, scavenge for work, look busy and don't do anything flashy like buy a new suit or upgrade your BMW lease. And don't laugh, giggle or skip. Look somber.
If you need any motivation, check your 401(k) balance and walk by the empty office of the Cog who failed to bill enough hours last month.
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