Are you self-destructing?
Are you staying in your Big Law gig even though it makes your eyes bleed because you are too risk averse or have too big of a second mortgage to make a move in this economy?
Is this causing you to unconsciously destroy your own career?
Big Law careers end in many ways: retiring to Costa Rica after 40 long years of successful rainmaking; getting laid off after three short years of trying to learn how to be a lawyer; giving your notice after discovering your heart is calling you to rescue sea turtles ... the list is endless.
But the most common career-enders these days are involuntary: layoffs and firings. Entire Web sites are devoted to tracking the number of Big Law layoffs each week. But these statistics do not reflect the reality that sometimes Big Law careers end after months or years of slow, incremental, sometimes undetectable self-destruction.
In the current environment of record-low voluntary attrition, many Cogs are clinging to Big Law jobs they might otherwise have left for a lateral spot in a new city, a sweet in-house gig or a smaller firm. Out of options and too rational to do anything but stay put and be glad for employment, some of these Cogs are going through the motions but are slowly taking baby steps off the grid toward the abyss.
Is this you? Is this your neighbor? Here are some warning signs.
1) SCRUFFY OR SKIMPY
One of the most obvious warning signs of Big Law self-destruction is a change in appearance. This is not usually the first sign or phase, but it is one of the most obvious to detect from the outside.
For men, this phase may begin with the unbuttoning of the top button of their crisp white shirt and loosening the tie ever so little. It may then progress to wearing the same tie for days on end, or just skipping the tie all together.
This decline in respect for proper work attire may also be accompanied by creative facial hair -- a rugged goatee, some manly stubble or a tiny soul patch. Sometimes the closely cropped lawyer hairdo evolves into something only Zac Efron or some other teen boy-man can pull off. If a tie-less, goateed, floppy-haired lawyer who was previously well groomed achieves such a state, it is a sure sign of Big Law self-destruction. (Unless he is just unkempt after working five consecutive 20-hour days -- which is just a sign of doing your job.)
Changes in female appearance are more difficult to read but follow a similar pattern of breaking from the mold and showing a little inner rebellion. This may be evidenced by a brighter lipstick color, shorter hem line/lower neck line, open-toed shoes or leaving the stuffy suit coat on the back of the door and showing off those yoga-chiseled forearms. Anything that differs from the usual routine and starts bordering on skimpy could be signaling a desire to break free from Big Law constraints.
Of course, other Big Law women self-destruct in the opposite direction -- they stop washing their hair, wear the same black suit for consecutive days and start wearing orthopedic square-heeled clunkers instead of their usual sassy pumps.
Any extreme change in either direction in appearance by either gender could signal an unconscious desire to move on.
2) COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN
Even before the outward appearance alterations, you may detect more subtle changes in the communication patterns of your self-destructive colleagues.
A few examples:
• You leave a voice mail for a junior associate asking if he has time to help you with some legal research that afternoon. Two days later, you receive the following voice mail in the middle of the night: "Dude, I got your message from the other day about the research. I totally need the hours, but I missed your call because I was on a two-hour summer associate lunch. Then I got tied up with some stuff for my condo association. But I wanted to touch base and see if you still needed help. Let me know."
He clearly knows you no longer need the help. He needs hours but is wasting days taking long lunches with people who need no recruiting and who are not likely to get offers anyway. When he is working, it is on non-billable projects for his homeowners' association. He returns calls, if at all, when he knows you won't be there and that the work crisis is long over. He's toast.
• You e-mail your buddy in the corporate law section and get this cryptic out-of-office message: "I am currently out of the office with limited access to e-mail. I will respond as soon as I am able."
What does that mean? There is no longer any such thing as "limited access to e-mail" unless you're in surgery, underwater or asleep. And that last one can be cured by putting your BlackBerry beside your bed on vibrate and setting the alarm notification for all incoming e-mails -- as all good Big Law lawyers know to do in case the firm has a work-fueled fire drill in the middle of the night.
And if a Big Law lawyer is out of pocket for work reasons, they always like to brag about it in their out-of-office message:
"I will be out of the office the rest of the week while I travel to New York for an important multimillion dollar arbitration. Then I'll be heading to Chicago for depositions on another major case. If you need immediate assistance, contact my assistant Lisa -- she knows how to reach me."
If the out-of-office message does not cite a valid work-related excuse for unavailability and is indefinite as to when the person plans to return to the grid, this could signal that the Big Law Cog is taking off early to watch soccer practice, sleeping in late after having a restless night of dreams of saving sea turtles or taking afternoons off to play tennis.
These absences from the grid, careless moments of sustained inaccessibility and flippant out-of-office messages are all signs of a blazing path of self-destruction.
3) POOR PERFORMANCE
This sign is often hard to tell in co-workers unless they work with you on a regular basis. But it is easy to detect in yourself.
A few questions to ask yourself:
• Am I staring out of the window, tweeting and planning my next vacation instead of finishing that past-due memo even though the firm is looking for any excuse to can Cogs?
• Am I arriving at the office an hour after everyone else on my floor and leaving an hour before them even though I should be waiting around in case someone has work to give me?
• Am I refusing to proofread any work before providing it to a client, court or partner?
• Am I losing my temper with partners who control my salary and employment?
• Am I spacing out during conference calls and then violently being hurled back to reality when the client directs a question to me that I cannot answer because I have been daydreaming about climbing Mount Everest?
• Am I billing hours to matters that no longer exist?
If you are self-destructing, you have probably made up some rational justifications to explain your behavior, such as, "It was not self-destructive to tell the partner she was being ridiculous and that I was not going to work on her silly research over the Fourth of July weekend. I was just standing up for myself and showing her I am ready to be partner."
Sure you were. Good luck with that.
Do you have dirt to dish? Do you have a column idea? Or do you just need to vent in six-minute increments? E-mail the Snark at email@example.com.