“Don’t let it go to your head.”
These words were spoken to me by someone older and wiser than myself a week after I started law school. Like most people, the weeks before school starts, especially law school, and particularly 1L, are a very stressful time of worry and expectations.
But after just a week, I came to realize I actually really enjoyed BC Law, that law school isn’t actually that scary, and I began to share a lot about my new experiences with others. There’s an undeniable cache, swagger, and cultural fixation with the law and notions of prestige in popular culture. To some, like myself, it can become a bit noxious. To others though, it is addictive—all-consuming—and can change people, even those we regard highly and befriend, and in some cases come to love, for the worse.
Frequently in law school I’ve gotten a glimpse of something that is not quite part of the law, but more specifically part of the cost of being a member of its practice—its impact on personal relationships, particularly relationships with those who are themselves in the legal field. In pop culture, films like Legally Blonde and the wide array of television, blogs, and other mediums that provide commentary on the legal mind paint a picture of toxic stress and personalities, politics and pomposity, and a commitment at all costs to one’s career and climbing the rungs of the corporate and bureaucratic ladder.
When I think about creative works that most accurately frame these dynamics, I don’t think about Law & Order, or Boston Legal, or any of their confederates. I think back to something I heard a long time ago, and the film it ultimately led me to watch many years later.
When I was very young and couldn’t sleep, my parents used to play music in our living room. There was one cassette tape I remember clearly—the cassette of the soundtrack for the 1993 film Philadelphia. The soundtrack contains one song in particular that never failed to quell even my most raucous toddler bedtime insomnia—Bruce Springsteen’s ataractic “Streets of Philadelphia.”
The song, simply put, is as distinctive, beautiful, and sui generis as the film for which it serves as the main theme. It is heard in the opening credits of Philadelphia, an intro that consists of B-roll footage of the people of the City of Philadelphia—children on playgrounds and outside schools, business people walking downtown, residents raking leaves in front of their homes, firemen at the fire station, grocers in their grocery stores, fishermen docking their boats, the homeless and the downtrodden walking the streets—among others captured in what is undoubtedly impromptu “man on the street” camera work by the film’s producers. The scenes are overlaid by the names of the cast members of the film being shown on screen in a very humanistic “handwritten” cursive font.
Humanistic is a word that describes not only Springsteen’s song and the intro credits, but the entire film. In fact it is probably the most “human” film I’ve ever seen. The song, consisting of a steady tom-tom drum and cymbal beat combined with Springsteen’s vocals and a synth pad, is everything. It’s sad, it’s somber, it’s reassuring, it’s calming—it runs a spectrum of emotions. Being cut with B-roll of every day Philadelphians amplifies its grounding aura and humanistic lens. In this way, the song—and the music video, which depicts a ragged Springsteen walking through rough and tumble corners of the city of brotherly love like Rocky visiting Tony Gazzo at the docks—perfectly embodies the film it was commissioned to hominify.
While I always loved the song, I hadn’t for the longest time seen the actual film. I finally saw it a couple of years ago in the early days of the pandemic, at home and with little else to do while preparing to begin law school later that year and turning towards the best source of preparation—law movies.
Philadelphia though, is unlike any other “law movie.” It dispenses with the usual bravado, bluster, and veneration for the trappings of cinegenic large law practice. The film instead takes a uniquely critical and uniquely authentic look at the corporate horror of such institutions on individuals, their personhood, and their relationships with others. The film tells the story of Andrew Beckett, (played by Tom Hanks) a senior associate at the largest corporate law firm in Philadelphia (the fictional Wyant, Wheeler, Hellerman, Tetlow, and Brown) who hides his sexual orientation and his status as an AIDS patient from other members of the firm, the portrayal of which expertly depicts the connivance and moral incongruity of working in such a place.
Wyant Wheeler manufactures a phony reason to terminate Beckett—misplaced papers, after learning of his illness and lifestyle—and fires him. Beckett believes that someone deliberately hid his paperwork to give the firm a pretense to fire him, and that the termination was actually the result of illegal discrimination. Beckett asks ten attorneys to take his case, before personal injury lawyer Joe Miller (portrayed by Denzel Washington) whom Beckett previously opposed in an unrelated case, finally agrees to represent him.
As his physical condition worsens, Beckett relentlessly endures the worst of the corporate law industrial complex’s dispassionate and odious litigative apparatus, with Miller’s charm and humanity reaching the jury and breathing life into a courtroom that has at the table opposite Beckett and Miller the cold and calculating counsel of Wyant Wheeler. The casting, directing, and writing is so extraordinarily on point the viewer cannot help but to recoil in their seat as Wyant Wheeler attempts to tear down Beckett and employ every artifice to wriggle out from under the weight of their malfeasance.
It is in this deft stagecraft that director Jonathan Demme perfectly captures the very essence of the toll of this field on ourselves, our relationships, and the distance between what it means to be human, and what it can mean to be an aspirant in the legal profession. The toll is particularly pronounced in those who crave to work in large firms like the film’s fictitious stand-in Wyant Wheeler.
I’ve always tried to remain myself, to a fault in fact. It is challenging at times to, as someone told me a year and a half ago, “not let it go to your head.”
Unfortunately, it seems that for many it often does.
I think my background as a first-generation college student and law student, and first-generation professional gives me some perspective in this regard. I’m seeing all these things for the first time. I can see and appreciate where people of different backgrounds and walks of life are coming from. The excesses of this field are more pronounced, and I came to law school being entirely unfamiliar with its cultural albatross. In this way, the satire sometimes writes itself. The field’s self-contradictory ideals, absurdism, and recurring hypocrisy are plain as day.
To others though—those swallowed whole by the siren song of swanky offices, the sound of Christian Loubitons and Salvatore Ferragamos clacking against the crooked cobblestone of financial district streets, and a most spurious sense of what matters, this field all too often does go to one’s head, and becomes subtractive from our relationships and beliefs.
The legal practice’s competing ideals, values, pressures, and perverse incentives routinely challenge the composition and internal compass of its practitioners.
Simply put, this field casts us into positions of seemingly inevitable conflict with what is important to us. It creates awkward situations, tensions, and competing demands.
It makes our loved ones compete for meaningful quality time with us that is often commandeered by a black hole of billable hours, and stiff and imperious social events firms use to reinforce the lifestyle and esprit de corps of their often cult-like ranks.
Technical frameworks of confidentiality and duties to one’s client, while grounded in important ideals, often perpetuate a legal fiction, one that in practice puts us at odds with some of the most meaningful duties we hold as human beings. We all want to be open books with our partners and share everything with them. I know my partner and I do. But what happens when she has a particularly sensitive case to discuss on the phone, or I am writing something important I want her input on? What happens when our time and focus is pulled in different directions? What happens when we have plans that are at risk of disruption from things we know don’t matter, but seem to force us to make difficult choices?
Recently I had to undergo a national security background check for a position I was offered by the federal government. The agent conducting the check asked a lot about my life and my partner, and many issues turned upon whether in the eyes of the law I was married or single, as different privileges and legal technicalities can apply. At a certain point I just felt like saying, “Look, anything you can tell me, you can tell her.”
The legal profession throws us into weird relationships, spending far more time and focus on our colleagues and obsessive work product than most other careers. It requires much sacrifice. Although it feels very strange (and quite frankly disrespectful) to liberally apply the term “sacrifice” to the work we do. Other rigorous professions, like medicine, are often compared with the law. But many doctors, particularly those working long hours in hospitals and emergency rooms, are saving lives. Military service is also defined in terms of sacrifice, not only in time away from home and putting one’s life on the line, but the reciprocal sacrifice one’s family makes to support a service member and endure the anxiety and the dolefulness of their absence and risks to their safety. No reasonable person would ever put the purported “sacrifices” related to lavish firm salaries in the same conversation.
The law, while it involves many great people doing very important work, like the thrilling civil rights trial depicted in Philadelphia, far more often than not involves long hours surrounded by Banker’s Boxes of messy paperwork, layers of Word documents, and a certain sense of dread.
Andrew Yang, a candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, was profiled in the Washington Post a few years ago. The piece, entitled, “Andrew Yang was groomed for a high-paying job at an elite law firm. He lasted five months,” tells a familiar tale:
“Andrew Yang’s office phone rang at 6 p.m. on a Friday.
He reached for it, then stopped. The staffing coordinator at his New York law firm was calling. If he answered, he knew he’d be at his desk all weekend editing some dull stack of documents.
It was fall of 1999, and Yang, 24, was in the job he had steered toward his whole life. Phillips Exeter Academy, Brown University, Columbia Law — the perfect elite track to land at Davis Polk & Wardwell, one of the country’s premier law firms. His Taiwanese immigrant parents were thrilled. Counting salary and bonus, he was making about $150,000 a year.
But now he looked at the phone, and the nagging whisper in his head was suddenly a screaming alarm: He was in the wrong job. He wanted to be the person creating businesses and deals, not the person writing the contracts.
He let the phone ring and slipped out the door.
That small act of rebellion was his first step toward becoming Andrew Yang, entrepreneur.
Lawrence Wu, Yang’s Columbia roommate, said Yang was smart enough to get good grades without working very hard. He said they both saw joining one of New York’s “Big Law” firms as inevitable.
Top-tier firms recruit heavily at the big-name law schools. Wu said he and Yang were both interviewed and wined and dined, and “you just naturally wind up falling into the gravity of that.” [emphasis added]
“It felt very purposeless and empty,” Yang said. “I was looking out at New York and thinking, ‘Wow, is this why my parents came to this country?’”
The story, and the “gravity” it describes, is a familiar one. Few are surprised by these dynamics. Yet debt, economics, and prestige are powerful forces. The need to repay student loan debt can often give students no other choice and little leverage other than to enter the fray. As an associate at a firm once told me, “you get to choose between being evil and poor.”
Even more powerful is the pain, and the price of all this on one’s relationships and agency.
This field often creates weird and contrived relationships—ones that interface poorly with those who matter most to us. Strange obligations and extended face time with coworkers agonizing over the minutiae of stodgy assignments can become subtractive from our meaningful relationships as more and more of our time is taken away.
Toxicity can take hold, to the extent it can consume a firm’s entire brand. Bloomberg Law recently profiled Kirkland & Ellis chairman Jon Ballis on the issue:
[Ballis] wants to address head-on the thing he thinks is limiting Kirkland from reaching even greater heights: Too many recruits think his firm is a den of wolves, where “sharp-elbowed” lawyers work grueling hours while looking out for their own good.
“I know this sounds insecure, but I hear often that you are a tough place to work, and it’s not worth it,” Ballis said in a series of interviews in recent months. “That conversation happens often. And that’s how I know that this reputational thing is a problem.”
Big Law firms rarely admit problems. Clients pay them as much as $2,000 an hour to never be wrong. Kirkland in particular has never cared to explain itself as it offered pro athlete-sized pay packages to lure lawyers from partnerships that used to last a lifetime. Rivals bemoan the “Kirklandization” of law, painting the firm and the lawyers it hires as mercenaries.
The demands of billing 2,500 to 3,000 hours a year, though, has come at a cost. Big Law firms are facing a retention crisis and Kirkland is no exception. More than 325 of its associates left in 2021—up more than 70% from 2020, according to data from Leopard Solutions and a Bloomberg Law analysis of LinkedIn profiles. It’s a major challenge for a firm that only expects its workload to grow.
Kirkland’s reputation has been around so long, it’s hard to determine where it even began. References to the firm as a pack of “wolves in wolves clothing” have circulated for decades.
That makes Ballis’ task all the more difficult.
Soon after he became Kirkland’s chairman in 2020, Ballis remembers, he tried to woo a partner from a rival firm in London. The potential hire would’ve filled a hole in the firm’s antitrust practice, convincing regulators that transformational corporate deals won’t harm consumers. It’s an important job for law firms these days, and especially for the firm that last year handled more M&A deals than anybody.
She’d be part of a team at Kirkland doing more important, interesting work than anywhere else, Ballis told her.
The potential hire demurred, telling Ballis she wasn’t planning to leave her firm. Three months later, he learned she’d joined a different firm. Whatever her actual reasons, Ballis took it as confirmation that Kirkland has a branding problem.”
Finding one’s way to a job in and of itself can be all consuming. We’ve all heard stories that run the spectrum. One end of it has well-connected, OCI prototypes perhaps from families of lawyers. The other end has those that as one law firm partner once put it to me “get so many rejection letters you can wallpaper your apartment with them.”
As time goes by, life is happening.
Kids have sports practices and recitals. Birthdays and tournaments, family reunions and graduations, vacations and memories—that which makes life rich, it all keeps coming. The pressure to be the dad that puts in extra hours at the office or the mom always trying to send one more email on her phone is omnipresent.
For what though?
At a certain point, it all can go to one’s head. Unfortunately it often does. Breathing the fumes of law school, and law firms, and all that it entails, can change people. Notions of power and prestige have always had a fraught relationship with the ego of mankind. Power corrupts.
Novelist Frank Herbert once wrote of a “recurring problem” that “power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.”
In an age of unchecked vanity, where social media is America’s new religion, this field does not offer as much a career, but a lifestyle—an aesthetic that seems particularly attractive to a certain subset of the population that is obsessed with it.
Lawyer turned television host and journalist Megyn Kelly, in her 2016 book, Settle for More, wrote about this effect:
“Looking at this world of Big Law, with its crisp suits and expensive wines, I realized for the first time: I could get rich doing this. I hated that sickening feeling when the bills came. This job felt like a golden ticket. This was my shot. It was like getting plucked from obscurity. I would do whatever it took…The receptionists were attractive and well dressed. The lawyers looked busy and important, with tastefully appointed offices and great views. It felt like a promotion in every way…[After starting the job] I went into the office one morning to get my bearings. The secretaries sat in pods outside of the attorney offices. Not a single one of them said good morning when I walked by them; some were silent even in response to my hellos. What had I gotten myself into? I called my mom again that night and again broke down in tears, feeling sorry for myself. I told her about the coldness, my loneliness, my self-doubt. She listened, was supportive, and gave me another few ideas for how to help things a little.”
When I was applying to law school, I was eating lunch with an older and seasoned attorney who had practiced law for 40 years, who told me, “Tom—this used to be a profession. Now it’s a business.”
In this way, perhaps Philadelphia, produced just before the dawn of the Internet age, was ahead of its time in its depiction of the human cost of what has become of the culture of law, what it can do to people, and their relationships with themselves and with others.
At one point in the film, one of Wyant Wheeler’s own attorneys, played by Mary Steenburgen, breaks down in court and mutters “I hate this case” as the firm argues a case it knows to be evil. Apparently, this line, that she hates the case, was improvised in the moment, when the actress expressed her hate towards such a wicked role after shooting and director Jonathan Demme encouraged her to incorporate it into the scene, so the lawyer would seem more human.
It tugs at a fundamental tension—between being human, being ourselves, and being the person that those we love fall in love with—and who we can be made into by this field.
But how do we fix it? Does it have to be a forgone conclusion?
I’ve come to find that what is required is a relentless sense of one’s self, and a passionate belief in what matters. It’s found in Andrew Yang leaving a dreaded work call as he was leaving the office when it was time to go home, Tom Hanks’ character’s “David and Goliath” battle against a large firm for what he believed was right, firm leaders admitting problems in order to improve, and the decisions we can make each day and in our career to safeguard what matters to us, lest we become versions of ourselves we eventually struggle to recognize.
It’s possible to have both. It’s possible to have one’s career and deal with the challenges inherent in it, while also remaining ourselves.
For me, it takes the form of always saying what I believe, and telling it like it is. These are not always attributes that necessarily help one climb a corporate ladder. In fact, the default often seems to be not to ask questions and keep one’s head down.
But being able to have boundaries, keep one’s head on straight, and be willing to speak up, about one’s time, one’s needs, and drawing red lines, for one’s self and one’s family, even when it’s difficult, is critical.
It requires avoiding the suspension of disbelief and legal fiction that imbues this field, and maintaining one’s character, personality, and sense of humor.
If one feels like they must be someone else to work in a certain setting, that setting is not for them.
We must refuse to lose ourselves. We must strive always to be the same person that our friends enjoy hanging out with, and our families and significant others love. Because when we cross the line of allowing a career, and a culture, to subtract from the other parts of our life, we lose things far more valuable than money or prestige or pedigree. We lose what matters to us, and we lose the most meaningful parts of ourselves.
Those who have spent enough time at BC exposed to Jesuit Catholic theology likely have at one point (or many) heard a prayer often attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe. The prayer is best known for its ending:
“Fall in Love,
Stay in love,
And it will decide everything.”