Thursday, August 28, 2008

Markers of Privilege

Yesterday, I ran across some blog that had posted my Paul Hastings email. Most of the people commenting were contract attorneys who expressed annoyance that someone like me would complain about getting fired from a big law firm job. The gist of the comments was, what a self entitled princess to think that she should be guaranteed her job when the rest of the world never makes a portion of the kind of money she used to make. I got the sense that some of them would have been gleeful to bitch slap me.

While I can see why, it feels foreign to think that some perceive me as one of those privileged people. It is true that I had been paid a very generous salary for the past ten years while working at a law firm. I too am baffled that there were people willing to pay me that kind of money for the work I did.

During my last year at Paul Hastings, I was billed out at approximately $600 an hour. I've never done anything that commands $600 per hour. I frankly don't know anyone who has. What kind of work can you do that is worth $10 per minute? Maybe putting out a fire on a house filled with infants, paraplegics, and caged animals. Maybe standing up while Colin Powell is giving his UN presentation on Iraq's purchase of uranium yellowcake and crying out "Liar!" Maybe digging for land mines in Cambodia.

But writing nastygrams to opposing counsel because he inserted too many objections to your interrogatories? I always just assumed that I was overpaid. And that my days of easy money were numbered, and that I should shut up and do the work while the money was there. How could I turn away a job that paid multiples of what my parents used to make?

When I was at Cardozo High School in Bayside, New York, there was a kid named John. Like us, he was from a family of Korean immigrants. His parents ran a fruit stand in the Bronx, and his mom, unbeknownst to her husband, used to take $20 out of the cash register every so often to try (unsuccessfully) to fulfill her tithe to the church. You could see John's jeans tautly stretched at the seams exposing the less faded fabric because he hadn't bought a new pair of jeans in years, even though he was bulking up like most guys do in their late teens. That's my world, where everything was stretched beyond their means and the only justifiable indulgence - to be taken sparingly - was for the salvation of one's soul.

I tried to escape this world by moving to San Francisco in the late 90's. But until three years ago, when my parents finally retired from their dry cleaning business, I was never far from the hand wringing that came with the question of whether to charge an extra quarter for the sequin studded blouse, the nights of grief and arguing after a silk tie was ruined and the customer reimbursed. In my mind, I am still that girl working at the counter on Saturdays who quietly seethed when a customer asked to have her dry cleaning brought to her car because she had just had her nails manicured, who watched her parents tally up every penny after the end of a fourteen hour work day.

There were hundreds of me in my school. Many of us escaped Queens by going to Cornell, Yale, Harvard. We're scattered all over this country, blending in as attorneys, doctors, investment bankers. Some of us have checked some things off of the list of the things we'd like to do for our parents, like getting them health insurance, paying off the mortgage, or sending them on a vacation. For some of us, just getting by wasn't really an option (which isn't to say there weren't others with more creativity and smarts to figure out something better). And saying thanks, but no thanks, to those who offer a six figure salary doesn't feel so wise when every quarter seemed to matter way back when.

And if we over did it and became self-entitled princes and princesses in the process, is that so terrible? What I would really like, though, is a fairy princess wand to turn some of those Paul Hastings partners into toads. Oh, right, they already are.

In the meantime, maybe I've earned enough credits to turn to this soul saving business.


  1. lovely post. i can so relate to this. Cardozo HS, ey???? I know too many ppl that went there. Although, not in a bad way, you're years ahead of me...

  2. I can see why some other attorneys (who make way less than you ever did) would be less than receptive to your story regarding Big Law. Most of us think we should make just as much as our old classmates - we are just as competent, presentable, etc. But the fact that sets us apart is that we did not "sell our soul" to the devil. You, perhaps, did - or loosely so - when you agreed to bill out $600 per hour for drafting motions, etc. Your reasons for taking on that sort of a job, however, are very understandable. For those of us who have not come from wealth, or have not experienced the sense of stability/belonging that comes from living in the country of our ancestors, "selling our soul" makes good sense. Your decision to work at Big Law was probably the right choice for that time - and I hope you are not looking back. Great post.

  3. I think a lot of the ire from your fellow attorneys comes from the sense of entitlement you seemed to have with respect to your job. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you were a 10th year associate with no book of business. Why were you surprised that they fired you? It's not a secret that biglaw is an up or out system...and from what I understand you weren't doing your part to move up. In your famous email, you even accused the PH partners of failing to provide you with work. Again - 10th year, not 5th year. That argument doesn't fly when you're in the senior-most ranks of associates.

    All of this is to say that I think the thing people to which people are reacting so violently is the entitlement, not the money. Yeah, the money has been brought up a lot, but it's a red herring.

  4. 10:36 - Thanks for your comment. The focus of my surprise wasn't that I was let go, but the way it was handled. I actually expected that it could happen given the shortage of business in the office. I even told the partners who gave me the news that I expected that it could happen but not like this, particularly given my relationship with the people in my group. I'm not sure how long you've been practicing, but your comment includes assumptions that are unfounded and should be checked.

  5. Are you now really willing to give up practicing/looking for work at a prestigious law firm? What kind of law firm are you willing to settle for?

  6. Hi, 12:12,

    Prestige isn't the word that comes to mind when I think about my last job. I am thinking about what to do about my future. I am not looking to join another big law firm, and I wouldn't have sent the email unless I was ready to walk away from that path. I am considering a career change, but it'll probably take me some time to figure it out. Anyway, thanks for reading my blog and please feel free to email me directly if my experience can help you in any indirect way with your career.

  7. Halcyon Days

    I find this debate about who should and should not be labeled as "entitled" quite interesting. As lawyers we are consummate storytellers, and the wide range of commentary regarding Ms. Oh's departure seems to involve at least two narratives about who is, and is not, properly entitled to Big Law's exorbitant financial sums.

    If Ms. Oh is the entitled one, then, in this vein: A prestigious law firm fires an overpaid litigator whose performance is declining, lacks clients of her own and has other opportunities, with the quite proper expectation that she take her departure pay ("severance" seems to be an odd term to use for a person leaving for ostensibly performance based reasons), sign a non-disparagement agreement, and quietly slip away into the broad legal stream beyond Big Law.

    If the prestigious law firm is the entitled player, then, in another vein: A bright and committed attorney sacrifices untold hours to the business of her employer, with little time to pursue clients of her own (which is frowned on by the firm anyway, after all, she is little more than the widget, is she not?), and, with no explanation, she suddenly receives a poor evaluation at odds with the sterling one she achieved not long before, is dismissed under the manufactured guise of poor performance, while in the midst of a personal ordeal, but she rejects the firm's attempt to silently shuffle her off into the stream, penning an outraged response to those who would rather maintain their profits per partner than their word, followed by her response being trumpeted by others to the greater legal world.

    Ultimately, I would surmise that there is a fair amount of schadenfreude and narrow thinking in the first story, and quite a bit of logic residing in the second.

    This is not to say that law firms are wrong to consider laying off their employees during difficult economic times, but they should bear in mind the following: (1) as with all acts, letting an employee go should be done at an appropriate time with grace and honesty, and (2) firms should include in their calculus the long term cost of a lack of loyalty, namely, the two way street resulting in associates firm hopping during the halcyon days.

  8. i don't see why you feel you were not entitled to your salary. the comparison here is not what biglaw attys make versus your average joe shmoe. the appropriate comparison is partner profits versus what biglaw attys make. you were entitled to every penny you made, by virtue of working for biglaw where partners make ridiculous amounts. while you were not entitled to the job itself, your 10 years and the human relationships you formed during those years should have entitled you to decency in the way you were let go.

  9. I just can't get over the fact that PH (or any other BIGLAW firm) could justify billing a client $600 per hour to respond to interrogatories or prepare a motion. I do that work in real estate and my billing rate is nowhere near that sum. Seriously, why do clients allow lawfirms to get away with such rates? I'm sure that how someone from Harvard responds to interrogatories is not that much different from how I respond.

    BTW as to Jason's post, I've been in that second scenario too (although I did take the severence pay aka bribe money). I've no doubt that PH saw the writing on the wall, that family would start to become 'an issue' and made the bogus 'job performance' excuse. Its really pretty easy to find oneself as a 10-year associate without one's own clients. And yes, prospects for a new legal job are a lot fewer.

    Its great that Shinyung made a goodly sum and perhaps can now afford to work part time or go into another area of law. However, not everyone gets that choice. Some lawyers, female especially, still find themselves having to manage both a full time career and child care because they can't afford to cut back, they weren't in biglaw making the huge bucks.

  10. I don't know which blog or law posting you are referring to, because I've given up reading anything where lawyers post often. Why? Because after 7 years in law (actually, I realized this a lot earlier) I've discovered that big firm lawyers have nothing to say that I want to hear. Here is what they say and post - I'm so wonderful/I deserve a $200,000 starting salary because I just graduated from law school and there are no qualified law grads out there/my firm's better than your firm/you are in X practice area? you suck and I am wonderful/mine is bigger/neener neener neeneretc/etc/etc/

    Biggest bunch of useless gasbags I've ever met, with that strain of toxic nastyness that this profession breeds. If they don't like your email or posts, F them. Most of them are too miserable, drugged up, depressed or plastered to know what they really know or feel anyway.

    What is 10,000 lawyers on the bottom of the ocean? Truly - a good start. I can name 100-200 or so and then we can move on to PH.

    Disclaimer - I don't hate all lawyers, just the toxic, useless gasbags who are impressed because they are DealMakers!!!! or BigTime Litigators!!!!. Oh get over yourselves.... Unfortunately, they make up more than 75% of the ones I've met so far....

  11. This is precisely why, after a year in a corporate setting, I started to rethink my career path of becoming a Court Reporter. Did I really want to sit in a room, for hours on end, and listen to self-important people argue why others were in the wrong, and therefore needed to compensate for that wrong monetarily...all the while developing carpel tunnel and being treated like furniture? No, that's not the life I want.

    Thank you for your lovely comment on my blog. It's so much more meaningful to me after reading your wonderful posts.

  12. wow cardozo hs - i know so many people who graduated from their all doing incredible things of course some years younger than you...

  13. I know it's a little late to be leaving a comment but I was reminded of your story from ATL and started to read your blog just now. This entry made me tear up as it reminded me of my own parents. My parents are also Korean immigrants and I am always amazed how they worked so hard and managed to provide for me and my sister.

    I think, sadly, that a lot of "successful" Asian-Americans who ended up being doctors, lawyers and investment bankers have lost something along the way. The choice to have the career you want. I know so many of us that chose to be a doctor, lawyer or investment banker because we needed to make our parents' struggle in the U.S. worth it. I would've felt too guilty and selfish to take an unpaid internship or take a lower-paying public interest job instead of taking a job that pays enough that I can finally take care of my parents.

    Unlike some Korean parents I know, my parents never pushed me to be a lawyer or a doctor. But even unsaid, I felt the pressure. So, now I'm a lawyer.

  14. I think a number of people fail to realize that no matter how high you climb in law (and you did get pretty high)it is the nature of the profession that you will always be surrounded by and competing with attorneys who climbed higher. If you got into a top-50 law school, you lose out to the top-25. Top-14, and you lose to Top-3. If you are at one firm, then there is all kinds of snobbery about the whitest of the white-shoe firms who wouldn't even look at your resume. And it just goes on and on and on.

    It honestly seems as though none of us ever feel safe. If you're on the bench, you're underpaid. If you're actually a partner, the other partners are out to get you.

    The flip side of this insecurity is that it inspires some of us cling tightly to the idea that anyone who suffers in any way must have deserved it. The lay off posts in big law have inspired a LOT of cruelty from lawyers at all points on the spectrum, and every time I see their comments, I think of the crap we said about each other in law school. It never ends, does it?