Despite this book's lurid title, the stories of an overworked lawyer are not really much more exciting than, well, stories of an overworked lawyer. Cameron Stracher's Double Billing soberly continues where Scott Turow's One L left off. But the grown-up concerns of a modern young lawyer are hardly the stuff of gripping drama. Getting called on in Contracts class can be tense; researching contract liability is considerably less so.
Based on his own experience and interviews with other associates in large firms, Stracher presents a composite portrait of a large New York law firm (all names have been changed to protect the guilty). His adventures at work include an excruciatingly detailed summary of "fraud on the market" theory underlying a securities case and a three-page description of near-catastrophe when his computer freezes before saving a document. As for the promised sex in the title, he delivers only an account of glimpsed groping between colleagues.
On the other hand, reminiscences of pursuing a swivel chair will hold boundless allure to those aspiring to be overworked lawyers. Stracher gives the genuine Sisyphean flavor of his assignments, including the mindless clerical work he must perform as well as the gleeful abandon with which partners delegate endless and often pointless tasks in order to prepare for all contingencies. The basic coldness and hypocrisy of law-firm life are perfectly illustrated, from indifferent partners to the absolute necessity of face time (e.g., "His burning lights [left on after going home] were like the ski-lift tags kids wore on their winter coats so their classmates would know where they had been").
Law students may want to skip the passages critical of the law as a profession. Who wants to hear that you're just another great mind flocking to law school like a migratory bird blown from your true course by prevailing winds, namely, the promise of stratospheric salaries? Although it's hard to drum up sympathy for Stracher when he's making six figures, it's harder to deny that law school, as he writes, "has become the graduate school for the great unwashed, the final resting place for a plurality of college graduates without an employable degree."
Stracher's most incisive observations focus on the rigid hierarchy of gender and race within the plantation life of a law firm. Even in the age of supposed diversity, the elusive carrot of partnership is still largely reserved for white men. Similarly complected associates depend on a support staff of women and minorities from the outer boroughs. Nor do the firm's associates escape Stracher's scrutiny: His workaholic colleagues are mostly social misfits who share late dinners in a conference room almost every night.
Oddly, Stracher offers the reader no lesson drawn from his stint in golden handcuffs. He paints a harsh picture of his experience, yet is respectfully grateful to his firm for catapulting him into law nirvana -- an in-house position at CBS (where he will presumably have a crack at some really meaningful legal work). I guess if you get out alive, you can wear your years of law firm tenure as a Purple Heart.
In our generation, lawyers have multiplied faster than Tribbles. It doesn't mean their stories make fascinating reading for those who've successfully evaded their fate. Then again, the 40,000 new Tribbles graduating law school every year should find Double Billing more illuminating than any firm resume. -- Salon
Stracher, a graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writer's Workshop, gives a hilarious and horrifying account of his ordeal as a young associate at a major Wall Street law firm. He doesn't mince words about the outrageous practices and questionable conduct of many of the lawyers on the highest rungs of the legal profession. No index. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
What do lawyers do all day (and many nights) to earn the big bucks and the ill-favored reputation? Stracher (The Laws of Return, 1996) answers with an animated description of his life as an overworked, overpaid associate in a big New York firm. Ever since lawyering seemed to change from an honored profession to a tough business, the sole object of the game has been billable hours (read "huge fees"). Many firms, particularly the big "white shoe"outfits with major corporate clients, regularly transmute the lives of recently minted lawyers, their associates, into billable hours. Counselor Stracher describes his two years with such a firm (really a composite of several, and representative of many). His own point of view while employed as a biggie was much like that of a hamster on a treadmill: He tells of foolish, wasted, pointless work. But in law, there's no such thing as too much preparation. And if all-nighters were required, it was usually the associates and paralegals who ate cold pizza into the wee hours-often to support what the author supposed were positions of little merit. Documents, of course, abounded. Lawyer Stracher, in his brief, takes us on a quick tour of the back office, introducing us to quirky colleagues and offering a mini-primer on some black-letter law. Nowhere, though, does he document the unethical practice mentioned in his title. Rather, the mores and manners, foods and fashions of typical swashbuckling lawyers are dissected with skill and humor. Stracher's heart lies in the writer's art, not the art of litigation. He's now an "in-house" litigator with a major network, not-as lawyers joke-an "out-house" attorney in a private firm.
Read an Excerpt
I wake to the alarm clock's pummeling. Stumbling from the bed, my eyelids glued like old wallpaper, I slap haphazardly at the snooze button. It eludes my hand like a skittering insect. Finally, in desperation, I knock the clock from the nightstand, silencing its warbling on the cold, rock-hard floor. What time is it? Time to rise; time to shine.
In the bathroom, while I wait for the hot water, I examine my face in the mirror. The lines around my lips have deepened. My hair has thinned and even grayed. I am twenty-six years old, practically ancient. What I know could fill a book; what I don't would fill the world.
Soon, steam fogs the glass. The pipes clank. I shower, shampoo, and shave. Dab myself with lotions, ointments, and creams. Wrap myself in towels and tissues. Shielded from the elements, I pad back to the bedroom to dress.
Everything smells of fresh paint and soap: the apartment, my clothes, this job. I am not unexcited. Nervous, perhaps, and a bit apprehensive. I've never held a full-time job before. I've been a waiter, pizza deliverer, disc jockey, to name a few, but none of these professions seemed substantial, real. I was biding time until life arrived.
I walk to the kitchenette in my underwear and white shirt. The shirt is starched so stiffly it hangs in panels from my shoulders. I had to bend the cuffs to button them. I pour another cup of coffee, careful to hold it far from my chest. My nerves thrum like piano wire.
It feels like the first day of school. The same churning in the stomach. The same unfamiliar routine. New clothes, new books, new friends. A bus stop to route out. I will be beaten by a bully, ignored by the teacher, and abandoned in the back of the study hall.
I fold my shirt into my pants. Loop my belt through the loops. Mash my feet into my black wingtips. Tie and untie and retie my tie. At nine o'clock I race around the small apartment shutting off appliances: coffeemaker, air conditioner, television, iron. I switch off the lights, grab the unread newspaper, and skip out the door. The Law crooks one finger and beckons.
I graduated Harvard Law School at the beginning of a decade of diminished expectations. The stock market had crashed, staggered, and recovered, but the economy was still in free fall. "Downsizing," the media had dubbed it. College students were rushing to law school in desperate numbers. The recently unemployed, the bored, the fearful were joining them. Academics warned of a "brain drain." Politicians feared a "litigation explosion." Lawyers worried about the competition.
Despite the souring economy, my classmates had all found jobs: clerkships with federal judges, prosecutors in district attorneys' offices, legal counsel to public interest organizations. The vast majority, however, were heading into private practice, bulk of them to big firms in New York City.
In the last decades there has been a spectacular increase in the number of lawyers. There are now nearly one million in the United States, about the same as the federal prison population. Although more lawyers work as solo practitioners, those in group practices have grown steadily since World War II, while the ranks of solo practitioners have shrunk. The growth among large firms, those with more than fifty lawyers, has been dramatic: the percentage of lawyers in such firms doubled during the 1980's. The increase at the large firms has come primarily from an increase in the ranks of recent law school graduates -- law firm "associates".
The growth has been the result of many factors, some well documented, others speculative. The United States has gone from being a country that produces goods, to a county that produces services. Law, a service industry, has been part of that transformation. As government regulations increased during the 1970s, liability for injuries to workers and consumers expanded, and as corporations bought, sold, and reorganized themselves with stunning alacrity, the demand for lawyers multiplied. More lawyers also created a need for more lawyers. As my criminal-law professor once joked: a lawyer comes to a small town to set up a practice. He spends his days twiddling his thumbs, doing the odd real estate closing or uncontested divorce. He lives a lazy, low-budget life. One day, another lawyer moves to town. Suddenly, they both have more work than they can handle.
Most of the largest firms in the world (and large law firms are a distinctly American phenomenon) have their biggest offices in New York City. Firms with over two hundred lawyers spread over multiple floors in a single building are not uncommon. Add to this the number of secretaries, paralegals, librarians, word-processing staff, messengers, and other support staff, these firms resemble small campuses connected by elevators.
At Harvard very few law students begin their first year intending to work for one of the large firms. Most of my classmates professed interest in signing up with employers like the ACLU or the Center of Constitutional Rights -- liberal organizations that defend a woman's right to choose, equal access to political representation, free speech. But their second year, when interviewers from the biggest firms swarm onto campus waving stacks of cash, dinners at expensive restaurants and nights at a posh hotel, few are idealistic enough to resist.
It begins like this: your roommate asks who you're interviewing with. You tell him you don't plan to work for a firm; you intend to fight to keep Greenland green. He tells you you're crazy. You should at least sign up for an on-campus interview, submit your rTsumT, see what happens. You have nothing to lose. You're interviewing for a summer job -- a "summer associate." Everyone knows these jobs are like going to camp. You make a lot of money, go out for expensive lunches, and go home early. At the end of the summer, you return to law school with a permanent offer tucked in your pocket like a piece of cheese to nibble on through your final year.
In the decade of diminished expectations, employers still flocked to Harvard. While interviewers dwindled and disappeared at other law schools, the competition remained fierce for graduates of Harvard and comparable schools. The simple laws of supply and demand, the only principle I remembered from college economics, worked in our favor. As law firms grew, the number of Harvard graduates stayed the same.
I have worked with graduates from many different law schools. I have spoken with lawyers from varied legal backgrounds. And I can report that the job search experiences of students outside the so-called elite law schools -- Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, Chicago -- and perhaps half a dozen more, are very different from mine. At most schools, law firms rarely come to campus to interview. If they do, they are interested only in the very top of the class. Students scramble to find jobs, writing letters to everyone they know and to names plucked off a letterhead. Many, if not most, are unemployed upon graduation. In the late 1980s, when law firms actually fired lawyers, they were the first to be let go. A friend of mine who graduated at the top of his class at the University of Iowa was fired from his prestigious New York firm only six months after he started work. The firm explained that his needs were incompatible with its. Read: You went to Iowa; firing you won't hurt our recruiting efforts at Yale.
But at Harvard if you left your resume with the career counseling center, someone would call you later that day to schedule an on-campus interview. It was not unusual for students to have twenty on-campus interviews. Many had more. At first, my classmates were legitimately nervous. We had all heard that we would have no trouble finding jobs, but what if the people who told us so were wrong? It was a different world; the market had flipped. Maybe our luck had run out. But when every sign-up yielded an on-campus interview, with some it soon became a way of stroking their already flatulent egos.
After the on-campus interview, the phone would ring. That pasty-faced man who droned insistently about his asbestos case would like to know if I wanted to fly down to New York at his firm's expense for another round of interviews. I tried to remember what I had said that would interest him in me, but soon convinced myself that he was actually quite perceptive and saw through my glazed expression to the personable, intelligent, and quick-witted soul beneath. The firm's "recruiting coordinator" booked the flight and made a reservation at the Waldorf Astoria. "Will that be all right?" she asked. I had never stayed at the Waldorf, let alone any hotel in Manhattan. How could I refuse?
Of course, not every on-campus interview led to a "fly-back." Every fly-back did not lead to a job offer. But I soon found that I could not make all the fly-backs I had accepted, and certainly could not accept all the summer jobs I was offered. I was not at the top of my class. I had not made law review -- the prestigious law journal edited by students. However, my experiences were not unique. Even today, as I write these words, Harvard students still entertain more job offers than they could possibly accept.
They are the lucky ones.
Copyright (c) 1998 by Cameron Stracher