I used to think my family was bad at communication. Until I started working at a law firm. There, no one says what they mean and outward appearances are all rosy and full of self-congratulatory propaganda. “So-and-so secured a big victory for Client X. Just another example that we are awesome and committed to exceeding our clients’ expectations.” Right.
So when I read this recent People’s Therapist article, I found myself nodding in agreement, as I usually do with his musings. In a nutshell, he argues that speaking one’s mind in a law firm is completely taboo and instead firms resort to “code talk” to deal with unpleasant situations. For example:
For the most part, “I think we should talk about” is reserved for the single most crucial conversation in the entire law firm conversational repertoire, the ne plus ultra of conversations – to wit: “I think we should talk about your billable hours.”
This exchange, undertaken under secrecy at the highest levels of power, plays out something like this:
“I think we should talk about your billable hours.”
“Well, it has been slow. Work doesn’t seem to be coming in.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
This conversation, which fuses the twin forces of “I think we should talk about” and “I’m sorry to hear that” into one redoubtable melange, roughly parallels the situation of being called into Don Corleone’s office – well, let’s say tied up, packed into the truck of a Chrysler, and delivered to his office for a little chat.
I remember back to a few years ago, when business was particularly slow and I rarely had enough work to fill my days. I repeatedly offered my services to partners, to the point where I was probably an annoyance. “You need any help with anything?” As though I was actually eager to pick up a few billable hours here and there doing such exciting tasks as cite-checking a brief or triple-checking a big document review.
My hours fell behind and by the end of the year it was impossible to make up for the time when the work simply wasn’t there. What did they expect me to do? Work around the clock for that last month to compensate for the months when they, the people who are supposed to bring in the work, could not fill my plate despite my demonstrated willingness to work? I could not say this, of course, because that would make me a “bad” associate. And of course, one would expect a “good” associate to do just that - suck it up and dutifully swallow the abuse. The fact that no work was actually pressing enough to warrant lost hours of sleep was irrelevant. Just make up those hours.
So it came as no surprise to me when I got the “I think we should talk about your hours” lecture in my annual review. Despite my best efforts to defend myself with all the reasonable explanations, that just doesn’t cut it in law firm vernacular. In my case, all it amounted to was a $0 bonus that year, but I secretly hoped it would provide an escape route. Instead of “sleeping with the fishes,” I had to take it upon myself, a few years later, to politely excuse myself from the “family.” And thankfully, that’s where the Godfather parallels end.