Names and other identifying characteristics of the lawyers mentioned in this story have been changed. 22 across -- law school success (2 wds) LAWREVIEW
AN ADMITTED overachiever, he set goal after goal and he hadn't missed yet.High school with honors. Then college with honors. Then law school with honors. Not just any college, but Amherst. Not just any law school, but Harvard. Danielson was papered. He had made sure of it.
When it came time to choose a law firm Danielson wanted a large, pretigious firm in Washington, a firm like Arnold & Porter, or Covington & Burling, or Steptoe & Johnson or Wilmer & Pickering. These were the biggest and the best, and so was he. Salary wasn't a consideration since all the big firms paid their first-year associates about the same, currently about $33,000. Salary was the least of his worries -- the path he was on headed as high as $250,000 for a senior partner anyway; it was just a matter of time. 25 across -- law firm fungible (syn. widget) ASSOCIATE
IT WAS the next logical step, his next competition. He entered in a class of 16, all perfectly papered, each seeing himself as an anointed one. It was a faster track than he'd ever been on before, but a faster track for all the others too. He knew there was a 7 1/2-year apprenticeship to be served, that after that a final partnership decision would be made on his worth, but all that concerned him for the first two years was pleasing the people he worked under, the partners and senior associates. If ever there was a vacuum, Danielson was in it.
Danielson had very little contact with the other associates in his class. He was working hard, 10 to 12 hours a day, occasionally Saturday or Sunday.He was always the type to throw himself completely into his work, an obsessive blue-chip workaholic -- essentially, a genetic Washington lawyer -- and that left little time for socializing. But in his third, fourth and fifth years, as he became more senior, more invested in the system, he noticed that his entering class had thinned to 10. Some left for government work, some for smaller firms, some for domesticity and some because they were advised to. Danielson did have some attractive offers too, but none sufficiently aroused him, and he began to think about settling in with the firm, about going the distance.
His wife was skeptical. They had met in high school and married in college. There were already two daughters, and a third child was on the way. Danielson's wife didn't mind the hours, but she didn't see her husband fitting into the firm; she thought he was less white-shoe than that." "It seemed so big," she said. "I saw him getting lost."
She had met some of the partners at social functions and she wasn't impressed; she'd never gotten any feeling from any of them. "All they ever talked about was the law," she said. "It was like a foreign language to me. And it was always so boring." She hinted that Danielson ought to leave, but she never pushed it. He was so very excited working there, so thrilled at his acceptance at so pretigious a firm. It seemed to make him feel worthy. So she stood by her man.
After five years most of the big firms try to let the associates know where they stand relative to partnership. No promises are made, but the dead wood that's being carried along by inertia usually gets the message. Danielson came through his review with a positive feeling. Others apparently didn't, because he found himself in a class of 6. He assumed those who remained were playing hardball. Certainly he was. He was up near $50,000 a year now, and all the signs he was getting from the partners were green. There was no question what he wanted to do next. Had it been a poker game, he would have said to the dealer -- "I'll play these."
THERE ARE approximately 20,000 active members of the District of Columbia Bar living and working in metropolitan Washington -- almost quadruple the total number of D.C. police, fire and sanitation men. If it sometimes seems that everyone on your block who doesn't work for the federal government is a lawyer, perhaps they are.
About 100 each year start as first-year associates at the large, pretigious firms in D.C. But these include some of the best and brightest young lawyers in the nation, coming mainly from law schools like Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Virginia, Chicago, Stanford, Michigan, Penn and Berkeley. Over the next 7 1/2 years most will leave their firms -- often for reasons having nothing to do with partnership -- but the historical truth is that no more than an average ofthree per firm, and often less, will eventually make partner. The term used to describe the obstacle course toward partnership is, "crapshoot."
"Often there's a tendency to read the signs as more positive than they're intended to be," said a partner who, like everyone else quoted in this story, refused to speak for attribution. "The problem is that except for the occasional superstar, most people are in the A minus/B plus category . . . . Some let the inertia drag them along because there's safety in the bureaucratic womb of a large firm . . . . The fact is that a lot of people with fancy credentials aren't all that good."
Superstars are a lock almost from the start. They'll make it, because the large firms will always gamble on sheer talent.Super-ordinary associates will be asked to leave; they'll be told they have no chance.
The ones in the vast middle?
"If you've been a maybe for a couple of years, you ought to be cushioned," said a senior partner who has seen more than 20 years of stars, ordinaries and maybes. "I can't tell you why the 'maybes' stay. Partly, by nature, they're achievers and they're competitive. They've been told that sometimes a maybe makes it. Maybe they say -- 'I'll be the guy that breaks the bank.' It's Everest. It's there, and they're going to climb it. If they leave, they'll never know."
The uncertainty is a killer. Younger associates see competent people -- and "maybes" are competent -- passed over for partnership, and they get scared. Said one: "It's terribly traumatic for the rest of us down the line. You figure if they screwed him, they'll screw me. So the basic thinking is, given the odds that you won't make partner, you've got to figure the best time to leave. It's usually after two, three or four years. By five and six it gets harder because of the lateral entry problem -- lots of good small firms can't justify taking you in because it's like telling their own associates that the firm would rather have a gun from a large firm, no matter when that gun showed up -- it's bad for morale. And if you stay a seventh or eighth year, you're basically locked in."
Seven and eight. The rock and the hard place.
"You should see some of these guys who don't make it," said a New York headhunter. "They've been doing research in the stacks for so long that when they come up for air it's like they've been living in a crypt. These guys have all the professional skills, but the personality of an eggplant. You're afraid to send them out on interviews. They're totally burnt out." 30 across -- law firm status PARTNER
IT WAS a joint decision. Danielson and his wife sat and discussed what the next two years would be like. They agreed it would be difficult. Long hours. Stress. But there were three kids now, and the family had grown fond of the money. They decided to go for it. As Danielson's wife said, "Making partner would be a big feather in his cap."
As far as he could tell, his class of associates had no off-the-charts superstar; they were all in the pack as they turned for home.Danielson figured the firm would make two or three partners, and he gave himself a 90 percent shot at being one. It was what he wanted. Being a partner there would give him the kind of cases he wanted, the kind of clout he wanted; he would be the kind of player he'd always thought he was destined to be. After partnership, if he wanted to teach, it would be a piece of cake; the firm smiled on partners who took leave to become law professors. If he wanted to go into government, there wasn't an agency in town that wouldn't welcome him. Late at night, with the shades drawn and his wife and kids asleep, Danielson even fantasized about becoming attorney general. Surely the firm had enough cache to make the dream plausible.
So he put on the blitz.
It wasn't just difficult. It was brutal. He was working 12 to 14 hours a day -- Saturdays and Sundays most of the time -- to convince the firm he was worthy. In one stretch he worked 34 straight days. His wife tried to be supportive, but it got increasingly tougher just looking at him in those few hours they had together. "He was pale and hollow-eyed," she said. "He just wasn't in touch." They rarely made love. They agreed that if he was to perform at work he shouldn't be expected to perform at home.
"I was just trying to hold my breath until I got to the other side of the lake," Danielson said. "I had no idea what it was doing to my family. I'd get up at 7 and go directly into the shower. Even in the shower I'd think about work, what I had to do that day. I'd dress and my wife would make breakfast for me and the kids. I'd eat, then I'd leave. At least I got to see the kids in the morning because I wouldn't get home until 11 or 12 at night. I can't tell you how often I grabbed dinner out of a machine at the office. Yogurt. Sandwiches. I remember once eating three Zagnut bars for dinner. God, I don't think I'll eat another Zagnut bar if I live to be 100. You get so tuned to the schedule that you learn when to go to the machines to avoid the run on them. It's always the same people around the machines -- the associates putting on the blitz. You learn to always carry exact change. It's insane.
"Sometimes my wife would wait up, but most of the time I got home too late. She never bitched about it. I have a great wife, a great wife. But she can tell you about all the dinners without Dad, about all the breakfasts on Saturday and Sunday when the kids would ask -- 'Do you have to go to work today, Daddy?' She'll tell you when they asked -- 'Where's Dad?' I guess there came a time when they asked -- 'Who's Dad?' I didn't feel like I had a family. It was like going to war. The kids would ask -- 'Where's Dad?' -- and the only reasonable answer was -- 'He's at war.'
"I never talked to them on the phone from work, and I rarely called my wife. It broke my train of thought, reminded me of the life I was missing. I tended to be abrupt with her on the phone, unpleasant. I was becoming a real s.o.b. It was a terrible cycle."
Danielson's wife would not disagree.
"It was very difficult," she said.
And there was nothing she could do about it.
"You do the best you can," she said. "It wasn't going to last forever, and we'd prepared for it. My husband always worked long hours; he still does. I came to believe that lawyers who came home at 5 were lawyers who didn't love the law. So I was used to that. And I need time for myself. I'm an only child and I've learned to fill myself up with other things. I'm not even sure it was all that hard on the kids. They got to the point where they stopped asking where he was -- they just assumed he was working.
"But the truth is -- and I don't know that I ever told him -- that I didn't think he was going to make partner. I thought they'd lied to him. I thought they were just using him. I tried to tell him he was too independent for that firm, and that he should hang onto that independence, that it was good. But he said, 'No, I'll make it.'"
Strauss came to the frim with enough paper to build a bonfire, except he never struck the match. All the talent you could ask for, but he wasn't a shark. No intensity. He is in his mid-30s now, earning $100,000 a year with a medium-sized firm and probably doing it standing on his head. Even now he sometimes gets this look in his eye that makes you wonder if he wouldn't rather be somewhere else. Like Tahiti.
Strauss' story: "My interests just weren't that well developed when I got out of law school. I wasn't sure if I wanted private practice. I had some vague interest in teaching, and I thought I might spend some time in government. The way I had of fore-closing the fewest options -- indeed, maximizing my options to do all of them in a first-class environment -- was to go with a big firm. Early on I decided I had no interest in teaching. I kept hearing of government jobs, but they never really struck me as being better than what I was doing. I really enjoyed what i was doing.
"I may not have been sufficiently introspective about it. It was the path I was on. Momentum, or inertia maybe, carried me past a certain point. There weren't sufficient danger signs to scare me off. I said -- 'Why not?' Maybe I didn't think enough about it, but I couldn't see any real risk in staying. It seems to me now I was totally naive, but I thought things would work out.
"To be honest, I gave myself a 95 percent shot at making partner. I don't remember the excruciating detailes of what I did when I found out I didn't make it. I guess I'm more phlegmatic than most, but I'm sure I was angry. I tried to find out why, but I never got a straight answer. I guess in retrospect what bothered me most was being denied the option to leave the firm when I chose to. I would have liked that. But I couldn't really argue with the people they chose over me. They were good people I was good but not necessarily better.
"The strange thing is that not making partner made me a better lawyer. It shocked me enough to get off my a -- and start working hard. I think I'm a better lawyer now than I might have been had I made it. I don't think about it much, but I always wanted to know why they didn't pick me. Nothing like that ever happened to me before." 32 across -- law firm judgement (2 wds) PARTNER SHIP MEETING
THE DAY of the partnership meeting carries its own terror alarm, like the palpable heaviness of breath before a championship fight. There is an urgent secent in the halls, because it's a thumbs-up/thumbs-down call and there is never any applause for the boxer who distinguishes himself in defeat. This is not Ali-Frazier. This is a firing squad. Those about to be judged tend to stay in their own offices, and little work gets done. It falls on the younger associates to spread the word on who gets in and who doesn't along their network of whispers. Sometimes the word is leaked early, because an associate who is told he has no chance at all will often be absent that day, and maybe for a month afterward. This is called "taking it on the lam."
Danielson was confident. He was a jogger, and he'd done three miles at lunchtime and come back feeling great. On the run he'd thought about the special bottle of wine he'd bought for the celebration. That night he'd open it and he and his wife would toast each other into the morning.
" he called me before lunch to tell me they were voting that afternoon," his wife said. "I tried to be supportive. I told him, if it's meant to be it will be. But I also told him not to worry about it, that he'd done everything he could and he should just relax now. The past few months had been very hard. I'd noticed a shift in his personality. He was doing things like putting me down in public, and he'd never done that before. Never."
Danielson continued to call his wife that afternoon.
Every half hour.
"I haven't heard yet," he said.
"Don't worry about it," she said.
Every half hour. And still, no word.
And then a knock on the door. A senior partner. A friend on a mission of mercy unknown to the partnership at large.
Sorry. There just wasn't a clear consensus on you.
Danielson didn't hear the rest.
"All I heard was -- That's it, babe. That's the ballgame. You played. You lost. I was judged by a court of my peers -- the peers I'd coveted, the best in the business -- and I'd been found unfit."
He called his wife.
"It's so cold," he said.
"Don't see yourself as a failure. "You're good. You're a great lawyer," she said.
"I feel like a sinner man," he said.
"Don't," she said.
"But I do," he said.
He was up to almost $60,000 a year now, but that was as high as he was going to go here. Sure, he could stick around as long as he like, for as long as it took to get a good job. But to become a ninth-year associate, or worse, a 10th-year associate, to stay and watch people from the next classes make partner and to be forever frozen out from the partnership lunches and the partnership parties, that was an unthinkable humiliation. In some firms there are some who stay, hoping that the next year the partners will reconsider, perhaps even have pity, and vote thumbs-up on a lame duck. But for Danielson it was going to be not now, not ever. Thumbs-down and sayonara."
"I wanted out," Danielson said. "I wanted out on the spot, man. I wanted the next bus."
Somewhat like driving through a mountain tunnel and not seeing that city built into the cliff wall behind you until you check your rear-view mirror, the risks of the large, prestigious law firms aren't apparent until you're already surrounded by them.
Why don't these highly papered people make it?
What brings them all the way to the last cut, sprinting like Secretariat against a field of claimers, and then slices them off at the knees?
One senior partner considered the question, chewing on its as if it were some hand-crafted pipe.
"You mean the ones who don't leave voluntarily?" he asked.
He chewed some more.
"That's a difficult question," he said.
There have been associates who've had personality clashes with too many partners; associates who've become too specialized in a form of law that simply didn't bring in enough business to justify making another partner; associates whose sponsoring partners themselves have creatd too much enmity within the firm; associates who haven't gotten along well enough with clients.
"Yes," the senior partner said, "those things have happened. But they are the exceptions. Personality plays a large part, but the large firms tend to be more able to absorb people with warts, as long as they aren't insufferable. The standing and vigor of an associate's proponents or opponents figure into the balance, but by and large the partners use restraint. oConsensus moods tend to surface during partnership meetings; there isn't a tendency to bring someone in, or leave someone out, by a majority of one. As for the unfortunate specialist, most large firms now use a strict rotation system for their associates. We don't let someone become too specialized. We look for generalists. New blood is life or death to a large firm. It would be a shortsighted firm indeed that chose to overlook talent solely for economic reasons."
The senior partner made no apologies.
He spoke of a meritocracy.
"It's a lifetime decision," he said. "You have to be pretty careful who you bring in because firms are extraordinarily reluctant to ask someone to leave. We make our decisions based on the premise that we're going to practice with these people for 30 years, even though we know many of our partners will leave long before that.
"The firm wants to be sure about a 30-year marriage. Is is my experience that a star will not fall on his face. Ultimately, it's based on perceived ability. We want to add to the firm rather than subtract from it. You have seen this associate for almost eight years now. You can reasonably answer the questions -- Is he going to contribute more to the rough standard of my partners today? Will he be good for the associates? Good for business? Good for the prestige of the firm? Will he help?
The senior partner sipped his coffee like brandy. Slowly. Thoughtfully.
"Will he help?"
Perretta sat in the shadows of the Georgetown bar nursing a third rye and ginger. It had been many years now since he hadn't made the final cut, but it was all coming back to him, as it always did whenever he thought about it, which happened more often than he cared to admit. He was in his mid-40s now, earning over $200,000 in the Washington office of a Los Angeles firm. Time had treated him well. He looked no more than 35, and his suit fit like it had been custom tailored for him, which, of course, it was. Two hours a day of racketball had pumped his right forearm up to twice the size of his left, and the veins in that arm were the width of pencils when he said, "I'll never forget them telling me, 'We hire people here to become partners." That representation, that you'll make partner if you're competent, is" -- he banged his fist on the table -- "absolute horse----."
Perretta's story: "I'd gone through numerous formal evaluations by various partners, and going into my last year as an associate I was left with the clear impression that I was at the top of my class. But in my last evaluation I noticed that things had gotten vague, and about a month before the partnership meeting someone slipped me the word that I was in a little trouble. But the day of the meeting I still thought I had it locked because the partners I was working for were reassuring; they led me to believe I wasn't in trouble.
"In those days they let you know by phone. The meeting started at 2, and by 4 I was still in my office waiting for my phone to ring. I'd even dressed up a little special that day, you know, gilded the lily. No call at 4. No call at 4:30. No call at 5. I remember thinking to myself -- Jeez, it should've rung by now. But all I knew was that it was 5 o'clock and my phone still wasn't ringing. I don't have to tell you that it never rang, that someone came in and gave me the word personally.
"I immediately went into the offices of the associates who'd made it and congratulated them. It was a defense mechanism. I didn't want to be on the other end of their pity. Then I went back to my office, but before I could even call my wife some of the younger associates who'd heard came in to tell me how sorry they were. Even now I'm still touched by their affection; I guess I needed it more than I thought. Then, I called my wife and said -- 'It didn't happen.' Then, I got the hell out of there.
"I came in the next day and started for interviews. There was no way I was going to stay there like a eunuch any longer than I had to. Too much time on your hands. You don't get any good assignments. You start seeing the partners averting their eyes from you on the elevator. Nobody wants to be around you. So you stay in your office with your door closed. I started taking my lunch to work and eating in my office -- anything I could do to avoid people. All I could think about was -- How the hell am I going to get work? What kind of firm is going to take damaged goods?
"They tell me the evaluations are meaningful now, that they try and let you know straight out if you're going to make partner. But when I was there it was just 20 minutes of useless conversation. I'm convinced I was lied to Used . . . You know, for people who are supposedly experts at due process, lawyers are notoriously lacking in it themselves. The institution bleeds the life out of you." 32 down -- passed over for partner Failure
THERE WAS no wine at the Danielsons' that night.
"He looked terrible," Danielson's wife said. "He looked gray. His eyes looked like they'd been drilled in."
They spent the night talking, discussing the partnership decision. It was the first time in his life that Danielson had ever lost, and it had come on the final cut. He figured to be devastated, but outwardly, at least, he was calm. Remarkably calm, his wife thought. He would leave the firm, of course, find a smaller firm that better suited his independent spirit, a firm that loved him more. By the end of the evening, after Danielson had told his wife how badly the other associates who hadn't made it seemed to take the decision, how desperate they'd seemed, both agreed that Danielson would survive better than the others. At one point he even suggested there might be some benefit to this. She remembers him smiling. Remarkable, she thought.
She wanted him to take an immediate vacation. But he assured her that he was fine, that the best thing he could was go right back to work and start looking for another job. He was composed, he assured her. He could handle it.
He could not.
"I don't know when it happened," Danielson said. "I guess it was in three weeks or so, but I started feeling like such a failure. All i could think was -- Damn, I've lost. Are they right? Am I worthless? People tried to tell me it was all right, but I couldn't hear them. I was in a cocoon of mourning. I was thoroughly ashamed. I figured everyone in town was talking about me. It was terrible. Worse than the blitz. I was home more, but I was non-functional."
Danielson took to sitting in a chair in his living room for hours at a time, as if he were trying to grow roots into the leather, blaring sad songs by the Eagles, Chicago, and Little River Band. Just sitting in that chair, blaring that music. He held a book in his hand, but he never read a word. Often, when he spoke to his wife he said, "They've made me feel like a sinner man. I'm a sinner man." She took all she could until she could take no more. Whenever he turned on the music, she left the house.
This went on for four months.
"He was the gray visitor," his wife said. "the gray blob."
They were strangers.
They did not make love.
"It would have been like making love to the bedsheet," she said.
He went on interviews and came back even grayer than before, calling himself a sinner man. He went to work and called his wife on the phone to tell her how deep the hurt was when he saw a certain partner or saw the partners going off to their weekly lunches. He began to acquire a sense of paranoia; he thought that everyone in the office talked only about his failure. p
He was driving his wife nuts.
"Cut this crap out," she would say, and she never ever spoke like that. "This is ridiculous. Call your friends. Get out. Do something."
And finally he got a job in government, where so many associates from the large firms who haven't made partner end up, cleansing themselves of their sin and their shame. A purgatory.
"But I still had that feeling of defeat," Danielson said. "That hollowness, that sense I had no worth at all. I remember getting on a plane and ending up, just by chance, sitting with someone who hadn't made partner at the firm years before. Of course he'd heard what happened to me. I remember asking him -- 'When does the pain stop? When does the anger subside?'" 34 across -- heals most law firm wounds TIME
DANIELSON THINKS he will go back into private practice soon, and some smaller firm will make him a partner because he can be sold to the others as a lawyer with superior credentials. He says he is no longer bitter, no longer the kind of person who defines himself by what "the official others" think of him. Now if friends say he is a good person, it counts. Then it only counted if a committee said it. He no longer sees himself as a sinner man. The sad songs no longer blare. His wife is greatful to get her man back again, whole.
What happened to Danielson is what happens to most lawyers who fail to make partner -- he picked himself up, dusted himself off and started all over again. Lawyers spend their professional lives dealings in Wins and Losses. They tend not to be weepers. They tend not to crumble.At least not forever. Sure, some go to Dubuque and are never heard from again. But most cope. In a sense those who are passed over for partner are the Roger Mudds of the law. Although Mudd lost out to Dan Rather for The Cronkite Chair at CBS, was there ever any doubt, even when he was nursing his wounded pride, staying off the air rather than suffer public humiliation, that he remained a solid, gifted newsman? It would have been shortsighted to call him, The Ultimate Loser even before he took the big money from NBC as chief correspondent. The Danielsons of this world may start off saying they got screwed, but eventually they write if off as someone else's mistake. Often they end up doing moroe rewarding work and occasionally even making more money than they would have, had they made partner.
It's a public, memorable L. But not a crippler.
"I think they made the right call on me," Danielson says now. "They said I wasn't a 'we. I was a 'they.' I was rebellious and headstrong. They looked down the track at who was coming up and passed on me. Okay.They can afford to pick and choose carefully, so they do. Obviously it doesn't hurt them because 25 new people sign up each year. Their appeal is to the most competitive of the top law students. I know because I was one.
"I was angry, but I got over it. I'm more relaxed now. My home life is better. And I'm performing as a lawyer again, and sometimes I even hear some applause. I know some guys who hold their grief in a cloth bag and take it out to rub every once in a while. I hope I'm not one of those."
The bottle of wine that once was so special to Danielson is still tucked away somewhere in their house.
Gathering dust, his wife says.
Probably in the bottom of a closet.
She doesn't know if they will ever open it. And she doesn't much care.