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Wash Off the Desperation Stank: Get the BigLaw Respect You Deserve

The Ring Kisser

If you’re looking for the get-ahead guy in your BigLaw office, then look no further than the Ring Kisser. If you haven’t met him already, he’s not difficult to find. The Ring Kisser is your first responder in emergency situations. When a high-priority item lands, he fires off a can-do response before the rest of the team has even finished reading the email. The Ring Kisser has one finger glued to the ‘Reply All’ button, which he operates with Ken Jennings-like alacrity. He has been tackling issues head on for so long that he’s probably due for an MRI. Last quarter, the Ring Kisser apologetically took a 72-hour paternity leave, but only after securing the blessing of the Elders. ‘Your first child is only born once,’ they told him, to which the Ring Kisser nodded vigorously in agreement. When in the presence of the Elders, the Ring Kisser always nods vigorously in agreement.

The Ring Kisser sends remorseful out-of-office emails whenever he is forced to step away from his computer for more than about 45 minutes. He once sent an out-of-office email for a doctor’s appointment at 5PM on a Friday afternoon. ‘That should work,’ the Elders allowed, to which the Ring Kisser expressed his sincerest gratitude, humbled by their generosity. One pleasant summer evening, the Ring Kisser was halfway home on the freeway when he flipped the car around to head back into the office. ‘On it,’ he responded from his iPhone at 65 miles per hour. The Ring Kisser bumped into the Elders back at the office, making sure to apologize for having ‘stepped out to grab a coffee’ at an inopportune time. ‘Below is a quick list of issues off the top of my head,’ he would tell the Elders on Monday, having spent the better part of the weekend doing frantic research in a desperate bid to impress.

To get respect, demand respect

Trying to get ahead? ‘Pay your dues,’ they say. You want to take your BigLaw career to the next level? ‘You had better kiss the ring,’ they tell you. We won’t lie: groveling at the Elders’ Italian leather-clad feet can sometimes pay dividends. Stay in BigLaw long enough, and you’ll almost certainly see plenty of hard-core Ring Kissers elevated to partnership. But we’re willing to bet that if you stop and look closely at the real power brokers and future rainmakers at your firm, then you're going to observe a very different kind of behavior. Similarly, look outside of the partnership ranks at the non-partners who have found longevity and purpose at your firm, and you’re not likely to see much groveling there either. We all know it, but when the popular wisdom says to ‘kiss the ring,’ it’s worth reminding yourself: if you want respect, then you must demand respect. You want respect, don’t you?

Think for a minute about the message it conveys when you send a cowardly, please-forgive-me out-of-office message for an appointment at 5PM on a Friday afternoon. When we see messages like this, what we hear is ‘I don’t have firm boundaries,’ or ‘I serve at Your Majesty’s pleasure,’ or, let’s just call it what it is—‘You own me.’ Do you really think the partner you’re trying to impress or appease sees things differently? He’s likely not going to read your remorseful, excuse-laden Friday night away message and think: ‘Now here’s a heavy-hitter who owns the room! Let’s make sure we get this go-getter at the next Mega Client pitch.’ No, that’s not likely what he’ll be thinking. Instead, he’ll probably be thinking: ‘Merciful Mother Mary. Here’s the go-getter who will mop up my third-tier matters this weekend so that Mega Client and I can hit the links.’ We repeat: if you want respect, demand respect.

It’s much easier to demand respect from a position of financial strength

Demanding respect is not something that came naturally to either of us.

In fact, we arrived at our BigLaw firm wearing the same uniform as most newly minted, deeply indebted attorneys: a brand new blazer and shit-stained britches.Yessir, right away sir,’ we chirped. ‘I’m so sorry about that—it won’t happen again,’ we atoned. We had debts to pay and so, obediently, we bent the knee.

Breaking this cycle can be tough, but not impossible. For us, attaining self-respect—and then demanding that our boundaries be treated with respect—was primarily a consequence of strengthening our financial position. Something changed once we paid off our student loan and credit card debt. We were lighter on our feet and the sun shone a little brighter. Something changed again when we had saved up about a year’s worth of living expenses in an emergency fund. We no longer had 24/7/365 availability, once-paralyzing emails weren’t so scary anymore and we stopped apologizing. And then something really changed once we had five or ten years’ worth of annual living expenses invested in low-cost index funds. Circulating an out-of-office for a 3-week off-the-grid vacation didn’t cause a moment’s hesitation. Keep saving and investing even beyond this point, and you’ll see your life dramatically improve with each additional paycheck you set aside. It’s astounding and, quite literally, life-changing.

At some point after you pay off your debts, get your spending under control and put a plan in place to start growing your net worth to income-replacement levels, you find that you don’t need your BigLaw job anymore, at least not from a financial perspective.

The BigLaw power dynamic is no different than that which exists in most situations in life: your leverage is inversely proportional to how badly you need what the other side has. Spend below your means and invest aggressively, and you end up in the driver’s seat. Your eyes open and, for the first time, you see clearly. Eventually, you start questioning whether it is actually required that you bend the knee.

We didn’t wake up one morning and tell ourselves ‘we’re going to demand respect today.’ Little behaviors changed over time, and it just happened.

Take your power and do what you will

Financial independence allows you to work not because you have to, but because you want to, and gives you freedom to take your life in any direction you want. Indeed, once you’re no longer dependent on your BigLaw salary, you are guaranteed to have the courage and confidence to craft a life and career path that fits your specifications.

Still interested in partnership? It’s yours for the taking! One less-known corollary of achieving financial independence is that if you choose to retain your day job even when you no longer need it to sustain yourself, you actually become much better at it. We’ve read about this plenty on early retirement blogs and have also observed it in our own BigLaw careers. It makes perfect sense: growing your net worth allows you to appreciate how much of the BigLaw stress is perceived and/or self-inflicted, and gives you the tools to rise above it. You stop worrying about day-to-day minutiae and develop a better attitude. You radiate calmness and fulfillment, which creates a better work environment not just for you, but also for everyone on your teams. You stop worrying about the competition and whether others are doing better than you: your wealth makes you more confident in your own skills and what you bring to the table, and mentoring and lifting others up brings you joy. You dispense praise and take blame. You’re a true team player. You realize that political gymnastics and pathetic efforts to impress the Elders are a poor tactic that causes attorneys to lose sight of the real BigLaw goal: efficiently collaborating with your colleagues to deliver outstanding work-product to your clients.

Growing net worth caused you to realize partnership is not what you actually want out of life? Welcome to the club! The good news is that you now have options. You can most certainly quit and move on to something else that brings you more fulfillment, or you can completely retire from the law. If you do decide to stay in BigLaw despite no longer needing it financially, you’ll discover that the job is a lot more palatable when you’re not desperate for the next paycheck. The stress melts away and the stakes are low. Prioritizing your personal goals becomes very natural and easy.

‘My firm / practice group doesn’t really allow for flexible schedules,’ is something we hear often. Doubtful. Attorneys with large debts or out-of-control spending have no idea what their firm allows. Save up several years’ worth of living expenses and flexible work arrangements or other efforts to prioritize your personal life that previously seemed laughably foolish will suddenly appear obviously attainable.

If you’re like us and lack the natural-born confidence to stand up for yourself and your quality of life in BigLaw, lean into your portfolio. However you get there, remember that you owe it to yourself to demand the respect that you deserve.

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