Anonymous Lawyer: Does the Truth Hurt?

For some reason, no one ever wonders “what if” they don’t pursue a career at a big law firm.

That’s just one of the many little observations made by the title character of Jeremy Blachman‘s debut novel, Anonymous Lawyer. And like much of the rest of the novel, it rings with a simple truth that will draw you into this novel and even—shock!—make you care about the fate of an archetypically ruthless hiring partner at a big law firm. Coming as it does from a reader predisposed to loath all things Biglaw, that’s saying something!

In a nutshell: This book is simply great. If you have any interest at all in the law as a profession, this book will be one of the best “light” reads of your summer. As all the reviews point out, it’s so funny you’ll laugh out loud. And of course it is! What else would we expect from the genius behind the blog from which the book developed? On top of that, it’s one of the first books written almost completely in blog posts ((Have there been others?)) and its ending is likely to surprise you. But if you pick up this book only expecting some great laughs, be warned: Serious commentary on the state of the legal profession lurks just behind every outrageous thought, statement, and action of the Anonymous Lawyer. That’s what makes this book truly great: like all great satire, even as it’s making you fall out of your chair with laughter, it’s also commenting seriously on the characters and themes it constantly mocks. Ostensibly the book is about the Anonymous Lawyer’s (the AL) struggle to become chairman of his firm. But buried in the jokes is the story of why no one should want to be any part of that firm in the first place, let alone its chairman. It’s funny, but it will probably make you think, too.

Of course, there are at least two reasons you may want to take what I say about this book with a grain of salt. First, I have almost zero first-hand knowledge of what biglaw is like. The only time I’ve ever set foot inside a big law firm I got so freaked I nearly crapped my pants. So while I think the book’s depiction of Biglaw is cuttingly accurate, I really don’t know—it may just be confirming my prejudices and stereotypes. And that’s the second reason I may be an unreliable reviewer: I’m predisposed to think the worst of Biglaw because, even w/out knowing more about it, I’ve long known I never want to be a part of it. That means if Anonymous Lawyer makes Biglaw seem like a form of hell, of course I’m going to love it b/c it confirms my prejudices and suspicions. I’m guessing readers who work in Biglaw and enjoy their jobs and lives (if such people can be found) would have a very different perspective. ((Or perhaps not. Maybe Biglaw just attracts masochists.))

That said, I still think a wide variety of readers are really going to enjoy this book, both because it’s funny and because it deftly tackles some of the biggest themes familiar to anyone who has ever considered a legal career. A few of those themes include: Why do people keep going into Biglaw when there’s so much about it to dislike? What mental steps do people take to go from wanting to “help people” to being a Biglawyer? How does Biglaw encourage that transformation? Once they’re “in,” how do Biglawyers rationalize their existence and the daily compromises it requires? And more universally: Does it take more courage and bravery to give up your dreams and accept that life generally sucks, or to pursue your dreams regardless of the odds? These aren’t original questions, of course, but Anonymous Lawyer answers them in a humorous and satiric way that makes them fresh. The most jaded reader may walk away from the book thinking, “yeah yeah, I’ve heard it all before,” but for someone that far gone there may be no hope.

From page one it’s obvious this is going to be a book filled with keen insights—all of them with a sardonic bite. The book begins with the Anonymous Lawyer (the AL) writing a blog post about all the people at his firm who aren’t working hard enough and doing exactly what he wants them to do. The post demonstrates what makes the AL such a compelling character—he’s the biggest asshole you’ve ever met, but most of the time he knows it and admits it, which is strangely endearing. He writes:

You in the blue shirt—no, the other blue shirt—I need you to count the number of commas in this three-foot-tall stack of paper. Pronto. The case is going to trial seven years from now, so I’ll need this done by the time I leave the office today.

Thus, even as the AL is piling busy-work on an underling just to show who’s boss, he makes a joke about one of the many the lemming-like qualities of people who work at firms—they all dress alike. If you’ve seen many law students or lawyers, you know the “business-casual” uniform—khakis and a light blue shirt. Lemmings, one and all. ((Full disclosure: I own three light blue shirts and several pairs of khakis. I only wear them when I know everyone else at wherever I’m going is also going to be wearing the same thing. It always makes me feel almost like being part of a team, except it’s more like being assimilated into the borg.)) The book is full of these little zingers that demonstrate Blachman’s own ability to turn even the smallest details of Biglaw into cutting little knives. And yet the same moments make you care about the AL; you may almost feel sorry for the guy because he knows he’s being awful but he seems to think he has no choice.

One little thing I was repeatedly surprised by as I read this book is that, even though I knew very well that it was fiction written by a recent Harvard grad who only spent a summer or two in a big firm, I kept having to remind myself that it wasn’t real. Several times I’d find myself reading along and thinking, “Yes, I know it’s exactly like that—these people are monsters!” But then I’d have to remind myself that whatever I’d just read wasn’t true, at least not strictly speaking.

True or not, the AL really is a sort of monster. He goes to great and cruel lengths to maintain the strict hierarchy that separates him from the lowly administrative staff (69). He mocks pro bono work (78). He takes “hundred-dollar shits in the bathroom” (81). He speculates unfeelingly that “animals over at the cattle farm” probably live better lives than the associates at his firm—at least the animals get a full night’s sleep (118). He hates the day we turn our clocks forward for daylight savings time—”think of it on a firm-wide level. That’s hundreds of billable hours” (126). He thinks associates should be lonely: “Making friends isn’t billable” (160). And that’s just a small sample.

But in addition to being a monster, the AL is also willing to speak with simple and refreshing candor about his life and the legal profession. In one example, the AL doesn’t mince words about the fact that much of law school is an expensive waste of time.

It’s hard to understand why law school needs to be three years long. If they wanted to be efficient they could teach everything in a couple of weeks and then send their students here to get the training they’ll eventually need anyway. Kids waste too much time in law school thinking about justice and fairness, and not enough time learning what’s important. They come here clueless about how to structure transactions in order to minimize tax liability, and how to appreciate fiftenen-dollar pieces of fatty tuna. That’s where we come in.

While it’s true that much of law school is a waste (but not for the reasons the AL thinks) ((Law school is not a waste b/c it makes people spend too much time thinking about justice and fairness. In fact, in my experience law students probably spend too little time thinking about those things. Yet, the AL is right that law students do not graduate prepared to practice law. Heck, they even have to take additional classes just to pass their licensing exams.)), I found myself surprised at moments by the AL’s naivete. It’s obvious why law school is three years long—that’s the only way to make sure students will graduate w/so much debt they’ll be willing to sell their souls to Biglaw.

But the AL does seem to get this; he understands perfectly well that most law students have to be “converted” into wanting to join firms like his. As hiring partner, making sure the summer associates walk away wanting to sign up for life is his job.

We expose them to a little taste of this lifestyle—a secretary, the expensive lunches, the visits to partners’ houses—and suddenly these bleeding-heart liberals forget their concerns that making money is evil and that the underclass doesn’t deserve to be poor.

And yet, the AL does worry that this system is perhaps not optimal because it creates an escalating burden on his firm to always do more to convince law students that the tradeoff—their souls for a job at this firm—is worth it.

I worry what the next step is for the summer program, beyond alcohol, and how much it’s going to cost us. I fear by next summer we’ll be buying cocaine for the summer associates to snort in the conference rooms and distributing amphetamines on orientation day.

This is just one of the many ways the AL seems to be trapped in a system at least partially of his own making, and it’s moments like these that make you sympathize with the guy—at least a little—because he seems to recognize that the system is highly flawed. In fact, in his most lucid moments, the AL admits that all his money and power have not brought him happiness at all and he worries that his lifestyle is going to teach his kids to become spoiled morons, or worse. The AL even describes his firm like a sort of cult of codependents:

It’s too easy to block out these thoughts [his doubts] when I’m in the office, surrounded by a couple hundred other people who’ve made the same choices I have. We validate one another’s decisions, just by virtue of being at work.

Trust me, as hard as it is to believe, you’ll probably feel sorry for this guy. He and all of his Biglaw colleagues need an intervention. And that call for help, the alert that things have spun out of control in Biglaw, is really the heart of Anonymous Lawyer. It’s humorous, but darkly so. After reading it, you don’t have to wonder why its author knew immediately upon graduating from Harvard law that he didn’t want to become a lawyer. And perhaps that’s one reason Blachman wrote this book—to explain his own choice, but also to warn others yet again that the Biglaw life is not all it’s cracked up to be. Beware all ye who enter here!

Yet, if Anonymous Lawyer is a warning to future would-be Biglawyers, it should also serve as an inspiration to them—a reminder that Biglaw is not their only option. As accurate as the AL may seem as a type, not all lawyers are like him and there are many legal careers that don’t look anything like his or those of the associates and other partners of his firm. I don’t ever want to be the AL either, but there are many other options w/in the legal profession—which may be precisely Blachman’s point. Whatever the case, if the big life choice is between giving up your dreams and selling out to the man, or following those dreams no matter the odds, it’s pretty clear where Blachman stands. I, for one, say more power to him!

Finally, some people enjoy a book that they can sit down and devour in one sitting, ((Indeed, that was Edgar Allen Poe’s criterion for the best fiction—a work that could be read in one sitting to preserve its “unity of effect.”)) and while you could certainly do that with this book, you might want to draw it out over a few days or weeks, as I did, so that you can look forward to a little bit of great satire every day. Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m sad that I don’t have a few pages of the AL’s life to peer into each day. Maybe I’ll just have to start reading his blog

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