My Summer in Corporate Purgatory

My Summer in Corporate Purgatory

On Thursday, the big law firms will make offers of summer internships to students across the country. Callum Fredric gives the young clerks-to-be an unglamourised account of what a summer in a top-four law firm is actually like.

Congratulations, aspiring summer clerks. On Thursday, you’ll find out which law firms are offering you the chance to spend summer in their prestigious marble-floored and copper-sculptured offices. Over the past month you’ve been primed by propaganda pieces in various law publications, and plied with free drinks and lavish canapés at meet-the-firm functions. The world of corporate law seems glamorous and action-packed. Work hard, party hard. Litigate by day, live large by night.

But insincerity is infused into each and every word of the average “My Summer at McTavish Sweeney” puff piece. The coerced authors dare not write a single negative word in their fawning advertorials, lest the hellfire of the HR department descendeth upon them. You’d be more likely to find a critical review of a lucrative holiday destination in Air New Zealand’s Kia Ora magazine.

At the end of my clerkship, I was asked to write a glowing testimonial, and dutifully unleashed my inner sellout. A sample: “I enjoyed my time in the Banking & Finance team. My work included finding cases to support a client’s position, drafting documents to be filed in court or served on a defendant, and sitting in on several High Court hearings.” Seems legit.

As well as the obligatory “I thought it was just going to be photocopying, but I ended up suing Bill Gates in my first week!” drivel, you may also have heard dire warnings from friends who clerked last summer and hated the ultra-competitive, hierarchical nature of the corporate law world. Fair enough, but my experience was neither a Road to Damascus District Court nor actively unpleasant – just surreal and soul-crushingly boring. What follows is a real account of summer clerking, without embellishment either positive or negative.

Paving the Road to Purgatory

I studied law to avoid becoming yet another English/Politics/History grad with no career prospects – I figured law would be a decent career if nothing else took my fancy during my time at uni. Shortly after the start of third year, I decided I wanted to work at a top law firm. I wanted the prestige, the security, the respect. Mostly, I wanted the money. I wanted to travel in luxury, drink only the finest craft beer, and hire expensive specialists to indulge fleeting impulses to learn arts or skills.

Several people tried to warn me off with variants on the term “YOLO,” telling me there’s more to life than money, and imploring me not to waste my talent by selling it mercenary-style to the highest bidder. I listened, but forged ahead with my plan.

Unlike a lot of law students, I was under no illusions about a corporate law job being fun, rewarding or fulfilling – it was a job to get cash money. It’s not Boston Legal, it’s not Suits, and the “intellectual side” of the law does not feature heavily in proof-reading contracts for misplaced apostrophes or getting folders spiral-bound for the company archives. I was well aware that the culture would be hierarchical and distinctly corporate, and it didn’t bother me.

Nor did I delude myself that I would “just do two to three years to get some experience, then go work at the UN or Save the Children.” That is not a thing. No one does that. Anyone who claims otherwise, even if they stoke the fires of their unrealistic daydream with occasional attendance at “Law For Change” lectures, is delusional.

I was quite happy to spend my career bankrupting widows, helping multinationals avoid tax, and finding loopholes allowing nuclear waste to be dumped in the ocean – or whatever corporate law firms do for their money.

Overall, I felt infinitely more prepared than my less cynical colleagues for the underwhelming reality of life as a summer clerk. With such bluntly “managed” expectations, I surely would not be in line for crushing disappointment or soul-searching. I would simply do the job, get paid, and enjoy my downtime.

Summer in purgatory

My summer in corporate purgatory began in mid-November, 2012. On our third day, we were informed that, in an unprecedented clerk-culling, anywhere between 5-50% of us would not be offered grad jobs at the end of the summer. This put an immediate damper on the carefree summer experience. In the previous summer, the only clerks who didn’t get offers were legendary figures like the Wagyu Steak Guy, as well as the Date Rape Duo, two young men who claimed they had been roofied and date-raped as an excuse for being late for a Friday morning meeting, and Scuba Gear Guy, who spent his $1000 clothing allowance on scuba gear.

The five weeks of my clerkship before Christmas were occasionally tolerable. My team was genuinely pleasant. Learning about the sequence of documents required to bankrupt useless debtors was moderately interesting, and, as described in a rare truthful sentence in my summer clerk writeup, “After helping with a day of urgent work on an application to the High Court, it was satisfying to get forwarded a copy of the judgment in our favour a few days later.” It totes was.

Sadly, these moments were to be few and far between. During our first week, we were taught the ancient art of “court-copying” – photocopying judgments from law reports in a way that conformed to the standards of anal-retentive judges. If, due to the vagaries of the photocopier settings or the formatting of a particular publication, some stray black smudges were to appear, the summer clerk’s job was to cover these smudges with Wite-Out and photocopy the case once more. The fact that this task, which comprised a not insignificant portion of the summer clerk experience, could have been performed by a Western hoolock gibbon with rudimentary training put the relevance of our law degrees into sharp perspective.

Interaction with the exalted Partners of the firm was practically non-existent, despite previous summer clerks’ advertorials swearing everyone sat down together every morning with a freshly-toasted bagel to chat and discuss career goals. Of the three partners in my first team, only one would have been able to name the summer clerks on his floor. This is not a criticism of the partners, who are busy, but merely a reality check.

An unlikely highlight was the thrice-daily stroll to the Auckland High Court to hand-deliver an endless stream of inconsequential documents along with cheques for negligible filing fees. Although it was swelteringly hot on a summer’s day in a suit, I enjoyed these brief escapes, and took the opportunity to play relaxing music on my iPhone before returning to the drudgery of the office.

My summer reached its nadir when I was sent on a journey to the in-house printing company to downgrade a single capital R to its lower-case incarnation. As the lift descended, I pondered my life choices.

A summer sans sincerity

The best thing about the five weeks before Christmas was that the summer clerks were invited to the various end-of-year parties occurring at the time. The parties were genuinely fun, and we were provided with hundreds of dollars’ worth of free food and alcohol each time.

But after a requisite number of drinks, the carefully constructed façade of happiness maintained by senior employees would come crashing down, unleashing a torrential outpouring of their latent despair. One guy wanted to be a musician, one a journalist, and another a social justice crusader. Many of them were deeply, desperately unhappy – longing for a more fulfilling career, yet locked into a never-ending cycle of incentives to stay at the firm.

“Just until I finish my Profs exams and get admitted to the bar” transitioned into “two years is great for the CV,” which in turn became “three years and I become an Associate, then I can do a placement with a London law firm.” Few of them will ever snap out of the schedule of reinforcement and leave.

The firm had an overwhelming atmosphere of complete insincerity and forced, relentless positivity. You’ve read the “summer clerk experiences” published in the unctuous pseudo-magazines run by law students’ associations. The authors have little choice but to toe the line and say what they’re meant to say, like a hostage converting to Islam with a gun to his head. If not, they’re fired. Now imagine that for every single conversation at the firm. An offhand remark professing only 98% certainty that law was your true calling would be swiftly picked up on by the ever-vigilant HR department.

If anyone from within the firm asked you how things were going, you had to summon up the energy for a smiling monologue about your passion for whatever menial task you were currently completing. Insincerity is actually quite exhausting when done multiple times per day, but given that your performance and attitude were assessed by your whole team, you couldn’t ever afford to dial it back with a B-side spiel, even when talking to a recent graduate.

It was a truly surreal environment – with each clerk facing five or so polite queries per day, thousands of standard-form positivity proclamations rang out through the firm’s corridors throughout the summer: “Oh yeah, it’s great. Everyone is so welcoming, and the work is really stimulating. And I’ve only been in the team two weeks, but I can already tell Paul’s a real character, haha.”

The insincerity wasn’t limited to interactions between clerks and permanent staff. Clerk-to-clerk conversations should have provided a much-needed hit of conversation that wasn’t processed through the rosy filter of forced exuberance. But whenever five or more clerks were gathered in one place, the conversation inevitably degenerated into a vapid faux-fest. Clerks from different teams competed to feign familiarity with their partners, talking at length about their superiors’ minor personality quirks (like running on the treadmill every lunchtime while reading a magazine), and why their team was totes wacky because they had a competition every morning to see who could make the loudest animal noise. Such antics.

A summer of soul-selling and spin

“My time with the Commercial team involved a lot of fine-tuning of contracts, writing briefs on companies who were potential clients of the firm, and summarising new legislation to keep the team up to date. I also drafted letters to clients providing them with advice on specific topics such as employee share schemes and their obligations under financial service providers legislation.”

- Callum Fredric, Summer Clerk 2012/13.

I’m proud of that paragraph. Ned Flanders would have struggled to put a positive spin on my time in the Commercial team, but I transformed a series of unbelievably mundane tasks into fascinating first forays into the wonderful world of law. It’s a travesty that my Meisterwerk of hyperbole wasn’t chosen to be featured on my firm’s grad recruitment website. Here’s the translated version:

- “Fine-tuning of contracts” = Making minor grammatical edits to Word files based on the red pen markings of higher-ups.

- “Writing briefs on companies who were potential clients of the firm” = Making a list of an international glass manufacturer’s hydra-like set of subsidiaries, in case any were relevant. None of them were.

- “Summarising new legislation” = Printing off and paraphrasing the multiple summaries that senior lawyers in other large firms had already written.

- “Drafted letters to clients providing them with advice on specific topics” = Paraphrased from the firm’s comprehensive pre-existing memos on the relevant topics. If we just forwarded the client the memos directly, we couldn’t bill them for several hours of work.

But in the game of spin, I can’t possibly compete with the magnum opus produced by a 2011/12 summer clerk at Dunedin’s largest law firm, Anderson Lloyd:

“The best thing about spending a summer at Anderson Lloyd is experiencing the unique feel of a premier law firm which has a nationally significant profile at the same time as retaining the feel of a boutique firm. So I not only got to work on a range of interesting and significant projects, but was also treated like a respected and integral part of the team.”

Jonathan, I salute you.

A summer sanctification

I went through corporate purgatory and emerged a better man. After just a few weeks, I felt a refreshing career clarity that had previously been shrouded in a cloud of misplaced priorities. I went into the job expecting soul-destroying boredom, but thought I could live with that if the price was right. I thought wrong. I would rather be a starving artist or join the army than work in a corporate law firm. It is truly mind-numbing work.

That said, I would recommend a summer in corporate purgatory to anyone. It helps you focus on what you really want out of life, and prevents any feelings of “what if?” down the line. Try it once just to confirm that it’s not for you, like peanuts for those who are allergic. Aren’t you curious about what they taste like?

By writing this article, I am spraying Lynx Africa on the bridges leading to any future corporate law career and setting it ablaze. I’ve chosen life.

It’s not that my firm was any better or worse than other firms – in fact, most of the people there were actually great on a personal level. The problem lies in the very DNA of the corporate law firm.

Here’s the reality of big corporate law firms as I see it: none of the lawyers are passionate about what they do, despite the many disingenuous declarations to the contrary. It is simply not possible to feel inspired by patent applications, franchise agreements, and interest-rate swaps. But perhaps if you pretend to give a fuck every day for 20 years, you start to believe your own hype.

Strutting around in a suit is enjoyable, there’s no denying it. So is working in an ultra-modern skyscraper. When you’re eating a free catered lunch while listening to a presentation, you feel like you’re an important individual doing important stuff. But the reality is, you’re not. You’re wasting your twenties working as a glorified office assistant. And you can’t Wite-Out the displeasing black smudge that is the truth.
This article first appeared in Issue 10, 2013.
Posted 4:00pm Sunday 5th May 2013 by Callum Fredric.