I Learned It From Watching You!

It occurs to me that some of you may have read my post You’ve Been Warned . . . and thought, “Why on earth would anyone care if he uses parentheses?” If that was your reaction, good for you! You clearly take a healthy approach to grammar and punctation (if you take any approach). And you clearly never served time in a large law firm (what some might, obnoxiously, refer to as “Biglaw“). I, on the other hand, did spend time at a Biglaw firm — two, in fact. I would like to think that the occasional parentheses, or series of ellipses, or just about any punctuation would have largely escaped my notice 13+ years ago. I was an English Lit major and a proponent of “proper English” well before law school, so it is possible that I would have noticed, but I highly doubt it would have bothered me. But, sadly, after more than a decade of practicing law (with most of those years in Biglaw firms), the notion that parentheses might bother someone not only makes perfect sense, it now seems hard to believe someone wouldn’t have an opinion on this.

I was reminded again today of what a monster I’ve become while responding to an e-mail from a friend (a fellow Biglaw refugee himself). That friend had sent a nice note to say that he had enjoyed reading MuchAdo and that he shared my affinity for parentheticals and ellipses (yes, folks, that’s professional nerdery at its finest). I wrote him a note in return to thank him and as a bit of a joke (a term I am using in its absolute loosest sense) mentioned that I also quite enjoyed the use of the en dash. But wait . . . was it the en dash or em dash that I hold so dear? And this, my friends, is where the illness takes over. A quick trip to Wikipedia, and I confirmed that it is, in fact, an en dash. Phew!

As you read this, I can sense the judgment. The derision. I’m with you all the way. I get it. I even agree with it. But guess what, folks, that friend sent me a response to let me know that he, too, likes the en dash. (Ummm . . . yeah, I guess that’s how we roll . . . I wish it weren’t so.) He went on to admit that he . . . wait for it . . . had to go to Wikipedia to confirm that it was, in fact, the en dash, not the em dash, that he uses. And there it is, dear Readers. The Stockholm Syndrome of Biglaw lawyers.

I doubt this particular quirk is unique to Biglaw lawyers (or lawyers generally). I’ve found it almost universal that people dislike certain words. (Disagree? How about “panties” or “slacks” or “moist”? One of those made you cringe.) However, there seems to be an abnormal concentration of a**hole Type A personalities in the Biglaw world. As I said, I wasn’t always like this. It didn’t take long, though, for the various partners and senior associates at Biglaw to make me care deeply about fonts and punctuation and other print miscellany (fear of losing one’s job has a funny way of driving behavior). Of course, not coming by it naturally, I could never care as much as many of my colleagues. One of those colleagues vacillated over the use of the word “utilize” versus “use” (or did she vacillate over the utilization of the word . . . never mind) for a full 15 minutes. While I watched. At 2:30 in the morning. I might have a preference for one of those words at 2:30 in the afternoon. I might have a preference at 6:30 in the evening. At 2:30 in the morning, there is no discussion. No confusion. Certainly no vacillation. But this is what you are up against, and what is expected of you, in that environment.

And, so it is that you find yourself, as a matter of course, proofreading and fact-checking every document and, yes, every e-mail, because the wrong word or, God forbid, the wrong punctuation could land you in a superior’s office listening to a lecture on why “we use the word ‘aggregate’ not ‘total.'” (For what it’s worth, the answer to why we use the word “aggregate” is “because that’s what we use.” Thanks.) Don’t believe me, consider this e-mail string, between a holier-than-thou Biglaw associate (delivering a firm-wide e-mail rant that its successful defense of the Washington Redskins was likely to dishearten Native Americans) and an a**hole Biglaw partner. It’s an entertaining read that nicely illustrates so many of the quirks of Biglaw lawyers, including one lawyer’s strong feelings about, you guessed it, parentheses. Read the partner’s response. While there is ample material in the snarky associate’s e-mail for criticism, the partner simply cannot resist the urge to critique the irksome associate’s punctuation saying, “Note the lack of any parentheses in this email. It makes it much easier to read.” {sigh}

And this is why you can land on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times for being an a**hole without any impact to your career in Biglaw. Because it matters not that you are a jerk, so long as the final product is good. Nay, perfect. All of this makes for good stories once you’re out, but it can be hell while you’re in. Go ahead, ask the Biglaw lawyer in your life for their favorite Biglaw lawyer story. They are bound to have several, many of which are passed around from firm to firm — the oral history of our legal predecessors (and contemporaries). Some are sad, or embarrassing, or funny, or all three. Almost all involve some supreme a**holery.

I, of course, am generalizing here. When all is said and done, I am grateful for the training I received (and the friends I made) in those firms. It made me a better lawyer and a better editor. But there are times I would like to be able to turn it off.

And, if you, like me, bear the scars of Biglaw life, all I ask of you is that you do your best to turn it off while you’re here. Ignore the utilization of parentheses if it bothers you. Appreciate that, in the aggregate, the facts are checked. And most of all, if you notice a typo on this site, please, for the love of God, keep it to yourself. It would be more than I could bear.

By the way, you might want to throw those moist slacks in the dryer.