The Misery of Ambiguity and Forced Pretense in Law Firms

This podcast episode is part of the series where Sarah is chatting with Annie Little about the book Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber. If you missed the first episode in this series, check that out first and learn the background of this series and more about Annie. This episode is about the misery of ambiguity and forced pretense, which is the first of four things Graeber identifies as an impact that having a bullshit job can have on you.

When it comes to ambiguity in law firms, the lack of transparency is the first thing that comes to mind for Annie. She points out that there should be a simple, straightforward path with clear instructions on each assignment and an obvious ladder to climb within the firm. In reality, there are so many hidden things that lawyers are left to just figure out on their own. 

Law Firms Have Little Structure

The structure of a law firm can be very confusing because there are no specific departments or leadership hierarchies like in a traditional company. In a law firm, every partner is your boss, and no partner is your boss. No one is really responsible for you, but everyone can ask you to do things. This ambiguity is how many people end up in toxic work situations. The HR teams in law firms don’t operate in the traditional ways either. Those teams are not very involved in the day-to-day at the law firm and don’t often make too much of a difference.

Lawyers are constantly feeling like they are just missing something. There should be rules or a clear process, but they aren’t understanding it and blaming themselves. 

Graeber talks about bullshit jobs and how these jobs require maintaining a false front and playing a game of make-believe, but the rules are hard to figure out, and you have no idea who is on your team and who isn’t. He calls it “scriptlessness” because no one knows what to say or how to feel. 

For many lawyers, that might seem a bit extreme, but glimmers of it ring true. The idea of not knowing who is on your team is a common experience in a law firm. There might be complications of seniority layered in as well. Some lawyers get reprimanded for giving feedback or input to colleagues because it is taken as disrespectful. It can be exhausting.

Billables Control Everything in Law

Another example that can be common in law firms is when you help another team when things dip and aren’t as busy. You might be told to help another area and increase your billables, and then an assignment comes up from another partner, and you let them know what you’re working on, and they are annoyed that you are helping another area. Everything can just feel very contradictory. 

There is a forced pretense that you as an associate are responsible for your billables. When there is concern about low billables, people go looking for more work, but at the end of the day, they are not in a position where they can generate the work themselves. Either the work isn’t there or someone isn’t giving you the work, but they are making it out like it’s your fault that you aren’t hitting your hours. It’s corporate gaslighting.

Graeber also talks about cycles in bullshit jobs where you are either completely overworked or completely underworked. Boredom isn’t good for anyone. It can create anxiety, especially if someone has ADHD. With lawyers, there is the added stress of needing billable hours. 

The Partnership Path Comes With A Lot of Ambiguity

Another common example in law firms comes from lawyers that want to become partner. They will hear that they need to complete a list of tasks that aren’t billable hours, like joining a board, taking leadership courses, and networking, but none of them are a value add in your job as a lawyer. You’ll be judged by the absence of them, but you aren’t afforded the time to work on them.

Partnership decisions are typically made strictly on monetary grounds. There’s no clear path to becoming partner because they could constantly change the demands and requirements they are looking for. As a lawyer, you’re primed to think that it’s your fault if you didn’t get the outcome you wanted, but it’s impossible to figure out the rules. There’s a lack of accountability because the decision makers can always say that it’s a “committee decision.”
The ambiguity and forced pretense create an environment that puts people on edge and creates anxiety. It’s a feature of the system, not a bug. Make sure to tune in to the next episode for more on the topic of bullshit jobs. If you haven’t yet, download the free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law.

If you’ve been considering joining The Collab but are interested in working with Sarah Cottrell 1:1, learn more about The Collab Plus program. You’ll get everything you would get inside the Collab, plus an 8-week action plan created by Sarah just for you.

Complete Bullshit Jobs Series

Is Being A Lawyer A Bullshit Job?

The Misery of Ambiguity and Forced Pretense in Law Firms

The Artificial Power Structure and Feeling Helpless as a Lawyer with Annie Little

The Misery of Not Feeling Entitled to One’s Misery as a Lawyer

The Misery of Knowing That One Is Doing Harm as a Lawyer

Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.

This weekend, Annie Little and I are continuing our conversation about the book Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber, specifically about the first of four reasons or four descriptions that he has related to what it is like to have a b*llsh*t job or what the experience of having a job that is characterized that way is like.

If you haven't listened to last week's episode, go listen to that because, among other things, we talk about how David Graeber defines the term b*llsh*t job. He's an anthropologist, this book is essentially an anthropological study of the phenomenon of b*llsh*t jobs, which he talks about.

Specifically this week, Annie and I are talking about the misery of ambiguity and forced pretense, which is the first of four things that David Graeber identifies as being the result of or an impact that having a b*llsh*t job can have on you if you're someone in a job like this. So, without further ado, let's talk about the misery of ambiguity and forced pretense.

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Okay, so Annie and I are back and we are going to be talking about the book Bullshit Jobs as we discussed last week. If you did not listen to last week's podcast episode, go back and listen because this will make a lot more sense.

But one of the pieces of this book that I think has some really helpful observations for lawyers is the chapter where the author talked about what it is like to have a b*llsh*t job. In particular, talking about its impacts on human nature or what results and how people experience their workplace and the impacts that it has on emotional, physical, mental, psychological, etc.

There are four main impacts that he identified in his research. The first one is the one that we're going to talk about today. That is what he calls the misery of ambiguity and forced pretense. Annie, when I say that, is there anything that comes to mind immediately when you think about the legal profession, the lawyers that you've worked with, and this idea of ambiguity and forced pretense?

Annie Little: So many things, but I mean, just in general, the first thing that comes through is the lack of transparency. That's evident in all legal or law firms in particular. It's like, “Well, if you follow all the rules, you will get promoted, you'll become partner,” and all that stuff, and you're like, “Great, so how do I do that?” It's like, “You just do it.” It's like, “What?”

We feel like there should be a straight path forward just like there should be straightforward instructions on assignments and that everything should just be pretty self-evident, like we are here to solve problems for clients and that's what we're going to do.

Yet there's all of this hidden stuff that we're supposed to just figure out I guess about how it works. But that's what it said to me because I always felt like I thought I knew what I was doing and then I would just get knocked down a peg by my supervisor. It's like, “Oh, you thought that's what we were doing? No, that's not what we're doing. Why would you think that?” That's what that brings up for me.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, well, and the thing that came to mind for me first was just the ways in which, especially if you're at a law firm, the structure of the law firm can be very confusing because unlike in a traditional workplace where you have typically departments and you have managers and then managers of managers and you have some, I'm not saying it's always done super well to be clear, but some structure, at a law firm, you have associates, you have partners, but every partner is your boss and no partner is your boss.

No one's really responsible for you, but everyone can ask for things from you. There's a seniority situation, which typically has some influence on the way you interact with people. But there are all of these other dynamics that are at play, and ultimately, I think one of the things that it really reminded me of, the ambiguity piece especially is how many people end up in bad situations and either overloaded with work or being stuck working for a particularly toxic person, and even if they wanted to go to someone or have some sort of recourse, there isn't really anything.

HR is off in its own bubble, often not really aware of what is happening or who is what, and just that whole confusing structure that I think really creates a lot of isolation for everyone in the system.

Annie Little: Yeah, it's like there's nowhere to go. HR in law firms doesn't operate, in most cases, like HR in a company. It's not like you can say, “My boss just said this to me.” In a law firm, they're going to be like, “Yeah, I'm afraid too.” That was my experience. But yeah, everyone says he's hard to work for. I don't know what to tell you.

Sarah Cottrell: Right. Also, I can remember, I know so many people who had exit interviews coming out of law firms, and their exit interview was with someone in the HR department, not someone who is really involved in the day-to-day. And it's not that you have to do the exit interview with someone who is involved in the day-to-day in any context in order for it to be useful, the problem is that in the law firm context, generally speaking, you know where the power resides, and you know if someone is sitting and listening to what you have to say, and the law firm actually cares, it's not going to be someone who is not involved at all in the day-to-day experience of lawyering.

Annie Little: Yeah, I feel like it's by design that they don't have people that you worked with day-to-day hearing it directly.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. Then I think there's this sense that people get of, “Well, there must be some way to navigate this that is correct and I just can't figure it out. But there have to be rules. It can't just be a complete free for all so I'm just not figuring them out, or I'm just not understanding properly. If I did, then it wouldn't feel this way. There wouldn't be this ambiguity and I wouldn't have to constantly feel like I need to act like it all makes sense.”

Annie Little: Yeah, and I think lawyers, in particular, are so prone to be like, “It must be me. Hi. I'm the problem. It's me.” It's not like, “It could be this organization is the problem.” It's me.

Sarah Cottrell: Right. Yeah. Here are a couple of things that he talks about when he's talking about what people describe who are in a job that they consider to be a b*llsh*t job, how this ambiguity plays out. He says, “B*llsh*t jobs too require maintaining a false front and playing a game of make-believe, but in their case, the game has to be played in a context where one is rarely quite sure what the rules are, why it is being played, who's on your team and who isn't.”

Then later, he says, “Many, probably most, b*llsh*t jobs involve a similar agonizing scriptlessness. Not only are the codes of behavior ambiguous, no one is even sure what they're supposed to say or how they're supposed to feel about their situation.”

The thing is if you're listening as I read those quotes, and you're like, “Well, that's a bit extreme. That doesn't really describe my experience, but maybe there were some echoes of it,” I think in particular, the idea of not knowing who's on your team, who isn't, that sort of thing, I see that in the experience of lawyers who work in law firms all the time.

Because there's this idea of, “We're all at the same firm. We're all on the same team,” but then if you're a partner, there is the pressure to be bringing in business and the way that you're compensated is dependent on a lot of different things that involve a lot of internal machinations.

If you're an associate, technically it's like, “Oh, we're all colleagues,” but then I know that I have had the experience of multiple people who I know or who I've worked with who have basically gotten in trouble for speaking to someone senior to them as though they were equals.

Annie Little: God forbid. We all passed the bar exam, but nope.

Sarah Cottrell: Right. Literally, people might think that I'm exaggerating, but that is literally what they were reprimanded for, not being disrespectful. Someone might hear me describing this and be like, “Oh, well, you shouldn't mouth off to your boss,” but that's not what's being described. It's literally like, “Oh, we told you, we're all colleagues here and we care about your input. You're a valuable member of the team, but then you acted that way? That's not okay.”

Annie Little: Yeah, you actually provided us with some feedback and input, how dare you? This is something that we didn't like. It's something that's critical, and we don't know how to address and so that means you have stepped out of line in the hierarchy, which has been unclear up to this point.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. The thing is the fact that I've seen this happen in so many situations means that I know this is happening with a ridiculous amount of frequency. I know there are people listening to this episode, who have had this experience of like, “Wait, I thought we were all on the same team here,” or “Wait, I thought that the rules were X and now you're telling me they’re Y.”

But often, the most confusing part is you're told a certain thing, you act in accordance with it, you're reprimanded, and then there you're continually told the original thing that led you to think, “Oh, I don't have to perform this as though I am essentially lesser than someone who is my superior. But in fact, I actually do but I have to pretend that I don't.”

Annie Little: Right. I feel like this also brings up which I see with people I work with, because in my executive coaching, I work with people who are in jobs where they want to be but they want to develop as leaders and the future leaders of their firm, and this ambiguity stuff and the force pretense, it's a feature of what they have to work through.

I see this happen and I experienced it myself too where you get to a point where you've been somewhere long enough, where you've worked with someone enough where you’d be like, “Okay, I got it. This is how we work together,” or “This is how things are supposed to operate.”

For example, I worked in smaller firms. I know bigger firms, it can be a little different, where you don't cut across practice areas so much, but in smaller firms where I worked, it was like, okay, I worked in the real estate department, but my whole firm was real estate. I was in the transactional real estate group. It was very small. We had litigation and we had land use. We even had employment. We had some corporate and trusts and estate stuff that managed real estate.

There were certain times of the year where there'd be dips in commercial lending and whatever. So my billables would go down, and the supervisors in the group would be like, “Okay, just try to get your billables up, just see if you can help out with other groups or whatever.” I was like, “Gladly,” because I'm bored.

So I would just walk down the hall and be like, “Hey, do you need help writing a brief litigation?” and they'd be like, “Yeah, totally. You would do that? Is that okay with your boss?” I’m like, “He told me to do this.” They'd be like, “Great. Here, if you could write this, we have this motion. If you could do this research for us,” and I’d be like, “You got it, happy to do it.”

Then, it would vary, sometimes, I would get in trouble. My assigning person would be like, “Okay, we got some work and I need you to do this lease or whatever,” like, “Great. I can do that. When's it due? Because I'm also working on this brief.” Then all of a sudden, it's like I have stepped out of line, like, “What? You went and you're working for another partner in a different group?” I’m like, “But isn't that what you told me to do?”

Then I'm like, “Listen, I can manage these priorities. I'm literally just asking when you need it by, I can work with this.” But they're like, “Whoa, it's like you're cheating on me.” Then the cycle will get further down the line where I work it out, then I get to another part where I need to gather some more billables, and I go back to litigation, and I'm like, “Hey, do you need me to write a brief, a motion, or something, do some research?” and they're like, “I mean, yeah, but I'm not sure I'm allowed to do that for you anymore.” I'm like, “Oh my God,” because they got yelled at or whatever for doing it. It's like, “Ugh.”

I know that happens. Because like you said, you've got all these bosses and none of these bosses but there's one or two that feel like they own you a little bit more and everyone else knows that.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Yes to all of that. The other thing about billables, the other thing that I think so many people will resonate with is the forced pretense that you, as an associate, are somehow responsible for your billables.

Annie Little: Oh, my God. This is my favorite.

Sarah Cottrell: This is a whole thing. I know I just released an episode not that long ago talking about the layoffs that have been happening and how the idea that you're laying people off because they didn't get billables is just this ridiculous fiction. The reason being I'm not saying there's never someone who has tried not to bill the time they need to bill. Obviously, I'm not saying that.

However, every situation that I've ever known of in my, lo, these many years that I worked as a lawyer, have many friends who are lawyers, now having worked with many lawyers, in the former lawyer context, people are constantly worried when they aren't hitting their billable target. They're constantly asking for work.

Then if they're not getting work, and they're not in a position to somehow generate the work themselves, which especially in larger law firms, but even in small law firms is rarely the case, it's like you don't have billables because the people who are supposed to be bringing in the work to allow you to bill that time are not doing that.

I'm not saying, “And that means they're terrible people,” I just mean turning around and saying, “Oh, you the associate who has been pestering people for work to a degree that feels utterly ridiculous, and hasn't been able to make your hours,” to then say, “Oh, it's your fault that you haven't made your hours,” this is a level of pretense that is beyond ridiculous.

Annie Little: For me, because I was in a smaller firm and so I did network, I even have friends still that I met through networking that eventually became clients but I wasn't a partner. In sales, you know that you need to be talking to a decision-maker. Everybody knew I wasn't the decision-maker. I can only go so far, to begin with, so I'm like, “I'm doing all of that stuff.”

Then we would get into this whole thing where I'd be like, “Aren't you?” because I do have a sassy mouth, but I'd be like, “You're the one who's supposed to bring clients across the line and then I do the grunt work. Right?” They're like, “How dare you?”

But I'm like, “I thought there was this hierarchy. Now you're telling me there's not?” Also, like you said, it's this absolute fiction that I'm somehow responsible for this scenario in which we find ourselves.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, it's so ludicrous and yet it is so pervasive because almost everyone who's in a position where they're like, “I have a billable target and I'm not hitting it, and I need to find work and I need to ask people for work,” are constantly being told, “Well, you really just need to be asking people for work,” and it's like, “They literally are,” so then there's a sense of like, “Wait, am I not asking enough? I'm doing all this stuff, but it's somehow not enough.”

You know there are some number of people who are senior to you who know about the hour situation so either they are just not bothering to actually make sure that you get work or the work doesn't exist because the work doesn't exist and in what university is it your fault as an associate that you're not doing work that literally doesn't exist?

Yet people are made to feel like, I mean, I've seen it so many times where the firm does not have enough work, someone is persistently asking for work, and they feel like and they are treated as though they are lazy, not trying, or somehow avoiding work.

They know what their experience is, they know that they're asking for work repeatedly. They're doing all of the things and then some that people say you should do, they still somehow feel like it's on them.

Annie Little: Yeah, there’s something I'm missing.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, there’s something they're missing. It's like there's nothing you're missing, the work isn't there and/or someone at a more senior level is actively deciding not to give you that work, and yet making it out as though it is somehow your fault for not hitting your hours. When you think about it, the reality of it, it's like psychological warfare.

Annie Little: It's corporate gaslighting. It really is. It's like, “No, that's not what's happening. It's that you're lazy.” It's like, “No, I'm literally asking it but I'm not in the position of power here,” and like, “No, yeah, you, you're the problem.”

Also, something that Graeber talks about in this section that I found very validating, because I feel like the billable stuff is very unique to lawyers because I have found in owning my own business, everybody actually tracks their time, subcontractors and stuff, everybody tracks their time, that's not unusual, but that's not the sole metric by which they're valued.

But still, when we're talking about this, I feel like the billable nature of legal practice is somewhat unique. But Graeber talks about these in Bullshit Jobs where you have these cycles where you're either completely overworked or completely underworked. This is this period for lawyers like you can't even necessarily fake it because you have to be putting your hours in.

But he talks about how the results of those low periods where you can't get any work done or there's no work to do, it creates either anxiety, he talks about clinical anxiety, or boredom. For me, all kinds of lights went off for me because I was like, “Either or, I'm like, friend, if you have ADHD, it is both because boredom is a huge trigger for the ADHD brain. It causes clinical anxiety as well.”

You've got the boredom, which is physically painful. Our nervous system is physically like, “Ow, I'm bored. I need stimulation.” Then there's the “Oh sh*t. Not only do I need stimulation, but I need billable hours.” The anxiety is extreme. Seeing that was a universal anthropological phenomenon, I was like, “Wow, that's super validating,” and that he called out boredom and anxiety.

That also resonated for me knowing that we've talked about before, that there's a higher proportion of lawyers who have ADHD than the general population. If you feel particularly dysregulated and anxious when you're not getting billable work, that's why, friend. It's not you, but it's also your nervous system compounding it.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, yeah. It's not some moral failing on your part. It's literally the fact that you're a human being. The other thing is, related to that, and the fact that as lawyers, so much of your value is tied to your billables in thinking about the ambiguity and forced pretense of this idea that like, “Oh, there are all these things that matter,” and we're going to tell you, they're all of these things that go into whether you are a valued employee or whether you're going to make partner and then I can't tell you the number of people I know who have had this experience of, for example, putting nonbillable time towards some initiative or something that the law firm claims is one of its top priorities, then ultimately, all of that is utterly discounted in favor of billables or other things like that.

This persistent fiction of we're making all these judgments in this holistic way when ultimately, everyone knows and has seen multiple times decisions and priorities come down to how many hours are you billing.

Annie Little: Yes, and I've seen that. For example, when you're going out for partner to work with a lot of people who are in that position, and they're told, “You need to be on leadership stuff, be on a board somewhere, be the secretary of your practice to be, networking or whatever,” but it's not a value add in the analysis, but the absence of those types of things, they will hold against you.

It's not a help for you to have them on your so-called resume, but if you don't have it on your resume, they're going to be like, “Ooh, yeah, your billables are good, but what are you doing on the business development side of things?” and it's like, “You guys, you don't really care about that. I know that,” and like, “Yep, we do. Sorry.”

Sarah Cottrell: Also, on the partnership decision side, the decision about partnership are being made on, generally speaking, strictly monetary grounds and often with very little forward thinking on the part of the decision-makers. Then ultimately, they are looking for whatever they can tell you that will make the decision sound like it was a more principled decision than it actually was.

You'll end up in a situation where, as you said, it will be like, “Oh, well, you didn't do this and that thing, so even though your billables are good, and this other thing, you didn't do this.” Or the flipside, it'll be like, “Oh, you did do those things. But actually, we wanted to see this other thing.”

Annie Little: Or the economy right now. You didn't foresee this and I've been working towards this for 10 years, and just because of a blip in the economy, my timing is off?

Sarah Cottrell: Right. The experience of this, as a lawyer who is experiencing this, I think it is profoundly disorienting, because your brain is looking for the pattern and the rules and you're trying to follow them. You're primed to think that if you don't have the outcome you want, or you're told that you did something wrong, that it was your fault, because you somehow didn't figure out the rules, or didn't whatever, when ultimately, so much of it is this pretense around like, “We're going to say things that make this decision sound like it was principled, or based on something other than just an extremely crass decision of we don't want to make anyone partner this year in this department, because blah, blah, blah,” everyone who's listening knows.

I think there are so many pieces, especially to the experience of being a lawyer in private practice, that are just like, “Okay, are we all pretending that this is actually what's going on?” I guess we are and it makes people feel they can't actually trust the experience that they're having.

Annie Little: I get so upset about it. I'm so heartbroken about it. Tying it back to there's this pretense of hierarchy and principle decision-making but then like is there any, not recourse but when you're like, “Who else do I talk to about how I can make sure I get promoted next year or whatever?” They're like, “Oh, well, it was a committee decision.”

I hear that a lot that everything is made by committee so there's this lack of accountability that can be, not challenged, but they're like, “Yeah, the committee decides and the committee meets once a year and so you'll have to wait till next year.” My head explodes.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, it's a total abdication of responsibility, or accountability maybe is the better word. There's no accountability for decisions because everything can be pushed off on the collective or, “ideally” pushed off on you. Obviously, there are a lot of things related to this idea of ambiguity and forced pretense that we see in the experience of being a lawyer.

If you're someone who's listening, and you're like, “Oh, yeah, that describes what I am experiencing or what I did experience,” I hope that helps you feel a little bit more confident in your own experience. I just want you to know that it feels bad because it is something that is designed to make you feel bad. The ambiguity and the forced pretense, it creates an environment that puts you on edge and creates anxiety.

Annie Little: By design.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, as Annie said, it's a feature, not a bug. It's not like, “Oops, that happened,” it is literally a feature of a system that is like this. Annie, do you have anything else that you want to say about this topic before we wrap up for today?

Annie Little: Aside from vamping on what I've already said because I could go on and on and on about this, I think we've covered the high points.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. Come back next week for another conversation about another aspect of what it can be like and feel like to be in a b*llsh*t job.

Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at Until next time, have a great week.