Book Review: The Pinstriped Prison

by Carly Barlow

pinstriped prison

The Pinstriped Prison (2008)
Author: Lisa Pryor
Publisher: Picador Australia
Carly’s rating: 7/10

The Pinstriped Prison is a chronicle of what life was like working in a big law firm prior to the global financial crisis. The author of this book, Lisa Pryor, was an aspiring law graduate before becoming disillusioned with law, particularly the ‘big firm’ culture in which she worked part time as a summer clerk. She has since decided not to practice law and works as a journalist, which seems to be her true calling, given her witty writing style. The overall message of the book is one of staying true to what your values are when choosing a profession.

The book is most suitable for those who are contemplating studying law. The author likens becoming a lawyer (particularly in the big firms) to being drawn into a prison with very little chance to get out once the lure of the firm proves too difficult to resist. The book begins with a story where young associates are told that they may be lucky to get two holidays a year – ‘one for your first wedding and one for your first heart attack’. This sets the tone for the author’s very grim view of ‘big firms’. She expresses regret that young, highly intelligent students are encouraged to all join the ‘pinstriped prison’ when they could be encouraged to go into other worthy professions such as teaching and community work.

Pryor details the tricks that the ‘big firms’ use to trap young graduates. Under no circumstances can the job look bland, repetitive and desk bound. Lawyers in the brochures appear unique – wacky sportsmen and women who are far too interesting for that. This is where the problems begin as the expectations of what the job will be like and the reality are poles apart. This may be different post GFC with large volumes of law graduates and limited jobs.

The reality of the new job for the unsuspecting graduate is described, for instance challenges promised are reduced to the challenges of loading a toner cartridge into the photocopier. The ‘golden handcuffs’ are on by this stage as recruits are indebted to the firm to pay off large student loans and sign on bonuses. Pryor warns how difficult it is to then escape the ‘money trap’ when life luxuries become necessities and you need a high pressure, high paying job to afford them. The handcuffs are also psychological. She quotes a young disillusioned lawyer – “I hated my degree and it would be crazy to have gone through all that and not translated it into a career I hate as well”. Oh dear.

The book shows how tragedy can occur when people get trapped in this ‘work hard, play hard’ culture in a job they despise. The author gives stories of those who regularly do ‘all nighters’, some going on to commit suicide. Lawyers are selected for their ‘prudent pessimism’, which can be a handy trait to have when advising clients. Pryor advises that lawyers must learn to remain optimistic in their private lives and should move out of the law if they are feeling that their career and values are so out of sync that they cannot coexist peacefully. One thing in the book that struck a chord with me was how law students are specifically trained to separate values from intellect – ‘it’s called debating’. A person can get so used to disassociating themselves from their own values, when pushing a point of view that any behaviour can be justified. It is important for lawyers to maintain a sense of their own values.

Overall I found this book an easy read that was very funny in parts but slightly terrifying as a graduating lawyer! The lesson in this book is that students should assess their motives for becoming a lawyer. Those that have started law for the wrong reasons such as materialistic gains or due to the expectations of others (such as parents, teachers and peers) should think hard before committing to a profession that may then become a sort of prison that is psychologically very difficult to get released from, once committed. I have met young undergraduates who do seem to have these highly competitive tendencies (I remember reading about social Darwinism in one young lawyer publication) so I would not be surprised if this culture thrives in some practices. My view however is that law graduates should not be deterred from practicing law by this book, as there are many other alternatives to the big firm ‘work hard, play hard’ culture.

Feature Image from: Google Books