Wake Up Call

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It was four am when I realised I hated my job.

Four am when I first seriously considered that maybe I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore.

I was sitting alone at my desk, marooned in the darkened silence of the vast open office waiting for my Partner to give me new instructions or (I hoped) let me go. Limbo in the twilight zone of the witching hour.

You develop a strange mindset in Big Law. If someone had told me even eighteen months prior that I’d be sitting around in the early hours of the morning waiting for someone to tell me I could go home at 4am I would have laughed. Would have told them not to be silly, that as soon as the work was done I would’ve been outta there like a shot (if not before, let’s be honest). I had been a firm adherent to the eight-hour day.

And yet there I was, resting my head on that evening’s stack of discarded drafts, unheeding of the red ink transferring to my cheek in bloody caress. Staring at the closed glass door, willing it to open.

My Partner had been closeted away for what seemed like an eternity. Important client. Billion-dollar deal. Something about the tax treatment. It always came down to the tax treatment. I could see him through the clear but impenetrable barrier, furrowed brow furrowing further over an over-long nose, the fluttering of my eyelids rendering the whole face demonically distorted.

And it was here, eyelids drifting, body slumped, that I realised I hated my job. I hated that it kept me bone tired and tied to office furniture at all hours. I hated that I had become familiar with stress sleeping (an involuntary cousin to the cat nap, it is hallmarked by the sudden jolt of consciousness when your body’s exhaustion no longer outweighs the constant heavy fear of being found kipping on the job). I hated that I had stopped making plans for weeknights so that I wouldn’t have to cancel last minute due to the euphemistic ‘work’. I hated that I was so tired and overemotional that I regularly cried in the disabled bathroom (in an open plan office, these quickly become the unintended havens of privacy).

But most of all, I hated that my Partner was still there too.

Having hit his hallmarked time for a mid-life crisis earlier that year, he had given nearly thirty of his waking years to the firm. And there he was, sitting head slumped in hands at four am while overseas clients in time zones more conducive to comprehension and consciousness berated him for the minor errors that sneak between the pages when you don’t have the attention to keep them out.

I hated that he would talk incessantly about the importance of family, of his love for his three young children, and yet, if he made it home for dinner one night out of five it was in positive aberration. I hated the realisation that he, like me, was still working for the weekend.

Because surely, surely, thirty years should have changed that?

Surely, surely, that was why we will bought in?

The premise that you worked hard (too hard, ludicrously hard) on the promise that there would be a time you wouldn’t. That there would be a time where you would have clients who trusted and respected you and you would have others (underlings, minions, serfs) to support you in providing duly timed services to those clients while you saw the family you delayed for a decade.

For this was the Promised Land of Partnership.

I don’t know when it changed or if it ever was. But I know many of the parched lips hungrily drinking from the poisoned well, unaware that salvation is saline. For in a world of stagnant demand but thriving competition there is no point on which laurels can be rested. Not even for a moment. Not even at four am.

And so you keep working for the weekend. And that realisation, that my fifty-year old Partner was still in the same boat as I (albeit with flashier brass fittings and leather seats), was the semi-conscious realisation that broke my already wavering belief in Big Law. Because followed quickly on its heels was the realisation that if the job never changes, never becomes less demanding, less needy, then something’s gotta give right?

And that something is you. It is your weeknights. Your weekends. Your expectations of boundaries. Your ability to say no. Your perception of what working hard is. By the time I left I didn’t think I was working hard. I knew I was working more than I wanted to, but I did think that was because I was selfish and lazy. It seemed normal to have less than six hours between when you finished and when you came back. It seemed luxurious to have eight. It seemed weak to complain.

And these were the thoughts I had in the dark wasteland of empty desks. And it was after five am when I left. And it was just after nine am that I came back.

And I didn’t think about the thoughts I’d had for another month.

Henrietta Farrelly-Barnett

This blog and original artwork is a re-print with permission from the author. It originally appeared July 27, 2015 on Henrietta’s own website http://www.redlipswhitechina.com/