As lawyers we sold our time. We made no other product, we had no other purpose. My day was carved up into tiny slices—tenths of an hour. Want a piece of me? You can have it in six-minute increments, rounded up.
And at the end of each day, I tallied it up. Client number 1: three point eight hours. Client number two: four point one. Client number three: zero point two. And so on. It all added up to one thing: me. My job. My day. My life.
Dehumanizing? I tried not to think about it. If I had, I might have felt like this guy:
Actually, most of the time I thought the system worked fine. We gave quality advice to people with problems. The billable hour incentivized us to work hard and measured how much effort we expended on their behalf.
We didn’t create work just for the sake of billing—first, because it would have caused problems with clients, who could easily go elsewhere and could tell all their peers not to hire us as well.
But also: who wants to waste time all day? I was there to do a job and go home. I took no pleasure from doing something slowly and poorly. Efficient excellence: that’s what I liked, and that’s what I aspired to.
That was the upside to the deadlines and the time tracking. Had I had a good, productive week? Was I more productive this April than last April? These were yes-or-no questions. How many people can say that, and back it up with statistics? Bond traders, athletes, and me.
And the quantification wasn’t just an “oh, doing that research and coming up with some recommendations took me a couple of days, I guess…” No. That was how my friends in the government talked. I had a program on my computer that recorded my time. I clicked a button when I started a project and clicked it again when I stopped. If I was interrupted, I paused it. At the end of the day I could know that a project took seven point four hours. It was precise and calibrated: the point threes and point twos and point sevens kept me on my toes.
That was fine. But enjoying tracking my time was not the same as being in control of it.
And this could wear me down. If I wasn’t putting in the work for clients, money would not come in the door, and eventually my coworkers and I would be out on the street. That meant that if the client wanted something, you needed to be available, even if you were tired, even if you were on vacation, even if it was your kid’s birthday. That was the gig. Sure, it was intellectually engaging and paid well enough to make my student loan payments. I had health insurance. But still: it was a job. It was work.
On many, many mornings I would come into the office low on sleep, exhausted from a weekend of binders and outlines, looking for caffeine to get my productivity level higher. Looking for the boost that would help me recapture that sweet spot of efficient excellence. Looking for the magic. And then dragging myself to the kitchen, where the coffee was free, provided by the firm to keep the the four point threes and one point sevens and eight point twos rolling in the door.
One morning in the kitchen there was a wait at the cupboard as several people tried to pick out a decent mug. “You know,” one of my coworkers said to the office manager, who happened to be there, “it’s getting really hard to find a good one.”
It was true. There were four shelves of coffee mugs, all white with our firm’s name printed in small, black capital letters. Once they had looked very classy. Inspiring, even. But now those mugs were chipped and dented and scratched and discolored.
These mugs had a strangely powerful influence on my mood. When one had a big ugly chip on the handle, or the inside was full of scratches on the bottom and brown rings up the side, I was consumed with negative energy. And so were others. I spent five minutes (point one!) trying to pick out a mug or waiting for others to do so.
I had not said anything, but I had in fact developed this idea that the mugs were a reflection of my teeth and bones—that the coffee I drank was staining my insides just as it did the mugs.
For all the positives associated with this job, it was just not healthy to live like that. My mind may have been active and engaged, but my body was rotting away.
Yes, yes: I dove into deep, dark waters every time I stared at the bottom of one of these foul things.
What was I doing? Physically I was owned. I had turned my body over to the firm, and I had to drug it up in order to perform—but really, if I was honest with myself, hadn’t I also put my mind at their service as well? I had to do what they wanted, when they wanted—and I had to pour their energy-laced drink, from their crappy mugs, into my body just to trick myself into feeling awake. Why do it? What did they do for me, really? A paycheck, sure—a fraction of what I brought in for them.
And what else? I was not so naive to think they cared about me as a person. They looked at me and saw two thousand billable hours a year. They saw me drinking coffee and thought it was a point one that would help me with the rest of the day.
Free coffee? It was an investment. A benefit that outweighed the cost. And I was the product.
My mood was dark that day. My eyelids were barely open. I was surprised my coworker had dared disrupt the flow. Complain about mugs? How would you like no coffee, sir? How would you like no job?
“Yeah, we’re going to get some new ones,” the office manager surprised me by saying. He held up a mug and shook his head. “Jesus, look at these things. These are really terrible.”
My mouth fell open. “Really?” I said. “New mugs?”
It’s sad to admit this, but I really felt my spirits lift. I had not realized before how much I identified with these mugs. They seemed like the evidence that nobody cared about the people working there.
The office manager looked as if he’d eaten something sour. “These are embarrassing. And they cost nothing—I mean, they’re like a dollar each.”
I wanted to hug him.
“It will be money well spent,” I said. “Every morning I come into this office, and take one of these mugs, and I feel terrible. I have to look at the bottom, and… and it’s like staring at an abyss.”
The office manager nodded.
“I know it might seem like a small amount of money,” I said. “But these things add up. We all come in here every day, ready to give ourselves over to this firm and its clients. And then we have to start our day picking through these disgusting mugs, trying to find one that looks halfway decent—I don’t think it’s healthy.”
As I spoke, the office manager raised his eyebrows as I hit my high points, to show he was listening.
“It will really feel good to be pouring some fresh coffee into a nice, clean mug. Every morning’s going to be better, I think. Thank you!”
The office manager waited until he was sure I had finished. “Oh, I didn’t mean we’d get new mugs in here,” he said, astonished that I had made that assumption. “I meant we’d get some new ones in the conference rooms. For when the clients come.”
“Oh,” I said.
He smiled and shrugged. “Dollars add up.”
“Indeed they do,” I said.
He handed me the mug he had been waving around as a demonstration of the kind of terrible filth that could embarrass us in front of clients.
What could I do? I filled it with coffee, lowered my lips to the rim, and stained my insides a darker shade of brown.
Then I walked back to my desk, looped one hand through the handle, and started my timer.
Lawyers! Throw them onto the pile with doomed football players, burgeoning young spies, motorcycle riders, eaters of poisonous cake, and therapy seekers distracting the world with their superior laundry skills. And of course, for those of you looking for something longer and deeper (and delivered in a snazzy paperback form), there are the wayward politicians and the craziest lawyer of all.
A History of Jacke in 100 Objects has proved to be one of the most popular features on the website. Enjoy!
- #14 – The Bass Guitar – a Suzuki dad goes electric
- #13 – The Monster – a big surprise on a tour of Loch Ness
- Special Interlude – The Artist and the Music Teacher – old friend provides a coda to Object #7
- #12 – The Tickets to the Premiere – taking my talents from Bologna to Broadway
- #11 – The Bench – a day in the furnace provides an object lesson
- #10 – The Spitwad – a science teacher with zero personality confronts a bully, with a little help from the heavens
- #9 – The Intersection – Hamlet Dad goes to the movies
- #8 – The Burger Car – a father orders burgers with a slice of Proust
- #7 – The Keyboard – a music teacher pushed beyond her limits meets a child with dreams
- #6 – The Mugs – while slicing up life into tenths of an hour, I get a sudden ray of hope
- #5 – The Motorcycle – learning a life lesson from buying a motorcycle in Taiwan and learning to drive one (in that order)
- #4 – The Sweater – a Wisconsin boy moves to the big city and pays a visit to a therapist
- #3 – The Blood Cake – in which I recount my experience sharing an office with Jerry Seinfeld
- #2 – The Spy Drop – a neighborhood war waged by five-year-olds takes a dramatic turn
- #1 – The Padlock – a doomed football coach struggles to survive a winless season