What’s Lost When You Can’t Go into the Office?
The television series Mad Men captured the intense relationships and office shenanigans that can be found among colleagues in many workplaces. Photo: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

What’s Lost When You Can’t Go into the Office?

One lawyer remembers the colleagues who make practicing law fun.

In the past 40 years I’ve worked at a very big California law firm (currently 500-plus lawyers), a large Twin Cities law firm (200-plus lawyers), two mid-sized to smaller law firms (25-50 lawyers), and my own law firm, which employed 10 people.

During the pandemic, I’ve worked alone, from my home, by Zoom and by phone. My daughter, 32, is an attorney at a global firm in Chicago with more than 1,000 lawyers, the kind known in the profession as “Big Law.” She worked from her home in Chicago during April, May, and June, with a fancy white leather desk chair. (I bought the same chair for my home office in Minneapolis.)

But my daughter started going back to her firm’s skyscraper office in July. She liked being able to spread out all of her work in a bigger space. She felt she could work more efficiently there than at home, even though the late nights and weekend requirements were the same, no matter where the briefs were drafted. 

When I reflect on my career, the highlights always include several jury trials, which of course occurred in courtrooms. Also
top of mind are some out-of-town depositions, especially the post-deposition dinners in places like New York or San Francisco. I also recall, for a three-year period in my career, legal work in Billings, Montana (lots of steak).

Yet the most vivid memories are those of the lawyers who practiced with me: their humor, their dedication, and often their obstinacy. What stays with me is the spontaneity of our interactions: lawyers near tears from exhaustion; lawyers happily and deliriously screaming after a win; lawyers catatonic after learning that a senior partner and three associates were leaving the firm to open a competing one. 

It’s the same with offices in every profession. Despite early pandemic testimonials about how much work people could get done in less time because they didn’t have to tolerate (or look at) co-workers, there is definitely something missing without office life. I worked for one partner who ripped the phone cord out of the wall when the receptionist didn’t answer it quickly enough. Yet that same partner could dissect a legal opinion or a client’s problem with such alacrity and insight that I was stunned. I wanted to be like that partner, without the temper. 

I learned from the “hermit” lawyers too. Those were the ones with the closed doors, where you gently knocked—but always knocked—before entering. These scholars insisted on using a full library of hard-copy “reporters” (bound volumes of published case law) long after electronic legal research became available. Bloviating about trial victories was, to them, distasteful, given their certainty that the real power in the firm lay deep within their own brains—and the law itself—rather than in the mouthy and facile litigators.

Then there were the get-togethers. You didn’t really need an occasion to have an office party, just a party in someone’s office. People certainly drank, but mostly they talked. The topics rarely centered on legal matters—how boring. Rather, gossip prevailed, and no one was safe unless you were at the party.

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These unplanned events encouraged destratification because secretaries, file clerks, paralegals, and messengers were often 10 times funnier than the lawyers, and their presence infinitely more appreciated. To say these interactions were good for morale is an understatement; to say they were infinitely more enjoyable (and, actually, safer) than the annual holiday party is also true.

Managers’ earnest efforts at camaraderie mouthed at the end of an office Zoom call—“Tell us something about your new hobby of bread baking while your 8-year-old kneads the dough!”—seem, and indeed are, a phony substitute for the social fabric of office life.

While practicing law—or building tech platforms, or inputting data, or answering sales calls—could feel like sheer drudgery, in the office there was always the possibility that someone could lift your spirits, make you mad, annoy you, or inspire you. That’s just because another person was working nearby. I miss that.

My daughter called me recently to recount a frustrating deposition—only her second one—that she’d defended and survived. By the end of the call, she sounded better, even pleased. I rarely hear such detail about her work experiences. It’s always, “I’m working! I’ll maybe call you this weekend.” But this time she talked. By recounting her experience with a much older and truly dastardly opposing counsel, she relived the deposition in a nuanced and helpful way. She gained perspective by talking to another lawyer, even if it was her mother.

What I remember about communal office life, especially during bad times, was the feeling of familiarity and comfort. You felt comforted every morning because you knew these people’s proclivities, their habits, and their hot buttons. Sometimes it was quite fun to press their hot buttons. Whether we ever return to office life—and I fully admit I’m awash in nostalgia—my happy memories of those conference rooms and corridors remain sacrosanct. Maybe that’s why I liked Mad Men so much. 

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