This post is the fourth installment of my series discussing law practice issues raised by the movie Michael Clayton. My three previous posts in this series are located here (#1, which also reviews the movie), here (#2), and here (#3). In my prior posts I talked about the exaggerated, hyperbolic nature of the movie's plot and about how law firm "fixers" are like the Boogeyman: sort of scary, but not real. Today's topic is the terrifying subject of senior law firm partners--which, unlike the Boogeyman, are both scary and real.
Specifically, my point is that law firm partners are sometimes like "white tigers": they are fierce and elegant, but would have difficulty surviving outside their contained environment.
That observation (by a previous colleague of mine) is a wickedly accurate bit of profundity, and this movie illustrates it well. Senior partners are highly trained and very successful at what they do. But too often the distorted incentive-reward structures of law firms can result in skills sets, and even personality traits, that might not be rewarded in other, more natural settings.
Exhibit A in the movie is the junior partner, Barry Grissom, played by Michael O'Keefe. Barry is an arrogant jerk. Clayton does not like him, and Barry does not like Clayton. Sydney Pollack's senior partner Marty Bach does not like Barry either. But Barry bills and collects a lot of hours, and he successfully manages and retains paying clients, and that is ultimately what counts. Would he survive in another environment that depended more on interpersonal skills? One would hope not.
Even more intriguing is Exhibit B, Marty Bach. Pollack plays him with a great deal of ambguity, and to me that makes this character both the most realistic and most compelling one in the entire movie. Obviously he is a highly successful senior partner, with a lot of money, a lot of power, and an enviable lifestyle. That much is clear. What is less clear is how his mind works. How has he managed to achieve such success without cracking, like Tom Wilkinson's character Arthur Edens does? Marty professes to care for Michael Clayton and be a true mentor for him, but is Marty really a mentor and protector? Is Marty even in touch with his own internal tensions? Has he come to terms with them, or does he just bury them (as people often do) under a mountain of work?
One of the most disturbing scenes in the movie for me was that of Arthur Edens' wake (sorry, plot spoiler): Marty speaks of Arthur's death with sadness in one breath, and then in the next acknowledges that the firm has "caught a break" because of the death, since Arthur can't do anything more to harm the firm. How does Marty manage to balance the two poles of his thinking? Is the compassion just an act? Or can he somehow segregate compassion from business? And if the latter, then what affect does that have on his psyche?
The question I do not want to ask, let alone answer, is this: if I were in practice for 40 years at a big firm, like Marty Bach, how would I strike this balance? Could I do it at all, or at what cost?
I think it is important to ask ourselves such questions. If we make conscious choices about our career paths, then we generally can live with them. But if we do not make conscious choices, sometimes we cannot. Practicing law, with a firm or otherwise, can be a marvelous career path. But I would hate for anyone to make this career path choice--or any career path choice--without thinking about and assessing the costs and benefits involved.