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Victoria Mole
24 September, 2008  
The devil I know (and sort of love)

Vicki Mole gives The Pinstripe Prison a good old spray. It’s not rigorous enough for her. The best and brightest are not wasted in corporate law – they help people realise their dreams. Anyway, where’s the social utility in much of what passes for journalism?

‘Twas my birthday last week and I received inter alia two copies of Lisa Pryor’s new book The Pinstriped Prison: How Overachievers Get Trapped In Corporate Jobs They Hate.

imageOne from my best friend, a social worker, and one from my dad, a farmer.

Perhaps I would have taken less offence if the presents (and the book) had actually come from a lawyer.

Like your girlfriends dissing your new man, or your boyfriend criticising your extended family, it is only OK when you do it. But offended I was.

The book is 270 pages of generalisations about depressed, inert and materialistic law graduates becoming depressed, inert and materialistic corporate lawyers.

The overarching theme of the thesis is that the law kidnaps the country’s best and brightest. This begs the question: if we are such trainwrecks to begin with, is it really such a loss to society to shuffle us off into a top-tier asylum upon graduation?

Pryor doesn’t differentiate between the many facets of the legal profession. Nor does she explain why careers in journalism (such as her own), film-making or reviewing native vegetation policies are of greater social utility than one in the law.

I enable transactions that help people make real their imaginings, often establishing infrastructure and/or jobs in the process.

My friends prosecute and litigate those who flout society’s accepted norms of behaviour, a.k.a. the law.

All lawyers I know volunteer in one capacity or another, whatever their politics, or at least feel shameful at not having the time too.

Would a plumber, engineer or sales assistant share this complex?

But what made me stroppiest was Pryor’s idea that law students become corporate lawyers out of fear, risk aversion, lack of imagination or selling short their ideals.

I’m not from a family of lawyers and, if anything, was under pressure not to become one (“But don’t you want to help real people? ... Six years of uni but can she put a fence up?”).

I transferred to law from journalism because the cases, people, ideas and ideals that Ned was coming across in law school crapped all over media theory and the looming catfight I was facing to secure a cadetship to cover the greyhound races for a rural rag.

Once at law school, the grapevine and a pinch of self-knowledge made me realise that the endless meetings about nothing that are favoured in the public service, the cut-throat world of journalism, the ineffectual illusion that is international law, the creative shackles entailed in surviving as an actor or musician, the loneliness of academia and the disheartening repetition of family, refugee or fence law weren’t for me.

I like helping people fix tricky but discrete and solvable problems and I like changing minds with well-chosen words.

So, with a lot of hard work and disappointed friends and family, I became an articled clerk in a corporate firm.

Maybe 30 percent of my friends did the same and not without the same deliberations and gruelling slog. It’s a choice, a risk and consistent with my ideals.

I can be of more benefit to the world with decent skills, contacts and the freedom to make ethical choices that comes with an above-average income than I could after five years of defending drink-drivers at the Ringwood Magies. So shoot me.

I am only speaking from my experience and that of my friends (and I admittedly don’t tend to hang out with the gloomy dullards interviewed by Pryor).

But these are not perspectives addressed in the book and any mooter worth their salt knows you can only win if you can tackle the opposing opinions head-on. Or at least attempt to.

The book does neither.

So, thanks, but next year, can I just have my usual bottle of gin?




Reader Comments

Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 24, 2008, 9:32 pm

Its a gross generalisation to describe all corporate law firms as prisons and all lawyers working in corporate law as prisoners. Itís a job and like any other comes with its +/-. The prison is self imposed and only exists once you become committed and attached to a lifestyle that requires you to work in a job that you no longer enjoy to support that lifestyle. There is no prison, and you are not a prisoner, if you like what you do and can chose to leave when you stop liking it.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 24, 2008, 10:14 pm

The best and brightest would in fact know that the thesis does not "beg the question" - what it appears to do is raise or invite the question in ... err ... question. The assumption that anyone capable of such a non sequitur could be one of the "best and brightest" really does show that the whole argument begs the question.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 25, 2008, 12:30 am

And you can avoid the whole problem by going to the Bar
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 25, 2008, 4:19 am

Goodness me anonymous @ 2:14am... The best and brightest would also probably have better things to do than pettifog their way though web posts smugly and pretentiously taking note of the departure from their original use of terms from that grand old dame Greek philosophy which may or may not pop up over the course of two and half thousand years or so. An evolving and adaptive language? Heaven forbidith...
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 25, 2008, 8:29 pm

Hey Lisa Pryor, what are you doing up at 2:14am commenting on comments on your own book. Seek help now!
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 26, 2008, 1:43 am

Dunno about this. In my experience there was an overwhelming inertia for those who get clerkships to do them - a bit like the inertia for HSC grads who could get into law to do it. But maybe that was just my provincial high school/law school. The bit about being equipped to benefit the world is particularly thin. I don't know how much freedom there is to make 'ethical choices' while spending 60 hours a week achieving the often dubious goals of one's corporate masters. There is the freedom to spend $5 extra on free range chicken, I guess...
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 27, 2008, 11:30 am

Which makes life a whole lot nicer for one chicken. A good point I think. Cheese makers and social workers aside, what profession can claim to not operate for some dubious goals? Or can argue that it puts back into its particular ecosystem to allow it to operate legitimately (should tabloid journalists be required to 'pro bono' write one article of investigative merit per month? do private school teachers routinely volunteer in study centres in less affluent areas in the evening?). At least the legal profession acknowledges this quandary and takes some steps to ameliorate it. I can understand why you would want to be a part of that.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 30, 2008, 12:09 am

This book is a total whinge. Full of convenient generalisations. It's just dumb. How could Lisa Pryor be the opinion editor of a serious paper? She ought to have a good look at herself. Maybe she should have paid more attention in her law classes, taken some classes in formal logic, something to get her head straight. Embarrassing effort.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: October 5, 2008, 9:10 pm

Vicki, I think you are a great example of the Stockholm syndrome. This is when prisoners become loyal to their abusers and start justifying their actions in order to feel better about themselves. You say you like 'I like changing minds with well-chosen words.' Let's be honest, you could take this passion and use it to reform laws to make them more socially just, but changing the minds of big corporations pays more! The question Pryor posers to over achievers is are you really happy living this life. You seem like you are, so leave the saving the world to someone else and go buy yourself another overpriced suit. But I do wonder how someone like you could be best friends with a social worker?
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: October 7, 2008, 1:57 am

I like that the comment above is filled with factual inaccuracies, baseless assumptions, a few lazy stereotypes and then to top it off - this gem " I do wonder how someone like you..." This is fantastic, I like the use of the phrase "someone like you" to describe someone you (presumably) have never met nor would recognise if you fell over them in the street. What I like even more is the shock and awe that Vicki might be friends with a social worker, what! Lawyers and social workers breaking bread together?? Surely we'll see Palin and Ahmadinejad catching up for coffee before we would ever see that. Basically, my understanding of the post was simply to question some of the premises behind the book and challenge a couple of the stereotypes that it relies on to neatly marry up its' message and its' conclusion. The irony of the post above, while playing the man instead of the ball (in that great legal tradition), is that it is resplendent with all the same lazy generalisations and tired stereotypes of that characterise the work it seems to be supporting. Posts like the above add nothing to what could, and should, be an interesting discussion. The contributor above needs to stick to the primary school playground and let the grown ups talk.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: October 9, 2008, 12:39 am

I like the comment on Oct 6, but for completely different reasons. She/he challenges us lawyers to be honest about why we do what we do. We go into corporate law for the money, not 'to benefit to the world with decent skills, contacts and the freedom to make ethical choices' And we don't have to feel bad about it, most people don't. But we should be honest. And be grateful for people like Vicki's social worker friend who are better people than us!
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: October 12, 2008, 7:33 pm

Um Oct 9... isn't the whole point of the post is that people become corporate lawyers for a whole stack of reasons? Maybe you are in it for the money, which i fine, but for others it is for the experience, the contacts or just the convenience of having a clearly mapped out career path. Which is also fine. But you can't generalise about people's career decisions any more than you can judge their righteousness.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: October 18, 2008, 3:46 am

I am a law student who has just gone through the ropes of clerkship applications and interviews and I found what Pryor wrote about law students to be entirely true. I do think the brightest 18 year olds are often pushed into studying law because it is the expectation of family, friends and teachers. I also felt that a lot of her remarks about the difficulty of getting out of law once you've established your profession is also very true. Yes you would become accustomed to the lifestyle and money and it would be as difficult to leave as any other high paying but none the less depressing job. In saying that I felt she gave too much of a one sided view and did not until the end try and balance her comments. Pryor obviously has a very negative opinion of the law profession and the pressure that comes with it. Vicki on the other hand became a lawyer for the right reasons because she wanted to and that was her passion. I think the message to take from Pryor's book is that if you are a student you should be wary of choosing corporate careers for money and social status when there is another career path that is really your passion. For lawyers that are truly happy the book merely represents those in the field that aren't and if anything it should at least give you some awareness of the problems in the field. But for those that aren't happy and recognize in the book a mirror image of themselves perhaps the book will give those the courage to leave their law career behind them. If you look at the many articles that have been in the papers in recent weeks about depression in law you must realize that there is some sort of underlying truth in Pryor's book even if it doesn't apply specifically to you.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: October 22, 2008, 8:52 am

I am also a law student who has also been through the clerkship process etc. and what i have found is that it is not so much that law is evil but that some personality types that think that are suited to law actually arent. These people end up leaving and becoming artists, journalists, writers or something a lot more funky and expressive but the problem is that they say their last profession is evil rather than realising that they werent suited to it and it bored them to death but there are some that are suited to it. Also, a friend of mine just left trade school and got offered 90k a year with flexi hours and in the city, how come it is only lawyers that have to be giving an account for there income and not the others on huge salaries???
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: November 6, 2008, 6:51 pm

Let's be honest - this debate would not exist if 1) lawyers, especially article clerks and junior solicitors were better remunerated vis-a-vis other professions seen to attract talent; or 2) the legal profession was more respected by the general public The best and brightest go into investment banking, funds management, management consulting where the pay and perks are twice as good, or they enter medicine which is still seen as a noble profession and where the practitioners still feel genuine pride. Unsatisfied corporate lawyers wake up one day and realise that they've been short changed.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: November 6, 2008, 6:52 pm

The best and brightest either go into investment banking, funds management or trading where the pay and perks are twice as good, or they enter medicine or practice non-corporate law because those two professions are still respected by society at large. Many corporate lawyers are unhappy when they realise that they've been short-changed on both monetary and spiritual fulfillment. (from an ex-corporate lawyer turned banker)
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: November 19, 2008, 4:58 am

I just finished reading this book, strangly loaned to me by my partner following a review. For me, Lisa Pryor's insights were spot on. I've just started planning my escape!! A year from now, who knows where I'll be, but I promise it won't be in my office clocking up my millionth billable hour!!
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: June 4, 2009, 9:04 pm

Vicki, in my humble and anonymous opinion, you seem to be either (1) a genuinely happy corporate lawyer, in which case you're not a member of Lisa Pryor's target audience, or (2) unconsciously engaging in the same act of self-deception that is bewitching many graduates of major law schools. The point of Lisa's book is that most people who are members of the second class think they are members of the first. It takes serious introspection and self-analysis in order to ascertain the true position. My gosh this comment is tardy.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: February 9, 2010, 6:01 pm

That book is not 'fact' per se... it is a matter of perception. The law (and the preceding path to get there) can certainly churn and burn people. If you don't like it: 1) don't worry about 'wasting marks' and don't go in the first place, or 2) go for while, get great skills and experience then bail, or 3) do the hard slog and make make Partner, Senior Counsel in house, or SC. Seriously, whatever blows your skirt up - horses for courses! I also think this book finds favour with a whinging element of, say, 2-5 years PQE lawyers who are just shitty the GFC derailed there plans to bolster their CVs and bank balances in NY or London. They have been forced to stay and endure VRPs and pay freezes. It's unfortunate but these things happen... piss - or get off the pot. All that said, the profession does have some serious issues with a number of practitioners being overworked, depressed and disillusioned. These are problems that need ongoing attention and effort from all the stakeholders to address.