For nearly nine years, Adam Jackson had been preparing himself for the shock of not making partner, just in case that’s what happened.
These preparations had begun very early in his career, just after Adam’s second year of law school, when he clerked during the summer for a large defense firm called Harris, Dudleman, and Simpson. The thing Adam remembered most about those summer months so long ago was that his career had seemed so promising, so absolutely certain to be full of surprising and unexpected rewards.
It was in this mindset of hope and opportunity that Adam had spent the weekends taking in the grandeur of the partners’ houses during the “activities” part of HDS’s summer-associate program. These activities included after-golf dinners and weekend barbeques and Sunday swimming parties at the partners’ estates west of the city. Even then, of course, Adam was wise enough to know that some of the partners—the ones without family money, or without spouses who were corporate CEOs, or without very large mortgages—lived more modestly, and that these partners weren’t on the summer-associate circuit at all. But this didn’t stop Adam from dreaming about the perks of partnership anyway during these summer events, many of them faithfully attended by his wife Marie, who had been given strict instructions beforehand not to say anything stupid that would ruin everything for them even before it really got started.
Adam’s wife Marie was like that—prone to say the first thing that occurred to her, even if it betrayed her as being ignorant about the subject at hand or narrow-minded or just plain bitchy. When he’d first started dating Marie, it was her habit of “speaking her mind,” as she put it in her old-fashioned way, that had most endeared her to him. It had seemed so different from his own way of pondering things from every conceivable angle before he was willing to comment publicly.
But in the new and confusing high-stakes world of big-law-firm politics that they’d entered when he’d agreed to clerk at HDS, Marie’s personality seemed like nothing so much as a liability. The only thing that kept Adam from leaving her back at the apartment during the summer-associate events was that she was willing to don a swimsuit at times when many of the other wives and female summer associates weren’t—and once in her silver one-piece or pink bikini, it didn’t matter what she said, as long as she remained within the line of sight of all the senior partners.
As it turned out, however, Adam’s wife Marie hadn’t been much of a factor in his early career, which began after law school ended with full-time employment at HDS as a junior associate. The salary was good, but even in those early years, it was hard for Adam not to daydream every now and then about his goal of partnership, even if it made him a little nervous about what would happen if he wasn’t offered the prize. That’s why he would remind himself, by way of preparation, that partnership wasn’t guaranteed—that nothing in life was guaranteed.
Besides, partnership had seemed so far away. In those early days, the “partnership track,” as it was called, was six years, which seemed an eternity for a young lawyer fresh out of law school, one who hardly knew the difference between a summons and a subpoena. It had seemed longer still as a result of the fact that Marie was continually asking him about it.
“Won’t they shorten the track for you if you’re really good?” she’d ask. “What about lawyers who work extra hours?”
It was no surprise that Marie was even unhappier than Adam when, during his fifth year at HDS, the firm's executive committee extended the partnership track from six years to nine and also added a “tier” system in which many of the associates who made partner were not given equity in the firm, which made them, more or less, just associates with a slightly different title.
After the firm announced the change in the partnership track, Adam decided that he should start looking for a position elsewhere—he was good, he told Marie, very good, and there were at least five major corporations, all of them clients of the firm, that would be willing to hire him. To Adam, getting out of the firm before HDS had a chance to disappoint him seemed like one of the safest ways to prepare for not making partner.
But it was Marie who stopped him. “I like the firm,” she said. “You’ve stuck with them this long. You’re going to make partner, and I’m going to be so proud of you when you do.”
Marie was so certain that it would happen soon despite the changes the firm had made that she decided to go on a little spending spree. Looking back on it, this was where Adam had erred. Although Marie managed a bookstore and had an income of her own, he should have objected when she replaced her Honda with a new Lexus SUV, followed by a Mercedes for him, and then got acquainted with a real estate agent who took only two weeks to find Marie’s dream house near the “Old Town” section of the city where she had long been talking about moving.
Old Town was where many of the partners lived, the partners whose houses they’d visited when Adam was a summer associate. Marie seemed obsessed with Old Town. About her plans for moving, Adam did object, saying it was just too soon. He won the argument but felt guilty about it afterwards. It was plain to see that part of the reason Marie desired the new acquisitions was her boredom, which he’d caused himself by deciding to put their marriage on hold, more or less, until the day that he made partner. He loved Marie, at least as far as he could tell, and he made sure to spend time with her, but there were his billable hours to think about. Many weeks, he’d spend twelve hours a day at the office, from seven in the morning until seven in the evening, plus another five hours on Saturdays.
Adam figured that if Marie was spending money they didn’t have in order to make up for his absence at home, he had only himself to blame. And he was also to blame for something else that may have explained her spending: the way he’d assured her that he was going to make partner, that he was a star at the firm, practically the firm’s golden boy.
It wasn’t even partially true. And in Adam’s ninth year at the firm, just a few months before the partnership decision was to be made, the partner with whom he worked almost exclusively had been lured away by a competing firm on the West Coast, choosing not to take Adam with him. As a result, Adam’s work, which was measured by his billable hours, had almost dried up. In a time of “downsizing” caused by a poor economy, it also left Adam without a powerful partner to vouch for him and his accomplishments. So it was really no surprise when he was called into a senior partner’s office on the very day of his nine-year anniversary and told that he should “start looking elsewhere for employment.”
It was how the large law firms fired lawyers. Adam was told that he was welcome to use all the firm’s resources to find a new job. “As long as it doesn’t take any more than three months,” the senior partner said, as he stood up from his desk to indicate the meeting was over.
That evening, despite his nine years of preparation for this very moment, Adam wasn’t sure how to break the news to Marie. When he arrived home, she greeted him on the doorstep. “Did you hear anything today?”
The first few syllables of Adam’s answer stuck in his throat. It was dark on the porch, and something in the way he hesitated must have confused Marie, because she suddenly began jumping up and down and squealing with excitement.
How could he help but get caught up in her enthusiasm, if only for a moment? But then the moment became two moments, and then three, and suddenly it seemed just as easy to pretend that the whole day had been a dream, and that things had gone differently. Adam agreed to Marie’s suggestion that she put the pizza back in the freezer and take him out to dinner instead. “Because you deserve a celebration,” she said.
As they drove to a restaurant in the city famous for its white tablecloths, expensive wines, and attentive staff, it was easy enough to make up all the details of his “big day” as if they’d really taken place. After all, Marie wasn’t so interested in what had happened as she was in what would happen now that Adam was one of the newest partners at HDS.
“So I’ll be seeing you again?” she asked at dinner. As she leaned forward, a spotlight illuminated her dark hair. “On Saturdays at least? And the baby—we can get started on the baby?”
Adam tried to smile. “I think things will be a little different.”
“How soon? Very soon?”
“We’ll see, I guess.” Adam had no idea how he was going to tell Marie the truth. He had at least three months in which to confess, and there was the possibility that he could keep the lie going even longer that, assuming he could come up with a new way to pay the bills.
“And we can take a trip, can’t we?” Marie was saying. “To Hawaii? We really have some catching up to do.”
“We do,” Adam said. “Yes, we do.”
At about the time their dinners arrived—a New York strip for him, a larger Porterhouse for her—Adam saw, to his dismay, that John Worthington and his wife were preparing to be seated by the maitre d’. Always well dressed, always hinting that he was superior to those around him despite the fact that he was beginning to lose his hair, Worthington was another ninth-year associate who’d learned about partnership that day. He was obviously there to celebrate the news with his wife, who stood next to him in a long blue dress and a fur wrap. The only trouble was that Worthington knew, almost certainly, of Adam’s own defeat, and would certainly wonder what Adam was doing there.
It suddenly seemed very hot in the restaurant. Adam didn’t know what to do. As soon as he saw Worthington and his wife moving in his direction, he instinctively jumped up, thinking that he could hide out in the bathroom until they were seated, hopefully in some far away corner of the restaurant. Then he could feign illness and they’d get the hell out of there before Worthington recognized him and said something that would ruin things for everyone.
In jumping up, however, Adam lost his balance when the back legs of his chair didn’t slide on the carpeting, and then he overcompensated in the other direction by leaning forward, catching the table with his hand but sending a glass of ice water into Marie’s lap. She gasped as if she’d been scalded. Adam leaned over and began setting things right when he noticed that someone was offering him a napkin.
It was Worthington, of course, who was standing at their table with his wife. “Just a little spill,” he said. “Here, let me help you out.”
“Thanks,” Adam said.
“Thanks so much,” Marie added.
Worthington leaned down between them and began smoothing out the tablecloth, shooing away a waiter in the process. “You’re the last folks I was expecting to see here,” he said. “Adam, you were robbed today. Robbed.”
Adam glanced over at Marie. She was wiping off her blouse with a napkin and didn’t seem to be paying attention. But then she looked up. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, robbed is what I’d call it,” Worthington said. “Adam deserved partnership as much as anyone.”
Worthington’s wife put her hand on Marie’s shoulder. “I’m really so sorry,” she said. “If it’s any consolation, since John is now a partner, we’re going to have to start paying our own health insurance.”
“Not to mention withholding our own taxes,” Worthington added.
Adam pretended to do some more housekeeping at the table, arranging and rearranging the salt and pepper shakers until Worthington and his wife excused themselves. Adam and Marie spent the rest of the dinner eating in silence. It was the first time in Adam’s experience that Marie was reticent to speak, and her reaction puzzled him. What in the world was she thinking?
On the drive back to their apartment, Marie finally spoke up. As it happened, they were passing through Old Town, a route Adam had chosen on a whim, but which he realized now must have been intended, subconsciously or not, as a statement to Marie about her foolish enthusiasms during the past years.
“There’s Mark Robertson’s place,” she was saying. “Up on the hill. Remember when we were there that summer? Remember his swimming pool?”
“I remember,” Adam said.
“Did you know his wife’s a plastic surgeon?”
“I heard they’re moving to Chicago,” Adam said. “His wife took a position at a hospital there.”
“I hated the way Mark looked at me in my swimsuit. I only did it for you, you know.”
“I know,” Adam said.
He turned right on another dark road and they drove past mansion after mansion, which seemed to shine through the trees like lanterns in a fairy tale marking the way back home. Marie placed her hand on his. “It will be all right,” she said.
Marie’s hand was cold, and Adam pulled his away. “It’s so like you to be so sure of something you can’t know.” He gripped the steering wheel.
She touched him again, though just briefly. “It’s not real, is it?” she said. “Those houses on the hill? The promises of partnership? All along, it was just an illusion.”
“That’s just sour grapes."
“Even if they'd given it to you, you wouldn’t have slowed down.”
“You’d be the same Adam Jackson.”
“Yes, but I’d be a partner at the firm.”
“One of more than what—two hundred?”
They drove along for another moment in silence. “You know,” Marie said finally. “That’s where I always pictured us, up in one of those mansions on one of those hills. I guess it’s not going to happen.”
“I guess not,” Adam said.
“Still, it will be all right.” She touched his shoulder. “Won’t it?”
The question hung in the air, even as Marie touched the side of his head, and then stroked his hair, and then said again that everything would be all right. And it was then, for the first time, that Adam realized that it wasn’t compassion that was making her act like this, but pity.
“You’re going to leave me, aren’t you?” Adam asked.
Marie patted him lightly on the shoulder, then turned and looked out of the window. “Put yourself in my position. What would you do?”
Adam didn’t know what to say. Surely she wasn’t serious, but it was so hard to know for sure. And as they continued to drive along in silence—Marie having spoken last, and Adam too scared to speak, not wanting to ruin things for both of them—it occurred to him that the one shock he hadn’t prepared for might turn out to be the biggest one of all.[Like this post? It's one of many included in my book How to Feed a Lawyer (And Other Irreverent Oberservations from the Legal Underground). Details here.]