Saturday, November 14, 2009


If you've always wanted to dress like a cult leader but couldn't find anything in polar fleece, Global Shop Direct has been peddling the solution on Australian TV this Queen's Birthday long weekend.

Not that I was home watching infomercials or anything.

Someone has to think of the billables.

Routine observation

If every industry has a language, every person has a schtick.

Observing other people's schtick, or "bits" - an act or routine that's part of the myth of themselves they spin - is one of the two satisfying diversions on offer in the office.

The other is Wikipedia, obviously.

I've lost track of the billable units I've devoted to that cornucopia of half-truths and misinformation. The entry on gonzo journalism is particularly gripping.

But back to the bits.

Of late, I've trained my critical eye on the various specimens that masquerade as masculine on the shop floor.

Take the eastern suburbs egalitarian, for example. This lad borrows bits from the "blokey egalitarian" box of linguistic tricks - an exaggerated "maaaate" or "son" are the terms of address of choice - but is likely to disdain those from the wrong side of the tracks (so-called "Rooty Hill duds").

The B&F cowboy (and his cousin in Mergers & Acquisitions) is also a factory fixture. His raison d'etre? Closing deals. True to the alpha male stereotype, the kid takes his sartorial cues from the School of Rolled-Up Sleeves (looks like he means business, see?) and speaks of deadlines so often it's more a tic than schtick.

Then there's the faux-Oxbridge fop. This twee specimen aspires to a stint at an English finishing school, has Rumpole DVDs on repeat and uses "quite" or "rather" when "yes" would suffice.

Of course, some of the female specimens on display are equally obnoxious.

The world weary miss thinks she's seen it all and is well-placed to offer incisive social commentary on her colleagues. She arches her neck in an attitude of dying swan when forced to photocopy and affects wisdom and maturity by calling work mates "kid".

She likes to think she's above the fray but, as Sam de Brito says so eloquently, she's not the wolf in sheep's clothing.

Just a sheep.

Lingua wanker, part I

Every industry has its own special language.

Actors speak of projects evolving "organically" in earnest tones, hands twisted in an attitude of tortured artist.

Journalists term interviewees "talent", apparently. Probably with a supercilious twist of the lip.

And corporate lawyers boast such expressions as "flickability" in their linguistic bag of tricks.

A good memorandum of advice is characterised by the above, according to the marketing department.

Legally accurate and elegant in its construction, this missive (penned by a minion) can be "flicked" on to a client by a partner without revision.

Such a happy marriage, marketing and the law.

The numbers game

"What is this filth?" I demand.

One of the captives has wandered into my corral, clutching a wad of papers that look suspiciously like College of Law course materials.

"Trust Accounting workbook" he says, heaving a sigh of resignation.

I'd thought as much.

College is over a year behind me but the trust accounting wounds are still raw.

I'd laboured under the misapprehension at Law School that the particular appeal of the profession lay in the fact that it was not accounting (or banking, advertising or human resources).

None of that numbers business for me, thank you.

Oh, child.

There's no place for such touching naiveté in this town.

Careers brilliant

The mentoring program. A self-interested manoeuvre I can understand.

HR might sell the concept as a one-sided transaction in which seasoned solicitors tend selflessly to the budding talent, but we all know it's about keeping the milkers in the pens.

A sense of belonging goes a long way, as any cult leader could tell you.

I deeply respect the cynicism of it all, I really do. But I worry when the big end of town takes to the streets to twist its mentoring tentacles around the yoof.

In a recent initiative, some Sydney shops have teamed with a posse of merchant banks and management consultants (amongst others) to mentor secondary students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Maybe it's wrong to tar all corporate cats with my disaffected, middle-class brush, but - in case I haven't been explicit - I'm not sure this life is worthy of emulation.

With that in mind, I've instituted an informal mentoring program of my own at the factory and I hope to roll it out across secondary schools in the inner-west before 2010.

I peddle a message of hope to kids at risk of taking a wrong turn into mercenary mean streets.

The results thus far have been positive: at least one aspiring lawyer has enrolled instead in Liberal Arts and a young merchant banker has taken to macrame basket-weaving with gusto.

I call it Talent Redistribution.

It's a richly rewarding way of giving back to the community.

In name only

"I'm a lawyer...?" I squeak, with the rising intonation that marks Australians as a deeply insecure people.

I still can't prevent an incredulous tone from creeping into my voice in response to queries as to my calling.

I might be able to clip-clop convincingly across the cavernous marble foyer in various combinations of trotters and corporate clobber, but what is it that I do all day once I've swiped the security pass and deposited my rear in an over-priced chair* in an open-plan stall?

A measure of legal research gives me something to furrow my brow over when striding purposefully to the toilet, or trundling up George Street on the bus. But more often than not, I'm printing, collating and proofing documents (the latter for factual, not legal, accuracy) and searching for evidence more elusive than the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I should count myself lucky that I get paid more than most for menial labour, I know.

I attend training seminars and workshops where all manner of breakfast pastries, exotic fruit plates and gourmet sandwiches are on offer against the glinting backdrop of Sydney Harbour.

A video-screen projects images of suits in The Firm's outposts, similarly engaged in the arduous task of letting Law-Talk wash over them while slathering butter on a second slice of toasted Turkish.

We are cosseted children, clearly.

But it still feels like a swindle.

Trained in high-minded legal principle, we return to the pens to practice drudgery.

* I do love that chair, though.

If the shoe fits...

Like most law graduates on the well-trodden corporate firm trajectory, I fancy myself a square peg in a round hole.

While the rest of the recruits are soulless, uni-dimensional suits stoking the fires of partnership ambitions, I'm a maverick.

Nobler, artistic dreams are nestled in my sensitive bosom.

Sure, I might not be working at Legal Aid and moonlighting as a writer, but I still project an ironic sense of detachment from the business of The Firm and its hollow mercenary values. I pledge allegiance to the underprivileged by swilling free trade tea (which, rumour has it, has been rolled out in the Sydney office of one multi-national outfit) in a brief respite from the billables.

To maintain the self-deception, I find it necessary to avoid events at which lawyers are likely to congregate.

Friday night drinks are out. One is apt to discover that the associate across the open-plan partition directs amateur theatre in his or her spare time, has an impressive pro bono record and plays the drums.

It would be too much to bear in light of the mounting evidence of my uniformity on all fronts (see e.g. It seems white people are united in considering themselves "creative", getting riled up over grammar and appreciating irony.

Stripped of the illusion of individuality, I'm a hollow shell.