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.

Save it for a rainy day, son

The recent spell of inclement weather in Sydney is not without an up-side. It has afforded lawyers in the Phillip Street legal precinct an opportunity to compare firm practices on branded brollies, exposing troubling inequities in their respective policies.

Word is, some firms dispense a corporate-size number free of charge upon admission to the factory floor. But some of the bigger outfits expect employees to pay for the privilege of toting the firm brand about town.

Not that the eagles seem to mind. Sheltering beneath the smug typeface of a double or triple-barreled partnership spells wealth and prestige - a mark of success to buck one up in the face of daily (and nightly) mundanities in open plan pens.

The foam-handled freebies are undoubtedly more flimsy, though it seems a replacement will set one back the same number of shekels as a sturdier bells-and-whistles job with a smooth wooden handle.

One has to wonder whether outsourcing umbrella specifications to China is worth it. Should el-cheapo umbrella invert itself in the Phillip Street wind tunnel, by analogy a firm's legal advices (sorry, "professional services") are left looking a trifle shaky.

This is especially troubling when one considers the media's predilection for meteorological metaphors in recessionary times: projecting an image of weathering the GFC storm is key.

Wily photo-journalists lie in wait for an unflattering shot of a drenched, wind-swept solicitor to accompany a piece on pay freezes.

With this in mind, quaere whether new recruits in cheap suits should be permitted to align themselves publicly with the firm brand. It's a truism that harried and tired grads do not bespeak legal expertise.

Perhaps the prudent would do well to ban corp merch altogether.

After all, the quest to remain fresh and on-message means that the official firm font and colour scheme is likely to be overhauled before long. An amnesty on obsolete umbrellas (think symbolic tossing of goods into landfill) or trade-in scheme won't catch all, surely. One runs the risk of competing messages, confusing the marketplace.

No, best let the rank and file find their own shelter from the storm.

Another metaphor for the recent rounds of redundancies.

Gone fishin'

If I suspect a day at the (high-rise) coalface will be more soporific than most, I like to add a touch of sartorial snap to the power suit.

For all their ubiquity, fishnet stockings still make me feel delightfully anti-establishment. I flatter myself the look achieved is more "whimsical" than "trashbag" but semiotics is such a subjective business, innit.

Further, a pair of shiny shoes flushes billable minutes away in reflective distraction. See how the harsh fluorescent light plays upon the patent leather? It's poetry, like the Corporations Act.

The problem is, the tedium of the tasks in this town is such that one needs to up the distraction dosage almost daily: stockings alone ain't going to cut it, nor will an outrageous pair of stilts. Epic eighties-style shoulder pads seem the only solution, short of a clown suit.

Why yes, it is puerile and superficial and a completely Pyrrhic victory. These declarations of independence from corporate hell are, of course, in utter conformity with established modes of femininity.

So I'm trapped on many levels, really, which gives me something serious to mull over - other than the blisters on my feet.

See how the billable time just trickles away?

Try it.

Meanwhile, back at the (pony) ranch

Most days, I think it portentous that the song playing when I signed up with the Law Shop (O' Horrors) was The Good, The Bad and The Queen's "Kingdom of Doom."

But sometimes I wonder whether all this career-centric discontent is well-founded, or just the musings of a feckless, middle-class Miss.

The more I see of other (once coveted) professions, the more I realise they wouldn't meet my exacting FunFunFun specifications, either. So the Dream Job is re-drafted 'til it's infantile in its absurdity:

Pony wrangling? Better work/life balance than investigative journalism, probably.

I think I'm onto something with the pony wrangling, though.

Pros, no cons

The good thing about having having a job that consumes every waking moment (and then some, if rookie Law Society Prez Joe "I dream of the law most nights" Catanzariti is representative of his flock) is that it stops one obsessing over trivialities, like whether there's a point to it all.

Technology has been a real boon in this respect.

Undergraduate idlers and other dregs of society may while away precious (billable) minutes on public transport pondering life's big questions, but there's gold in them thar moments.

Correspond with the cash cows: flick a client (bird in the hand, etc.) an email to touch base, why don't ya.

It pays to be a rainmaker in lean times. I still have the words of one erudite College of Law lecturer (is there any other kind?) ringing in my ears:

"Say you're schlepping away in some shonky suburban practice. Some broad comes in with a bung knee, reckons she slipped on a slimy grape that escaped from the fresh produce aisle at Franklins."

He pauses for dramatic effect.

"Whaddya gonna do?"

He is momentarily deflated by the dead-eyed silence that follows but rallies to deliver the prologue to the punchline.

"You take the personal injury gig, obviously.

You take the gig, but then you gotta go the extra mile. Drum up some business."

More dramatic posturing.

"You ask the cat if she's got a will, and bing-bang-boom! You gotta tasty bone to toss to the wolves in Wills & Estates."

(Some creative license may have been taken in the expression of those sage sentiments).

I imagine the corporate firm equivalent is asking those much-feted Blue Chip clients if they're feeling a spell of insolvency coming on.

Tact and discretion, obviously, but what's the worst that could happen? You get fired?

Perish the thought.

Chronicles of mundanity

Some people collect Royal Doulton porcelain figurines. I collect something less tangible but infinitely less stupid.


Quips, even.

A good one sets me up for days, mate. I treasure it up, smirk over it on the bus, tighten it up and script it for use in my debut Aussie screenplay (so the novel's on the backburner for a bit, alright).

A colleague's habit of calling his taskmaster supervisor "sunshine" (gesturing towards the retreating big wig with a jerk of the head) always makes me snort appreciatively at the irony of it all:

"Sunshine's given me another turd sandwich."

It's lunchtime and he's holding a brown paper bag stained with grease. I eye it suspiciously.

"The other kind" he says, catching my eye.

"Memo on comparative international banking law."

Bit crude, but I liked it.

That's what the profession does to erstwhile innocents.

Shop talk

"I wanna be excited", he says.

"Don't ya wanna be excited?"

"Yes. I want to be excited" I repeat, resolutely.

As though it's a mantra and he's my Oprah-style life coach.

We're talking careers, of course, a captive and I. A subversive wag who reckons the profession's a bit dull.

I should probably tell the powers that be there's a propagandist in our midst.

But how many people are actually excited by their employment? What about the people who take photos of tins of spam, frozen dinners and six-packs of Coke for supermarket catalogues? Are they living the dream?

Did they chuck in jobs in Accounts Receivables to take photos for Rolling Stone, only to agonise over the best light under which to snap groceries to pay for their own?

I'm sure there's quite a knack to it - the lighting, that is.

Making smallgoods look enticing ain't for sissies, I'm sure.

But it's not exciting.

And maybe not everything needs to be.

Maybe the misguided belief that everything should be exciting just breeds discontent.

Oh, shut up.

He's right. Work this boring can't be right.

The manuscript's in the works, thanks

Winners of the Miles Franklin have got nothing on me.

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Apart from the award, obviously. And a (critically-acclaimed) body of literary work.

Apart from that, though.

Parochial scribblers, all.

The wilderness years are over

Sure, I've toyed with the idea of living it up in Human Resources - and who hasn't? - but I think I belong in one of the helping professions.

Like accounting.

It's a thing of beauty, the PriceWaterhouseCoopers website. An image of two hands cupped in a spiritual salute to the sun positions the modern professional services firm as trusted holistic adviser - a medicine (wo)man for the moneybags set.

I'm ready to give something back, you know. PwC understands that.

And the firm "isn't just looking for accountants". It encourages a range of further study options, including

  • Master of Finance

  • Certified Financial Analyst

  • Master of Business Administration

  • Master of Tax

  • The list goes on.

    Heady days.

    An ill wind

    So I'm in the lift with a bunch of cats clutching a crisp new volume of the ALJRs (those nasty unauthorised Reports that don't curry the professional favour of an authorised CLR, say) when a titter erupts from the lips of a colleague behind my shoulder.

    "Gassy" he says, snorting with laughter.

    I'm about to take umbrage when he stabs an impertinent finger at one of the cases listed on the cover:

    Gassy v R [2008] HCA 18; (2008) 82 ALJR 838

    I make a pretense of being mature and unamused.

    Is kind of funny, but.

    There are some unfortunate names in this world, just as there are unfortunate professions.