Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Friday, August 13, 2004

The Blackberry. I'd never seen one before this summer. It's like a cell phone, only it checks e-mail. And has a little itty bitty keyboard so people can write e-mails back. And, through some magical technological mystery, the Blackberry also tells the user when he has new voicemail. I have no idea how it does that. Summers didn't get Blackberries (we certainly didn't need them), but every attorney had one. And the Blackberries were like naughty children, needing constant attention. Constant attention. Constant attention.

The permanent appendage, it quickly became clear. At lunch, on the very first day of the summer, I had no idea what was going on. Every three minutes, another attorney had his Blackberry out, scrolling through messages, punching at the keys the size of couscous grains to hammer out a reply that the document was in the top left drawer, under the No-Doz, and that he'd be back in fourteen minutes to proofread the address on the larger envelope containing the smaller envelopes. They'd buzz. They wouldn't beep (although apparently they can). They'd buzz again. They'd all buzz. They'd check. They'd check again.

"The first thing you do when you get your blackberry," one associate said, "is you set it to remove the line that tells the person you're e-mailing that the e-mail was sent from the Blackberry. That way they think you're in the office."

"It says I got a voicemail. I'd better go check it. Be right back."

"When do you stop checking your Blackberry?"
"Last thing I do before I go to sleep at night."

In a way, it's a good thing. They can go to lunch without worrying that fifteen people are frantically trying to find them. They can leave the office and have a way to know if something comes up and they need to go back. They can go home.

But in a way, they acknowledged, it's a bad thing. Because if you can get messages any time of day, you're expected to respond any time of day. So you can go to lunch, but you may have to leave. Or call in. And even if not, you're checking every three minutes to see if you have to leave or call. And you can have a weekend. But you're available if someone needs you. Or at least they expect you are.

"As soon as I take the Blackberry out, my kids start yelling at me to put it away..."

I've been at lunches where associates notice they're not getting any reception on the Blackberries, and are relieved -- "an excuse not to answer." This tells me it's not an unmitigated positive.

"You've got to exercise restraint. Put in a drawer over the weekend, check it two, three times a day."

Here's what makes me uncomfortable. Doctors need to be on call. Something can happen with the patient, it's a life and death situation, your skills are needed at this critical moment. An associate at a big law firm, not so much.

I had a conversation with a friend, probably a few years ago, about the difference between jobs that are more satisfying, and jobs that are less satisfying -- in general, way beyond the legal world. Jobs where you're needed for *you* -- for what you personally bring to the table, your knowledge, your skills, your gifts -- we decided seem more satisfying than jobs where you're an interchangeable part, where anyone else -- within reason -- can do your job, can fill your role, can execute the task just as well as you can. At a high level, I believe the law can be the former. Top lawyers arguing in front of juries, hammering out deals, finding the right way to structure the transaction, coaxing the witness to say the right thing, getting the client to come on board. But at the lower levels -- as junior associates, as mid-level associates... I don't know enough to know where the balance shifts... -- I haven't been convinced. It seems like a lot of the work is interchangeable -- they need man-hours, not necessarily my-hours. Which is fair, and happens in all jobs. Absolutely. But you're not on call 24/7 in all jobs. And, to be fair, they're not on call 24/7 at the firm. People probably aren't sending urgent messages at two in the morning, and if they are, no one's reading them until they wake up.

But it becomes necessary to have the job in the back of your mind -- and the palm of your hand -- all the time, even when you're not in the office. So if they're out with their friends, out in the woods, writing their Great American Novel -- there's the Blackberry, buzzing. Work is calling. It takes over. You're forced to think about the job.

And I don't mind working hard, thinking about what I'm doing, having to feel "on call" -- if it's something I care about, that I feel is important, that matters to me. I'll think about something I'm writing, something I'm puzzling through, something I'm reading, something I'm interested in -- gladly -- for lots of hours a day. But -- and maybe this comes back to yesterday's point about this law stuff just not being where my passion necessarily lies -- I don't know if I want to think about the security agreement 24 hours a day. Or whether the pages are all numbered exactly right in the lease papers. Or whether I left the stack of cases in my left drawer or my right drawer. Especially if I'm just one replaceable cog in a whole that's much larger.

I'm overstating it. I know I'm overstating it. It's a benefit more than a burden -- they can go to lunch, they can go home, they can take a vacation -- without worrying. They can check in. They can quickly dispose of work and keep everything running smoothly. It's a good thing. It's a good thing. Constant attention. Constant attention.