After graduating from law school, I was told that without a master degree, you price in the
cattle job market is basically to zero, especially during a recession (and one like 2008’s), so I got two because apparently, I like punishment. The first one in International Business Administration, at the UAB. The second was at ESADE’s Law School, in International Business Law.
This last one, besides being number one in its type in Spain for several years in a row, and rank at the top on several other places is the place where you want to be in order to meet the right people, to get introduced to the right companies, to get the right future. Selling one of my kidneys was enough to pay the admission fee, after passing the admission tests. I was chosen!
Pretty much all of my classmates knew they would get to top law firms afterward thanks to family connections and owed favors. The class was packed with sons of, daughters of, nephews of, friends of… except for a bunch of us, the misfits, so I kept working on weekends as a barman instead of having the typical job during the week as a law intern. I knew what would happen to me if I tried to get an internship without a good contact…
But I needed some experience and so badly that in the end, I accepted
a job, internship, enslavement contract a training position in a law firm specialized in legal matters related to Internet, biotech companies and start-ups: patent transfer agreements, company by-laws, joint-venture and outsourcing agreements, licenses, copyright… fancy stuff, right?
I got in there because it was what I was supposed to do: get an internship, like hundreds of law graduates fighting to the death for a position every year, despite the fact I was doing more money in a single weekend as a bartender than a complete month as a law intern. You can think that having a badass International Business Law Master at ESADE would be open doors and spread legs everywhere, but that’s just how they trick everybody.
Of course, you get to be selected by ginormous law firms, like Garrigues, PWC, Cuatrecasas, Freshfields, and the vast myriad of small in size but huge in revenue German law firms settled in Barcelona, members of the Magic Circle, the Big Four, and the Pentagon Team (ok, I made this one up…), but there are lots of upper-class law school graduates fighting too to get the same job thereoo, so instead of going to eviscerate classmates for a permanent job on the arena of the “Average Joe and Joe, Law Firm“, you do it on the fancy carpet of a Baker & McKenzie office. It’s all the same. The promises they make too.
After the selection process, even if your internship agreement states that you can’t work more than 4 hours per day (in the end, you’re still a student with tests to pass), you’ll end up working your ass off 10 hours per day. With 30 minutes for lunch. For 300 euros per month. In a city as expensive Barcelona.
Many of my colleagues accepted this fate in order to, at some random point in the future, get a permanent position within the firm. Acceptance is the point of any underpaid internship: work hard and you’ll rise above the rest of your colleagues; here we give a place to the hard-workers, the more you work, the more likely you’ll catch chief’s attention. And after working really hard and putting time and sanity on the line, maybe you’ll get a permanent contract. I do really respect those who choose this path. I’ve chatted with many of them, and the system is the same everywhere, for everyone, so if you clock out at 5pm, you stay in your chair putting face time while playing minesweeper until 9pm, so your boss would think ‘this guy works hard’, and add points at your good boy card. Which it is a complete waste of time and money for both sides.
Back to my company, the main issue was the salary. On top of the extra and unpaid hours, it was so meager it was impossible to cover any of my basic expenses like food, transportation, rent, spare change for the washing machines. As said before, being at ESADE didn’t mean I actually had the money to be there…
Anyway, I had no choice, so I convinced myself that it could be good to keep going, get experience, maybe meet the right people, ask for a raise later, drain my savings… it is what everybody is supposed to do… right?
Week after week I felt like the grayest white collar intern from all those who do the sleepy crawl from the subway exit Monday to Friday. At least I was suited up, but there’s a point where the suit makes no effect on one’s moral. Besides, I never felt influenced by people’s clothes. There are people who do. They see somebody suited up and they feel respect, fear, and submission simultaneously. But not me. So I felt the suit more like a blue overall than a fancy way to dress to impress.
Back to the internship, my job involved nothing as cool as I expected (oh, Shark, Law&Order, Night Court… what did you do to me?), but I have to admit that my expectations were really high: I was seeing myself as some kind of Michael Clayton. Instead of that, I did as any other intern: search, draft, print, trash, correct, print, trash, search, search, search, print, trash, print. The smell of white paper stacks replaced the coffee’s in the mornings.
At the end of the day, I was directly responsible for the murder and holocaust of several acres of trees in the Amazonia. The point is that routine started settling in, and badly. And do I really wanted to spend years of my life buried in white pages printed with Times New Roman 12 paragraphs? That was the way things had to be? Well, for a while, they were.
So from 9 am to 4 pm I was at my desk doing the staring monkey on a screen, and 6pm to 10pm, the sleepy monkey at my law school. Not because I didn’t want to learn, but because I was permanently overworked. Being at 8:45 am at my office’s front door meant I had to wake up at 6:30 am, eat something and catch the 7:30 train, leave the office at 4pm, get dinner, class at 6pm, get out at 10pm, get home by 11pm, and if lucky enough, get to sleep at 12:30 am of the next day… and repeat.
So I suppose that it is normal to have, every day, a deep philosophical moment of inner analysis. There it was not only nothing fulfilling about what I was doing, but also I was underpaid and overworked. I knew I capabilities were sharpened to do something better and bigger. I realized I was selling myself short.
On the law’s firm favor, I have to say that I learned. A lot. In there, everything was contract craftsmanship: not only the content was drafted, compared, checked and verified to the extenuation, line by line, but also the presentation was flawless: spaces, alignment, commas, and grammar was thoroughly examined in each piece of paper going out from the firm. So I got used to it, and I still work like a watchmaker on every paper I put my hands on 😉
Maybe if I had the money to get through that almost-underpaid internship I wouldn’t have thought about it, and now I would be an attorney at law, suited up. But well, was I prepared to give my goals away to a far possibility of being a lawyer in a law firm? Stay underpaid for several years with a crazy schedule, keep having the same routine for years with a mince paycheck, maybe end up earning good money but being too old to enjoy it? That was all I was capable of? There had to be something else, and better. I could do way better, in all the ways.
Finally, I decided my life and career was worth much more than that, and there had to be other ways to work, and taking a leap of faith, I quit.
Six months later I was landing in China.
When the fight begins within, a man’s worth something
— Robert Browning