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telling it like I think it is: sunili’s blog

The Pinstriped Prison

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I read this book in less than 24 hours. For someone who’s spent MONTHS reading just one particular book, that is indeed a little unusual.

But I had quite the impetus to get though this quickly:  for me, it was an A Christmas Carol-ish story of my life past and what could possibly await me in the future. (But also it was written in a very conversational manner that made it super easy to read)

A few weeks ago, M forwarded me an article from the Melbourne Age’s ‘Sunday’ magazine. It was an excerpt from a forthcoming non-fiction title by Lisa Prior about how the best and brightest university students in Australia (who had mostly gotten into Law at uni by being freakishly over-achieving high school students) get sucked into corporate firms.

Hrm.

Sounded kinda familiar. I had to know more.

I picked the book up on Friday and devoured it the next day. But sometimes I had to stop and breathe.  It’s a surprise when you find that the book you are reading actually seems like your biography.

At one stage I had to shut the book after I mentally ticked nearly all the boxes of the mini-quiz entitled  “Could You be A Neurotic, Status-Conscious, Overachieving, Workaholic Control Freak?”

Um.

Shut. Up.

The book’s chapters outlines each aspect of Pryor’s argument about the way over-achieving wunderkinds get shipped into law school and then seduced by the Big Firms into dreary, horrible jobs they end up hating.  Each chapter ends with amusing quizes or points of information that help you figure out if you’re at high risk of turning into a pinstripped inmate.

Pryor became my Ghost of High school Past when outlining the way private school darlings who do way more than anyone really needs to lock themselves away

amid swimming carnival ribbons and inter-house debating pennants, highlighting and cross-referencing, juggling sticky-notes and flash cards, recording the number of hours study this day and this week devoted to each subject in hand-drawn rosters, carefully calculating the minimum mark they will need to get in their Othello essay to maintain the number one rank in the top English class, before running off to senior school choir practice, hockey, flute lessons, dance eisteddfods or rugby training.

If that paragraph had had Medea instead of Othello, school production instead of choir, netball instead of hockey (and no dance or rugby or any mention of winning ribbons of any sort) I would worry that Lisa Pryor spied on me as a teenager.

But. Oh fuck. I really was that much of a tool, wasn’t I? Yeesh.

Anyway. Back to the book.

Pryor continues from that breathless list with the following observation:  “In every activity they will be scored, marked and ranked, ranked, ranked against their peers.”

And, you see, it is this trait of constantly competing and ranking and fighting for top spot that makes kids like us (who get into Law — the course that only allows students with the top-top marks — and then graduate with prizes and honours and what have you) the perfect fodder for the law firm recruitment rigmarole my friends and I only know too well.

The chapter entitled “Recruitment Brochure Bingo”, which outlines how Every. Single. Firm describes themselves as “unique, dynamic and diverse”, would be gut-splittingly hilarious if it didn’t gut-wretchingly make me realise that I got so totally sucked in by it all:

“The recruitment brochure is a weapon in the propaganda assault that big firms unleash on graduating students.  The genre is as manipulative as military recruitment material, only with a whole lot more stock photography of skyscrapers.”

The brochures are, of course, supplemented with the “information evenings” aka canapés and champers nights, coffee outings and all the fancy breakfasts, lunches, dinners you get while on vacation clerkships.  There is a thought-provoking question related to all of this:

Big firms are terribly eager to make the jobs they offer seem fabulous and desirable.  They go to expensive lengths to bribe students with free food, twilight drinks and sponsorship money. For all the questions overachieving braniacs ask during the recruitment process, they seem to miss the most important one: if these firms are really so brilliant and do offer a life beyond compare, why do they have to work so hard to convince people to join?

Dun dun dun! Sounds foreboding, doesn’t it?

Pryor also makes the connection between the way the firms use corporate sponsorship of law school competitions and events to get themselves known to the kiddies and the lack of money available to student guilds and associations in general.  I won’t get into the voluntary student unionism thing here, but let me just say this one thing: the Law Student Society at uni always had more money, and did the best events and services, which benefited a small proportion of the uni’s students, while the Student Association that was supposed to cater for the whole campus had to scrimp and beg and forgo. She’s not making any of this up.

The Ghost of Law Career Future scared me a heck of a lot more. I am standing at the precipice of starting as a law grad at one of the very firms Pryor paints as hell (there is a rather funny fable about vacation clerkships at the start of Chapter 7).

Just to dilute my panic a little, I am making a fellow Over-Achieving Nutjob (whom I love dearly) who went to high school with me and will be starting there with me next year read this book so that we can pow-wow about it. Because there is a lot to take in, and many, many, many variables that I need to consider, and I will leave them all for another post.

It is sufficient here to say that Pryor has stories from several people who have been sucked into the corporate black hole. Some came out alive, some are still there. But we all know about the dramatically high rates of depression and anxiety (and often, self medication) among lawyers, and that is something all law students need to think really hard about.

But one thing needs to be noted at this point: Law is NOT for everyone. For the ones who don’t drop out of law school and end up in the Big Firms, there will be some who love it, want to be there, have always wanted to be there, and are meant to be there.

(M, my sweet darling boyfriend, is one of those people.  That kinda absolutely freaks me out, but fact that thoughts of being A Partner’s Partner makes me want to throw up, is, also, another story.)

And then there will be others who do not feel the same way. They get in and realise much too late that they hate it, and come out with the stories of woe and misery.  They will hate looking up archaic points of law or figuring out if that conjunction in that contract should be an “and” or an “or”, and will go home every night and cry themselves to sleep, before they jump off a building or write the next Hell Has Harbour Views.

I got a feeling from the book that one of the biggest problems here is the nature of the education system.  The way tertiary entrance is merely a process aimed at ranking everyone to compete for a few select spots in a few select courses that, somehow, are deemed to be more worthy and respectable than others means that kids who aren’t supposed to be lawyers end up studying law, and then end up in jobs they hate.

Again, though, the despicablility of the way tertiary education is heading is another story for another post.  But I hear the Uni of Melbs is making law post-grad only and I think that’s totally the right idea.

There is another thesis in the book which impacts everyone, not just the Over-Achieving Law Nutjobs.  And this is essentially that the cream of the clever country’s clever cookies were being stashed away in private cookie jars to only be chewed up by partners and clients of law, banking or business consulting firms. The public didn’t get the benefit of what these kids have to offer, and Pryor asks:

What does it mean for us as a nation when so many of our cleverest people are being siphoned from careers in which they could be doing something useful?

As I consider myself quite the Tim Tam, and, at that, one who went into law school thinking it was the first step in my journey to save the world (because we all know, Tim Tams fix everything), this is quite the conundrum. But, again, enough about me.

Generally speaking, on one hand, I reckon the fact that we have to pay for our own bloody degrees now means that if we can work in A Firm and love it and rake in the cash, no-one should tell us otherwise.  If, however, we didn’t have to pay back HECS or HELP or whatever acronym the next government comes up with for the privilege of a tertiary education, then there might be some more merit in an argument that the firms are sucking up the brains of the clever country. (I wonder how busy Jenny Macklin’s office is at the moment? I think I have some submissions on The Future Of Higher Education to write.)

There is also a chapter on the massive problems about getting women up the ranks in these firms.  Disheartening stuff.  I’ve spoken and written on this issue before and, again, I have suggestions for  proposed solutions which I’ll put in another post. This is a book review, people, focus.

After outlining who gets sucked in and how, Pryor provides a few ideas for how to break out of jail, along with the stories of others who’ve done it before. (Did y’all know that cool “Flipside” burger bar in North Freo is run by a Firm Escapee?).  It wasn’t too preachy or anything, but this is the closest thing to a self-help book I’ve actually read (cf bought. Which I do. A lot. Because I’m neurotic).

While there are times when the author seems rather bitter and spiteful about private school kids and law firm princess, I have to admit there is still truth in the stereotypes, and Pryor’s cautionary tale is of the sort that tells you to learn from other people’s mistakes before you make them yourself.

Just a final note: I have not yet made any decisions about the next few years of my life. I have to survive the next few months, first.  Damn you to hell, Alan Bond. But first, may you die a pauper, you smarmy git.

Ahem. That is all.

The Pinstriped Prison
Lisa Pryor (Picador, Sydney: 2008), 272pp.

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Written by Sunili

30 September 2008 at 6:34 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Interesting, interesting, interesting. Gotta say I never had the drive or determination to be a law student (or, y’know, study that hard in high school), which is kind of why I became a physics/chem major. You get to have the challenge of doing something that requires brains, but you can still mooch around to your heart’s content (:

    That and people don’t hate us out of habit. We have to earn that by being anal, overanalytical, geeky mofos. Doesn’t take long, but there’s the distinction d:

    Phill

    30 September 2008 at 8:29 pm

  2. Sunili I think you’re right about the university entrance system in Australia – while at high school in Australia there was this general idea that smart people should go to uni and study something that’s hard to get into. The problem is that courses are hard to get into due to their popularity, rather than how intellectually stimulating they are. This means you end up with unpopular courses like science that anyone can enter, and popular courses like law that attract a lot of the people who should be studying science. It results in a lot of dissatisfied people who would rather be doing something else, and a reduction in quality of graduates from fields other than popular ones like law, medicine etc. This is bad for individuals and bad for the country. As soon as I got out of Australia and considered applying to non-Australian universities where there was no equivalent of a TER cut-off so I couldn’t see how “prestigious” the course was, my world suddenly opened up and I realised that I could do whatever I wanted to. Now I’m a very satisfied environmental microbiologist :-).

    Ian

    1 October 2008 at 6:01 am

  3. seems like the people in that book are driven by a desire to succeed in arenas defined by other people.

    how often do you hear of people studying law because they are actually interested in it, rather than because it is what they think you should study if you get good grades, and because they think it pays well.

    the trouble with being so extrinsically motivated, is that you are suckers for manipulation. You spend your whole life trying to impress those around you – your parents, your peers, your employer, the twats at the golf club – and then you realize that nobody is really watching, nobody notices the ribbons on the wall, life has passed you by.

    go read ‘No Contest’ by Alfie Kohn.

    skink

    1 October 2008 at 9:21 am

  4. Thankyou Sunili for a very well written and entertaining review! I’m even thinking about reading it myself…

    Just one question, what Lisa’s background? Is she one of the chewed up and spat out lawyers?

    M

    1 October 2008 at 8:10 pm

  5. Phill: mentally challenging + still mooching = AWESOME! Damn. Why didn’t I do science.

    Ian: It’s a brain-drain one way or another, isn’t it?

    Corporate firms/overseas: 1.
    Australia: 0.

    Skink: You’d be an awesome counsellor. You’d just slap a person with the cold, hard truth, give them a prescription for a book, and they’d be cured. What a shame that “real” counsellors have a conflict of interest where if they “fix” you (or help), they lose business.

    M: Thank you for your most polite comment. Hah.

    Sunili

    2 October 2008 at 5:57 pm

  6. It sounds like a great book to read, and nothing at all like a biography of me – I was one of those horrible ‘cruise’ students who did a minimum of work but cruised through for decent grades anyway – I was never in the top 5% and was just as happy with 80% for an exam whereas my sister had to get that top mark or the year was a failure.

    I think what drove her over the edge was when I got a TEE score only 5 points lower than hers (choice of subjects is crucial there!).

    Also – take any opportunities you can to do something different, if someone asks to to volunteer for an aid project, even just of 2-3 months, go do it, it’ll change your life and allow you to see the corporates for what they really are.

    However I suspect you already do see that.

    Grendel

    4 October 2008 at 9:37 am

  7. The thing is, of course your life is going to be an endless pursuit toward the next achievement if you’re competitive and overachieving by nature. It probably wouldn’t matter what field you’re in- you’d still drive yourself crazy with attempts to drown yourself in work for the benefit of some employer who probably doesn’t deserve it.

    Of course, it’s really interesting/ true with regard to law school (and medicine, I’m sure- but probably to a lesser extent thanks to the UMAT test perhaps) nomming all of the brightest and toughest.

    I guess- to be released from the prison forever, and not just on parole (ugh, I hate myself a little for that) you’ve got to go beyond just flat out blaming your career and consider being driven by something else, say- your own, small personal goals, and not by the need to succeed. Which is kind of what Skink said.

    Of course, what you do in your daily life (see: crazy-ass job) will dictate how you behave to some extent.

    But think about it. If you were me, you would have had all of the copy due at the end of the month written already. You would have let the boss persuade you into doing something totally beyond your capacity/ role as a staff writer. And you would be asking for more, despite not really knowing how to be a graphic designer, or how to sell advertising space, and you’d be doing it 14 hours a day. And I just work in publishing. It’s not exactly lawyer-ness-ship. There’s always room for overworking and neuroses, no matter the field.

    (Luckily, I’m an underachiever who’s just a bit masochistic, and enjoys diverting her stress internally, so I’m on easy street until my first breakdown.)

    Ray-Ray

    6 October 2008 at 5:18 pm

  8. […] Michelle: A Biography, that is totally speaking to me right now re my life choices as mentioned the other week (and also […]


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