BIG FIRM

By BRANDT GOLDSTEIN

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"Big Brother" -- in case you have somehow managed to avoid the publicity blitz surrounding this moronic television reality show on CBS -- involves the following scenario:

A group of strangers of questionable intelligence and poor judgment are warehoused inside a very small space that they are not allowed to leave. Under constant surveillance, they are forced to interact all day and all night while performing asinine tasks. One by one, they are removed from the tightly enclosed space by the vote of an all-powerful, anonymous audience. The carrot that keeps these contestants inside the box is the promise that the last person remaining will, at the end of an extended period of time, win a big, fat check of a half-million bucks.

in a major law firm.

It is, in fact, so close to that experience that at least one of the Big Brother contestants apparently believes he is at a major firm. This honor goes to a fresh-faced goofball named Curtis, a Stanford Law School grad who clerked on the Second Circuit and then evidently got lost in a Los Angeles television studio lot on his way to O'Melveny & Myers.

Now Curtis finds himself alongside a housewife, a stripper and a former beauty queen going for the sack o' cash. As opposed to being alongside an associate, an associate and another associate (none of whom, alas, is a stripper or former beauty queen) going for the sack o' cash. Curtis' confusion is quite understandable.

Perhaps the Romper Room-meets-Hanoi Hilton feel of the house -- as opposed to the hunting-prints-with-dogs-chewing-dead-ducks décor of Sullivan & Cromwell -- should have alerted the wayward Curtis to his error. But forgive the poor guy his folly: Big Firm and Big Brother are hard to tell apart.

The Partner As Litigation Cam

Granted, Skadden, Arps doesn't (to my knowledge) have T.V. cameras everywhere the way Big Brother does (even in the bathrooms). But if Skadden did, I'm confident Machiavellian peeing strategies would evolve among the associates.

And even without cameras, Big Firm's partners are just as certain as the all-seeing eye of CBS to catch every mistake you make, sniffing out that single missing period in your fifty-page brief and castrating -- I mean, castigating -- you accordingly. And any misstep overlooked by a partner is sure to be brought to his attention by that back-stabbing associate down the hall who makes all those weird breathing noises in the elevator.

Long Hours, Useless Work

Big Brother contestants have to make papier mâché masks of each other, fashion a clock out of a couple of potatoes and some wire, set up thousands of dominos and cover hundreds of miles on a stationary bike out in their little courtyard. In contrast, Big Firm contestants have to cite-check, research irrelevant questions, stay up all night to finalize documents and engage in serious brown-nosing.

In short, compared to Big Firm work, Big Brother tasks are pretty darn practical. After all, you never know when your six-year-old (or, say, you) will suddenly decide that he wants to go out for Halloween as Jar Jar Binks. If you've been on Big Brother, you can use your papier mâché skills to whip out that costume in a jiffy. Or let's say you're in Idaho on vacation, looking for white supremacists in their natural habitat. Oops! You lost your wristwatch. Just race out to the nearest field of Golden Russets, and in no time you'll have a clock again! Cravath, in contrast, will only teach you to buy the potato clock from some SoHo boutique for $135. But does that really count? Not if you're lost in Idaho, my friend. "What time is it, Bobby?" "I don't know -- but I can proofread the menu at the Boise Denny's if you'd like!"

It only took about 48 hours before the nasty side of a whole bunch of the Big Brother contestants began to appear. This was especially true with William, a narcissistic bully who traffics in a bizarre form of social interaction best described as Socratic Ultimate Fighting.

Big Firm is even worse, because partnership track is a lot longer than the three months during which Big Brother contestants are locked up. By the end of the line, everybody at Big Firm is William -- or worse. While you just might be able to hide the ugliest aspects of your personality over the course of ninety days, there is pretty much nothing you can hold back for eight or so years. Take the senior associate with the funny ear lobes down the hall who shouts on the phone. Few weeks of that? Very, very annoying, but bearable. Same thing for several years? You'd be ready to extract his tongue with a needle-nosed pliers while standing on his face. Which might have been William's fate if he hadn't been exiled last week.

Associates: Trapped In A World They Did Not Create

Thought you could leave Big Firm? Think again. Just watch what happens when you try to sneak out the back door on a Friday night, or briefly delay work for an illegitimate activity, such as using the bathroom or eating. The abuse that rains down will convince you to spend all your (waking?) hours at Big Firm. And the fact is, to get the cash, you've got to stay for a long, long time.

This is where the Big Brother people come out way ahead of their Big Firm counterparts. If you win Big Brother, you collect 500 grand, presumably all up front. After taxes, you're probably looking at about $300,000 in your pocket, no strings attached. If you're 28 years old and single (which seems to be the profile of just about everyone on Big Brother -- or entering a Big Firm) you can put $150,000 of that into the stock market for your retirement.

Then you're free to take the rest and walk the earth for five or six years like Caine from that Kung Fu T.V. show. During all that earth walking, you're bound to develop a useful skill that you can use to generate an income for yourself during the rest of your working years (if the potato clock boutique doesn't work out). When you're 70, that $150,000 will have blossomed into almost ten million bucks. (They say that on average, money properly invested in the market doubles in value every seven years.) So, having lived a full life, you can now jet off to Hawaii's big island, buy a pineapple plantation and watch the sun set.

Not so at Big Firm. There, if you win, you certainly get a big, fat paycheck -- and it keeps coming year after year, unlike the Big Brother prize. But to keep collecting the bag o' cash at the firm, you have to stick around the game show set for another 25-30 years.

Oops.

Didn't anyone tell you that part? Once people become partners at a Big Firm, they almost never leave. The problem is, they grow to like it inside that warm, enclosed space. They forget all the other things that are going on beyond their firm's equivalent of Big Brother's bright red door (which leads to the real world). Partners begin to fear, then loathe, then dismiss as non-existent everything on the outside. The host of this particular game show is an Italian fellow named Dante.

show, by all means, sign up. Do anything you can to become a contestant. But if you're a wide-eyed law student thinking about playing Big Firm, think again -- and then run like hell in the other direction.

Brandt Goldstein, is an associate in research at Yale Law School. He is writing a book about the Haitian refugee crisis of the early 1990s.