The Firm(15)

by John Grisham

He had a wife and two kids, but said little about the family. He talked about money. His passion, he called it. The first million was in the bank. The second was two years away. At four hundred thousand a year gross, it wouldn't take long. His specialty was forming partnerships to purchase supertankers. He was the premier specialist in his field and worked at three hundred an hour, sixty, sometimes seventy hours a week.

Mitch would start at a hundred bucks an hour, at least five hours a day until he passed the bar and got his license. Then eight hours a day would be expected, at one-fifty an hour. Billing was the lifeblood of The Firm. Everything revolved around it. Promotions, raises, bonuses, survival, success, everything revolved around how well one was billing. Especially the new guys. The quickest route to a reprimand was to neglect the daily billing records. Avery could not remember such a reprimand. It was simply unheard of for a member of to ignore his billing.

The average for associates was one-seventy-five per hour. For partners, three hundred. Milligan got four hundred an hour from a couple of his clients, and Nathan Locke once got five hundred an hour for some tax work that involved swapping assets in several foreign countries. Five hundred bucks an hour! Avery relished the thought, and computed five hundred per hour by fifty hours per week at fifty weeks per year. One million two hundred fifty thousand a year! That's how you make money in this business. You get a bunch of lawyers working by the hour and you build a dynasty. The more lawyers you get, the more money the partners make.

Don't ignore the billing, he warned. That's the first rule of survival. If there were no files to bill on, immediately report to his office. He had plenty. On the tenth day of each month the partners review the prior month's billing during one of their exclusive luncheons. It's a big ceremony. Royce McKnight reads out each lawyer's name, then the total of his monthly billing. The competition among the partners is intense, but good-spirited. They're all getting rich, right? It's very motivational. As for the associates, nothing is said to the low man unless it's his second straight month. Oliver Lambert will say something in passing. No one has ever finished low for three straight months. Bonuses can be earned by associates for exorbitant billing. Partnerships are based on one's track record for generating fees. So don't ignore it, he warned again. It must always have priority - after the bar exam, of course.

The bar exam was a nuisance, an ordeal that must be endured, a rite of passage, and nothing any Harvard man should fear. Just concentrate on the review courses, he said, and try to remember everything he had just learned in law school.

The limo wheeled into a side street between two tall buildings and stopped in front of a small canopy that extended from the curb to a black metal door. Avery looked at his watch and said to the driver, "Be back at two."

Two hours for lunch, thought Mitch. That's over six hundred dollars in billable time. What a waste.

The Manhattan Club occupied the top floor of a ten-story office building which had last been fully occupied in the early fifties. Avery referred to the structure as a dump, but was quick to point out that the club was the most exclusive lunch and dinner refuge in the city. It offered excellent food in an all-white, rich-male, plush environment. Powerful lunches for powerful people. Bankers, lawyers, executives, entrepreneurs, a few politicians and a few aristocrats. A gold-plated elevator ran nonstop past the deserted offices and stopped on the elegant tenth floor. The maitre d' called Mr. Tolar by name and asked about his good friends Oliver Lambert and Nathan Locke. He expressed sympathies for the loss of Mr. Kozinski and Mr. Hodge. Avery thanked him and introduced the newest member of. The favorite table was waiting in the corner. A courtly black man named Ellis delivered the menus.

"It does not allow drinking at lunch," Avery said as he opened his menu.

"I don't drink during lunch."

"That's good. What'll you have?"

"Tea, with ice."

"Iced tea, for him," Avery said to the waiter. "Bring me a Bombay martini on the rocks with three olives."

Mitch bit his tongue and grinned behind the menu.

"We have too many rules," Avery mumbled.

The first martini led to a second, but he quit after two. He ordered for both of them. Broiled fish of some sort. The special of the day. He watched his weight carefully, he said. He also worked out daily at a health club, his own health club. He invited Mitch to come sweat with him. Maybe after the bar exam. There were the usual questions about football in college and the standard denials of any greatness.

Mitch asked about the children. He said they lived with their mother.

The fish was raw and the baked potato was hard. Mitch picked at his plate, ate his salad slowly and listened as his partner talked about most of the other people present for lunch. The mayor was seated at a large table with some Japanese. One of The Firm's bankers was at the next table. There were some other big-shot lawyers and corporate types, all eating furiously and importantly, powerfully. The atmosphere was stuffy. According to Avery, every member of the club was a compelling figure, a potent force both in his field and in the city. Avery was at home.

They both declined dessert and ordered coffee. He would be expected to be in the office by nine each morning, Avery explained as he lit a Montesino. The secretaries would be there at eight-thirty. Nine to five, but no one worked eight hours a day. Personally, he was in the office by eight, and seldom left before six. "He could bill twelve hours each day, every day, regardless of how many hours he actually worked. Twelve a day, five days a week, at three hundred an hour, for fifty weeks. Nine hundred thousand dollars! In billable time! That was his goal. Last year he had billed seven hundred thousand, but there had been some personal problems. The Firm didn't care if Mitch came in at 6 A.M. or 9 A.M., as long as the work was done.

"What time are the doors unlocked?" Mitch asked.

Everyone has a key, he explained, so he could come and go as he pleased. Security was tight, but the guards were accustomed to workaholics. Some of the work habits were legendary. Victor Milligan, in his younger days, worked sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, until he made partner. Then he quit working on Sundays. He had a heart attack and gave up Saturdays. His doctor put him on ten-hour days, five days a week, and he hasn't been happy since. Marty Kozinski knew all the janitors by first name. He was a 9 A.M. man who wanted to have breakfast with the kids. He would come in at nine and leave at midnight. Nathan Locke claims he can't work well after the secretaries arrive, so he comes in at six. It would be a disgrace to start later. Here's a man sixty-one years old, worth ten million, and works from six in the morning until eight at night five days a week and then a half day on Saturday. If he retired, he'd die.

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