Hollywood Hugs Beta Males of Law

“Who is this guy?” That’s what an icy general counsel (Tilda Swinton) wants to know about George Clooney—of all people—in

“Who is this guy?”

That’s what an icy general counsel (Tilda Swinton) wants to know about George Clooney—of all people—in the new legal thriller Michael Clayton. At the prestigious New York law firm of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, Mr. Clooney’s title character has the nifty-sounding job of “Special Counsel,” as well as a snazzy corner office overlooking Sixth Avenue. But while he’s been at the firm for 17 years, he’s never made partner. As a salaried employee, with no management role or equity stake in the firm (as he bitterly notes more than once), Michael Clayton is what we politely call a senior associate.

So, who are these guys? Senior associates are typically associates who didn’t make partner. They’re generally viewed by their colleagues as perfectly competent worker bees, but not superstar material. They’re no longer in junior-associate hell, and they’re very well paid, but their predicament within the legal profession’s prestige-obsessed precincts is difficult: They’re indefinitely trapped in the purgatory of nonpartnership, with its attendant lack of dignity. (Senior associates are not to be confused with the “of counsel” graybeards, who were full partners before retiring, and who now come into the office once a week for a few hours to read the newspaper.)

A big-budget movie about a senior associate, starring George Clooney … who’d have thought? Legal thrillers usually focus on idealistic young guns or high-powered partners.

Of course, just as George Clooney isn’t your ordinary man, Michael Clayton isn’t your ordinary senior associate: He’s the firm’s “fixer.” It’s his job to take the potentially embarrassing personal problems of the firm’s most valued clients—hit-and-run accidents, marital indiscretions, criminal charges—and make them disappear, as quickly and quietly as possible. As he matter-of-factly declares, in response to a demanding client, “I’m no miracle worker—I’m a janitor.”

As you might guess, the position of “fixer” is not standard issue at top corporate law firms. White-shoe lawyers carry around litigation bags, not envelopes stuffed with cash, and they don’t kick down doors, as Clayton regularly does.

Why are senior associates suddenly en vogue in Hollywood? Could it be that they embody a growing status anxiety among lawyers, who are trying to figure out their place in the world during uncertain times for their profession?

Michael Clayton isn’t even the first of this year’s entertainments to feature a senior associate. In Damages, the FX network’s oddly compelling legal drama, Tate Donovan plays a senior associate named Tom Shayes. Throughout the early episodes, Tom is the stereotypical senior associate: ineffectual and compromised, a pathetic lapdog to a powerful partner. When Tom’s boss, an alpha-female litigatrix named Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), hands him one particularly degrading assignment—trailing a junior associate running errands around Manhattan—he feebly objects: “I’m a lawyer, Patty.” But he does it anyway.

Like Tom Shayes, Michael Clayton is a somewhat depressing figure. This is not the suave and debonair Mr. Clooney of Ocean’s Eleven, but an aged, weary, slightly puffy Mr. Clooney. (It’s a realistic touch: Michael Clayton looks like someone who has spent almost two decades at a large New York law firm.) And despite certain superficial differences, Clayton’s relationship to the partners he works for is ultimately not that different from the standard relationship between senior associates and their firms. After all, the firm needs him. They know that he knows all their dirty secrets, since he’s been around forever. They pay him well—partly for his services, partly for his discretion. But they also secretly (or not so secretly) condescend to him, viewing him not as an equal, but as the hired help.

Some of the disrespect is Clayton’s own fault. Despite some commendable actions—not mentioned here, in this certifiably spoiler-free column—he’s not exactly a role model. He’s washed-up and weak, acting not on his own initiative but in response to orders barked by partners. Hard up for money, thanks to a weakness for illegal gambling and involvement in a failed restaurant business, Clayton is willing to compromise his conscience for cash.

It’s all too easy to look down upon Michael Clayton and the senior associates he represents—it happens every day in New York’s top shops. But is this sense of superiority justified? The plight of senior associates is arguably quite similar to the plight of Big Law lawyers in general. Vis-à-vis their clients, large-firm lawyers may earn more than ever—but with less security of tenure, less of a stake in the long-term success of their clients, and less respect too. In an increasingly competitive market for legal services, lawyers are constantly chasing after work, and constantly compromising to land (and keep) clients. These days they serve less as trusted long-term advisers and more as hired guns, retained for specific cases and transactions. They take their marching orders from the client, and they’re readily replaced when things go wrong—or when they tell the client things the client doesn’t want to hear.

The new order is nicely captured in an exchange between Karen Crowder (Ms. Swinton) and Clayton. In trying to defend a Kenner Bach partner who has a breakdown and strips naked during a deposition, Clayton argues that mental instability often goes hand in hand with brilliance. But Crowder rejects the lofty notion that she hires lawyers for their genius or judgment: “Excuse me, we pay for his time.”

Paying for time: Lawyers and taxicab drivers employ the same business model. At the end of the film, Clayton hails a cab on Sixth Avenue. When the driver asks for his destination, he hands over a fifty and says, “Give me $50 worth. Just drive.”

Is this cab ride to nowhere, quite literally, pointless? Perhaps. But if that’s what the client wants, that’s what the client will get. Just as senior associates carry water for the partners, the partners carry water for their clients. Everyone has a boss, and everyone has a price.

Who is this guy? Maybe he is us. Maybe we’re all senior associates now.

Hollywood Hugs Beta Males of Law