The Trap of the Firm

If you’ve ever seen The Firm, a classic movie starring Tom Cruise, you’ll know where I am going with this. Tom plays a bright, young, bushy tailed lawyer dropped into a prestigious law firm where life seems sweet – until he realises that he is trapped and The Firm isn’t all what it seems…

Mrs YFG and I both, for many years of our lives, were absorbed into our respective Firms – legal and accounting. Whilst training in a profession and securing a job in a competitive industry is a big achievement, the reasons for doing so often don’t appreciate how much you give up of yourself in return.

The Firm finds you when you are young at university. At 18 or 19, you’re lured by the bright shiny offices and the promise of luxurious salaries and the badge of honour. You carry a shoulder bag or rucksack with the name of the Firm on- you have been chosen. As a penniless student you’re desperate to secure any kind of income for when you graduate – the numbers look fabulous.

You graduate, with your contract safely signed. You know you’re going to the Firm, you’ll be taken care of. As long as you give your time, your energy and your effort to the Firm. The Firm owns you, but they’ll make it worth your while – you’re in the family now.

If you work hard enough (according to arbitrary rules of the Firm), you get rewarded. The Firm shows you how many hours you are charging to clients and urges you to beat targets of billable hours, beat your personal best. More billed hours means more pay, and more pay means you can reward yourself with Things for working so hard for the Firm. Maybe you can buy beautiful clothes and have a beautiful house and a beautiful wedding thanks to your salary from the Firm.

You never have to leave the Firm’s office. The office has a gym, beds, an in-house doctor and beautician, a gift shop, restaurant, dry cleaner, chauffeur service. Everything is taken care of. Organise your house insurance and your mortgage with the help of the Firm, keep it in the family. The Firm will even start on the young’uns from when they first walk – they will arrange your childcare at their free creche. Your kid is part of the family now.

For years, Mrs YFG has been indoctrinated into the Firm. She feels a need to deserve or earn her salary – the Firm looked after her, now she has to demonstrate her loyalty. She feels guilt if she doesn’t work as many hours as her colleagues who must think poorly of her for slacking. Their soldiers associates are out earning and hustling, she’s gotta step it up. She sees the hours as normal, everyone does it. It’s just a part of life and the bargain she struck for her pay. She can’t complain.

Granted, it’s a choice and not a choice that everyone can, or wants to, make. But neither of us truly considered what we wanted before we signed up ten years ago. We mentally and physically exhausted ourselves working under the assumption this is just what society expects of us. We don’t want to waste the advantages we have had, instead we want to maximise them- stay at the Firm because we want to (not because we are afraid to leave).

You come to realise that it ain’t all its cracked up to be, and your priorities at work change. The unyielding loyalty to the Firm dies and you now plan for a better future – outside the confines of the office. But even if you continue to work hard, and perform at the highest level, the Firm knows and will treat you like a spurned lover (usually through the soul-crushing annual review process). It knows it can no longer play on your insecurities to keep you in line. And it’s clear that the loyalty was only ever one way. On reaching FI I could see the machinations all around me in the white-collar world – and that I didn’t want to be part of that game. Perhaps it’s just me, but I will never be comfortable being forced to justify my existence every 12 months. In FI everything has flipped around – that world has to justify itself to me and my precious time.

 

All the best,

Young FI Guy

Comments

  1. Hi. At least you woke up. Impressively young too, the superficial flattery often traps people for their entire prime years. Most companies now seem to use this ‘cult model’ of minion-control, it’s like they went to a course run by psychologists on manipulative techniques to keep employees hooked forever. That may sound crazy, but I knew a couple of HR people and have an ex who was in recruitment and I promise you it’s not far off the truth. When I was in the groove, in full flow, feeling that my life was motoring and I was getting to where I wanted to be, I stayed with the same corporation for over a decade, then my friend from work dropped dead at 27. (not work related, unlucky rare disease) The shock made me ask what it was all for, I looked up and realised my 30’s had just evaporated, so if I didn’t change anything, next time it would be a decade later, etc., so I thought fk this and made a plan.

    I have an acquaintance well over 60 now, who is terrible with his money, he can rescue defeat from the jaws of victory in any given situation. He is currently working so hard he’s in Europe all week and flies back for the weekends and was told at his last medical that if he doesn’t change something he’ll have a heart attack soon. Yet he doesn’t seem to know how, he’s a smart computer programmer and does things I don’t understand no matter how many times he explains. (I have 3 scientific degrees so can’t be that stupid) He’s still racing towards the cliff edge.

    There are many drivers of this self-destructive behaviour, but you can never under-estimate the power of peer pressure, even now, some of my closest relatives (whose savings I have helped grow beyond what they thought possible) still think the money management I do is just a hobby and a cover for laziness in not having a real job so I can feel the pain they do. But when you are young, healthy and bursting with energy, it’s hard to imagine it can vanish in a flash; I have seen guys burn out at 30 and cabbage for years after. Everything in life should be about balance.

    1. Thanks FI Warrior. Peer pressure and inertia are very strong forces. I saw it a lot when I gave my resignation – I explained it was a change of career and I wasn’t enjoying my job anymore so wanted to spend my life doing more of what I enjoyed. I had lots of congratulatory comments but also lots of: “I’d love to that but…” and “You’re very brave, a bold move but I could never do that.”

  2. Not all jobs are shit – I quite like mine..

    But for sure, engineering autonomy over your time is rarely a wasted effort

    I looked up and realised my 30’s had just evaporated

    Thats the biggest tragedy of all – don’t let it happen to you! As Ferris so rightly said,

    Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

    1. Very true Mr Rhino, not all jobs are shit. I’m of course quite a cynic. My experience is in financial services – which is quite different from lots of other sectors. I think the issue is that the “good ol’ days” of the city are long gone – the boozy lunches, hospitality, very generous pay (although it still pays well) and general laissez-faire attitude are gone. But the bad stuff – the tough working environment, (culture) and dropping everything for clients still exists. I think it’s a much worse offering than it was compared to starting in the 90s like most of today’s partners did.

      I used to (and still do) enjoy speaking to one of my old bosses about his start in the industry. He used to get sent out with a laptop all over the world on his own to advise all sorts of businesses and clients. Nowadays you just can’t do that – compliance and regulations are so strong (I know this is happening in all industries, but finance seems to be the most affected). Is the quality of the work better today? Probably. But it means youngsters in the industry just don’t get as much experience. It also means that clients and advisers are quite detached from each other – and I think that reduces the quality of work.

      In a way, I was quite lucky as I worked in a niche area so I was often thrown in the deep-end and learnt a great deal. I got to work with most of my clients directly. But I know a lot of my peers didn’t get such exposure.

  3. But even if you continue to work hard, and perform at the highest level, the Firm knows and will treat you like a spurned lover (usually through the soul-crushing annual review process). It knows it can no longer play on your insecurities to keep you in line.

    Amen to that one! If there is one thing that I value most about the post-work life, it is never having to justify my existence in an annual review again. I have done some things for pay since, but invariably they are one-offs and my work speaks for itself, it happened on time, to budget and does what it was supposed to do. I don’t ever want to hear the term core competencies ever again in connections with my future bank balance.

    1. It’s great to see you reading and commenting Ermine – I have been a long time fan of your blog and your cynical rants (I think we share much in common in that respect!) But please never say “core competencies” again – that made me physically shudder…

    2. Towards the end of my sentence at Soulless Inc., I dreaded my way up to an appraisal for weeks rehearsing all the possible moves for the inevitable game of psychopath chess, moving the pawns of business jargon, employment legislation and proven completed tasks so as to avoid being managed out before I crossed the finish line to collect a redundancy. My persecutor, with the weight of the system behind her was equally determined to squelch my little existence out of her world for free and given the pleasure this mission obviously gave her, I suspect it must have been one of her bonusable objectives.

      On the day of the inquisition, I made it home only to find my then wife trying to grill me over some things we’d agreed in her head I should have already done. I had been procrastinating for a long time about when to pull the trigger, but that did it, I now couldn’t tell the difference whether I was at work or not, being appraised or not. I got a divorce in the fastest time bureaucratically possible and have to date never knowingly been appraised since.

  4. As a 27 year old who also started off as a graduate in a Big4 firm I found my experience to be the same as you. One thing to add to inertia and peer pressure is the danger of being good at something you don’t like/or hate too much – it can lock you in for years as it has done some of my peers. I worked for four years in a Big4 firm in a niche area of consulting. Clients liked me and so I got to do presentations and work in small teams which I find enjoyable. However, I always hated the work environment and the subject matter was to be frank dry! I could easily have been stuck there for years. It’s hard to leave something that you’re ‘good’ at.

    Luckily for me I eventually fell out of love with the firm. I went through a long stint of projects with awful middle managers (same across all big firms) and found the annual review processes more of a ‘likability contest’ (actual words of a partner bluntly explaining the process) than based on work performance and dependability. I also grew up in a household with a mixture of cultural influences and a family where practically no-one wears a suit or works in a corporate job, so I never dreamed of or cared much for working in a big office.

    Together these eventually gave me the impetus to leave. I left to work in an obscure but interesting part of government for a while. I took a huge social status hit by switching and it did make me bleakly reassess many of my early City friendships which were predicated on chasing status and money. I progressed from government to another related field now and here having an ACA and corporate experience has made me stand out in positive way. I’m far happier and have more impact in an area that I care for. Now that I’ve left, I can’t imagine ever going back to a corporate environment for anything bar avoiding destitution.

    As a message to all those stuck in corporate careers there are whole careers where professional skills are valuable. Or if you can, become a contractor, like some of my year group, and only go back to the firm for short contracts to top up your skills for the contracting market.

    I’m still working my way to FI. Keep posting your blogs – they’re good to read!

    1. Thanks EssexBoy – it sounds like we had very similar experiences! One thing I was very good at was compliance, regulation and administration (i.e. following all the right processes). I think that’s because I’m naturally very organised. Unfortunately, it meant getting swamped with bureaucracy and form-filling – like you say, the danger of being good at something you don’t like.

      It makes me happy to see that you’re having a successful career after leaving the big 4 and finding happiness in your work. Being an ACA is a huge boon, it’s an excellent qualification and really a high quality business degree. As I set out in an earlier post, becoming a qualified professional puts you well ahead of the pack for your career (https://wp.me/p9CF0s-E).

      Since leaving the Firm I’ve been doing some contracting work, I’ve really enjoyed it as it’s been mainly doing the stuff I like without doing the stuff I didn’t like. I completely endorse your advice to other readers on that front.

  5. Yes, I despair at the half year/annual reviews and all the pointless preparation involved when it’s rating has already been set. I’m not great with language, I can say I’ve done x,y,z but then trying to word it in a way to sounds impressive against pigeon hole HR speak can be a frustrating experience and a waste of my time. I do certain things to reduce the opportunity for the manager to think pointless actions, like I don’t give my review form up front, first time my manager see’s it is in the 1to1, then I’ll talk as much as possible to use up as much of the available time.

    One of the reasons for my FI journey, think last year a combination of me thinking FI getting closer is likely got the better of me and I had a semi-outcry of despair with a new manager about what was expected out of the review process, basically it takes a lot out of me when I could be getting on with my job. I’m looking forward to the day I can say I don’t need to be part of this.

    1. Thanks for commenting reckless saving. The review process takes up so much time, nobody enjoys it (or at least unless they are some weird psychopath in HR) and it stops people from getting on with their job. The process also seemed to change every year (for me anyway), so you would have to spend time “learning” the new process and all the gubbins that came along with that.

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