Bitter Lawyer Loves Elizabeth Wurtzel – Part 1


[Ed. Note: The Internet has a strange fascination with Prozac Nation and Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women author Elizabeth Wurtzel. Online coverage of the writer-turned-lawyer on sites ranging from Above The Law (here, here and here) to Gawker (here, here and here) generally involves bloggers and readers being peculiarly delighted when Wurtzel stumbles and oddly enraged when she succeeds. From the beginning of her legal career, Wurtzel has been the target of ad hominem attacks that somehow suggest that she is unworthy of her Yale Law degree and/or her job at Boies, Schiller.

After reading her Wall Street Journal Opinion article in April and “Failure to Launch: When Beauty Fades,” a piece she wrote for Elle magazine in May, we wanted to know, among other things, why she went to law school and what was happening with her legal career today. So we asked her. And her responses didn’t disappoint. CLICK HERE for Part 2 of this interview.]

What is your current title?

I’m an associate at Boies, Schiller & Flexner.

Where did you go to law school?

Yale, ’08.

You were already a rather well-known writer when you enrolled at Yale. What made you decide to go to law school?

You know, I always kind of wanted to go to law school—and specifically to Yale because I was such an admirer of Renata Adler, who also went to Yale Law [after establishing herself as a writer and critic for The New Yorker].

She is kind of like Joan Didion. She’s very smart and very interesting—someday a smart publisher will reissue her books—but anyway, I always wondered if I could do that too.

So you wanted to follow in Adler’s footsteps?

Well, yes, to a degree. Law school is such a crazy idea when you already have a career. And it was always a dream [for me] in the way that people dream of climbing Mount Everest or going to visit The Taj Mahal. You know, maybe you do it, and maybe you don’t.

But so many people looked at me like I was crazy when I started talking about the idea, and I don’t tend to be influenced by what people say about me. But there was such a critical mass of people saying that law school was crazy… After all, lawyers often want to quit to become writers, not the other way around.

And so you just went for it?

No. Not exactly. I think the events that directly led to my decision to go to law school were the 9/11 attacks.

How so?

I lived across from the World Trade Center. I was deep in ground zero, and I was pretty damaged by the event personally for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways.

I had to move. I moved into a new apartment, and I found myself so freaked out and shocked by everything that was going on [in the immediate aftermath of 9/11]. There was a television [in my new apartment] with only a few channels. I was watching C-SPAN constantly. Constantly.

I found myself really wanting to be on a C-SPAN. And I don’t mean that in a literal sort of way. What I mean is that I wanted to be an expert on something. I wanted to be the kind of person who would be on a C-SPAN panel. I had this weird feeling that I was really uneducated.

I remember sticking my head out the window [the morning of the attack]; I didn’t think this was Osama bin Laden because I didn’t know that then. In those months there were just so many people talking [in the media] and none of them really knew anything. But I just kept watching C-SPAN and starring into space. I was turning down writing assignments, and I really just wanted to know something—to be an expert in something—and to go to a place where people were thinking rationally, so I applied to law school.

Did you find a refuge in law?

Yes, I think so. I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t noisy. That was the hardest part after 9/11. Everyone was just sort of shouting a lot. Everyone was irrational. There was a certain code that you couldn’t say things. I think that’s changed somewhat now. But back then, I wanted to go somewhere where people made sense.

And I was right, law school was that place. No matter what people said, it made sense. They had to be rational and reasonable. For example, you could have a debate between an Israeli and a Palestinian at the law school, but each student would pain himself or herself to think clearly and rationally.

Did you want to practice law?

I thought I might want to teach. Yale Law is kind of like a mini Ph.D in a lot of ways, so I thought maybe I’d become a professor. The funny thing was I really liked Civ Pro. Is that weird? I know that’s kind of weird, even among lawyers. But I really liked procedure.

[Teaching made sense] because I didn’t really think I could get a proper job even if I wanted one. I had always been a writer, so I really didn’t know what good I would be at a proper job. The plan was just to get an education.

How did you end up with a “proper job” at Boies, Schiller & Flexner?

Two things happened: First, I decided I did want to do something with my law degree. Maybe my instinct would have led me to a public service career, I don’t know, but I wanted to do something. I knew that.

The second thing was that I got a summer job at Wilmer Hale. I had a really good time there, and they offered me a job. But I couldn’t see myself working fulltime at a huge law firm. I wanted to find a way to work part-time [and keep writing]. Wilmer Hale was great, but they couldn’t let me do part-time, which I understood. So, I wrote an email to David Boies telling him that I wanted to practice law and keep writing.

Did you know him?

No, not personally. But he went to Yale. He had spoken there and a lot of my professors knew him, so it wasn’t as if he was totally distant to me.

He asked me to meet with him, and I’ve got to be honest, he’s the most charming person on Earth. When you meet him, you’ll agree to anything. He could sell the Brooklyn Bridge. And if he had said, “I need you to work fulltime in China for five years,” I would have gone.

But you managed to convince him?

Yes, but part-time at Boies, Schiller is like fulltime by anyone else’s reckoning. Part-time means a reasonable schedule, and it ebbs and flows with the workload. I work five days a week, but most people here work seven, so I guess that’s part-time. I suppose you can think of my schedule as being something closer to flextime.

To tell you the truth, I wonder if the world isn’t moving to this model in general. I wonder if the future of law is people working less and getting paid less. There does seem to be the belief that you can’t practice unless it’s 100 hours per week, but that’s not true. Unless you’re in the middle of litigation, you don’t need that crazy schedule.

What’s been your best professional moment since graduating law school?

I don’t know if there is one that I can really point to. I’m working on the Prop 8 case right now, and I’m very proud of that. But mostly, like a lot of young lawyers, I think I’m just happy when I do something that’s valuable to somebody.

I’ll give you a silly, little example: When I first started, I had to prep David [Boies] for a conference call about a case. So I wrote up all the notes and made the talking points, and he used them, and it went really well. It’s a really small example, but those kinds of things make me happy.

What’s been your worst professional moment since graduating law school?

I don’t know if there’s been a big, dramatic moment. But one of the worst moments was when Prop 8 first happened. There was one day when I went with David on some media stuff, and there was so much confusion because everything was happening so quickly. I was supposed to bring along a particular binder, and for some reason, I didn’t. David, who is quite nice, didn’t yell—he’s not like that. But it was a mistake, and I felt awful. Really awful. Whenever I make a mistake, I feel really bad. It’s just a terrible, sinking feeling. It worked out, but you still feel awful. That’s been the worst so far.

Did going to law school make you a better writer?

I don’t know. In some ways there’s a lot of writing you have to do on demand [at a firm and in law school]. It’s like a newspaper, and that forces you to write because you must, and actually doing the work makes you do it better. But I don’t know that [law school] made me a better writer, honestly. I think that if I wrote [non-legal pieces] in the way that lawyers are supposed to write, that would be a disaster. I still write like me. I can’t change my voice.

Do you think your voice makes you an asset?

I hope so. I happen to think that legal writing could use a lot of help. That is, how it’s practiced in general—obviously there are plenty of good examples of legal writing, but legal writing in general is pretty bad.

Legal opinions, for example, tend to be really well written. But I can’t believe some of the briefs out there. There’s a formula [for legal writing], and that formula is bad. There are so many 100-page briefs that could easily be ten. It’s the opposite of what you do for any other purpose. Say it once and well, that’s the general rule for writing.

But lawyers are kind of the masters of anxiety. It’s like it’s their job to be anxious beyond belief. It’s a shame—really a shame. Because when you see a lot of these briefs, the point is made on the first page and then it’s repeated over and over again because there’s this irrational fear that it will somehow be missed.

There seems to be a shortage of prominent female attorneys. Is there a glass ceiling, and, if so, what does it look like these days?

I don’t know that there is or isn’t [a glass ceiling]. I think with the way it is setup, it’s hard to work at a law firm—period. It’s hard work for men and women. Women who can opt out, choose to do so. I think it’s something like 16 percent of partners are women. That’s appalling. Women could really make more inroads if they stuck it out, but a lot of them opt out, and that’s really embarrassing to me.

Why do you think they opt out?

I think they opt out because they can. Women get away with opting out, and that bothers me a lot.

How do they get away with it?

Women can still get away with saying that motherhood is more important. Don’t get me wrong, motherhood is important, but I hate it when I see women using motherhood as an excuse to get their nails done. I can’t believe they still get away with that.

I wish more women stuck it out, though. There’s so much room for them to do what men don’t do. Men can just be so much tougher. They stick it out, and I’m ashamed of that, but sometimes men are so f**king dense. There are all these things that men don’t notice.

I’ll give you an example: When I was working at Wilmer Hale, there was a big conference call, but when it came to setting the time, there were dozens of emails back and forth. Literally dozens. One man kept arguing for 2 p.m. and another man kept making a stronger and stronger case for 4 p.m. It was that ridiculous, and they just kept ratcheting it up. Finally, I just wrote, “Has anyone thought of 3 p.m.?”

They were all so busy getting their own way that they lost sight of a solution. It’s this thing that men do. It’s funny. It’s cute. It’s such an abundant blindness to what the alternative solution could be. Do you know what I mean?

Umm, I think I’m actually blind to it. Do you mean women are better at compromise?

[Laughing]

Not compromise per se. I think women can just be more efficient. We’re better at multitasking. That’s why it’s a shame that many women don’t stick it out in the law because I think they have a lot to offer.

Sometimes I dream of a law firm that’s all women. I think we would kill it because we’d be so efficient. But, of course, ideally you want both men and women because each has their strengths. But I worry that with so few women in the law, the ones who stay will just sort of become like everyone else. That has a tendency to happen.

CLICK HERE for Part 2 of our interview to find out Wurtzel’s thoughts on Sarah Palin, what she thought of the film version of her book Prozac Nation, the biggest misconception about her, and where she goes from here.

Read more interviews and Bitter Success.

29 Comments

  1. Bitter Partner

    July 23, 2009 at 5:40 am

    Great piece.  This woman is terrific!

  2. BL1Y

    July 23, 2009 at 6:13 am

    Since when does multitasking mean efficiency?  Doing several things at once usually means they all take longer and are done worse than if the person focused on one task at a time.

  3. Bitter Lawyer Matchmaker

    July 23, 2009 at 6:28 am

    We should introduce Elizabeth Wurtzel to Tim Green?

  4. Al

    July 23, 2009 at 6:36 am

    Really like this one. Thanks.

  5. Fresh_Rainmaker

    July 23, 2009 at 9:32 am

    Some women make choices that are best for their families and circumstances.  Some women bother to pass the NY Bar.  Sorry if this bums you out.

  6. LAwgirl

    July 23, 2009 at 9:46 am

    This is a fabulous interview. She is a really interesting woman. I read Prozac Nation years ago when it first came out. I am kind of in awe of her as a woman and her success.

  7. Anonymous

    July 23, 2009 at 10:00 am

    @ Fresh Rainmaker,
    Some women take it personally.

  8. BL1Y

    July 23, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Some women care enough about taking the bar that they don’t have to find out they failed from the New York Observer (which in turn found out from Gawker).  While Wurtzel is definitely interesting, I wouldn’t want her as my lawyer.

  9. Shark

    July 23, 2009 at 10:18 am

    passing the bar proves that you can pass the bar, nothing else. I failed three times. But I’ve won more than $200 million in judgements for my clients over the last seven years. I doubt they care that I failed three times.

  10. Anonymous

    July 23, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Elizabeth Wurtzel is a cool chick and a great writer.

    kudos to you!

  11. Roger

    July 23, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Who cares if she passed the bar on the first time or not?! She’s a great writer, smart as hell, outspoken and honest!  What’s wrong with that?  I think she’s pretty damn awesome and unlike this bl1y chap would hire her as my lawyer.  more importantly, she’d be a great dinner companion!!!  can’t say that about many lawyers.

  12. BL1Y

    July 23, 2009 at 11:06 am

    Way to miss the point, Roger.  Failing isn’t that horrible; lost of smart people fail.  But who doesn’t even bother to check?

  13. Roger

    July 23, 2009 at 11:15 am

    Who doesn’t bother to check?  A cool chick with a NY Times best selling novel under he belt.

  14. BL1Y

    July 23, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Yeah, about her writing.  Who the hell wants to be a lawyer when they can write books that get them $500,000 advances?

  15. Anonymous

    July 23, 2009 at 11:43 am

    @ BL1Y,
    Who doesn’t bother to check their spelling?
    “Way to miss the point, Roger. Failing isn’t that horrible; lost of smart people fail. But who doesn’t even bother to check?”

  16. BL1Y

    July 23, 2009 at 11:44 am

    People posting anonymously on websites, that’s who.  Welcome to the internet.

  17. Anonymous

    July 23, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    BL1Y, don’t get snippy. You made a typo. Man up. Nobody’s perfect.

  18. Craig

    July 23, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Great interview.  I can see how Elizabeth Wurtzel gets a rise out of people.  She truly seems very interesting and unique.  I think what she meant by those last couple of answers is that sometimes ego/alpha male attitude can get in the way with men when it comes to decision making, whereas women can put their ego away and come up with a solution faster.  I don’t agree with this, but I think that is what she was getting at.

  19. anon

    July 23, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    The idea of an all female law firm is ridiculous. Ever experience a sorority house?  A whole firm of A+ female personalities would be even worse.  Women are good at most things they do, but putting them all together ultimately leads to disaster. They would kill each other in the middle of a case. 
    Good interview though

  20. BitterPD

    July 23, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    It’s funny that an all female law firm is so easily dismissed as a terrible idea when there must have been all male firms in the past and surely some of them must have been dreadful, awful shops. Personally, I don’t know why you’d want only one gender, but I think the point is that nobody questions the all idea of a male-only law firm. Or, at least nobody did until recently.

  21. anon

    July 23, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    The reason is males can generally get along with each other. So while there were some terrible male shops, that was probably more due to the guys there being bad lawyers.  Females, can be incredible attorneys, but even if the majority of the firm could get along, there would be a significant enough segment of the firm, simply unable to deal with each other. This would cause the firm serious problems.  Again, look at sororities, while not a perfect analogy, its indicative of the natural tendencies. This is in addition to the fact girls cannot get along with each other at regular firms.

  22. BL1Y

    July 24, 2009 at 4:00 am

    Men and women have the exact same problem in life: dealing with women.  Every bit of drama in my office has had a woman at the center.  How many women do you know who don’t have any female friends?  Probably a lot more than the ones who don’t have any male friends, or the male friends you have who don’t have any female friends.  I’ve never seen anyone get shat on worse at work than when a woman shits on another woman.

  23. Blah

    July 28, 2009 at 5:24 am

    This interview is a joke right? She is not even on Boies website as an associate and she has not been admitted to the bar, so how can she call herself a lawyer…forgetting the binder story was really really cute, are you kidding me?

  24. BSF BS

    July 28, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    Hahaha, seven days a week huh??  My friend from law school works at Boies and she says that everyone has been beating the bushes for the past two years for work, all their big, high profile cases from 2004-2006 are now gone and they’re dead as a doornail!  They hired a restructuring consultant and excised their NJ office and had layoffs in all offices.  Bad enough EW lied about her hire, but this fiction is just too rich!

  25. Anonymous

    July 28, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    @ BSF BS,
    Didn’t the firm just win the AIG case. Sounds like you and your friend don’t know much and have never bothered to, I don’t know, open the damn NY Times. READ!

  26. HelloKitty

    July 29, 2009 at 8:09 am

    Yeah, and now that case is over too, after years of build-up, now even more mouths to feed for the dozens or so who were working on it.  Maybe Miss W can bring in some new high-profile clients/cases!

  27. Funmilayo

    August 3, 2009 at 10:50 am

    Of course, women quit and it is annoying.

    You however would not know since you work part time.

  28. Bemused JD

    August 20, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Why do I get the impression she’s only working at the law firm as research? When she quits is she going to feel she is opting out? Or is it ok if you opt out to write another book but not if you want to work in another part of the law/have time for your kids/have a life etc?
    She’s a rookie, no matter what her outside experience is. Why exactly are we listening to her like she’s an authority?
    When she has kids to drop off and a husband who won’t cut his hours to help out and works for clients doing more than just bringing binders she might know something about what more mature colleagues (men and women) face. And why they make a variety of decisions to make their lives more sane. Including quitting factory firms where they could make partner.

  29. Guest

    December 8, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    Yeah, this is kind of bizarre. She talks about being a practicing lawyer and yet doesn’t appear on the firm site (not dispositive) and isn’t in the database for NY-qualified attorneys (weirder).

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