Forbidden Flavours and Just Desserts

I was sitting in the lobby of–well, a firm, that firm, maybe your firm?–when this happened. And when I got home, the September 2010 Last Word, Forbidden Flavours and Just Desserts happened. Enjoy.

Three scoops of rocky road ice cream, with a c...

LAST WORD: Forbidden Flavours and Just Desserts
By Marzena Czarnecka

I’m patiently sitting in the lobby of—well, a firm, that firm, maybe your firm?—and across from me sits a terrified young ‘un. He’s trying to play cool, but my beady eyes notice that his palms are leaving giant sweat prints on the newspaper he’s mangling. I lean over sympathetically. “Articling interviews?” I ask. (The West hasn’t gone speed-dating mad yet, lucky us.) He nods. “First one?” I prod (Yes, I’m nosy. You knew that already.) He shakes his head. “Third.” (I’m not psychic. You knew that already too. Did not predict 2008, not by half.) I prod some more and elicit that he’s interviewing at this firm, that firm and your firm. A star, gosh-darn-it, I think. And one terrified of making the wrong choice.

Now, I’m a cynic and a half, and what I really want to tell him is that this really isn’t as big a deal as his career counselor at the U’s telling him. This is going to be his first law firm, not the law firm. He’s making a decision for a year—perhaps four or five—no longer a lifetime. Still, no one wants to work in a culturally ill-fitting place for a year, let alone five.

The lobby of a firm—this firm, your firm—isn’t really the most appropriate place for even the wholly inappropriate me to expound on the cultural delusions of major law firms, but I’m just dying to help this frightened little lamb. In a politically appropriate way, of course.

It comes to me in a flash: ice cream.

Harry Campbell, one of my all-time favourite managing partners ever (you’re the other one—how’d you guess?), used to compare national law firms to “so many cans of soup on a shelf,” with the inference that his firm was a strong-bodied, homemade , delicious stock. I’ve always loved the analogy, but have eventually come to reject its truth. The firms may look the same, but they sure don’t taste the same once you dig beyond the website/PR veneer.

“What you want to do,” I tell the young ‘un, “is compare the firms to ice cream.” He gives me a look—the “I thought you were a little crazy, and now I know you are” kind of look. “No really,” I persist. “This is how you do it—take a simple, inoffensive flavour like vanilla. OK? That’s your baseline. You’d be ok there. You could do 365 days there. You could eat it every day for 10,000 days, and you’d be fine. You’d get sick of it occasionally, you wouldn’t be delighted or passionate about it, but it wouldn’t make you puke.”

He nods. He still thinks I’m crazy, but he gets that he could eat vanilla ice cream every day for a year.

“OK, now what’s the flavour you hate? Black licorice? Fine. That’s the flavour that, when you smell it, you feel ill. If you had to eat it every day for a year, you’d become bulimic. That’s the ‘bad’ extreme. You come across a firm that tastes like black licorice, you run.”

He looks around furtively and whispers that he thinks he had one of those that morning. “See?” I say, delighted. “It works!”

“Now, here’s the hard part. Between vanilla and black licorice, there are a dozen acceptable flavours.” (Hundreds, perhaps, in other markets, but this is Canada, and this is Calgary, so a dozen is about all we get.) “As you investigate those firms, don’t rank them—assign them an ice cream flavour. Take the three firms I’m spending time with today.” I tell him the names. (He raises his eyebrows and, young ‘un that he is, is over-impressed. “This firm’s Chunky Monkey—yummy banana with chocolate chunks. Crazy, but quality. That firm’s Chocolate Espresso—really wired, hyper, but with a sweet touch. And the third’s Rocky Road—not very pretty, sometimes gets stuck in your teeth, yet strangely satisfying.”

He’s nodding. “You go with your favourite flavour. The one you could eat every day for 10,000 days and just keep on coming back for more,” I expound. “Yeah, after four or five years, you might be sick of it and decide to cross the street for Black Cherry or go in-house for Cotton Candy. But at least you’ll really dig it for the first little while.”

I fall silent, because his shepherd comes to fetch him. My interview shows up. We part ways, but as fate would have it, we end up in the same elevator on the way down. He looks left, right, then whispers into my ear:

“Heavenly Hash.”

Marzena Czarnecka likes ice cream.

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