Page 3 of The Firm

"Babies are encouraged."

"By whom?"

"The Firm."

"Why should care if we have children?"

"Again, stable families. A new baby is a big deal around the office. They send flowers and gifts to the hospital. You're treated like a queen. Your husband gets a week off, but he'll be too busy to take it. They put a thousand dollars in a trust fund for college. It's a lot of fun."

"Sounds like a big fraternity."

"It's more like a big family. Our social life revolves around, and that's important because none of us are from Memphis. We're all transplants."

"That's nice, but I don't want anyone telling me when to work and when to quit and when to have children."

"Don't worry. They're very protective of each other, but does not meddle."

"I'm beginning to wonder."

"Relax, Abby. The Firm is like a family. They're great people, and Memphis is a wonderful old town to live in and raise kids. The cost of living is much lower and life moves at a slower pace. You're probably considering the bigger towns. So did we, but I'll take Memphis any day over the big cities."

"Do I get the grand tour?"

"That's why I'm here. I thought we'd start downtown, then head out east and look at the nicer neighborhoods, maybe look at some houses and eat lunch at my favorite restaurant."

"Sounds like fun."

Kay paid for the coflee, as she had the brunch, and they left the Peabody in the Quin family's new Mercedes.

The dining room, as it was simply called, covered the west end of the fifth floor above Riverside Drive and high above the river in the distance. A row of eight-foot windows lined the wall and provided a fascinating view of the tugboats, paddle-wheelers, barges, docks and bridges.

The room was protected turf, a sanctuary for those lawyers talented and ambitious enough to be called partners in the quiet Bendini firm. They gathered each day for lunches prepared by Jessie Frances, a huge, temperamental old black woman, and served by her husband, Roosevelt, who wore white gloves and an odd-fitting, faded, wrinkled hand-me-down tux given to him by Mr. Bendini himself shortly before his death. They also gathered for coffee and doughnuts some mornings to discuss firm business and, occasionally, for a glass of wine in the late afternoon to celebrate a good month or an exceptionally large fee. It was for partners only, and maybe an occasional guest such as a blue-chip client or prospective recruit. The associates could dine there twice a year, only twice - and records were kept - and then only at the invitation of a partner.

Adjacent to the dining room was a small kitchen where Jessie Frances performed, and where she had cooked the first meal for Mr. Bendini and a few others twenty-six years earlier. For twenty-six years she had cooked Southern food and ignored requests to experiment and try dishes she had trouble pronouncing. "Don't eat it if you don't like it," was her standard reply. Judging from the scraps Roosevelt collected from the tables, the food was eaten and enjoyed immensely. She posted the week's menu on Monday, asked that reservations be made by ten each day and held grudges for years if someone canceled or didn't show. She and Roosevelt worked four hours each day and were paid a thousand each month.

Mitch sat at a table with Lamar Quin, Oliver Lambert and Royce McKnight. The entree was prime rib, served with fried okra and boiled squash.

"She laid off the grease today," Mr. Lambert observed.

"It's delicious," Mitch said.

"Is your system accustomed to grease?"

"Yes. They cook this way in Kentucky."

"I joined this firm in 1955," Mr. McKnight said, "and I come from New Jersey, right? Out of suspicion, I avoided most Southern dishes as much as possible. Everything is battered and fried in animal fat, right? Then Mr. Bendini decides to open up this little cafe. He hires Jessie Frances, and I've had heartburn for the past twenty years. Fried ripe tomatoes, fried green tomatoes, fried eggplant, fried okra, fried squash, fried anything and everything. One day Victor Milligan said too much. He's from Connecticut, right? And Jessie Frances had whipped up a batch of fried dill pickles. Can you imagine? Fried dill pickles! Milligan said something ugly to Roosevelt and he reported it to Jessie Frances. She walked out the back door and quit. Stayed gone for a week. Roosevelt wanted to work, but she kept him at home. Finally, Mr. Bendini smoothed things over and she agreed to return if there were no complaints. But she also cut back on the grease. I think we'll all live ten years longer."

"It's delicious," said Lamar as he buttered another roll.

"It's always delicious," added Mr. Lambert as Roosevelt walked by. "Her food is rich and fattening, but we seldom miss lunch."

Mitch ate cautiously, engaged in nervous chitchat and tried to appear completely at ease. It was difficult. Surrounded by eminently successful lawyers, all millionaires, in their exclusive, lavishly ornamented dining suite, he felt as if he was on hallowed ground. Lamar's presence was comforting, as was Roosevelt's.

When it was apparent Mitch had finished eating, Oliver Lambert wiped his mouth, rose slowly and tapped his tea glass with his spoon. "Gentlemen, could I have your attention."

The room became silent as the twenty or so partners turned to the head table. They laid their napkins down and stared at the guest. Somewhere on each of their desks was a copy of the dossier. Two months earlier they had voted unanimously to make him their number one pick. They knew he ran four miles a day, did not smoke, was allergic to sulfites, had no tonsils, had a blue Mazda, had a crazy mother and once threw three interceptions in one quarter. They knew he took nothing stronger than aspirin even when he was sick, and that he was hungry enough to work a hundred hours a week if they asked. They liked him. He was good-looking, athletic-looking, a man's man with a brilliant mind and a lean body.

"As you know, we have a very special guest today, Mitch McDeere. He will soon graduate with honors from Harvard - "

"Hear! Hear!" said a couple of Harvard alumni.

"Yes, thank you. He and his wife, Abby, are staying at the Peabody this weekend as our guests. Mitch will finish in the top five out of three hundred and has been heavily recruited. We want him here, and I know you will speak to him before he leaves. Tonight he will have dinner with Lamar and Kay Quin, and then tomorrow night is the dinner at my place. You are all expected to attend." Mitch smiled awkwardly at the partners as Mr. Lambert rambled on about the greatness of The Firm. When he finished, they continued eating as Roosevelt served bread pudding and coffee.

Kay's favorite restaurant was a chic East Memphis hangout for the young affluent. A thousand ferns hung from everywhere and the jukebox played nothing but early sixties. The daiquiris were served in tall souvenir glasses.

"One is enough," Kay warned.

"I'm not much of a drinker."

They ordered the quiche of the day and sipped daiquiris.

"Does Mitch drink?"

"Very little. He's an athlete and very particular about his body. An occasional beer or glass of wine, nothing stronger. How about Lamar?"

"About the same. He really discovered beer in law school, but he has trouble with his weight. The Firm frowns on drinking."

"That's admirable, but why is it their business?"

"Because alcohol and lawyers go together like blood and vampires. Most lawyers drink like fish, and the profession is plagued with alcoholism. I think it starts in law school. At Vanderbilt, someone was always tapping a keg of beer. Probably the same at Harvard. The job has a lot of pressure, and that usually means a lot of booze. These guys aren't a bunch of teetotalers, mind you, but they keep it under control. A healthy lawyer is a productive lawyer. Again, profits."

"I guess that makes sense. Mitch says there's no turnover."

"It's rather permanent. I can't recall anyone leaving in the seven years we've been here. The money's great and they're careful about whom they hire. They don't want anyone with family money."

"I'm not sure I follow."

"They won't hire a lawyer with other sources of income. They want them young and hungry. It's a question of loyalty. If all your money comes from one source, then you tend to be very loyal to that source. The Firm demands extreme loyalty. Lamar says there's never talk of leaving. They're all happy, and either rich or getting that way. And if one wanted to leave, he couldn't find as much money with another firm. They'll offer Mitch whatever it takes to get you down here. They take great pride in paying more."

"Why no female lawyers?"

"They tried it once. She was a real bitch and kept the place in an uproar. Most women lawyers walk around with chips on their shoulders looking for fights. They're hard to deal with. Lamar says they're afraid to hire one because they couldn't fire her if she didn't work out, with affirmative action and all."

The quiche arrived and they declined another round of daiquiris. Hundreds of young professionals crowded under the clouds of ferns, and the restaurant grew festive. Smokey Robinson sang softly from the jukebox.

"I've got a great idea," Kay said. "I know a realtor. Let's call her and go look at some houses."

"What kind of houses?"

"For you and Mitch. For the newest associate at Bendini, Lambert & Locke. She can show you several in your price range."

"I don't know our price range."

"I'd say a hundred to a hundred and fifty thousand. The last associate bought in Oakgrove, and I'm sure he paid something like that."

Abby leaned forward and almost whispered, "How much would the monthly payments be?"

"I don't know. But you'll be able to afford it. Around a thousand a month, maybe a little more."

Abby stared at her and swallowed hard. The small apartments in Manhattan were renting for twice that. "Let's give her a call."

As expected, Royce McKnight's office was a power one with a great view. It was in one of the prized corners on the fourth floor, down the hall from Nathan Locke. Lamar excused himself, and the managing partner asked Mitch to have a seat at a small conference table next to the sofa. A secretary was sent for coffee.

McKnight asked him about his visit so far, and Mitch said he was quite impressed.

"Mitch, I want to nail down the specifics of our offer."

"Certainly."

"The base salary is eighty thousand for the first year. When you pass the bar exam you receive a five-thousand-dollar raise. Not a bonus, but a raise. The exam is given sometime in August and you'll spend most of your summer reviewing for it. We have our own bar study courses and you'll receive extensive tutoring from some of the partners. This is done primarily on firm time. As you know, most firms put you to work and expect you to study on your own time. Not us. No associate of this firm has ever flunked the bar exam, and we're not worried about you breaking with tradition. Eighty thousand initially, up to eighty-five in six months. Once you've been here a year, you'll be raised to ninety thousand, plus you'll get a bonus each December based on the profits and performance during the prior twelve months. Last year the average bonus for associates was nine thousand. As you know, profit sharing with associates is extremely rare for law firms. Any questions about the salary?"

"What happens after the second year?"

"Your base salary is raised about ten percent a year until you become a partner. Neither the raises nor the bonuses are guaranteed. They are based on performance."

"Fair enough."

"As you know, it is very important to us that you buy a home. It adds stability and prestige and we're very concerned about these things, especially with our associates. provides a low-interest mortgage loan, thirty years, fixed rate, nonassumable should you decide to sell in a few years. It's a one-shot deal, available only for your first home. After that you're on your own."

"What kind of rate?"

"As low as possible without running afoul with the IRS {Internal Revenue Service Current market rate is around ten, ten and a half. We should be able to get you a rate of seven to eight percent. We represent some banks, and they assist us. With this salary, you'll have no trouble qualifying. In fact, The Firm will sign on as a guarantor if necessary."

"That's very generous, Mr. McKnight."

"It's important to us. And we don't lose any money on the deal. Once you find a house, our real estate section handles everything. All you have to do is move in."

"What about the BMW?"

Mr. McKnight chuckled. "We started that about ten years ago and it's proved to be quite an inducement. It's very simple. You pick out a BMW, one of the smaller ones, we lease it for three years and give you the keys. We pay for tags, insurance, maintenance. At the end of three years you can buy it from the leasing company for the fair market value. It's also a one-shot deal."

"That's very tempting."

"We know."

Mr. McKnight looked at his legal pad. "We provide complete medical and dental coverage for the entire family. Pregnancies, checkups, braces, everything. Paid entirely by The Firm."

Mitch nodded, but was not impressed. This was standard.

"We have a retirement plan second to none. For every dollar you invest, matches it with two, provided, however, you invest at least ten percent of your base pay. Let's say you start at eighty, and the first year you set aside eight thousand. The Firm kicks in sixteen, so you've got twenty-four after the first year. A money pro in New York handles it and last year our retirement earned nineteen percent. Not bad. Invest for twenty years and you're a millionaire at forty-five, just off retirement. One stipulation: If you bail out before twenty years, you lose everything but the money you put in, with no income earned on that money."

"Sounds rather harsh."

"No, actually it's rather generous. Find me another firm or company matching two to one. There are none, to my knowledge. It's our way of taking care of ourselves. Many of our partners retire at fifty, some at forty-five. We have no mandatory retirement, and some work into their sixties and seventies. To each his own. Our goal is simply to ensure a generous pension and make early retirement an option."

"How many retired partners do you have?"

"Twenty or so. You'll see them around here from time to time. They like to come in and have lunch and a few keep office space. Did Lamar cover vacations?"

"Yes."

"Good. Book early, especially for Vail and the Caymans. You buy the air fare, but the condos are free. We do a lot of business in the Caymans and from time to time we'll send you down for two or three days and write the whole thing off. Those trips are not counted as vacation, and you'll get one every year or so. We work hard, Mitch, and we recognize the value of leisure."

Mitch nodded his approval and dreamed of lying on a sun-drenched beach in the Caribbean, sipping on a pina colada and watching string bikinis.

"Did Lamar mention the signing bonus?"

"No, but it sounds interesting."

"If you join our firm we hand you a check for five thousand. We prefer that you spend the bulk of it on a new wardrobe. After seven years of jeans and flannel shirts, your inventory of suits is probably low, and we realize it. Appearance is very important to us. We expect our attorneys to dress sharp and conservative. There's no dress code, but you'll get the picture."

Did he say five thousand dollars? For clothes? Mitch currently owned two suits, and he was wearing one of them. He kept a straight face and did not smile.

"Any questions?"

"Yes. The large firms are infamous for being sweatshops where the associates are flooded with tedious research and locked away in some library for the first three years. I want no part of that. I don't mind doing my share of research and I realize I will be the low man on the pole. But I don't want to research and write briefs for the entire firm. I'd like to work with real clients and their real problems."

Mr. McKnight listened intently and waited with his rehearsed answer. "I understand, Mitch. You're right, it is a real problem in the big firms. But not here. For the first three months you'll do little but study for the bar exam. When that's over, you begin practicing law. You'll be assigned to a partner, and his clients will become your clients. You'll do most of his research and, of course, your own, and occasionally you'll be asked to assist someone else with the preparation of a briefer some research. We want you happy. We take pride in our zero turnover rate, and we go the extra mile to keep careers on track. If you can't get along with your partner, we'll find another one. If you discover you don't like tax, we'll let you try securities or banking. It's your decision. The Firm will soon invest a lot of money in Mitch McDeere, and we want him to be productive."

Mitch sipped his coffee and searched for another question. Mr. McKnight glanced at his checklist.

"We pay all moving expenses to Memphis."

"That won't be much. Just a small rental truck."

"Anything else, Mitch?"

"No, sir. I can't think of anything."

The checklist was folded and placed in the file. The partner rested both elbows on the table and leaned forward. "Mitch, we're not pushing, but we need an answer as soon as possible. If you go elsewhere, we must then continue to interview. It's a lengthy process, and we'd like our new man to start by July 1."

"Ten days soon enough?"

"That's fine. Say by March 30?"

"Sure, but I'll contact you before then." Mitch excused himself, and found Lamar waiting in the hall outside McKnight's office. They agreed on seven for dinner.

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