Jeremy Blachman is the author of Anonymous Lawyer (Henry Holt, 2006), a novel satirizing life at a large corporate law firm. The book was called “wickedly amusing” by USA Today and “not too long” by his grandmother. Besides the U.S. editions, the book has been published in Israel, Italy, Korea, Poland, Thailand, and the UK — and, coming soon, Russia. Blachman, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, is currently writing a second novel, and living with his wife in New York City. More information about the book — and a few podcasts (are podcasts even things anymore?) — at anonymouslawfirm.com.
New York’s a big place. I grew up in a part of Brooklyn called Bergen Beach, a twenty-minute drive past where the subway lines end. Drive to the bus, take the bus to the subway, take the subway into Manhattan. Ninety minutes door to door. Or take the “express bus,” that took two hours each way. We called Manhattan “the city,” because where we lived didn’t feel like a city at all. Even other parts of Brooklyn were thought of as “the city.” You know, parts the subway reached, or parts where people would actually choose to visit. We never went into Manhattan. Ever. Before age 10, I think I was in Manhattan for two school trips– the Broadway production of “Me and My Girl” and a trip to the Museum of Natural History — and a one-time-only adventure into Chinatown for dinner when a guy who my mom had gone on a couple of dates with wanted to really impress her. That’s it. I grew up believing that the part of the city that everyone thought of when they thought of the city was dangerous, dirty, and to be avoided at all costs. Can’t drive there (too much traffic, nowhere to park, and carjackers waiting on every corner), can’t walk there (kidnappers, murderers, and pickpockets), and, really, there’s nothing good about it at all. Full of rats, food’s expensive, and who needs to see a Broadway show when we have the television. These were the lessons taught.
Of course, sometimes the city couldn’t be avoided. I went to high school in Manhattan. There was a van service that picked people up from the far reaches of the city to bring us to school. I was the second pickup, waiting in the kitchen and staring out the window for the van to come at 6:20 in the morning, watching reruns of television shows from the 1950s and 60s on Nick and Nite — I am perhaps the only person of my generation who has seen every episode of Mr. Ed — while eating a barely-unfrozen waffle for breakfast and wishing that the public high schools in my neighborhood had been ever-so-slightly better (the one closest to my house was closed a few years later after what the news called a “stabbing incident”) so I wouldn’t have to wake up in the middle of the night and incur an impossible sleep deficit that I am still trying to pay back.
I live in “the city” now. Midtown Manhattan, although that makes it sound busier than it is. A relatively quiet street a couple of blocks from the United Nations, convenient for my wife to walk to work. I never thought I would end up back in the city — any city — as an adult. I just saw the bad stuff. And took the good stuff for granted. My parents are still afraid. Parking’s so expensive. There are so many taxicabs. The avenues are so long. I don’t know, there’s always a reason. We meet them halfway when we see them — somewhere in Park Slope or another area of Brooklyn that isn’t quite so frightening in their minds. And even though I still don’t feel comfortable driving in Manhattan — fortunately, we don’t need a car — and my parents were right that food is ridiculously expensive — I’ve grown to appreciate a few things. Or at least the existence of them, even if I don’t take full-enough advantage. Cheap theater tickets, ethnic supermarkets, independent movies. Even the subway. Sort of.
Jeremy thank you for taking part in Passport: New York and sharing your NY experience!
Now, lets get to know Jeremy Blachman!
Dolls: What made you decide to start the Anonymous Lawyer Blog?
JB: I was a second-year law student at Harvard when I started the blog. I initially decided to go to law school mostly because I didn’t know what else to do, which is not a great reason to go. After college I was working in marketing for a software company, and even though the job was fine I pretty quickly realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I had written in college — mostly sketches and songs for a theater group — but had no idea how to turn that into a career. I figured law school would give me three years to figure out how to find a way to be a writer — but at the same time give me a backup plan in case the writing didn’t work out. I knew I was good at school, and I liked the idea that there was a useful degree at the end of it, so even if I accomplished nothing else while I was there, I wouldn’t feel like the three years had been a waste.
I’d started blogging under my own name right at the beginning of law school — initially as a way to force myself to write something every day. I had built up a decent-sized audience, but had started thinking about what else I could do with the blog form. I’d started a group blog with some other law students I’d met in the blogosphere, and was trying to think of some other outlets for blog-related experimentation. At the same time, I’d started interviewing for summer jobs at law firms and felt pretty conflicted about the process. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to work at a big firm after graduation — I’d gone to law school not realizing that most people ended up at places like these, and in fact had no idea what a big law firm was before starting school — but I also felt like I shouldn’t reject the possibility without giving it a chance, plus the pay was pretty crazy ($2500/week for 13 weeks — would basically pay for that final year of law school). I knew that I wasn’t a perfect candidate. My resume was filled with things that were not terribly related to the practice of law. I’d spent the summer after the first year of law school working for a publishing company and doing some editing and ghostwriting. I’d written a musical. I was working on the law school newspaper and in the law school’s a cappella singing group.
And I was bad at pretending that I desperately wanted to be a lawyer. I’d have these interviews and feel like a bit of a fraud, trying to say the right things about being passionate about corporate restructuring and being excited to work for a firm that was [whatever adjectives the firm had used to describe themselves on their website]. But at the same time, I felt like the people interviewing me were being no more forthcoming than I was. They were all selling the same fantasy — exciting work, tremendous opportunities, work/life balance, a perfect career. And yet the stories we would hear from people who were working there were not quite so perfect. Incredibly long hours, mind-numbing work, and very little in the way of satisfaction. I started to think about what these partners who were interviewing me were really thinking — “you clearly don’t want to work here,” “I am just going through the motions,” “all that matters anyway are your grades” — and, on a whim, decided to see what would happen if I tried to blog in the voice of one of these hiring partners.
I started Anonymous Lawyer before I’d even spent a day working at a law firm. I didn’t expect I’d have enough to say to last a week, that anyone would read it, or that I’d necessarily even stay interested in writing it. But as soon as I started, I felt like I found a character and found his voice. And the posts were very, very easy to write. Very quickly, the audience for Anonymous Lawyer surpassed what I was getting on my personal blog. I was hearing from readers at law firms who said I was describing their lives — and the more over-the-top I thought I was getting — partners throwing staplers at associates, handcuffing them to their desks, in one case someone trying to abort a fetus on his desk in the office because he couldn’t stand the idea of his associate taking maternity leave — the more I would hear from readers who identified. Which was scary more than anything else — I don’t think I realized how dissatisfied a lot of attorneys were, and how much the blog would strike a chord with people. Law students starting sending me actual resumes, wanting to work for my fictional firm. Which was baffling in part because I was fictional, but mostly because if I hadn’t been fictional, this was clearly a terrible, terrible place to work and I couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever want to be offered a job by my character.
Dolls: How did it end up becoming a book?
JB: After about eight months of blogging, the audience had grown to approximately 100K unique visitors/month, and I was getting a few dozen comments per post — including a number of people trying to use details from the blog to guess my identity. I hadn’t actually started the blog thinking that anyone would believe me to be a real law firm partner — at first I didn’t really keep it much of a secret and would tell friends about it, etc — but as the blog readership grew, it definitely felt like much of the appeal was the anonymity and trying to figure out if I was real and what firm I was blogging about.
Coincidentally, I’d been contacted by a New York Times reporter who had seen my personal blog — she was writing a story about a law professor at Harvard and wanted to see if I knew him and could offer a quote from a student’s perspective. I didn’t know the professor she was writing about, but I mentioned the Anonymous Lawyer blog to her just as an aside — I thought perhaps she’d know someone at The American Lawyer or another legal publication that could potentially be interested in writing about it. She took a look at the blog and got back to me and said she wanted to write a story about it, and reveal me as the person writing it. I certainly hadn’t expected that, but figured there could be no better publicity than a New York Times article. She interviewed me, and immediately when the article came out, I heard from dozens of agents and publishers who wanted to know if I’d thought about turning the blog into a book. I think I was very lucky that it just happened to hit at the right time — blogs were becoming mainstream enough that publishers were starting to be interested, but we weren’t so far down the curve that they had tried this a bunch of times already.
I ended up with an agent, we developed a proposal for a novel, and I met with a few publishers — and ended up with a great editor at Henry Holt, and a deal I was really happy with. The blog was very episodic — there wasn’t a plot that ran through it. So my first task was to figure out my character’s story for the novel — and then to develop a set of supporting characters, and a way to get their voices in the book (through e-mails that are interspersed with the blog posts). I did four complete drafts of the book, each time using less and less from the blog as the story in the book became richer — in the end, I think it was 80% new material and 20% pieces that I adapted from posts that had been on the blog.
I’ve written more about the blog to book transition on my Anonymous Law Firm site here (there’s also a lot of fun stuff elsewhere on the site, parodying a typical law firm website).
Dolls: Growing up in NY – good experience or bad?
JB: Definitely a good experience in retrospect, but as I’ve written in my guest blog, at the time I wasn’t so sure. My family continues to be frightened by the city. But it has always felt — and will always feel — like home to me.
Dolls: What says NY to you more than anything else?
JB: I see a rat in the subway, and I think of New York. No, seriously, I don’t know — this is probably a silly answer, because there’s baseball teams everywhere, and once you’re inside the stadium you could really be anywhere — but when I go to a Mets game — and as a kid I went to a lot more than I go to now — I really feel like I’m in New York and a part of the city. Even just on the subway ride to the game — a train full of people wearing their hats and jerseys — you feel like part of something a little bigger than when you’re just sitting in your apartment staring at the computer screen.
Dolls: Favorite things/Things you hate about NY
JB: My favorite thing about New York is the diversity of options that I take far too little advantage of. It’s nice to know that I can get on the subway and find food from any of 18 regions of China just a few stops away in Flushing, or see any of 15 improv comedy shows at tiny basement theaters in the East Village. I love the notion that I’m in the place where important things happen — that I theoretically have access here to whoever I might want to talk to or whatever I might want to do. I talked to a writer a few weeks ago who lives in a small town in Pennsylvania and said there are no bookstores in her county, there is no writing community, she feels very much alone. I don’t know that I take the best advantage of living where lots of other creative people do, but it’s nice to know they exist here and there are outlets for the kinds of things I do.
The things I hate about New York are pretty trivial — how expensive the supermarkets are, how noisy it can be, and how hard it is to find clean, tranquil space.
Dolls: What’s next? New book? New blog? Become the lawyer from Anonymous Lawyer?
JB: I spent two years in Los Angeles working with Sony and NBC on a television adaptation of Anonymous Lawyer that did not end up on the air — I’m now working on what I hope could become a movie version of the book, and I’m also working on a new book that has nothing to do with the law or lawyers or law firms. And there may or may not be an anonymous blog out there somewhere that’s helping me develop that material. 🙂 (But I’ll leave it to your readers to try and find it.) I’ve also written some other television scripts and had a short piece in McSweeney’s a few weeks ago satirizing the TV show House Hunters.
And now….Paperback Proust:
Dolls: What is your greatest extravagance?
JB: Aside from high-speed Internet, probably the two very comfortable down pillows on my bed.
Dolls: What is your favorite journey?
JB: My wife and I visited friends in Prague in January, and despite the cold cold cold weather, it was a lot of fun.
Dolls: On what occasion do you lie?
JB: You mean aside from my anonymous fictional blogging habit? 🙂
Dolls: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
JB: Getting a kind and unexpected e-mail.
Dolls: What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
JB: Worrying about the health of a loved one.
Dolls: When and where were you happiest?
JB: The moment my wife and I were married.
Dolls: Which talent would you most like to have?
JB: To more easily overcome my natural shyness and effortlessly reach out to strangers.
Dolls: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
JB: I’d like to say it’s whatever I’m writing on any given day, but that’s probably a more aspirational answer than the truth. I don’t know that I consider myself having achieved anything yet. But I’m certainly proud of having written Anonymous Lawyer, and would be delighted for your readers to check it out!
Jeremy – once again, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions and sharing your Anonymous Lawyer Journey!
Want to find out more about Jeremy Blachman and the Anonymous Lawyer? Check out anonymouslawfirm.com