Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Akin Gump: A Culture of Narcissism?

In the year 1990 I entered weekly out-patient psychotherapy with Stanley R. Palombo, M.D., a psychiatrist in private practice in the District of Columbia. I was referred to Dr. Palombo by Albert M. Rothenberg, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and an expert in the creative process.

Dr. Palombo earned his medical degree from New York's  Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, a prestigious school, and had published several scholarly articles in his field as well as a book titled Dreaming and Memory.

Dr. Palombo seemed to place an unusual emphasis on my academic and professional credentials. At our first consult, in late January 1990, he asked me what college I had gone to. When I told him I attended Penn State, he asked why. “Was it for financial reasons?”   When I asked why he was interested he said: “I would have thought you had gone to one of the finer private schools.” He asked me about my grades. I said they were about average. Dr. Palombo wanted to know why I didn’t get better grades in college.  He told me that I would need to "buckle down" in psychotherapy, and asked me if I was capable of "buckling down."

At an early session, perhaps the first or second, I provided Dr. Palombo copies of three letters of recommendation: two from lawyers I had worked for as a law clerk (Stephen F. Ritner, Esq. and Thomas W. Jennings, Esq.) as well as a letter written by Professor Seymour J Rubin, one of my law professors in international trade law at The American University Law School.

At that time, during the entire year I saw Dr. Palombo, I worked as a paralegal at the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, in Washington, D.C. A week after I had given Dr. Palombo the three letters of recommendation, he seemed piqued. My paranoid reconstruction is that Dr. Palombo was in communication with attorney managers at Akin Gump (Malcolm Lassman, Esq. and/or Earl L. Segal, Esq., who was, incidentally, a Penn State graduate).

Dr. Palombo seemed angry and wanted to know why I wasn’t practicing law. He embarked on an aggressive line of questions about what I had done since I had graduated law school. It all seemed a tad askew. Why would a psychiatrist place such an emphasis on my professional adjustment?

I had formed the paranoid opinion that Dr. Palombo had gone to bat for me with Segal and Lassman, and had been shot down by the firm. I even reconstructed the possible response Dr. Palombo would have gotten from Malcolm Lassman.   Lassman would have said something along the lines: “A law firm is a business. Our operation is directed by the bottom line. If we believed he would be of value to us as an associate, be of value to us in our business as a law firm, we would make him an offer. But Freedman is not qualified to practice law at our firm.  We do not believe he would advance our business interests."

Is there any evidence for this possible response to Dr. Palombo’s inquiry about my being hired by Akin Gump as an associate?

I would say so, yes. First, Dr. Palombo had a trait of playing devil’s advocate. In a number of contexts he would assume a contrarian posture, so it seemed to me, simply to see what my response would be. On one occasion Dr. Palombo said to me, “A law firm is a business, isn’t it?” He seemed to want me to elaborate a contrary view point, possibly to respond to Malcolm Lassman’s seemingly utilitarian outlook that emphasized the overriding importance of the “bottom line.”

In any event, that is my speculative (or paranoid) reconstruction of a possible conversation between my psychiatrist Stanley R. Palombo and law firm manager Malcolm Lassman.

I recently came across observations or insights into a phenomenon termed “corporate narcissism.” Organizational psychologist Alan Downs wrote a book in 1997 describing corporate narcissism. He explores high-profile corporate leaders (such as Al Dunlap and Robert Allen) who, he suggests, literally have only one thing on their minds: profits. According to Downs, such narrow focus actually may yield positive short-term benefits, but ultimately it drags down individual employees as well as entire companies. Alternative thinking is proposed, and some firms now utilizing these options are examined. Downs' theories are relevant to those suggested by Victor Hill in his book, Corporate Narcissism in Accounting Firms Australia.

Malcolm Lassman’s possible emphasis on the bottom line, his possible use of the phrase, “A law firm is a business,” suggests that Malcolm Lassman and, by extension, the firm's culture adhered to a narcissistic viewpoint that was narrowly focused on profits, with a corresponding emphasis on positive short-term benefits at the expense of the firm’s long-range interests.

I find this interpretation appealing in that it provides additional circumstantial evidence that Akin Gump’s culture is typical of that of a narcissistically-disturbed organization. See the following blog post I wrote some time ago about the firm’s apparent use of pretext in job termination decisions and the relation of pretext in a legal sense to the narcissist's use of rationalization, in a psychoanalytical context.

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