The dual purpose of office parties

Careers aren''t made but can be ruined at these annual gatherings.

Everybody likes a good party. Associates are no different. Indeed, with a back-crushing workload stacked high on your shoulders and an interminable anxiety circling within your stomach, it’s understandable that every now and again you need to blow off a little steam.


You work the most gruelling office hours under the most unforgiving circumstances (for professionals, anyway). Your workday doesn’t start — it just continues. As the lifers in the office cheerfully note on the doorstep of each weekend, “Thank God it’s Friday. Just two more workdays until Monday.”


Under the barking orders of partners, you’re forced to draft facta at a moment’s notice. Your clients don’t like you; you don’t much like them either, but you nevertheless battle on their behalf as hard as they would fight for themselves if they knew the law. You forgo the gym, friendly get-togethers, family obligations, and even TV — all to hit (nay, surpass!) those annual billable targets.


You may think they don’t, but partners do notice you getting soft, pale, and even jittery. They really do know they can only push associates so far before the young talent runs for the hills. That’s why Bay Street’s Death Star law firms strategically dot the calendar year with office parties. After all, who could possibly endure the drudgery of these associate years without the odd bender?


Now partners may euphemistically call them “team-building exercises,” “professional” or “client-development opportunities,” or (my personal favourite) “retreats,” but everyone knows a party when they see one — summer barbecues at the managing partner’s cottage; department cocktails on Thursdays; associate dine-around-the-town tours; women in law spa weekends; client golf outings; firm leadership and mentoring seminars in Mexico; and holiday luncheons that sail into the evening, move from nightclub to nightclub, and eventually wind up at breakfast in some suburban diner.


They all seem to slide into your schedule just when you need them most. You tidy up that last gut-wrenching item on your tickler system, and then that wonderful sigh of relief passes through your chest and over and away from your lips, carrying with it the day’s tension from your upper back and neck.


At last — time for the office party. You’re ready for that beer, or maybe a cocktail, some banter, and, most importantly, the dance floor. But, my fellow associates, frosh week came and went some time ago. You no longer want to hit the bar or the dance floor too quickly or too hard. You’re now in the good company of your colleagues and under the watchful, calculating eyes of your firm’s partners. Of course, it’s easy to get a little carried away from time to time (especially when all that internal restlessness finally finds a release), but you’ve got to know when to pull on the reins.


With the bass of the latest techno music and that fourth mojito pumping through your head, ripping your shirt sleeves off, tying them around your forehead, and grooving your way to the dance floor with your arms around the department head’s assistant at the firm’s Christmas party may feel like the right thing to do. It may not bother you that, while conveying your affection for the practice of law to your peer mentor over dinner at Rain, your drunken left hand just nipped that candle, tipping it over, and ignited the table’s linen and your mentor’s jacket.


In the midst of receiving some unsolicited wisdom from the department’s newest partner at the National Club function, you may have been caught by surprise at the bar as your stomach’s contents quickly filled your newest Coach purse. Too liquored at 3:30 p.m. to make your way to the exit of Wooden Stick’s clubhouse, you might think it’s perfectly natural that the firm’s event organizer is compelled to escort you home to safety.


Telltale signs that you’ve taken the moment a touch too far. Clear failures to heed the warnings in that six-page e-mail about social responsibility, circulated three or four hours before every office party. Definitely time to dial down the intensity a notch or two, run for the first available cab home, and polish up that resumé first thing Monday morning.


While it is almost impossible to advance your career through committed and meaningful attendance of many office parties alone, cutting off the road to partnership can be accomplished very easily at any time with just one spectacular screw-up — wisdom that even the most introverted partner carries.


And so, the dual purpose of office parties is laid bare. Partners of Death Star law firms want their associates to let their hair down on occasion and to feel like they’re all part of one loyal Empire. But, at the same time, they seek to identify those lacking any semblance of good judgment.


Primo J. Mendes is a senior associate in a big Death Star law firm in Toronto. He will be your mentor, young associates. He can be reached at [email protected]

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