Rules of Civility by Amor Towles is a charmingly witty novel of two young women in 1938 New York as they take different paths through the stratified social maze of the city.
Katey is the well-educated but not wealthy narrator, and her best friend is Eve, a young woman of indeterminate social standing from the Midwest. The fact that neutral Midwest accents keeps you from knowing a person’s social class is something that truly annoys Katey.
“You can always tell a rich New York girl from a poor one. And you can tell a rich Boston girl from a poor one. After all, that’s what accents and manners are there for.”
The lives of Eve and Katey are changed by a chance meeting in a jazz club with “Tinker” Grey a young man from the super wealthy “old money” circles, that most people can only dream of .
Throughout Rules of Civility, Katey finds herself occupying the two worlds of New York. By day she is a secretary with low wages that can barely pay for her minuscule apartment. At night and on the weekends she is hobnobbing with people who own mansions, Rolls Royces and summer estates in The Hamptons.
In 1938, life choices were relatively few for a poor young woman, no matter how well educated or intelligent. Eve embarks on the well-traveled path of finding a rich man to help smooth the bumps of life. Katey tries the much more difficult course of actually becoming a successful career professional at a time when such a thing was almost unheard of.
Evey page of Rules of Civility is a pleasure to read, with wonderful witticisms throughout. At one point, Katey visits The Plaza Hotel and has this encounter in the elevator.
“Before the doors closed a pair of honeymooners joined us. Bright, rosy and young, they looked like they were ready to spend every last penny they had on room service. When they skipped down the hallway on twelve, I offered the elevator boy a friendly smirk.
–Newlyweds, I said
Not exactly, ma’am
Not exactly newly. Not exactly wed.”
Amor Towles is an incredibly talented writer. He spent the first 20 years of his career in Finance in New York, and Rules of Civility was his first novel. He followed this with the brilliant Gentleman of Moscow.
It is wonderful to see that all successful new writers don’t have to be young. In fact, it is Amor Towels’ life experience that make him such a brilliant commentator on the world. Whatever he publishes next, I will definitely be the first in line to buy it.
I once worked for the most prestigious “White Shoe” law firm in New York, learning parts of the business the lawyers wanted to pretend didn’t exist. To even be considered “White Shoe”, a law firm must be at least 100 years old and only hire from the top 1% of the class of the top law schools. Partners deal directly with world leaders in business and politics on a daily basis. The lawyers work on all the esoteric legal issues of billion dollar business deals. But behind the scenes, was a man names Robert “B”who handled everything non-legal, so that the lawyers never got their white shoes scuffed. Robert came from a long line of New York City cops and physically and emotionally was as tough as iron. Here is just a small list of the issues Robert took care of:
Throwing out the under-performing lawyers. The lawyers who got hired at my White Shoe firm have never failed at anything. They were the top of the class in their high school, and went to the top colleges where they were also top of their classes. They got into the best law schools and made Law Review. Then they got hired for a New York firm at a starting salary that is more than most people will earn in a lifetime. Then they fail and get fired. You see, every year, my firm would hire 60 new lawyers (Associates) and over a 10 year career path only 3 would eventually be asked to become Partners. The other 57 have to get fired along the way to make room for the next classes being hired. Some of them simply can’t take the news. These are people who are used to getting awards, not pink slips.
The fired Associate is privately told the news by the Managing Partner, but once and a while the Associate freaks out, starts screaming and even turns violent. That’s why Robert always arranged to have three very large “maintenance” men working in the Managing Partner’s office when an associate was being fired. They would pretend to be fixing the thermostat, or adjusting a leg on the couch, or even dusting.
If the firing went well, the maintenance men did nothing.
However, the second an Associate raised his voice to the partner, the Associate
would be grabbed by 6 very large hands and hustled out of the office. If the
Associate did not immediately quiet down, the maintenance men continued to move
the Associate all the way through the building, right to the street. The
Managing Partner pretended not to notice any of this.
Now you may object that I previously said the firing was “private”. You have to realize that in prestigious New York law firms, the non-legal “support staff” is invisible. It is like being a servant in England in the 1800s. Support staff at my firm only spoke to lawyers when spoken to. All lawyers were addressed by support staff as “Mr.” or “Ms.” while lawyers called all support staff workers by their first names even if the support person was 20 years older than the lawyer.
My firm once published its own vanity book claiming it detailed “everyone” who had ever worked for the firm, with a short biography of each. Even lawyers who had only worked for the firm for 6 months 80 years ago were listed. No support staff, not even Robert, were mentioned in the book. Some of the support staff had worked for the law firm for 30 years and were very hurt by the publication. The book was just one more way of the lawyers reminding the support staff of the true social order.
Robert made sure bad stories never sullied the firm’s reputation. The toughest problem Robert ever faced was when one of the law firm’s data entry people got killed in Brooklyn. The story that hit the New York news stations was all about the tragedy of this innocent professional woman who was killed in the crossfire between two rival drug gangs. That’s not what happened. The real story is that she was in one of the drug gangs and the deal went bad. The last thing in the world the law firm wanted was for the news outlets to start publishing that a member of their firm had belonged to a drug gang.
Robert made lot of phone calls to his friends and relatives in the police, to get the official police report written the right way. No cash exchanged hands, but after that, many of the job openings in the support staff of the law firm just happened to get filled by the sons and daughters of the Brooklyn police officers who had responded to the drug gang shoot-out. It turned out to be a win-win. The police officers’ kids all were great workers.
Robert was always handy with a “cash envelope” on construction projects Business was good and the law firm was expanding its offices. In downtown New York, trying to do construction in an occupied office building is a nightmare. It is almost impossible to get the material and equipment to the top floors. (All good law firms are on the top floors). There are lots of passenger elevators, but only a few freight elevators. You have to compete for the freight elevators with every other company doing work in the building.
Most buildings don’t have elevator operators any more, but every major New York Office building has a person in charge of setting all the elevators. If you try to just throw your construction material into one of the passenger elevators, that minor bureaucrat will make sure the landlord adds a huge fine to your next month’s rent.
However, slip an envelope full of cash to this Elevator Tzar and suddenly 2 or 3 passenger elevators will magically be transformed into freight elevators for your project’s personal use. This may not sound like it is cost effective, but the envelope of cash is much less expensive than keeping 50 construction workers waiting for their material.
Protecting lawyers from their own stupid ideas – Once and a while a high ranking lawyer would try to get involved in the non-legal aspects of the business, with near disastrous results. Robert was there to politely put an end to such forays into his territory. One example of this was the time that the Managing Partner of the firm had watched an old documentary on T.V. about how the Iranianshad reassembled shredded secret documents after taking over the American embassy in Tehran. The Managing Partner was convinced that someone was going to steal the mountains full of shredded documents the firm produced each day and then paste them back together like the Iranians had.
The Managing Partner told us that he had woken up at 3AM worried about this and had come up with his own brilliant solution. He wanted the law firm to purchase a giant machine that would pulverize the documents into fine white powder. He then proceeded to say the machine would pay for itself since we would no longer have to pay outside shredding firms or a garbage company. This was because the Managing Partner wanted us to take all this shredded powdered material and flush it down the toilets each day. Thousands and thousands of old legal documents a day first ground into a fine powder and then teams of office workers flushing them down toilets continually.
When the Managing partner announced his “powder and flush”
idea to the non-legal staff, we all were very careful not to look at each
other. We knew that if a single person so much as cracked a smile, we would all
have burst out in uncontrollable laughter.
Then Robert did something amazing. With a serious tone and a perfectly straight face, he thanked the Managing Partner for his “well thought-out plan”. Robert then went on to say we would be researching types of machines, permits required and sewer regulations and would report back to the partner on the progress. Of course, we never did any of that. Any time the partner asked about the project, Robert confidently told him that the “research was progressing”. Eventually the Managing Partner got immersed in some very complex legal cases and forgot all about flushing shredded documents down the toilets.
Treating Associate Lawyers as Machines – Law firms are basically just factories and the Associates are just very expensive machines. Associates are all the lawyers striving to make Partner. They do the actual legal work and the firm bills out their time to clients. The Associates get paid a flat (very high) salary no matter how many hours they work. Therefore, billable hours less Associates salaries equals profit that goes to the Partners. The more time Associates spend at their desks doing legal work, the more profit for the Partners. If you are an Associate at a White Shoe law firm and you expect to stay employed you better have a minimum of 12 billable hours per day.
The key job of the non-legal staff is to make sure that the Associates never leave their desks. Associates are machines that need to be kept running at all times. Associates don’t go to lunch or dinner. Someone gets sandwiches and brings them to their desks. People pick up their laundry, take their spouses to the airport, buy birthday gifts for their kids and even wait for the cable guy to come to the apartment. In other words, Robert and his team do everything so that the Associates never leave their desks except to use the bathroom, and go home to sleep.
Sometimes Associates crack from this arrangement. At first it seems nice to have other people do everything for you can concentrate on work. Then Associates slowly begin to realize that they don’t actually have what most people would call “a life”. They never see their spouses, kids or friends. Never go out to lunch, to shop or to just walk around the city. They are getting paid a huge amount of money to be a machine, but sometimes the machines break. Of course, if an Associate machine does break, Robert had some maintenance men who will quickly hustle it out of the building.
The Care & Feeding of Old Partners – The special few who do become partners are set for life, and that does meanlife. When I was at the firm, one partner was 90 years old and he still came in every day. He lived in Manhattan and a car picked him up at his building each morning. One day, the regular driver was out sick, so Robert personally drove the car. Robert asked the old partner where they should go. The old partner decided it was such a beautiful day that instead of going to the office they should just drive around Central Park. The old Partner and Robert spent the morning touring the City and eventually the partner treated Robert to lunch at an outdoor café. The Partner told fascinating stories about his days as a young man in New York, and left a huge tip for the waitress. Robert told us that it was the best day of work he had ever had working anywhere.
The old partner did a lot more than just tell stories, which is why he was still at the firm at 90. He knew every judge in New York, and every politician that mattered. Whenever the firm really needed a favor, it was the old Partner who called just the right judge or politician, and knew exactly what to say. He may have become a partner by working 16 hours a day 7 days a week as an Associate, but it was his natural charm that made him a success as a Partner.
This particular White Shoe law firm is still considered the best in the world and Associates still slave away fantasizing that they will be one of the chosen few to make Partner. Robert is still working behind the scenes taking care of all the unspoken problems. There is probably someone like Robert at every major law firm in the world, taking care of business and keeping secrets while the lawyers keep their white shoes clean.