Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Cordelia Complex

Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides.
Who covers faults, at last shame derides.

Cordelia, King Lear, I.1.282-3

This is OCI season. For those unfamiliar with law-school-speak, that means “on-campus interview” time. During this season, lots of students swap out their running shorts and flip-flops for dark suits as they try to land a summer job for the next summer. These students worry obsessively about the numerous law firms with their Dickensian names, all of which seem indistinguishable after you’ve clocked a few hours scouring their websites, searching for profound insights into “what it might really be like” to work there. As a fresh batch of second-year law students struggles with whether they got enough interviews or call-backs or summer job offers relative to their peers and which of the various offers (if any) they should accept, other law students in the class above them are returning from summer stints at these same firms. Some return from the trenches elated; some disillusioned; some horrified; some relieved; some profoundly dejected.

Today I met with a fantastic former student who falls somewhere between the “dejected” and “relieved” categories. Turns out she did not get offers of permanent employment from the firms for which she toiled over the summer. And it seems that the reasons, though always mysterious, may have to do with a Cordelia Complex.

Remember how Cordelia refuses to play along with King Lear’s little game at the play’s outset? Instead of gushing, like her disingenuous sisters, about how she loves him “beyond what can be valued,” Cordelia says what she really thinks. As a result, she incurs the King’s wrath and is hastily disowned. At the very end of the play—indeed, almost the last line, Edgar urges everyone to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” (V.3.326). By then, everything is so horrible, people are urged to just say what they really feel. But at the play’s beginning—when things are still fairly normal—speaking what you feel is not what protocol warrants. But Cordelia does not get this. (“I am sure my love’s more ponderous than my tongue,” she says. “I [lack] that glib and oily art.”)

Law firms, which are particularly buttoned-up institutions, can only handle hearing so much about people’s true feelings. Especially young females’ feelings about, say, the desire to have a gaggle of children. Or about how their political inclinations are at odds with those of the managing partner.

My former student is bouncing back admirably from the summer let-down. In part, this is because she has emerged from the experience armed with an interesting observation: “I don’t think the kind of women who are the ones who do well enough in life to get into the best law schools are generally the kind of women who can play the firm game.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the boys—they’re comfortable traveling in a pack, following orders, marching lock step. I just don’t think high-achieving girls are trained to do that.”

As she shared this observation, I recalled the time when the head of a law firm had said to me: “When I hear that a partner has told an associate to jump off a cliff, I then expect to hear that the associate jumped of the cliff. You understand me?”

Alas, those burdened with a Cordelia Complex have trouble with such directives. We would rather bet they’ll be others, like the King of France in Lear, who recognize that there is something odd about casting someone off for being precisely what garnered initial admiration:

This is most strange,
That she, that even but now was your best object,
The argument of your praise, balm of your age,
Most best, most dearest, should in this trice of time
Commit a thing so monstrous, to dismantle
So many folds of favour.

And one can hope that others, like the King of France, will eventually see the same quality that rubbed some folks the wrong way as “virtues” to “seize upon” such that a daughter who refuses to beg for a king’s largess ultimately finds herself a queen in her own right. But it is equally important that Cordelia recognize her own hand in her fate, as my wise, if wounded student has. That is, it is futile to resent a law firm for rejecting a Cordelia who was determined to show her true self in a context that implicitly demands something else entirely.

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