When Bad News Is Good
July 1 1996 by Joe Queenan
Last May, I read a newspaper article entitled “Somber Reunion for Harvard’s Law Class of ’85.” The article, written in a dirgelike tone, lamented the sad fate of Harvard’s best and brightest lawyers, indicating that many had quit the firms that originally had hired them, while others had been “passed over for partner or pushed out during the first wave of law-firm layoffs several years ago.” The article said that the class of 1985 was the victim of horrendously bad timing, entering the job market just as the ’80s M&A boom was coming to an end and a legal industry recession was hitting.
“It’s as if we arrived at a party in full swing and people were standing up at a sumptuous buffet table,” groaned one lawyer-turned novelist. “But by the time we got there, only some crumbs were left and we’re standing there holding our plates.”
Immediately after I read this article, I clipped it out of the paper and deposited it in my special “schadenfreude” file. Schadenfreude is a wonderful German term used to describe the immense pleasure one takes from the misfortunes of others. In the case of the Harvard Law School Class of 1985, my personal level of schadenfreude was unbelievably high, for what could possibly be more heartwarming than learning that a bunch of Brat Pack lawyers had hit the skids almost immediately after graduating from law school? What better way to start the day than by learning that a battalion of young lawyers was getting hammered? Or, for that matter, a battalion of old lawyers?
I raise this schadenfreude issue as a backhanded way of praising the media. Journalists are under constant attack for only printing bad news, but I think this is an unbelievably myopic way of looking at things. Yes, technically speaking, the revelation that many Harvard Law School graduates now are having dismal careers qualifies as bad news. But only in the narrowest sense of the word can this news be viewed as “bad.” In reality, it is a cause for almost universal jubilation across the land, and certainly across the corporate community, where one basic rule applies: Whatever is bad for lawyers is good for corporate America.
But there is a larger point: News, no matter how bad, is not bad news for everyone. When a large company cuts 10,000 jobs, it’s bad news for the 10,000 people who lost their jobs, and for their families, and for their communities, and for their creditors. But it isn’t bad news for the company’s shareholders, for their families, for their communities, and for their creditors. When a major film studio gets massacred because somebody decided to greenlight a picture in which the hero has gills, it’s bad news for the studio and its shareholders and its employees, but it’s good news for all the studios that didn’t greenlight motion pictures in which the hero has gills.
It’s always good to have a personal schadenfreude file handy when the entire world seems to be crumbling around you. That way, no matter how bad things get, you can cheer yourself up by realizing that some people are much worse off. What’s especially nice is if these people happen to be folks you’re happy to see worse off. Let me give an example. A few months ago, I was feeling a tad dispirited because one of my mutual funds was sinking like a stone. So I went to my schadenfreude file and pulled out a story about Pamela Harriman, who is ambassador to France. The story recounted how some of the children and grandchildren by an earlier marriage of diplomat Averill Harriman had sued their stepmother the ambassador, charging that she and her advisers had breached their fiduciary duty by making a bunch of bad investments. One of the investments was in a business run by the notorious penny-stock operator Bob Brennan. This made me feel great, because it showed how even the high and mighty can do absurdly stupid things with their money. It also made me feel great because I’ve never cared for Pamela Harriman and her circle of well-connected limousine liberals. And it made me feel great because one person named in the suit was the sanctimonious Clark Clifford, one of the biggest fakes in the history of the Republic. Believe me, this was a schadenfreude bonanza.
That Clifford, one of the nation’s most famous lawyers, was at the epicenter of my schadenfreude experience brings me back to my original point: If you want to start your day with a bang, there’s nothing like reading an article about the misfortunes of attorneys. Where can these stories be found?
Occasionally in The New York Times, frequently in The Wall Street Journal, sometimes in trade magazines. But if you’re really interested in a one-stop shopping center for great legal schadenfreude stories, try Forbes. Forbes absolutely hates lawyers. Right now I am looking at an article from a recent issue entitled, “Let Them Eat Loans,” which discusses the plight of a young law-school graduate who spent $82,000 to get her degree, and is working now as a junior bank trust officer by day, and as a data-entry clerk by night making $8.50 an hour.
This is going to be a great day.
Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.