Book Review: ‘The Pin Striped Prison’ by Lisa Pryor

September 1, 2009 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

pin striped prison

The Pin Striped Prison: How overachievers get trapped incorporate jobs they hate by Lisa Pryor was given to me by a mate, a fellow lawyer, just before he was about to leave to work in Singapore (right after working in New York).  I thought, if you take out the ‘overachievers’ bit, this book could be describing my life!

Well, I just finished reading it.  You would have thought such a book would be somewhat dry, but it’s actually very funny, frightening, and for the most part, a brutally accurate description of how many high flying corporate workers of this generation feel about their jobs.  Of course, those that are currently in the unfortunate position she details in the book will be able to relate the most.

The book focuses on three types of jobs – lawyers, bankers and management consultants, though Pryor focuses more on lawyers than the other two because of her background in law.  She may or may not have even provided quotes from the staff at one of the places I worked at (and will be returning to shortly)!

You’re probably thinking – what do these lucky people have to whinge about? They’ve always been at the top of the food chain academically or athletically or socially (and in some cases all three) at school and are now working in jobs millions can only dream of getting into.  Pryor, a former law student who topped the state during high school, says that it’s not as glorious as outsiders like to think.  The top high school students tend to be siphoned into the ‘prestigious’ courses at university, choosing a path based on what their mark allows them to get into rather than where their interest lies.  These students are then targeted by the big bad firms who wine and dine them with promises of big bucks and glorious, exciting work.  By the time they realise it’s all been a huge mistake and that they hate what they do, can’t stand the ridiculous hours or the stress, they find it difficult to get out – because of mortgages and lifestyles to maintain, expectations of parents and friends, pride, and fear of failure.

Pryor calls this a kind of ‘brain drain’ that is affecting our culture by pushing the nation’s best minds into the same few professions in the private sector.  She draws upon many real life examples, including the astronomical number of Rhodes scholars that end up working for major consulting firms.  There are also plenty of comments from those who have managed to escape the vicious cycle, or those that are still trapped in it.  Some aren’t afraid to give their real names, while others prefer to to use pseudonyms.

However, The Pin Striped Prison is not without problems.  Because I make the same mistake, I’ve noticed that Pryor has a tendency to want to put in every piece of information she has.  Sometimes it only takes one example, two at the most, to demonstrate a point, but Pryor may use five or six. It gets to a point where you want to say ‘okay, I get the point, move on!’

Further, I didn’t agree with everything she said, in particular some views she expressed in the section on sexism.  For instance, Pryor suggests that sexism is the reason why female lawyers who work part-time don’t get promoted to partnership as easily or quickly as those that work full-time.  But is sexism really the problem here?  Isn’t it more attributable to the fact that the lawyer who only works 3 days a week may not be able to service the client as well as one that works 5, or that if they worked for 5 years they have in reality only worked 3 (compared to full-timers)?  If I took 2 days off a week to work on my novel, I certainly wouldn’t expect to be promoted to partnership (or at least as quickly as someone who worked full-time), no matter how hard I think I may have worked.

Most of all, while I enjoyed the book’s tone, Pryor does come across as too cynical at times.  She does give the professions some credit, but some of the criticisms felt unjustifiably scathing, as though these large multinationals are truly the devil in disguise, plotting and scheming their way towards ruining more lives.  Perhaps most significantly, Pryor was too smart to be dragged into this world in the first place, as she left her career in law before it even began.  Though she worked as a paralegal and law clerk at major law firms (and her husband, Julian Morrow from comedy group The Chaser, worked as a proper lawyer for a while), she never actually worked the type of hours or endured the type of lifestyle she so vehemently rips into.  As a result, there’s a credibility issue here.  How can she say all these things if she never experienced it for herself?  Sure, she recognises that some people ARE born to be lawyers, bankers or consultants (as tiny as that percentage is).  However, there are also plenty of people who may not be born lawyers/bankers/consultants – BUT – are perfectly happy to work as one for the rest of their careers to reap the financial or social rewards.  Needless to say, I’m not one of them, but I have met such people.

All that said, so much of The Pin Striped Prison rang true to me.  I never got into law because I was seduced by the money or the lifestyle (and certainly not because I was interested in it!) – I was just one of those lost cases that got the marks but didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life and kind of stumbled into it by mistake when the other options fizzled out one by one.  But I do feel the pain that is described in this book.  Ahhh, if only I had the chance to do it all again.  There are many passages that were so spot on that made me want to write them down.  Here are two that I did.

‘For many lawyers, the pessimism they display is not inherent.  They are pessimistic because they are not naturally lawyers.  They are simply smart kids who have been shoehorned into the legal profession because we live in a culture which says that law is what smart kids study at university.”

“When you’re working as a lawyer and you’re unhappy as a lawyer, you spend a lot of time dreaming of other options.  Although the law is an intellectually challenging profession it’s not a particularly creative one.  I think that is why so many lawyers yearn to be writers.”

What?  And I thought I was special.