Friday, July 12, 2013

Real life in biglaw: "making it work" and "having it all"

Excerpts from an email exchange with a friend, posted here with her permission. She left her large firm and is currently practicing in a happier environment.

Me: One of the associates who's pregnant said she wants me to "teach her how to be a working mom." HA HA.

Her: OH I KNOW, RIGHT.  When I left, I had a PARADE of young female associates in my office, going "BUT YOU WERE MY ROLE MODEL FOR HOW TO SURVIVE THIS."  And I was just like, LOL OMFG.

Me: To be fair, it seemed like you were making it work for a long time. Or rather, even though it was tough, you seemed like you still thought it was worth it and were reasonably happy with both your home life and work life. No?

Her:
Yeah, I think I gave a lot of people the impression that it was working.  And I think many days and weeks, I was able to fool myself too.  But when I look back and remember what was going on, it's kind of striking how many separate near-breaking-points there were.  How tortured I felt about the full-time/part-time thing.  And how much I used to kind of hate myself for feeling despondent when all these people kept telling me how I was supermom and superassociate and "going to make partner."  I'd be like, except why do I want to jump out the nearest window?  And I blamed myself a lot.  It didn't work very well.  I just pulled off a good illusion.

Me:
Hmm, I don't think I ever understood the extent of that. I knew you went through rough patches, but my interpretation was that you were always on that righteous path to partnership and ultimately you were okay with it, even if you were conflicted. And that you finally left after realizing that no matter how much you give, it's never going to be enough.

I really feel you on all of this. The string of near-breaking-points, glossed over with "it is what it is" and "I can do this," and the praise for having it all when, if you allow yourself to admit it even for a moment, you're actually unhappy and if this is having it all, you don't WANT it all. And especially the blaming yourself for all of it.

Her:
Also, inertia and fear are powerful forces.  I spent a lot of time thinking that staying was "worth it" because statistics SAY I will not survive Biglaw, and I cannot ADD to those statistics. I stayed for lots of reasons.  I didn't know what else to do.  I didn't know if anywhere else would be better.  I was ashamed of giving up.  I still wanted to believe in the system, and in the merits of partnership.  I still wanted it all to be FOR something.  None of these decisions is simple.  Some days I was happier than others.  But looking back, I think it only "worked" when forces outside my control allowed it to work (e.g., it's a slow week -- extra play time with the baby!  Deadline extended!  Client cancelled project!)  But anytime things got Biglaw-y, it fell apart fast.
 
Me:
This too. Although I already added to the statistics once (leaving engineering for law) so I got most of my angst about that over with last time.

I have had partners say to me explicitly that I need to be a role model. As in, I say, "There are very few female corporate partners at the firm period, and none with young children," and they say, "That's why you have to stick with it and be a role model, to show that it can be done!" Except... if nobody else has done it, and I don't want to do it, maybe there's a good reason for that.

5 comments:

  1. This was, by far, the hardest part about leaving the firm: "I spent a lot of time thinking that staying was "worth it" because statistics SAY I will not survive Biglaw, and I cannot ADD to those statistics. I stayed for lots of reasons. I didn't know what else to do. I didn't know if anywhere else would be better. I was ashamed of giving up. I still wanted to believe in the system, and in the merits of partnership. I still wanted it all to be FOR something."

    (Well along with the salary and the fact that I did generally like what I did, I just didn't like the unpredictability, lack of control, and how much I had to do it.)

    I wanted to be one of the ones who DID it, not one who added to the statistics of leaving (i.e., failing- in my mind at the time) because I never quit/fail at anything! None of us overachievers have.

    But then, as you said, "Except... if nobody else has done it, and I don't want to do it, maybe there's a good reason for that."

    I think that's exactly right. I haven't completely let go of the idea of being a partner one day, but there is no doubt my life is infinitely better having left the firm. And not just for the kids and JP (though it is undoubtedly better for them), it is better for me. I am happier, healthier, freer- there's just more of me leftover for me at the end of the day.

    But everything you and your friend wrote is so much of what I wrote/thought/worried about in my last few months at the firm, and they're still things I think about occasionally after having left. But while I might miss the idea of "making it," I don't miss the reality of it at all.

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    1. I wanted to post this precisely because I felt it was such a common experience, but one that is rarely openly discussed. I know just what you mean about "having more of me leftover for me." In the end I could make it work, accepting that my kids will grow up not being able up depend on me 100%, but I feel like I would be giving my entire life to my job and kids.

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  2. As someone junior to both you and LL, I've only recently moved past desperately wanting to see a more senior female associate make it work. Now that I've spent time in three offices of our firm and have come to terms with reality (only one female partner and one female senior associate in the M&A group across three offices!) have I accepted that there is a good reason for the lack of women who "have it all". Come to think of it, I don't think any of the many male partners have it all either.

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    1. I think the men are far more likely to (1) see their primary role as breadwinner rather than caregiver, and (2) have spouses who support that and are willing to give up their own ambitions outside the home. There are very few senior men that I know of, in my firm and at others, who have working spouses. That's not to say all these men are entirely at peace with their decision.

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  3. I'm not a big law lawyer, I'm a government lawyer who even works part time, but I wanted to say that I also love this post. (I followed from L.L.)

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