Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Three years ago

It is 7 am, and I feel like I’ve already lived an entire day.

My small daughter woke up tearfully sometime around 4:30 am, and after a frustrating hour coaxing, demanding, and willing her to go back to sleep, we both realized it just wasn’t going to happen. So here we are, sitting on the sofa, picking at a bowl of dry, pre-breakfast cereal. I am trying to read her a story book while my eyes glaze over and I stifle yawn after yawn. Inexplicably, she doesn’t seem to share this state of semi-undead near-hypnotic tiredness. The minute I liberated her from her bedroom, she transformed from over-tired howling monster to sunny, wide-awake little pixie. And so here we are. And in an hour I have to be perfectly groomed and ready to meet clients; mentally sharp and ready to answer questions and defend criticism of my work—everything that I absolutely am not at this present moment.

I work in one of the Asian offices of a Big American Firm, where I’m held up as some kind of poster girl for Diversity With A Capital D. I am female (and blonde at that). I am a mother. I speak the local language. I laugh at being an unwitting poster girl, because I have started to believe that the whole idea of diversity in law firms is an impossible dream. The issue of why more women don't make partner causes much shaking of heads and much expensive workshopping within law firms.

Really, it's all very simple.

Clients paying $500+ per hour in legal fees have absolute discretion when it comes to timetables, work volume, and what time of the day they can call you on your cellphone. It is understood that you will be on-call 24/7, and ready to do whatever it takes to ensure client satisfaction. Clients don't care if you have children, a spouse, a sick dog, or a rare blood disorder. Well, maybe on a personal level they do, but the fact is that if you aren't up to the job, there is always someone else who is. And so it is that when you work for multiple clients simultaneously, you find yourself working long days and irregular hours.

It takes a special kind of commitment to work 12- or 15- or 20-hour days and pull all-nighters on a regular basis. It takes real dedication to prioritize work before children, spouse, ageing family members, childhood friends visiting for the first time in 20 years, Christmas, birthdays, everything. It requires a conscious hardening of the heart to live through weeks where you may not actually see your children for days on end (except perhaps asleep). It takes a special kind of person to be able to do this for years and years on end. Those who manage it are those who, ultimately, attain the Holy Grail of partnership.

I don’t know very many women—especially women who are mothers—who are willing to make that kind of sacrifice for the sake of their career. I am starting to suspect that I am not one of those women. I’ve just stuck it out a bit longer than most in the vain hope that I could do things differently, that somehow I could prove that the rules could be bent and changed into something more human, and because I have worked SO hard to get to this point and cannot bear the thought of throwing in the towel and having it all come to nothing.

And yet only this morning, before dragging myself out of bed at 4:30 to console my sobbing little girl, I had shut down my laptop at 1:30 after completing an urgent re-draft of an agreement and listening to my boss deliver his rambling, stream-of-consciousness comments at me on my cellphone for close to an hour. So much for doing things differently. The only thing I did differently from anyone else in my office was to go home before 9pm. It’s not like I stopped working earlier than everyone else, and then once I got home there was a whole different world of work waiting for me—my other job, as a parent.

I am 32 years old, and I am exhausted to the core of my being.

And yet I stubbornly plough on. I studied and worked so hard to get where I am now. My education and training cost me years of time, not to mention a whole lot of money. For years it was my dream to be good enough to be here—a lawyer at a big firm, among the elite percentage of the population who made it to this point—brainstorming with brilliant legal minds, working for sophisticated clients whose deals make headlines in international financial publications, pursuing excellence. And now that I’m here, I can't help thinking again and again of a story one of my colleagues told me:
Once upon a time there was an ambitious law student. He studied hard and graduated in the top 5% of his class. He secured a position at a top US law firm. He worked his ass off and fast-tracked it to partnership. Within months of being admitted to the partnership, he quit, to everyone's astonishment. When asked why, he said, "I realized that making partner was like winning a pie-eating contest, where the prize was getting to eat even more pie. I am done eating pie."


  1. After posting, I found this great article in The New York Times:

    One paragraph in particular resonated with me:

    "Some women do succeed in private law firms, especially if they fit the traditional model of the lawyer who can leave family responsibilities to a stay-at-home partner or a nanny. But that model represents only one-sixth of the work force, and is outmoded. There are ways to retain more women in the law. Flexible schedules can work well, but to end their stigma men need to choose to use them as well as women."

  2. Ohhhhh yes. I cannot tell you just how much of a resonant chord that struck.
    My career stalled - though my boss tells me it hasn't - just 6 weeks ago. I have 5 kids - largely independent - but it has taken me a long time and a lot of effort to continue working f/t. But I "hit the wall" - woke up one morning 6 weeks ago and just couldn't force myself to get up and go to work. Burnout said my gp.
    And so I have sat feeling very peculiar for the last few weeks. Having stepped out of the rat race - and am only beginning to understand that there is a whole life I have missed. I have choices. I can choose not to eat any more pie...

  3. la mujet libre, yes, it really is a peculiar feeling, isn't it? - but congratulations on taking that step out of the rat race and giving yourself a bit of time and "headspace". I'm looking forward to following your journey through your blog!

  4. Oh yes, it certainly is peculiar. But liberating too...
    I am a child protection and employment law practitioner (I sit as a judge on employment tribunals on a peripatetic basis).
    I wonder how I managed to get where I am. My first degree was in English literature - which I adored. The - somehow I got a bit side-tracked into law...which I value and have enjoyed but not with the same joy as the english...strange the twisting paths we follow.

  5. I'm intrigued to hear that you specialise in child protection and employment law - those cases (especially child protection) tend to be the tough and gritty ones, and I have real admiration for you and others who work in those areas.

    Law was not my first passion either - my first big love was Japanese language. There are lots of things I enjoy about the law - legal analysis, drafting, negotiating (I'm a transactional lawyer) - but working in a big law firm really started to get me down.

    I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about what it is I really want to do with my life. I wish I could say I've come up with some definite answers. Still, as you say, it's liberating, even a bit exhilarating, to take a step back and think, "This is my life, and what I do with it is my choice."

    PS: I'm so sorry for the typo in my previous response - la mujer libre, not mujet!

  6. Thanks for your kind comment. The cases are gritty cases. Maybe that is why I am so tired I think. Though to be honest I think law is stressful regardless of the area of specialism.
    I do court proofs re sexual abuse etc - though my current position has removed me from that - mainly national projects and policy and drafting/influencing statutes.
    I have always admired the big city lawyers... but knew I was not the "right fit". Just too messy at life I think!
    Deeply admire your linguistic abilities!
    (my name is really

  7. your real name is much easier to spell! :)
    I'm so glad we found each other online. I've read more of your blog and am enjoying it hugely!

  8. Dont you just love blogging! So many lovely people out there! It renews your faith!