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."