Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Thick of It

My relief lasted only 24 hours into last week.  I made the most of them- I made my Shutterfly photo calendar for 2012, booked a bunch of doctor's appointments for the various human and canine members of my family, and cleaned out over 2,000 emails from my Outlook inbox.  I only billed 4.25 hours on Monday and it was wonderful.  That all changed on Tuesday when I got tasked with responding to two of the other side's MILs (Motions in Limine for the uninitiated; a pre-trial motion you file to preclude the other side from presenting certain evidence or arguments that would be so prejudicial to the jury, you want to judge to rule on their admissibility before the trial even starts, or, at least instruct counsel that they must approach the bench before introducing the testimony so she can rule then.  They range from the frivolous to the crucial; I was tasked to responding to two of the crucial.). 

I billed 49 hours between Tuesday and Friday.  I missed dinner on Wednesday and Landon was horrified.  I did make it home to play a quick game of Memory with him (a game of memory I lost because I was so freaking tired and burnt out and distracted by how I was going to distinguish all the Federal Circuit case law I was mired in) and tuck him in bed before getting back to work.  I tried to assuage my guilt at his honest confusion and annoyance at my absence by telling myself it's impressive that after 3 years and 1 month of BigLaw junior associate lawyering, my child was shocked that missing dinner was a possibility.  It kind of worked, but mostly I just didn't have time for a break down about it. 

My lowest moment was probably Wednesday morning when I sat in the partner's office, listening to her thoughts on the arguments that would go in my Response and I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.  The MIL involves a lot of very unique, very technical intellectual property legal issues and I only understood about 25% of the words coming out of her mouth.  The brief had to be filed by midnight on Friday and I just thought, "I can't do this."  It was the first time in my legal career I truly felt that time, work, and a whole lot of case law reading just wasn't going to be enough... that I just couldn't get my head around the arguments I should be making and I wouldn't be able to turn out a written product that would be good, or even acceptable.  I've never felt that overwhelmed before.

Twenty-five billable hours and a ton of work later I had two solid drafts for each brief.  Twelve hours after that, on the day of filing, the other partner was finally able to read everyone's drafts for the 8 MIL responses and I got an email with "The one gets the prize for the best I've reviewed. I don't need to see it again before filing." 

That may not sound like much, but in that section, from that person, it's the equivalent of 27 gold stars, a hug, and a beer.  It was easily the most hard-fought personal victory I've had at the firm.

Was it worth missing two family dinners in one week and getting no sleep and a constant headache and working my brain harder than I have since law school?  I don't know.  Probably not.  But being able to wrestle a bunch of case law and a set of facts and a few Federal Rules of Evidence into submission is part of why I love my job.  It's HARD.  It's really hard.  It requires more brain power than I've ever had to give anything, ever, and I can't imagine not working in a job that required that of me.  Because if I'm going to spend time away from my family, then I want that time to challenge and fulfill me- otherwise, it's just time I'm not spending with them.  Now, it's that, but with something more, something deeply rewarding.  Sometimes, in the thick of it, I'll fantasize about a job where I just show up, do it, and go home.  There would be no bleary 2 a.m. nights, no dreams about case holdings, no frantic feeling that I really just don't understand the legal theories I'm trying to craft a nuanced, case-law supported argument against.  There was a woman in my section several years ago, a "superstar" the partners adored and the other associates aspired to be, and she left after her fourth year to do part-time contract work for a smaller firm.  A friend just had lunch with her last week and reported that she's very happy.  She works 20 hours a week, has no blackberry, and does doc review and research support for the other attorneys.  She isn't staffed on cases and doesn't write briefs, but it's what she wanted- "a job, not a career" - and she's home with her kids every day.  But nice as aspects of that arrangement sound (and they do sound nice), even at 2 a.m. this past Thursday when I was so tired I hurt and I was staring at a draft I wasn't anywhere near proud of, I wasn't jealous of her.  And that says something, I think. 

It doesn't mean that I didn't find the time to update my resume at one particularly low point, or that I wouldn't be interested in something that falls in-between her job and what I'm doing now.  And there's no doubt my weekend off with JP and the kids (and the 2 restorative margaritas I had at dinner and the even more restorative 11 hours of sleep I got last night) were all necessary to my well-being.  But even in the thick of it, when I contemplated skipping my flu shot because a week at the flu sounded like a lovely break (I got the shot), I didn't really want to do anything else. 


  1. Oof. I agree with you that hard-won praise is a terrific reward, and I agree with you that I'd rather work hard at my career than just have a job -- I had a job before law school, and there's a reason I left that job for law school.

    But speaking as someone who left BigLaw for a smaller firm, I really don't know how you keep doing it. I work hard, but I know I bill way less than you do. I took a pay cut to be able to say that, but I definitely think it was worth it. I guess I'm just saying that there is an alternative between BigLaw and relatively mindless contract work.

  2. As someone who gave up a career for just a job, I think a career is more rewarding and fulfilling. You hit the nail on the head when you said that if you have to spend time away from your family, you want it to be challenging and worth your time. I totally struggle with this eveyday. You are so inspiring!

  3. Hey k! I looking forward to my in-between and I'm glad you found yours. I've been spending a lot of time lately trying to figure out what I'd like that to be... But since I am where I am for now, it was nice to know I could go to the brink of completely overworked and overwhelmed and not resent what I was doing. Realizing that was a little personal victory in and of itself... it may just be semantics, but it's nice to know you'd choose what you're doing if given the choice again.

  4. >>It's the equivalent of 27 gold stars, a hug, and a beer.

    That is hell of hard won praise. I know that feeling -- its very rare, and wonderful when it happens.


  5. I'll have to remember this post when I am in that position some day. You have a real way with words! Another great post. Thanks!

  6. "Because if I'm going to spend time away from my family, then I want that time to challenge and fulfill me- otherwise, it's just time I'm not spending with them"

    I often feel like you're expressing (very eloquently) exactly what I'm going through. This statement made me go, "Yep." It's right where I am right now, and SUCH a good point.

    If you ever find that middle ground, let me know. I might be interested in joining you there. :)

  7. I was thinking about you when I was walking away from work tonight at 7pm, striding down the hill to the bus stop, and realised the Mary Tyler Moore Theme Song was going through my head.

    If you don't know it - here's the YouTube montage, and I have just discovered that the world's greatest singer, Sammy Davis Jnr did a cover. Bliss! That's going to be one of my desert island discs.

    I realised that although I'd been having domestic goddess fantasies about baking dinner for kids and being a housewife,supporting a man who doesn't require deep intellectual expectations of me, for all that I wouldn't give up having had a career - a proper career.

    I like being smart and competent and thinking hard stuff. I like striding through town in my favourite high heels (shooties, with platform - oh so comfortable, practical, stylish and smart). I like investing time in a job well done. I like my Mary Tyler Moore Moments.

  8. I feel ya sister. Despite the fact that I sometimes cry due to my non-law job stressing me out to the max, when anyone says I should look for another job I'm shocked at the idea! I love my job, and if it was easy all the time it wouldn't be work and it wouldn't be rewarding.

  9. You rock. That's awesome. I honestly don't know how you do it. I'm in such a different place where missing my 1.5 hours of yoga in the morning is unthinkable...

    That said, my husband sounds a lot like you. Even working until the wee hours of the morning, missing dinner, etc., he will never leave Big Law -- it's his passion. I don't think he can imagine a life that didn't involve big complicated deals that made him exercise his brain power. But I work from home for the government (i.e., 40 hours a week) and I shoulder much of the child care responsibility.)

    What I'm saying is that you are a rock star. WOW.