I started writing this two weeks ago and couldn't reach any kind of conclusory paragraph, so I let it marinate, but I still don't have anything but the circular bit of rambling that I started with. I spent about a week at the end of May musing on my personal career path. It started with a long lunch discussion with a high-up boss about post-SEC career options, a few departure announcements from colleagues, a phone chat with a blog reader who is applying for an SEC position in different regional office, and a random call from a partner I used to work for at the firm who had a question about a case I worked on in 2011.
I've been at the SEC for 2 years and 3 months. I wrote about the changes that working for the government has brought to our lives at the 18 month mark and all of it remains true. I was going to pull a quote or two but found myself just highlighting all of it as I read. (I just tried again and yeah, all of it is still so very true.)
When I started 2+ years ago, I assumed I'd be here for 3-4 years- just enough time to build some expertise and age out of the associate years and then go back to a firm as a partner or counsel, or, at worst and for the right firm, a senior associate with a promise to be partner or counsel within a very short time frame. I never, for even a moment, thought I'd remain in Fort Worth or with the government for more than 5 years. We researched good elementary schools and bought a house fully anticipating a move- hopefully a permanent one this time- before Landon hit middle school.
And then I started the job. At first blush, it was both substantially more and markedly less awesome than I'd hoped or expected. On the one hand, I own my investigations. I am the partner. I am also the senior associate, midlevel associate, junior associate, paralegal, secretary, and copy clerk. I'm also the client. I control the schedule and the scheduling. If one of my children is sick and I can't come to work, there is nothing I can't move off my calendar so I can spend the day cuddling and watching Frozen on the couch. There is nothing more life-changing for a working person, and specifically a working parent, than that. On the gaining experience front, it's like being thrown into the deep end of a whirlpool. I develop my own case strategy, take all my own testimony, draft subpoenas, and negotiate everything, from document production to settlement. It is extraordinary to think of how much more I've done in the last 27 months than I ever would have been able to do at my large law firm. And not just as a midlevel associate- I'm talking ever. I have been in meetings with 6 partners from 3 top law firms and me, a would-be-6th year associate, leading the discussion. I have a blast when I get to do things like that, and on that front, the job has far exceeded my expectations.
But there are things I miss about my work at the firm. I miss writing- sometimes desperately. It was something I was good at, known for, and I miss it for that reason alone. And it was something I loved. It couldn't have been more different than the run-on writing I do on the blog, but I think it combined the two best parts of me- my love of playing with words until I have the perfect sentence that packs the most powerful persuasive punch, the building of paragraphs and sections and arguments, the challenge of trying to make a skeptical reader nod with my every page. And my love of the absolute- the analytical, the factual, the bare bones essence of the legal argument I need to make, and how I get to weave that together with facts and case law and legal holdings. Brief writing ruined many of my nights and weekends, and there were times I stared at a blank word document in absolute disbelief that I'd be able to make something out of my stack of cases and impossible facts and have it all to a partner for first round edits in 1 or 2 short days, but the words would come, and days later, bleary eyed and thoroughly sick of whatever argument I was making, I'd read the final To Be Filed draft and think, goddamn, this is really good. I love this job.
So I miss that a lot. I also miss the big case teams- talking over strategy and timelines and task lists with a group of super smart people. There was a high in working too much and when you did in a pack, you could lose sight, at least a little, of how sad it was that you talked about billable hour totals like a badge of honor. There was a feeling of importance to being needed all the time- the constant demands and blackberry dings. I miss the extras- the fluff that made you think working at a big law firm wasn't so bad- 24 hour copy, editing, mailing, and IT support, fancy travel, the firm Amex, free lunches, a pretty office in a pretty building. I'm not going to lie, the fluff helped and I most definitely didn't take any of it with me to the government.
The writing is the only thing I miss enough to consider going back for. As I wrote when I decided to leave, and as I've said many times since, I really did like my job at the firm. I didn't like the unpredictability of it or lack of control I had over my own day-to-day life, and I wished I could do less of it while still working on the kinds of cases I was getting to do at my firm, but I did like the actual work. And I liked the money, of course. Though as I add in the government benefits (amazing and cheap health insurance, loan repayment, 401K matching, etc.) the BigLaw money is less of a draw than I thought it would be. But as long as I'm examining things, I must admit that I liked the feeling of doing something others said I couldn't. Magic Cookie touched on this in a post about real life in biglaw, "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." She stayed longer than I did, but that line of thinking is still a siren call for me.
And yet, when scheduling testimony in April I called the girls' school to ask when the Easter egg hunt was going to be so I could tell counsel I wasn't available that day. I did the same for Landon's Kindergarten awards ceremony and his last day of school. None of those events would likely have been things I'd have tried to attend while at the firm. I worked with good people and attended my share of kids' events, but there's a subtle ding for making everyone you work with aware of the fact you need to step away to do kid stuff, and even if you end up not being able to go, and you miss it without complaint, there's still that tick mark for "kid event" by your name and you have to select the events worth those marks carefully. Field day and a midday half-hour awards ceremony probably wouldn't have made the cut. But I LOVE that I can do those things without penalty or complication now. I love that both JP and I are in a place where we can volunteer and be part of all the things. Everyone in both kids' classes knows that we are Claire and Landon's mom and dad and at least one of us is always a volunteer or enthusiastic observer of all school events. I love that and they love it too, and with every year they get older that has only become more important.
I'm very lucky that my current career step manages to be a step up on the career ladder while also being a huge positive step up in my personal life. At some point, it may be a career step to the side, but it will always benefit me in getting future positions in-house or at a firm. I've received a few recruiting calls since the switch- one for associate general counsel at a hedge fund and another two for law firm senior associates. I'm always glad to know options are out there, but none of the three were tempting. No matter what, I'm staying where I am for at least 2 more years. There's more I need to do here to have all the experience I think I need. After my recent musings, I think it's more likely that I'll be here for 10 years+, something I never would have thought even a year ago. I just don't know how I could walk away from it. The pay is good, the experience is great, and even if I do miss aspects of law firm lawyering, there's plenty I don't miss too and my life, oh my life, I don't think I can beat it right now. JP and I were sitting by the fire pit in the backyard last Thursday night, watching the flames and chatting, and I just thought, there's never going to be a time in my life where I'm not going to want time for this. I'd arrived home with the 3 kids by 5:00, made a fresh and healthy dinner, watched them play in the pool, gone to barre at 7:15, come home at 8:45, poured a glass of wine, and was now sitting with my beloved in the firelight at 9 and I can do that EVERY NIGHT. Even when our kids are grown and gone that schedule sounds lovely. Living a multi-dimensional life, having time to do nothing, finding new hobbies, putting vacations and kid events on your work calendar and knowing you'll be there, these things mean even more to me now than they did even 6 months after I started.
The pull of a potential partnership at a BigLaw firm is not dead for me. I get a small pang when I talk to senior associates and junior partners, but while this job may not fill my every need as a lawyer (brief writing! prestige and female partnership statistics! being my natural dream-killer defense attorney self!), it does fill my every need as a wife, mother, barre addict, yoga newbie, amateur photographer, voracious reader, and wannabe chef. And for now, that is exactly what I want for the next.
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