Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Now and Next

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.

12 comments:

  1. YES!!!!! I feel the pull back to my old life at the brewery, but then I remember all of the really crappy parts. Being a stay-at-home mom that takes Computer Science classes and crochets is what fills my soul right now. Will it be enough in 5 years from now, probably not. For now, it is perfect.

    My aunt, a brilliant HR guru and life coach, asked her Facebook friends what they would do if they won the lottery. Most people said travel more or have financial security. My answer was: "Everything that I am doing now, just a lot more of it." and I really feel that way. I think we all hit some sweet spots in life where almost everything falls into place at least for a little while. It is so nice to see others finding their sweet spots.

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  2. I am 8 years out and a senior associate at a mid-size firm who will likely be partner next year. I rarely write my own briefs anymore - that is a younger associates responsibility -- just something to keep in mind. Also, if the writing is what you miss, start writing articles for the various legal magazines etc. Contact a local bar association or NBI about presenting at a CLE. My husband is an attorney for the government and we have a 3 year old and a baby on the way, if I wasn't at a firm that feels family is always 1st, I would try for a government job in a heartbeat!

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  3. There is a lot to be said for work-life balance, even when it requires compromises on the work end. I like my job, but I don't love my practice area. I could make a lot more money elsewhere (annually, not so much when doing an hourly comparison), and work on bigger cases, but here I have virtually no billable requirement and a lot of flexibility. I'm willing to accept that trade off for time with my kids.

    Also, just a heads up, but it does not get easier as the kids get older. My twins are about to turn 13 and oldest is almost 16 and we a busier now than we ever were in the elementary years. They just have so much more going on with them and they are so much more aware of when we're there and when we're not. And they're too old for a nanny, so there's no one else to help out. DH has made changes to his work schedule, which has been a huge help.

    --LC

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  4. I've been looking for a while, and I'm a long time government lawyer, so my job search is different than yours, but I say stay where you are happy. The legal market is not what it once was. It also isn't what we were promised when we were in law school.

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  5. I write this from my desk, where I generally live between 8AM and midnight, M-F. On weekends I still come in to the office, though I usually go to the gym in the morning and then leave around 7PM. The last Saturday I took off from work, I collapsed into bed on Friday night and slept for 21 hours straight (of course, I am single...my last 3 boyfriends ultimately left because they rightfully felt neglected). This is my life as an in-house counsel. I'm trying to hold onto my sanity for two more years. It is tough. In two years, I will take any job I can get that will let me eat dinner at home once in a while.

    Stay exactly where you are. You have such a great gig, and selfishly speaking reading your blog posts are often a highlight of my dreary days! It warms my heart and fills me with wonder to hear about a lawyer making dinner for her family, decorating her house, reading books, spending time with her glowing/growing family and generally kicking #** at life:) Perhaps there is hope for me too, down the line...it will be too late for a family of my own but we all have our disappointments;) You go, lady!

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  6. I agree that writing articles is probably a good idea. You could even look into whether there are classes you could teach as an adjunct. I never loved law firm life. I left after 7 years in (and one baby in - I wasn't going to be a partner anytime soon). 6 years later, I still know it was one of the best moves I ever made. Tonight, as I took the 7:30 PM train home because of a happy hour, I realized just how good I have it now, that the only reason I am home that late is because of happy hour. Of course, the two hours I spend commuting everyday (total) aren't great, but I'm still home by 6 with the kids (same ages, almost exactly as L & C and that's ok. And I can almost always arrange my schedule to make school events too :). Sounds like you are in a great spot, and there are probably some things you can do to fulfill the other things you feel are missing.

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  7. anon @ 7:15 I'm in house and it's nothing like that. sorry to hear it. are you at an investment bank or similar? go elsewhere! I'm finding that now that i'm in house i get more recruiter calls that i did at the firm.

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  8. I went in-house over a year ago after almost five years at the firm and my experience is not like the first in-house person who posted above. In talking to my former firm colleagues, most of whom flee for in-house and do not stay for the firm slog (not to mention the politics of "who is doing everything right but still is not going to make partner because there is a super-star in Palo Alto who does the same thing or because she pissed off the female partner the one time she didn't pick up her blackberry during that deal), I think in-house experiences are really a mixed bag. I don't work 9-5, but I do leave at a reasonable hour and rarely have to work on weekends. I still check email over the weekends and am expected to logon if something big comes up. But the salary is very good, the hours are tolerable and everyone is more relaxed and happy. It's been a trade-off I wouldn't blink at doing again.

    You might want to network with some in-house litigators -- I'm transactional, so I don't really know, but I understand that truly "good" in-house gigs can be tough to get for litigators, because at most companies, they end up spending all their time managing outside counsel's handling of the "big" cases and obsessing over their bills, while outside counsel stays up all night doing the substantive work. I'm sure in-house litigation pay is better than government, but query whether the work quality is what you truly want.

    If you want the sweet spot of doing interesting work and being in control of it and having a flexible schedule, the SEC really may be the best place to stay for awhile.

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  9. OK, LL, you convinced me. I just made an appointment with my law school career center to see if they can help me find a way out of firm life. I really wanted to stay and change this culture, but I'm in such a weak position to do so . . . and meanwhile my kids get older every day. The whole extended fam is taking a vacation to the beach 45 min from my house next week, and I had hoped to be able to take at least one day off to spend with them. But client/partner failure to plan has constituted my emergency, and suddenly I have mediations, presentations, depositions, and filing deadlines set for every day, even though I pulled several all nighters last week just to clear the calendar.

    This life is 10% exciting and exhilarating and 90% totally heinous slog and daily terror that I will not be able to meet an obligation. I miss my kids. I want your schedule, even if it comes at the cost of having a nice office. My life right now is just a wall of work, all day and through the night, and I have no chance to take a breath or enjoy anything at all. I have a book I'm desperate to read and it is mocking me from my bedside table. I have a kid birthday party tomorrow and the thought of it right now fills me with dread because it is an obligation that I may not even be able to do properly due to deadlines - and I hate that I think of my children this way right now. As barriers to my work productivity. Ugh.

    So I've turned the corner, and now begins the looking. I've been waffling for a bit, but this post helped me make up my mind.

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  10. LL, thanks for this detailed post! Like other readers above, I love reading your blog for insights into balancing working and family life as a female attorney. Can't believe how quickly the LL kids are growing up! I went in-house last year and am somewhere between In-House Anonymous @ 7:15 pm and Anonymous @ 6:02 am above. I have the rare litigator in-house gig that doesn't solely involve managing outside counsel as Anonymous points out. However, being more hands-on with the legal work also means longer hours. The hours are better than at the firm, but it's not a 9-5 gig, and I do work some weekends and have put in my share of late nights. Have gotten tons of experience and substantive work though -- I'm at a nonprofit so we have a tiny legal department and also do most work in-house instead of hiring outside counsel to keep costs down. Much more rewarding work than at the firm on a personal level, but wish I could work fewer hours! I also have similar thoughts as you as far as being the senior associate, the mid-level, the junior associate, and often the paralegal/admin assistant (I do have a partner to report to in the form of my boss, the GC, and my client is the President/CEO of my organization). I absolutely miss the awesome support staff at my firm! Am contemplating moving to government work at some point . . .

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  11. Let me also thank you for posting this. I don't have kids, but I'm a government attorney who loves that everyone in my office has lives and that 5:05 on a Friday the building is a ghost town. (Actually, 5:05 most days of the week.) I do miss writing and don't know if the position I have will ever require me to do the kind of complex writing I love and am good at, so I can really sympathize with that. And although I've never done the biglaw thing (worked at a firm my 2L summer, but local respectable midlaw, not big, and I didn't go back after school), I do sometimes feel I should be out there breaking the glass ceiling (or at least hammering it a little). Biglaw has more of surface prestige - that feeling of importance and the gloss of all the little extras - and it can be hard to think that by passing that up, there's a chunk of the legal profession who will never see me as comparable to them (if that makes sense). But I love running my own cases (even as it terrifies me - I don't think I'm very good at running things, but I tell myself I can learn to be good at it). I love how happy many of the people in my office are because they take vacations and do things other than work - though they also work, and very well. Okay, now I'm just rambling and I've lost any point (it's late here), but I wanted to say thanks for updating.

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  12. I meant to respond to this when you posted it... your job sounds so much more fulfilling than mine. I'm learning a ton, but the bureaucracy and inefficiency really gets to me. It's still worth it to have so much control over my schedule and to walk out the door at 4 p.m. every day, since I'm still doing challenging work and learning, but I really miss my work at the firm. I was working on really cool stuff and often when someone would ask if I read that article about this new tech innovation, I would say, That's my client! Now I question the worth of some of the things I'm working on. Also, I'm with you on missing the fluff! My office is so ugly and dreary with gray film on the windows. I know it's shallow, but it does affect my enjoyment of being at work. I don't think I'd ever go back to any large firm (although I wouldn't 100% rule it out), and for now the lifestyle compensates for the not-so-great parts, but I don't think I'll be a government lifer.

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