Monday, December 29, 2008

Work: a four month reflection

I wrote most of this post about a week ago- almost all of it is still relevant, so I'm going to publish it in full and then add a bit more from today's perspective. As you'll see, my thoughts on work are quickly evolving. I think overall I've been on a steady progression of figuring out what it means to be a full-time working BigLaw attorney and mom, but the lessons are learned quickly and frustrations that feel overwhelming in one minute barely seem worth mentioning in another. I think it would have made an interesting read if I'd published all the half-written work-life related posts I had floating around in my head each day, but I didn't, so you'll have to make due with a summary:

[The following was written last Monday:]

Sept/Oct: Things started out well. Landon loves daycare and other than that first week there haven't been any tears- except once when I picked him up early and he was very busy in the play kitchen and did not appreciate the interruption in his cooking process. Work was relatively slow as the corporate department got four new associates (including me) at about the same time the economy crashed. Deals were still flowing, but not at the frantic pace they had been earlier in the year so everyone was pretty relaxed and had plenty of time to explain things. I thought this mommy-wife-lawyer thing wasn't going to be so tough.

Nov: JP's school schedule got busier, his business start-up process became all consuming, and I got staffed on a public offering at a time when no one else in the country was crazy enough to launch one. Luckily the senior associate I was working for in Austin was extremely flexible about my schedule and the two partners on the deal were in the NYC office so they really didn't care (or know) how or when I did my work. I worked a lot, but I was able to be home for dinner and JP and I were able to juggle our schedules so Landon got lots of mommy-daddy time. Mommy and daddy didn't get a whole lot of husband-wife time, but luckily neither of us needs a whole lot of sleep.

Dec: The week after Thanksgiving the corporate section exploded. Apparently the partners emerged from their turkey-induced coma to realize we had six deals closing by the end of the year. Because my offering was set to price and close the same week the diligence picked up for the M&A deals, I ended up completely off any of the other deals. This is kind of great because my Christmas isn't ruined, but it's kind of awful because everyone else's is. It's hard to explain, but there's a camaraderie that grows during late nights at work and I'm totally outside that circle right now. I wouldn't trade my nights at home with Landon for a closer relationship with my co-workers, but it's getting awkward. I have almost nothing to do. All the deals are at that stage where it's easier to just press on yourself than try to spin out discrete assignments, so I'm sitting at my computer watching the required "Basics of Law Practice" course while crazy busy people run past my door. Our associate evaluations are in January and I'm kind of worried about the fact that I haven't done any M&A deal work.

On the plus side, the head of our section has decided I will be his new protege. He's assigned me as point person for one of his clients, handing off their corporate issues for me to research and answer, in the hopes that I will soon become their direct contact. I am very excited about this. I haven't officially admitted it, but I don't think I like big deal work- it doesn't excite me and I have no interest in running my own one day. I really enjoyed the capital markets work; in fact, if I thought JP would go with me, I'd ask to be transferred to NY to be a full-time securities lawyer. This realization doesn't come as a surprise- the reason I was excited to start my career in Austin was because we do a lot of work for smaller companies that don't have in-house legal departments, so we get to act as a true corporate counselor. Whenever they have a question about a contract or stock option agreement or anything like that, they call us. Some people don't like it because it takes time away from the multi-national, multi-million dollar deals, but that's the kind of work I like, which is why I was so happy Big Partner picked me. It's been a bit terrifying to work on his assignments because I really want to do well and he's of the "I'll give you enough rope to hang yourself" school of supervising, but he seems to like me and we get along well. According to a more senior associate this is because he can "smell fear" and I don't have any. I was surprised to hear that he would inspire fear in anyone, but then again, I've always had a soft spot for curmudgeonly older men.

The absolute hardest part about the firm has been the loss of control over my schedule. I knew it would be, but it's impossible to fully understand until you're there. Most days it isn't a problem, but when things get busy, trying to create a good first impression while staying true to your need to see your family (and being the only new associate with a child) becomes very hard. In school you have one deadline- finals- and you could get your work done (or not done) however you want. With work you have a million deadlines, many of them false or moving, and you aren't the one who gets to decide what needs to be done when. I worry about getting home early enough. I worry about the reputation I'm establishing. As my partner mentor told me in the first week, your reputation is set early. If people think of you as a hard worker, it takes years of not working hard for them to stop thinking of you that way; if you they think of you as someone who avoids work, it takes years of stepping up to change that. Sometimes I think I should step up for these first few months, but then I play with Landon at night and know that I just can't miss that time except when absolutely necessary. In this regard I think it would be easier to start a BigLaw career without children. I'm ocasionally envious of my childless colleagues who can work past 7, meet their spouse for a late dinner, and go to bed without feeling like they're neglecting anyone in their life. I wouldn't change anything, I think in the long run it'll work out better to establish my career around my family life. And of course, you can't look at a big-bellied Landon and even think about delaying his presence in your life, I'm just acknowledging that fewer personal responsibilities would make starting a demanding career a bit easier.

[Back to the present:]

So... work. It's tough. That wasn't anything I wanted to hear before I started and I kind of hate admitting it now, but it's a daily struggle of setting boundaries, dealing with varied personalities, and fulfilling a constantly changing list of deadlines and expectations. I also frequently find myself nodding along to assignments while frantically thinking, "OH MY GOD I stopped understanding 85% of this twenty minutes and thirty acronyms ago. I wonder if it's bad to ask him to start over, speak slower, and spell everything out. And maybe just do this for me because he seems very knowledgeable." I've had multiple crises involving JP's lap and some wailing about medical school and my lack of a trust fund, but this meandering post notwithstanding, I'm pretty happy. I like working. I have absolutely no desire to not work. I'm just in the process of figuring out what I want to do with this J.D. and those hours I spend working outside the home. At the moment I'm trying to walk the line between all-star associate and slacker- doing a good job on my assignments but getting home as soon as I can. My balance feels really good right now, but I'm think I'm tipping more towards family time than any other BigLaw associate out there. I'm worried that balance is going to have to tip back towards work and I'm not going to be able to do it.

And to add an interesting twist, I found out this morning that I've been drafted onto a massive litigation doc review and will be dedicating 40+ hours per week for the next three weeks to that matter. I would have preferred it not begin until next week so I could properly prepare for the New Year's Eve party I'm hostessing Wednesday night, the day off I was supposed to have on Thursday, and my elementary school best friend slumber party and reunion at my house Friday night, but I am not in charge (part of the problem with this whole work-life situation) and as always, I truly do know that I am blessed to be busy.

So that's my BigLaw working mother run down. There's nothing novel and no conclusions, but I will say that day-to-day, it's working. I don't wake up each morning invigorated by my passion for corporate law, but I also don't dread Monday mornings. I'll let you know if either one of those things happens, but until then, I'll be drifting along, trying to figure out what it is I'm doing now (that's the first step) and whether or not I want to keep on doing it forever.


  1. Every time I get really frustrated about something work-related I end up complaining to Matthew about how I should have gone to med school, too. :)

    You are smart and driven and strong, and I doubt that anyone could possibly work with you and pick up on that!

    One of the weirdest things about being a lawyer is that you really don't get to try it out before you're practicing. Even clinics and moot courts and internships can't prepare you. Some of the things I thought I would really love I've ended up hating, and vice versa. One of the things that bugs me about the profession is that you almost have to lock into a specialty before you really know what it is you want to be doing.

    Every time I have to go to court on something stupid (as opposed to something fun, which I do enjoy), I remind myself of what a mentor told me: "We're lawyers. We go to court. That's what we do." And somehow I find this reassuring and can use it to get through the unpleasantness.

    A lot of firms are smart about letting individuals move between different groups; if it turns out that you do end up hating something, there's always that option.

    But it's a huge vote of confidence that you're being allowed face time with customers and not being hidden in the back for the M&A work (not that I have any idea what that means, work-wise!) Huge vote of confidence!!

  2. I pretty much could have written this post--right down to the curmudgeonly partner picking you as his protege. But I do think that although I set boundaries as to how much I am willing to give, I have proven myself reliable and a hard worker, which leads to more flexibility and control. At least I hope so--because the lack of control in my schedule is definitely the most frustrating part of my job right now.

  3. I don't even have a child and I find it hard to cope with a work-life balance. I am sure that you are doing well, despite making it home to see Landon at a reasonable time every night. I am new at work myself, and have noticed that the most important thing to a boss (atleast in my office), is the quality of your work product, not necessarily facetime.

  4. It was such a relief to read what you wrote here... not because you make it sound easy or even fun, but because you're being completely honest about it and it's still workable and somewhat enjoyable for you. The good thing is, with a degree from Chicago and a first job at a good firm, you'll have options open to you when you decide it's not for you anymore!

    I hope work doesn't detract too much from your fun plans for this week :)

  5. I work PT and I'm still setting limits. Like my boss always scheduling meetings on days I don't work and I'm like sorry, I don't have childcare.

    It is really, really hard. And I think having it all is a myth. We do the best we can and when we know better, we do better.

  6. I am so glad that you're writing about this, and have been since you started. I can't say I'm surprised by anything you've written, but it's great to hear about your experience. I will be following in your footsteps soon.

  7. You sound like you're doing a great job. As someone thinking about starting a family soon and being a first year associate in a big law firm, it's great to have your blog to read :) One question I have, should you ever have another "Ask LL a Question" session, is how you've been keeping up with your hours... I already feel like that's a struggle (especially when you don't have a pressing project FORCING you to work), and I'm envisioning it being much more difficult with children!