June 06, 2011 Articles

Transitions: It's Not Our Mother's World

Career transitions will be successful, in large part, based on how willing we are to reexamine the bases for our assumptions and adjust our actions to the reality we discover.

By Hon. Joan F. Kessler

How women manage the transitions from assumptions to reality is a skill we all develop in nearly every part of our lives—pretty much beginning when we discover that boys may not think or act the way girls do. For example, my four-year-old grandson assumes that everyone likes to dig in the dirt, play with worms, and run really fast just about everywhere. By contrast, my three-year-old granddaughter totes an eight-inch doll called “Baby” pretty much everywhere, is so anxious to “help” with anything a grown-up is doing that a dishwasher gets loaded/emptied or laundry gets folded only when she is asleep, and is fiercely independent about what she will wear and dressing herself.

Learning to accommodate the difference between personal assumptions and experienced reality can be a challenge throughout a woman’s legal career. For me, it has certainly always been an interesting experience. I assumed law school would be much like college, only more detailed and more focused. The reality when I was in law school was that it was more competitive than anything I had ever experienced or could have imagined. I made the transition and got my J.D. degree by giving up my social life—except for part of one weekend evening after studying most of the day.

By the time I finished law school, I was married. Soon after law school, we had children. All mothers have experienced the transition from the assumed Madonna-inspired image of motherhood to the reality of acute sleep deprivation and wondering why a highly educated adult person (you) cannot figure out what a howling eight-pound bundle of humanity actually wants. But we manage. And the children grow. And many of us choose to remain active in the legal profession through it all. It is my choices within the legal profession that, for me, provided a formative sequence of transitions.

Soon after law school and a federal clerkship, I joined a medium-size firm to do the work I had discovered I loved—litigation. After approximately five years with the firm, President Jimmy Carter decided to break traditional assumptions and appoint some women as United States Attorneys. I was one of the lucky four he picked. I was thrilled with the opportunity to have a whole new direction for my legal career. I assumed that working with various agencies in the federal government—such as the ones that investigate crimes—would be much like working with the attorneys with whom I had practiced and against whom I had tried cases. The reality was that some law enforcement agency heads—many of whom were senior enough to have been my father—did not seem pleased to have a woman of my age and political background reviewing their cases and supervising decisions about what the grand jury would consider. (The U.S. Attorney position is a presidential appointment nearly always going to a member of the president’s party.)

My assumptions and their reality displayed some deeply engrained stereotypes in all of us. We all had to transition to a productive working relationship. We individually moved from what might be described as cautious circling to mutual accommodation to collective cooperation. It took a lot of work to get there, but by the time I left the job, I believe the teamwork was effective, efficient, and beneficial to all concerned.

I left the federal government when the occupant of the White House changed. This time I joined a very large law firm. I was now used to being “the boss,” and I assumed I would have more authority over my work than what had turned out to be the reality. I also assumed there would be a level of personal formality and hierarchy to which I might have difficulty adapting. The reality was quite different. My colleagues were very smart, focused, and generally friendly. The atmosphere was an interesting blend of collegial and competitive. This combination, in its intensity, was a totally new experience for me. Adapting to the changing nuances of practice in a large firm was a constant learning experience. Apparently, the transition worked. Before joining this firm, I joked that I could not keep a job because I had not remained in the same job for more than five years. I assumed that would be my likely tenure there as well. The reality was that I remained a part of the firm until I retired from private practice more than 20 years later.

Retirement from the practice of law was the most dramatic in my series of professional transitions. The first transition was when I ran against an incumbent judge for a seat on our state Court of Appeals. The intensity of the campaign, and the physical and emotional investment involved, exceeded all of my assumptions. The change from working in a large law firm to the campaign trail was like moving from a very assertive and determined business in a growth surge to being the ringmaster of a large three-ring circus. The days began early and ended late. For nearly a year, I attended any gathering I could find that would let me introduce myself to people—breakfast groups, noon lunch programs for seniors, noon lunch programs for others, church socials, political meetings, fish fries, community gatherings, and bowling alleys. During the summer, I passed out my literature and talked to people at parades, picnics, and church and community festivals. And when things were “quiet,” I was on the phone or involved in Bar Association activities. It was a frenetic time!

In the end, I narrowly won. Victory propelled me into an equally dramatic transition that, again, was personally more profound than I had imagined. If the campaign trail was my three-ring circus, the Court of Appeals was a move to a cloistered mountain retreat. My colleagues and support staff are wonderful, intelligent, and friendly people. But there is a big difference between interacting with the same half a dozen or so people each day and interacting daily with dozens of different and frequently unfamiliar people.

I had been active in political matters for decades; I could not do that now. I had learned to raise money for charitable and political causes; I could not do that now. I had been an advocate for a variety of issues involving women and children; I could not do that now. I had been active in a variety of bar associations for my entire legal career; now I felt uncomfortable doing that, because I sensed the lawyer deference to my judicial status (much as I had felt the need to defer to judges when I was still a lawyer) interfered with some of the work a bar association needs to do. 

I have always needed frequent interaction with people other than my coworkers. It keeps me balanced with a broader perspective than the focus of my job. I searched out business and professional groups not involved in social action or politics to find the outlets I needed. I volunteered to do administrative work for a community group for young leaders in which I had previously been a member. I joined Inns of Court. I found projects in each of these groups in which I could be involved and that caused no Judicial Ethics concerns. I made new friends, almost none of whom were lawyers.  

I assumed that the work of an appellate judge would be interesting. The reality is that it is stimulating beyond my expectations—well, most of the time. The practice of law at my former firm, over the years, became more and more niche-oriented. One was no longer simply a litigator; one was a litigator with a narrow substantive specialty. The Court of Appeals could not be more different. The transition to general appellate jurisdiction was initially like an advanced degree seminar. Our court is the only appeal available to all litigants as a matter of right, so we decide appeals involving everything from serious felonies to juvenile proceedings, from multi-million-dollar environmental clean-up cases to guardianship proceedings, not to mention a plethora of self-created litigation by incarcerated persons who would rather not be incarcerated. As a matter of intellectual stimulation, this job is exciting, interesting, and challenging. I could not be happier with the work.

In our careers, we likely will not have the same transitions, but each of us will have a career full of opportunities, challenges, and choices. Our assumptions will be challenged. Our transitions will be successful, in large part, based on how willing we are to reexamine the bases for our assumptions and adjust our actions to the reality we discover. I cannot imagine a more stimulating career path for my energetic and creative sister-colleagues.