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January 01, 2015

A Woman at Big Law No Regrets (Off the Record)

A litigator relates how she eventually became the only woman in the room.

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As litigators say, the usual stips apply. Let’s stipulate that the question “Do you have regrets?” is less likely to be asked of a middle-aged man in a remunerative, waningly prestigious job. Let’s also stipulate that I do regret writing this anonymously, but entre nous, I don’t want to make any formal statements right now on the “women in the law” topic. So this article is subject to Rule 408 and not admissible as anything other than a personal rant and exhortation to young Big Law women to suck it up, stick it out, and join me.

To open, I am a Big Law partner in a Big City. I have a job I really enjoy at a great law firm, and I am a happily married mom. In substance and in sum, I have no regrets. Of course, I have rationalizations, petty envies, and a healthy capacity for denial, but nothing close to triggering a material adverse effect.

What is regret anyway? I once asked my perennially cheerful mother, she of the Betty Friedan generation, if she and her friends ever had regrets—they were all very bright, college-educated women who were never steered toward paying careers. Mom replied: “No. Regret requires a conscious choice. We were never raised to think there was any other way.” How I envy them! I don’t regret my height or eye color; I don’t even think about it. How nice if that certainty applied to my whole life. But my friends and I have choices—hard-won by the women’s movement—and can therefore beat ourselves up over all of them. So here goes.

First, What I Don’t Regret

I don’t regret “choosing” to be a lawyer. In Bonfire of the Vanities, the co-op board president Pollard Browning “emerged from his mother’s loins” a middle-aged Big Law partner. Does that really happen to anyone? Is law ever an active first choice of anyone but Supreme Court justices? People choose to become professional basketball players, ballerinas, activist hedge fund managers, and other careers requiring single-minded focus and extremely lopsided innate talent. No one “ends up” in a neurosurgical residency or on the PGA Tour, but many people “end up” as lawyers. We were all the smart Model UN kids who couldn’t bear cutting up the frog in biology class. Moreover, particularly for women, law gives you credibility. So I “ended up” in law school.

I don’t regret starting in Big Law. I came to Big Law on autopilot, following the hungry herd at chow time after graduation. It wasn’t much of a choice, given that I thought Big City had my best dating pool; I wanted to support myself well (Do any nearly broke women have great lives other than on HBO?); and I have zero entrepreneurial DNA (my ancestors aspired to comfort, not world domination—we were happy just not to be pogrom fodder). I truly admire my friends who took a career risk from the outset; I didn’t have it in me. Once ensconced in Big Law, however, I really did like it. The work was varied and interesting, and my clients and colleagues were impressive. The fire drills made me crazy at times, but I somehow caffeinated my way through it. By the time I came up for air, I was a partner and the hard part was over.

I (almost) don’t regret staying in Big Law. Don’t get me wrong, being a Big Law partner is a great gig. I’ve done it for a long time. It’s much easier than a senior in-house job—you don’t live with your clients, you don’t report to anyone, and you get more than 30 minutes to make a major decision. Yet, I do ruminate on what might have been. Was my promotion to partnership a triumph of my masterfully wielded ambition and stamina, or just a total failure of imagination that I was still sitting there eight or nine years after graduation? Alas, both are true.

In my daydreams, believe me, I am not a Big Law partner. No, I am not home with my kids either. I am rock-star, page A1 fabulous! I was prescient enough to befriend Obama early (I now run the West Wing) or join Google in 2000 (I now compost on my Gulfstream). Either way, I am at the state dinner for Hollande, and Vogue profiles me without my being a size zero. Time sheets? Moi? RFPs? Mais non! And then I snap out of it and start editing a draft.

I don’t regret what Big Law does. My school idols are the people who run nonprofits or their own businesses. I do neither. This could weigh on a reasonable woman, but it doesn’t keep me up nights. I make nothing, but at least my clients make (or finance) great stuff, stuff that makes the world more pleasant, advanced, efficient, and (in the life sciences field) literally livable. My Outlook calendar does not have daily entries for saving the world, but Big Law does and supports terrific pro bono work, funded by people (other than me) who actually make great stuff. So I’m OK with this—thank goodness rationalizations always trump regrets (see comment about rationalizations, supra).

Of course, this won’t save me when the Occupy mob surrounds our building. And when I go to reunions, even with the above pro bono work, I don’t feel I’m in the same category as my nonprofit classmates. But they will still be friends with me, so I can’t be that bad.

I don’t regret the work I do. There’s the joke that making partner in Big Law is like winning a pie-eating contest and first prize is 100 more pies. I don’t think that’s true. The work in Big Law gets more interesting every year, as you reinvent and challenge yourself with every new client, industry, legal question, and team. You are constantly doing intellectually difficult work with very smart people, and every day is different.

I asked a mentor what she liked best about her job, and she replied, “I like trying cases. I’m good at it.” Enough said. Now, of course, I cringed that time we read deposition testimony into the record in court and the federal prosecutors in back were smirking at us—they were waiting to get done and go fist-bump their bling-bearing drug informants. I guess we’re not the real alpha lawyers in town.

I don’t regret being well compensated. Big Law partners earn more than they morally deserve. I have teachers and doctors in my family, and it’s just not fair. I do not actively call myself a feminist because where I come from, that’s a great way to sit home on prom night. But I feel deeply proud (and vaguely subversive) to earn my own money—enough to support charities, political causes, and the schools that educated me. Helen Gurley Brown said that nothing vicarious ever feels as good as your own success, and she is right.

I don’t regret being memorable, even for the wrong reason. Yes, yes, the world will be a better place when we have 50 percent women everything. For now, I try to look on the bright side. I have been on calls with four Marks, three Jeffs, and three Michaels, and even using my best aural discipline, I have no idea who is talking. Does it really matter anyway? I can barely tell apart my hundreds of 5-foot-9 white male colleagues at bar functions. Yet, everyone somehow remembers me and my name on a call. Perhaps I am just that memorable, but I doubt it. It’s an interesting perk as a woman survivor—you are famous simply because you are still here.

I don’t regret lacking time for regrets. Idle hands are the therapist’s workshop. Isn’t that the Woody Allen version of the old proverb? Or is it that rolling drones gather no emotional moss? I would like to say I was born free of perfectionist, worrywart, controlling tendencies, but it’s more that my daily schedule has beaten them all out of me. If my kids are literate and not bleeding, I’m not calling the school. If my home lacks bedbugs, I’m having guests over. I simply don’t have time to regret anything, or someone wouldn’t have food, clothing, transportation—or, horror of horrors, a decent draft crafted in four hours flat. I used to be a type A woman, and now I’m just an A−, which is a type A woman who has watched the movie Ted again and again to relax after work.

Now on to What I Do Regret

I regret that women presume I have regrets. A few years ago, an ambitious (dare I say odious?) female associate and I were chatting in a salad shop line. She paused, stared hard, and asked me, “Do you have any regrets?” Her serious gaze was disconcerting. Oh, my God. This woman thinks something is terribly wrong with my life. Even worse. She thinks my problem is obvious. Idiot that I was, I started sputtering all the aspects of my life that could be regretted by a reasonable woman, even though I subjectively (and in good faith) regret none of them. She silently speared a crouton and left, and she (hereinafter, “Crouton-Spearing Associate”) was definitely unsatisfied with my response. To this day, I cannot guess the Terribly Wrong Thing in My Life I am supposed to regret. (I admit, I could use some Botox, but I’m not sure this was it.) It’s one person, so who cares, but a reasonable woman could regret that younger women believe we should have regrets.

I regret that I don’t want to (formally) mentor you. Big Law is not much for irony, but I’ve got a juicy one. How about that women partners with kids are supposed to stay late for various events to prove to younger folks that they can “have it all”? How about the firm announcing that, to support partners with kids, we get a free or reduced pass on internal firm social functions? Would our young lawyers respect the consistent principle, or would we get killed in No one wants to find out.

Maybe it’s just me, but if I only see my own parents a few times a year, why would I want a total stranger as a quarterly lunch buddy? News flash: If I am 100 percent focused on not humiliating myself by throwing another gutter ball, am I thinking about optimizing your career trajectory? I don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong—I love mentoring young lawyers, and it’s critical. But my time is so limited, I need to prioritize. Please come to my office anytime and tell me about your ambitions and questions. I want to know, and if you have the legal chops, I will fight for you—I promise. But please, no more Bowling with Strangers—I can’t pretend to be interested anymore.

I regret that I can’t lose it when I desperately need to. The world isn’t fair. Women Big Law partners can’t throw things, curse, or scream when someone else’s problem throws a monkey wrench into their house-of-cards schedule. Hell, we can’t even let our voices trail up at the end of declarative sentences. You constantly have to thread your entire personality through the eye of a needle—be nice enough not to be reviled as a shrew but stern enough to herd cats on deadline. You simply can’t win.

For years, I have worked for, with, or against senior women who I was warned were “difficult” (said in a loud whisper). I never saw the problem—they seemed like efficient professionals to me. I once had an associate who frequently asserted a chronically ill pet as a work excuse, and like a fool, I tried to accommodate. I later learned the male partners in my group had never heard of the ailing creature.

I regret that this is—literally—an ugly business. Big Law is not glamorous and neither are its warriors. On days when I don my cocktail dress in the ladies room and apply my concealer with a trowel, I amuse myself by picturing the withering gaze of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada or the author of French Women Don’t Work at Boring Law Firms, and I sigh. It’s OK. I have a great job and I make decent money.

I regret every ponytail, zit, sensible commuting shoe, purse that can port a small child, and, not least, my imperfectly chiseled physique. I used to lament my Nordic-free gene pool for depriving me of a runway model career, but alas, this is not sole but-for causation. I was just at a hotel pool and saw a friend who had left Big Finance and hired a personal trainer. She dropped her cover-up, and I could swear I heard the background music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sigh. It’s OK. I have a great job and I make decent money. I wish you could have that as a sign across your bathing suit, sort of like the bumper sticker that reads, “My other car is a Mercedes.”

I regret that the media ignores women like me. Why can’t the media find anything positive or funny about women with high-powered jobs? The New York Times and the Atlantic ran cover stories based on (i) three Yale students who aspire to be rich housewives (as I once heard, “That’s me-search, not re-search!”); and (ii) lamenting that you can’t run the entire State Department by working remotely from another state. Who’s writing about my Big Law gal pals? Why are reasonably contented women (the modern unicorn?) never a feature story or the lead in a Pulitzer Prize–winning play?

I posit that the writers of women’s stories (who are always women) believe—dare I say hope?—we’re all miserable. We make good money, get nice offices and societal gravitas, so someone has to root against us. But we’re even in the grand scheme of things—the writers are usually hotter (see previous section) and men find their careers infinitely more appealing. You just can’t be sexy and mysterious while arguing a discovery motion. If we’re all loving life, the writers don’t want to know, and they certainly don’t want anyone else to know. It tanks the justification for their own career choices, given that they’re great writers and may have made better lawyers than we are. So maybe they have regrets? Page one story, anyone?

I regret that the word “balance” is used outside of yoga class. This is an article all by itself, but I’ll bottom-line it here. I regret the word “balance” because it implies that it’s weird to enjoy an intense job. I regret that “work/life” is punctuated as if these are antonyms. I regret that millions of women can’t afford to entertain this question. I regret that successful men are rarely asked about work/life balance, and I regret that, when I happily answer this question, I’m not sure people believe me (see Crouton-Spearing Associate, supra).

So if you are tempted to ask a woman with a long-term, high-powered job about “balance,” it’s fair to assume she probably likes it and she isn’t deluding herself. If you think someone’s life is out of balance, that reflects your own values, and we all get to choose those for ourselves.

I regret having few friends in my shoes. If you stay in Big Law long enough, at some point, the women are gone. One day, you walk into a conference room and it’s the first day of school and you can’t find the other band geeks to sit with. Meanwhile, you can’t use a spare Hostess Ding-Dong to make a new friend because the supply is cut off.

Most of the smartest, most bad-ass women I knew at school are now at home with their kids or have a lower-hours job. I truly believe they are happy, without assistance of wine or controlled substances. I also believe the kid wasn’t why they quit—it was always just one of several factors. Me? I’m very fortunate that I could quit, but of course I can’t. If I did, I’d feel pressure to give a first-chair performance at things I’m mediocre at—cooking, fitness, household tidiness. And pity my poor children, who would be promptly Tiger Mom’d into concert musicians who speak five languages.

I regret I don’t have even more women partners still in the game because, believe it or not, we are a pretty cool bunch. I look around the room and am proud to be in such esteemed company. We are great lawyers and we haven’t suffered for our success. I doubt our kids will spend more on adult therapy than anyone else’s.

I regret lacking time to be “in the loop.” Knowledge is power, and many women partners have no time for small talk. You know, incredibly important, career-boosting small talk about the politics at the firm, clients, etc. I stare longingly at male partners dropping by each other’s offices to swap news. I stare for five seconds and then gobble a salad at my desk while I run my household online.

As a result, I’m the last one to know anything. I’m the one who wants to invite mortal business enemies to the same dinner because I didn’t get the “Ancient Tribal Hatred Memo.” I’m the one who wants to pitch a new project because I didn’t know about “That Issue.” An entire group could defect to another firm and I wouldn’t know unless they sat on my floor. If you have no time for watercooler gossip, you live life on the edge.

I regret the “mommy wars.” My kids go to a school with a large at-home mom demographic. Many fall into two categories: (i) the ex-professionals, my heroes, who run the school beautifully and produce A+ research on birthday party venues; and (ii) those who couldn’t wait to stop working (or have what a friend calls “a jobette”) and regard me as an exotic zoo animal. It’s not pity or envy, it’s more of a “different species” thing.

There are many shades of gray in between. One mom quit after four years at a firm, and every time she sees me, she gushes about her fabulous ex-career. She never asks about mine. I regret that I must trigger some insecurity in her that elicits the “my brilliant career” speech all the time. I also regret that she is often the class mom and no doubt takes fiendish delight when I’m the last one to turn in a permission slip. I knew it. She’s cracking under the strain. I further regret that I’m obviously petty enough to care what she thinks, in the two seconds I have to email the permission slip before my meeting starts.

We’re so lucky if we can choose whether to work, and as lawyers we overthink all of our choices. We need to help each other out. Corporate America is really tough on women who take time off. My “anecdata” is that most returning moms do something entrepreneurial or get hired by a friend or relative—big institutions aren’t an easy option. So let’s start a pact. You’ll let me freeload off your scorched-earth soccer league research, and I’ll remind everyone that you were the best brief writer in the firm when you left. Together we can mend the world.

I regret being an ill-read, uncultured, bad friend. If you are my friend, our relationship is likely an annual Saturday night dinner with spouses. If you are a close friend, you also get emails between meetings. If I go to the ladies room, my computer screen replenishes with dozens of unread email messages—legions of friends and contacts just waiting to be pissed off. I regret my friends who have sick parents or college applicant kids, and I don’t check in. I think about all of you; please forgive me.

I regret students who want mentorship and I can’t spare a meal. I regret that I can barely grab coffee with my fabulous women partners and clients. I regret that I rarely read anything without footnotes or defined terms. I read book, museum, and theater reviews, so at least I stay current on what a philistine I truly am.

In summation, younger members of the jury, Big Law hasn’t broken me, and it won’t break you either. If you think my job is worth having, you’re right. If you think you have the talent, thank God—and you’re probably right. Please make sure the top brass at your firm know it, and never presume that they already do or automatically will. If you think you can become a Big Law partner and do something else later, you’re right, and you have more imagination than I do. It’s like when my daughter beckons from the swimming pool, as I feign deep sleep in my deck chair: “Please, please, come on in. The water’s not that bad.”