Siren SongMarch 20, 2009 at 1:54 pm | Posted in little bug, not yet written, the firm | 4 Comments
Tags: law firm layoffs, sabbatical, stay at home mom
If you are reading this and you are a relatively young associate, you read Above the Law and so know what went down at my firm yesterday. If you’re not a lawyer (and thus not addicted to the train wreck that is abovethelaw.com — Must. Stop. Looking. At. Carnage), I’ll try to summarize as briefly as possible:
Many, many law firms — large and small, prestigious and niche — are laying off associates. Most law firms will not lay off first-year associates. The reasons for this are both selfish and somewhat humane. If you lay off first-years during a downturn, what third-year law student is going to take a chance on you? Especially the most coveted law students who tend to have more choices when it comes to recruiting (or, at least, used to). (The economics behind it are something like this: the more “prestigious” a firm, the more it can charge. How do you get to be “prestigious”? You boast that you can hire the top students from the top law schools. Thus, these students are heavily recruited and [used to] spend their 2L summers being wined and dined.) The humane reason, I’d like to think, is that if you get laid off as a first-year associate, you’ll have an incredibly difficult time finding another position (although I’m sure this is also tied up with reason #1).
What law firms can do in lieu of retracting offers or laying off current associates is push back the start date for incoming associate classes. Instead of staring in September, new associates would start the following January, thus saving the firm six months of six-figure salaries (x 180 new associates). My firm has chosen to do this, leading me to believe that its financial future is not as stable as they assured us a few months ago (shocker). My firm also has taken an innovative step, now being adopted by a few other top firms (see today’s WSJ, which of course I can’t link for you because they charge for online content!) of offering one-year public-interest law “internships” to all associates. You can take a year’s leave of absence from the firm to practice law at an approved public-interest focused organization — e.g., an attorney general’s office, the local district attorney’s office, a legal services organization, a nonprofit. You’d forgo your six-figure salary, but the firm will pay you a respectable $60,000 (more than you’d make working there normally). Plus, you retain your health benefits (huge).
This would be an attractive option for me if I did not have day care costs. I’d love to work for a DA’s office or Greater Boston Legal Services, but the reality is, after child care, I’d clear very little (if any, after taxes) of that $60,000. In fact, I’d probably lose money.
The other option offered by my firm is a year-long “sabbatical.” You won’t get firm “credit” for that year, since you wouldn’t be practicing law, which means that if you took a year off obviously you’d come back as a first-year associate (or second-year or whatever year you are). You would be paid a stipend of 20% of your salary, and you’d also retain your health benefits. And this is where the sirens began to sing for me (“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each…”)
What if I stayed at home with the Little Bug for a year? We’d have to give up our full-time child care, of course. But the stipend would be enough for some hours of babysitting each week. What if I became one of those “yoga-pants-at-9 a.m.” mothers (so described by Judith Warner in her column today, here – although I actually feel like she got that phrase from me!?)? What if I took Little Buggy to Tiny Toes dance class with all the other toddlers? Made dinner every night? Would I write? Could I write? A novel even?
My days would be spent like this!
My firm is dangling a seductive proposition — “Here: try out being home with your child for a year. Just try it. You may like it!” And if I don’t — supposedly I have a job to come back to.
Rationally, logically, even emotionally this is not going to happen. First of all, I have a job, with a paycheck, in this unstable economy. Moreover, I’m too old to have my career advancement slowed any more than it already is, and I don’t want to come back in a year, still being a first-year associate, only to compete with all the “new” first-year associates. I’m not sure I’m going to be a BigLaw employee forever, but if I leave now, I may be shutting that door earlier than I had planned.
And, finally, I actually do like being a lawyer. It took me a loooong time to get here. Were I a third- or fourth-year associate who had lived the law-firm life for awhile, I might see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try something new and different. But I’ve already written for a living, lived in a ski-town, traveled around the world, lived on the West Coast near the beach, become a yoga instructor. And, even after all of that — even after doing all of those things that I’m sure sound quite exciting to a mid-level associate who has been stuck in a high-rise 60+ hours a week for the past five years — I wanted to become a lawyer.
The only thing I haven’t done is be at home with my child on a regular basis, being her primary caregiver, and that’s why the siren call is so strong right now. What if… what if…
… I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
(Am not trying to be dramatic, but just remembering how much I have always loved this poem…)