Transition to practice (or, why I cried at law school)

April 20, 2010 at 9:17 am | Posted in law school, little bug, Little O, not yet written, politics, read this, tax law is sexy, the firm, the media | 9 Comments
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My triumphant return to my law school last week as an alumni speaker was somewhat compromised by an emotional hiccup. Namely, crying. If you have been reading this blog for the past few (say, ten or 11) weeks, you’ll know that since the birth of my baby boy in February, I’ve been doing a lot of crying. This time, however, the tears were decidedly not hormonal, but, instead, passionate.

If you have been reading this blog since its inception, you’ll know that I had my first baby in between my second and third years of law school. When she was six weeks old, I returned to campus, armed with a breast pump and lots of coffee. “How did you ever manage law school with a newborn?” I’m often asked. Here’s a secret: by your third year of law school — at least, in 2007-08, when the legal hiring market was still running at pre-recession speed — you can pretty much coast. I chose my classes based on when they met, as opposed to content, for a flexible schedule. I had friends who supported me with notes from missed class and law review offices in which to pump milk. And I had a few professors (all women…) who were stalwart champions of motherhood and the law. It was one of these professors who asked me to come speak. And because one is always flattered to be asked for one’s expertise, I blew out my hair, put on a suit, heels, and lipstick, and, feeling vaguely like the lawyer I only so very recently was, I set out for Newton.

The topic was transitioning from school to practice. My professor also had asked me to speak specifically on transitioning to practice with a child and after a maternity leave. I had typed a few thoughts into my iPhone on the transition in general:

  • Ask questions.   No one expects you to know what you’re doing for the first year. If a more senior associate or partner is giving you an assignment and asks you, “Have you heard of the 40 Act?” you may nod yes because you kind of remember skimming that part of the 750-page text book, but you don’t know the 40 Act. Better to pipe up and ask, “Well, what specifically about the Act as it applies to this matter?” then to be stuck in the office at 11 p.m. not knowing what you are supposed to be doing when the client wants an answer by 9 a.m. I’d argue that asking questions makes you look like a thoughtful, careful — indeed, intelligent — lawyer.
  • Worried about work/life balance? Let it evolve organically. It will become clear fairly quickly how different partners/supervisors expect assignments to be completed and how you can assess the urgency of a task. If I’m given a new task on top of a full plate, I’ll tell the partner, “I have this memo due for so-and-so tomorrow and an upcoming filing deadline. Do you think I can still get this new assignment done in the timeframe you need?” You kind of put the ball back in the senior lawyer’s court. In short: don’t freak out before you start that you won’t have a life. If you want a life, you can make it happen. But that’s a whole other post (and blog, dare I say tantalizingly?)
  • Find a peer group. As I’ve discussed previously, I found a support system of other lawyer-moms at my firm. I relied on them  heavily, on matters both professional and personal. But I think this advice can apply to new attorneys no matter where you are in life and no matter what your professional situation. Are you newly engaged, juggling wedding planning  amongst your billables? Find another attorney in the same situation. Are you single and married to your work? I’m sure you have coworkers who would love to have a beer with you at 10 p.m. after along workday.

Oh, wait, you want to hear about the crying part, don’t you. Eventually, my professor asked me about my maternity leave. She asked if I worried about taking it, and whether I was worried about transitioning back. I was prepared with tips for others, not to discuss my own situation, and she caught me off guard. Yes, I worried about going on leave, I answered:  Was I too junior? Would all of my great clients and assignments, which I had worked hard to cultivate, be given to others? Would I forget everything I had learned about tax law? When I returned, would I be able to ramp back up quickly enough to bill enough hours? Should I return part time? Full time? Flex time? In a BigLaw environment, did any of that even matter (which I sometimes suspect it does not…)?

“But I’m grateful for my firm’s generous maternity leave policy,” I said. And as I sat there, dark circles under my eyes, sleep deprived, my mind suddenly obsessed with all of my fears about returning to work, the tears arrived. I’m so, so tired (have I mentioned?). My baby is 10 weeks old and not sleeping through the night. Neither is my two-and-a-half-year-old. What if I, like most women whose companies’ leave policies are not even half as “generous” as mine, were back on the job already? What if I had to worry about keeping up with my coworkers and my assignments and my clients operating on four or five hours of sleep, worrying about who was taking care of my newborn?

Why do I have to qualify my maternity leave with the word generous?

I love being a lawyer, and, for the most part, I really like working, as I suspect many mothers who work do. Perhaps some women drop out of the workplace after having a baby because, instead of the oft-cited, “I just can’t leave my baby,” their harsh reality is that they only have four weeks maternity leave. Because society pressures them to breastfeed but doesn’t allow them the time to get their babies on a schedule, nor provides the space and time to pump milk at work. Because, even when they are senior executives, coworkers refer to their maternity leave as “vacation.”

My maternity leave shouldn’t be thought of as “generous.” It should be standard. Hell, it should be a starting point.

I cried because I’m angry.  I’m passionate about my children, and I’m passionate about my career and my education, and why won’t society support this duality?

If you haven’t read Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness, and you care about these issues, please read it. I know Warner has her critics, and I realize that she’s writing about a particular sliver of the population (highly educated, professional women), but I happen to fall into that sliver, and her book has resonated with me to a degree that surprises me in the passion and anger it has inspired. We need a movement. We need quality affordable day care. We need realistic maternity leave. And no one seems to be doing anything about it.

Maybe I can. Maybe we all — I say to you, my small but perhaps similarly inclined readership — can put our collective heads together and do something.

Stay tuned.

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  1. This post really moved my heart. I am so grateful for Germany’s maternity leave policy: you have to stop working 6 weeks before the due date (unless you want to continue working) and you MUST NOT return until 8 weeks after the baby was born. We get almost 100% of our net pay for that time. AND after that time, there is paid parental leave for 10 more months where you get 67% of your last net pay from the government. Also, you can’t be fired during your parental leave. And still, Germany has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. I’m grateful for a good quality affordable daycare my 2-year old and my 4-year old go to 7-8 hours a day, and the daycare my 7-year old goes to after school finishes at 11:30 am. I’m so impressed how you American mothers manage working and having small kids despite the lack of a reasonable policy. And sometimes I think we Germans just complain too much and don’t realize how much we should appreciate what we have!!!

    • Don’t even get me started on people who think this country is turning socialist…your leave policy sounds amazing. But, see, again, we shouldn’t have to qualify it as amazing. It gives families a real chance. And if we as a society believe in the importance of families, we need to support giving moms and babies — and dads — a solid start. I should have mentioned that in my post.

      • Yes, you are absolutely right. It’s kinda sad that we have the feeling we have to be grateful, no? It should be taken for granted! When I started working again last fall (I teach at a university and work 26 hours a week) I had trouble with my boss because he told me to teach a class from 4-8pm. Daycare closes at 5, and my commute is 45 minutes. I was shocked. I work part time so I can be there for my kids! My husband works full time and can’t be home before 6:45 pm. I didn’t want to accept that and went to some official people (women’s representative), and they told me that of course we could try to work something out, but if he insisted on me teaching that late, I couldn’t really do anything. After many sleepless nights, a lot of tears and me almost quitting the job, we luckily found a solution: a class from 10-2. I don’t have to tell you that my boss does not have kids, do I?!

  2. I think that the first two bullets are more applicable as a balance for junior associates. I can assure you that I no longer get the luxury to say I am too busy for something. It is always right away on deals. That is why I was going to do “deal on/deal off”. Anyway, will read your post in more detail b/c it is interesting but have to go answer work emails for a job I’m supposed to be on vacation from this week. 🙂

    • Oh I completely agree — I was trying to come up with some transition points and certainly as you become more senior you have a lot less leeway. Also, I imagine what I’m saying might actually be totally inapplicable to either non-tax lawyers or even anyone not starting off their careers in a recession! 🙂

  3. Before I even got to your point “why do I have to qualify my maternity leave as generous” I was already thinking it. I often forget how long our maternity leave is compared to most people (and it’s even PAID, which isn’t often the case!). When I moved back and was pregnant with E, and told people I had 6 months, I was a bit surprised at first by the “wow that’s wonderful”s as I recalled my UK co-workers who had a year off! And then there’s the pressure to nurse, as you say, along with other things, which just doesn’t square with going back to work immediately.

    To my mind, this is one of the most pro-family things you can do, but those who profess to be so concerned with these issues consider it anathema. Is it because it supposedly would conflict with a “stay at home” mom paradigm? Which never really existed, not even in the “idealized” 50s. (It may have been aspirational, but it wasn’t necessarily the norm–women have had to work outside the home for a long time now; and life isn’t any cheaper these days).

    • Sara, what is the “this” of “this is one of the most pro-family things you can do?” Not being a lawyer, right? But am assuming you mean extending maternity leave?

      • Yes, extending maternity leave. Sorry. Tired.

  4. Perusing your archives and found this. Great way of summing up exactly what I’m going through. Though my law firm has tried, they really want me to be available 24/7 and after having a kid, that’s just not possible. Nor do I want to. But I do want to work and I do want to have value. What is so frustrating as it seems to be all or nothing. WHY is it so difficult to manage a successful flex time schedule? The answer, it’s not, but it takes others at the firm to help you do it. If you figure out a way to change the (law) world, I’m right there with you! And since this was written in April, hope things worked out okay for you. Off to read more of your blog and find out!


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