Bye, bye BigLaw

March 24, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Posted in Starbucks, tax law is sexy, the firm | 9 Comments
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Tomorrow is my last day at the firm. Yes, it has been a few weeks since I posted — and, obviously, I’ve been busy. I decided to pursue what I hope will be a truly life-fulfilling path — the one I almost decided to follow after my maternity leave. I do not regret returning to my firm, though. Not one bit. I leave knowing I have left nothing on the table. I leave having been re-immersed in tax law and hard work. I leave having reestablished my professional and personal connections here.

I’ll write more about my new opportunity soon — next week, in my week off between jobs. Right now, however, I’m sending almost three years of files to records, having good-bye coffees and lunches with the colleagues who have become my friends. And I’m surprisingly emotional. Change makes me anxious, even good change. I am not sorry I’m leaving all this behind. But what is “all this”?: A huge, multinational law firm in a gleaming high rise. A nod of recognition when I tell people where I work. The confidence that came with knowing that, after years of professional hopscotch, I actually was capable of landing a prestigious job. (“Prestigious” — I feel the need to surround that in quotes, recognizing all of the external validation implied by my last few sentences. But it’s true! I’ll admit it! I’m proud that I work(ed) here.)

No, I’m not sorry to be leaving on my own terms in an anxiety-producing economy. But I’m still nostalgic about the milestones. I came here with one baby, I leave with two. At times I felt like I did a good job. Mostly, I felt rather stressed, but that, too, is part of the fun of being a BigLaw attorney — you can sit around and kvetch with your other lawyer friends about how stressed you are. Highlighters and sticky tabs and blackberrys and binder clips; empty Starbucks cups, free dinners after 7, free cab rides after 8; the same turkey wraps at every department lunch. Getting into my car with NPR and a mug of coffee and seeing my skyscraper in the distance as I headed for the highway, wondering what would happen today. Seeing the clock tick towards 5 and wondering if I’d be able to leave in time for bathtime.

Oh, I have so much more to write about this experience and the one that lies ahead. But right now I’m strangely overwhelmed. I ache to talk to my father, to compare my corporate law experience to his, to dissect it in a detail that only another corporate lawyer would want to listen to.

Tonight, some law school classmates who work here are buying me a glass of wine; tomorrow I’ll have a farewell lunch with some friends in my department. Saying goodbye can be strange and awkward, but I hope and trust that my new job will be a bridge to maintaining these connections. It still doesn’t feel real — seven years ago, almost on a whim, I decided to take the LSAT and take control of my life. Without this experience I don’t know that I’d have the confidence to maintain that control and take the leap I’m taking now — out of BigLaw towards a big unknown. I’m nervous and nostalgic, but also grateful and proud.

More soon…

New Year’s – again? (as in, already?)

December 31, 2010 at 1:57 pm | Posted in little bug, Little O, music, not yet written, NYC, read this, running, SAHM, Starbucks, tax law is sexy, the firm, Uncategorized, wine, yoga | 1 Comment
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You know I love New Year’s resolutions. Two years ago, my resolutions were clearly defined and yet highly unattainable. Last year, they centered around  simply finding happiness (hot showers, more wine, more yoga…). I understand why people eschew resolutions in that they set unachievable expectations, leading to disappointment, etc. etc.  Looking back over the past two years, it’s clear that I’m not one who makes resolutions and actually sticks to them, but I do get a lot of pleasure out of making them (in that I set up some sort of idealized vision of the future?). This year, I’m less able to articulate my New Year’s resolutions — I have some vague ideas about living more simply, lowering instead of raising my expectations, and trying to exist in some sort of more tempered universe. Of course, in the back of my head is a little voice saying, “Run more! More yoga! Spend less money!” but at the end of the year that included birth and death and health issues and lots and lots of sleepless nights — and somehow, in the midst of it all, a growing sense of contentment — I’m going to resist the urge (at least publicly) to enumerate my Resolutions.

Instead, my friend Lindsey had a fun and introspective little survey/questionnaire on her blog this morning, which I’m going to adopt. I’m answering these less thoughtfully than I otherwise might (blogging, as I am today, in the short window of Little O’s nap!) But maybe that will make my answers more honest.

What did you do in 2010 that you’d never done before? I spent seven months as a stay-at-home mom. I took a weekend trip to Florida with my college girlfriends. I participated in a competitive blogging challenge. I went three (almost four — since September 1, basically) months without running. This last one sounds like a crazy thing to list, but it actually imparted to me an important lesson. I used to think I needed to exercise for weight-maintenance. Eleven months of nursing, however, took care of that for me, and I realized that running in fact gave me much more than the ability to wear skinny jeans. If I have any resolutions at all for 2011, it is to remember that running keeps me sane, not thin.

Did you keep your new year’s resolutions and will you make more for 2011? Of course not. And of course — albeit with a more measured approach, I hope.

Did anyone close to you give birth? Yes! I did! But also my sister. And several close friends and seemingly half the tax department at my firm (literally — nine women in my relatively small department had babies this year!).

Did anyone close to you die? My great-uncle. And, just last week, a close family friend.

What countries did you visit? None. Sigh. Again, if I do have a resolution for 2011, it is to “remember Italy” (a metaphor and theme in a striking book I read recently, This Is Not the Story You Think It Is by Laura Munson — see Lindsey’s interview with her, here) — although in my case, it would “Remember Paris.” More on this in another post.

What would you like to have in 2011 that you lacked in 2010? Patience. Acceptance. Faith. Confidence.

What was your biggest achievement in 2010? Having a healthy baby would have to be it. But I’m also proud of myself for going back to my job. It wasn’t clear I was going to, but I do think it was the right choice, and perhaps the first time in my life I’ve done something truly rational, career-wise.

What was your biggest failure? A few work-related ones come to mind. But mostly I regret the times I’ve been short-tempered with Little Bug and a less-than-present daughter, sister, friend, and wife. I didn’t put down my iPhone/work email enough to stay focused on my family.

Did you suffer illness or injury? I feel like I’ve been sick a lot this year — an immune system no doubt compromised by severe sleep deprivation and preschool germs.

What is the best thing you bought? My iPhone and Pilates. (Am I a yuppie or what?)

Where did most of your money go? Starbucks and J. Crew. Ha ha, just kidding. Sort of.

What did you get really excited about? My girls’ weekend in Florida. My husband would tell me that I’m being all “Joy Luck Club,” but oh, god, there was something so refreshing and invigorating and inspiring about spending three days with the women who were with me when I became the woman I am, the women who have been there for me for the biggest hardships and greatest joys in my life, the women with whom I speak an abbreviated shorthand language and who can finish my sentences. And now, at this stage of our lives, the women with whom I can discuss my career, daycare, siblings, husbands and parents. Even though they may not be part of my day-to-day life, the are a part of the foundation of my life.

What song will always remind you of 2010? Have I listened to so little music that I can’t answer this? Probably, however, something country (since that is all Tim and I seem to listen to these days). I really like that song Welcome to the Future by Brad Paisley, though I suspect that was not released in 2010. OK, so, maybe I’ll make another resolution: listen to more music. It makes me happy — just as Glee made me so so happy this year.

Compared to this time last year, are you:

— happier or sadder? Happier
— thinner or fatter? Well, as I was eight months pregnant, this isn’t really a fair question!
— richer or poorer? It’s probably not a good thing that I can’t really answer this literally, but I imagine that since we spent most of 2010 paying two mortgages, poorer!

What do you wish you’d done more of? I wish I’d written more — here on this blog and elsewhere. I have a great idea for another blog, but I can’t seem to find the time to make it happen. I wish I could let myself go with my children — really play with them, focus on them wholly, without thinking about what’s next (be it cleaning up lunch, or what’s for dinner, or how much work I have, or even who has posted what on Facebook).

What do you wish you’d done less of? I wish I had spent less time agonizing over my job — both preemptively before I went back and then also on a daily basis once I was back. I think it affected my relationships with my family. It’s just a job. It’s not the greatest, most important job in the world, it’s not the end of the world, and I’m not a victim. I have to remember this.

How did you spend Christmas? As we do every year, in New Jersey, with my whole big crazy family. We snuggled in during a blizzard and took Little Bug in to New York City to the Museum of Natural History the day after the blizzard — rather ill-advised when it took us 4.5 hours and four different trains to get home!

Favorite TV program? Glee and The Good Wife.

Favorite books? I actually had a lot of time to read and finished more books than I have in years, both fiction and nonfiction. In the former category, the three books that stand out are: Dear Money by Martha McPhee, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. They weren’t earthshaking, but I just loved each one. In the nonfiction realm I really liked No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin (the Roosevelts on the home front in WWII) and The Gift of an Ordinary Day by Katrina Kenison.

Favorite films? I only saw one movie in the theater this year — Eat, Pray, Love. (But I loved it. Sue me for my questionable taste!) Recently, I’ve seen The Town and The Kids are Alright on OnDemand, and, surprisingly, liked both (as you know, my taste in movies runs towards the saccharine, e.g., Eat Pray Love…)

What did you do on your birthday and how old were you? I can’t even really remember my 36th birthday! Luckily, I blogged about it. It was spring, and I was still home on maternity leave, and Tim took me to a local Italian joint for dinner because I was craving a real Bolognese.

What one thing would have made your year more satisfying? Just knowing from the start that I was going to go back to my job and that it would all be OK.

How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2010? I have to divide this in to two parts: January – September and September – December. In the former, it was black yoga pants and spit-up stained black t-shirts. In the latter, it was black Theory pants or skirt and cashmere cardigans or blazers.

What kept you sane? Red wine. For reals. And phone calls with my mother. Daily, sometimes twice a day. Also, emails and texts from my hilarious friends.

Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2010? You are not your job. In fact, I suspect that nobody really cares what you do except for you. You’re not a victim of some amorphous FIRM that is out to get you (a la John Grisham?) — you’ve made your choice and you can unmake it at any time. You’re not trapped.  Also, even though you may get frustrated that your husband doesn’t like to hash out the nuances of your day, he is listening. More important: baby boys may not sleep and pre-school girls may whine, but it’s all doable. You can be much happier being grateful for what you have than wanting more, more, always more — this easier said than done, of course, especially for me, but slowly, slowly I feel like I’m on the verge of grasping this. I haven’t actually grasped it yet, but at least its a tangible concept now, something I can turn over in my mind, rather than something completely inaccessible.

How did I get here?

December 1, 2010 at 8:27 am | Posted in little bug, SAHM, Starbucks, tax law is sexy, the firm, weekend | 2 Comments

Sick Little Bug, with the “ellie”, watching our favorite movie, Madeline. Actually, her favorite movie might be anything featuring Dora (groan). But this is mine!

We’re all a little run down at our house. As usual, I packed too much into our Thanksgiving weekend. It was wonderful: we visited with my baby nephew and a whole slew of Murphys and beloved cousins; we invited some of our new neighbors and friends over for cocktails (so adult! so suburban!); and we celebrated my brother-in-law’s 40th at an 80s-prom-themed birthday, complete with 80s DJ and several costume changes for the birthday boy (insane). Against my better judgment, I sent Little Bug to school yesterday with tired tired eyes and feeling slightly warm (I asked repeatedly if she wanted to stay home but she begged to go to school), and so of course by 9:30 the head of the school called to say she was running a fever and had to come home.

She is inordinately sweet when sick (so much so that we realized yesterday morning that she was probably ill when she kept repeating over and over, “I love you, Mommy. I love you, Daddy. I love my baby brother…” etc. etc.).  This morning it was difficult to walk out the door when she kept running over for “one more big hug. No, wait, just one more kiss!”

As is often the case, though, by the time I got to work and navigated the Starbucks line downstairs, my mind was focused on my day’s client meetings, conference calls, and revisions. By the time I rode the elevator up to my office, with its sweeping views over the Charles, the Salt and Pepper Bridge and MIT, and the airport, I was happy I was here. Happy because sometimes I still get a little thrill that wait, I’m really a lawyer. I wear lawyerly clothes to work (today: Theory shift dress, black tights, heels, and a tweedy, Chanel-esque [emphasis on the “esque“] jacket in honor of my client meeting). I have conference calls and meetings with clients in glassy conference rooms on the top floor of our skyscraper building. I write and say things like, “It is reasonable to conclude that…”

Yesterday, I looked on as a very senior partner marked up a document I had drafted. His lawyerly edit marks mirrored those my father used to scratch on the reams and reams of documents he brought home. Again, I thought: I’m a part of this tribe — a life so familiar to me as a child, but one that I still can’t wrap my head around that I actually inhabit and perpetuate. 

My mind will, of course, be half at home all day, thinking of my sick little girl. But I also know that, all the usual BigLaw firedrills and false deadlines and general anxiety aside, I do like what I do. And this is what is sometimes very hard to reconcile with my life “at home.”

A former Catholic contemplates Protestant repression (i.e., lust)

May 16, 2010 at 9:22 pm | Posted in Starbucks, tax law is sexy, Uncategorized | 10 Comments
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I can barely type the four letters, l-u-s-t, the topic for today’s Five for Ten. Oh, these Momalom girls are smart, setting us up with fun topics like happiness and then making us squirm or blush. Or is it only me? A (former) good Catholic girl raised in a repressed Protestant society has trouble with this. We’re not supposed to think about lust, right? Or talk about it, or, for goodness sakes, blog about it publicly.

When I lived in Paris for a few months in the summer of 2001, I attended daily French language classes. One day, I asked the teacher why everyone in Paris chain smoked. “What about cancer?” I demanded. “Don’t you care about the children? About second-hand smoke?”

“You Americans,” she responded (at least, this is how I think the conversation went — the French lessons never quite took me to any level of proficiency). “You get cancer not from the smoking but from your repressed, Protestant lifestyle. We don’t get cancer because smoking relaxes us; we enjoy it.” The other students around the table — Japanese, Mexican, Israeli, Russian — nodded in agreement. Now, I had recently lost my father to lung cancer, but I also had been suspecting (and still sort of do, in the face of all rationality) that it may not have been the smoking itself that brought on the cancer that killed him. If there were ever a living emblem of the harms of Protestant repression it was my father. As the weight of collective condemnation fell upon me, the lone American in the French classroom that day, I wondered if she had a point.

In her “lust” post, one of my favorite bloggers, Launa (she of “Wherever I go, there I am“), writes of the attention her handsome husband has received from other women during their sojourn in France. Women with glossy hair, tight jeans, leather jackets, and no doubt fabulous lingerie beneath it all. Women for whom lust — be it their hidden underwear or their overt flirtation with married men — is a part of a sensual lifestyle (one in which, apparently, smoking does not cause lung cancer). Why don’t we (we, as in American women but more specifically we as in “I,” a repressed former Catholic) make the same effort to embrace, as opposed to stifle or ignore sexuality? I could go all political and link this ultimately to the absurdity of not teaching sex education in schools among many other ridiculous societal responses to our collective Protestant roots, but I’ll go back to my first point: my difficulty even writing on this topic of “lust”.

I could get around it by talking about my lust for life or lust for Starbucks or lust for reading or whatever, but that would be ignoring the decidedly sexual connotations of the word. And this brings me to a larger issue, which is writing about sex in general. One of the reasons I wonder if I could ever actually write a novel is: what about the sex scenes? You kind of need to have them, right, or else your novel will seem inauthentic because sex is everywhere? But what if your mother reads it? Your grandmother? What if every boyfriend you ever had thinks it is about him? Even if everything you write is the products of a healthy imagination, everyone will wonder, think, assume it is you.

Who cares? you might be thinking. Is that so bad? For me, yes. But maybe this is a first step. I’ll try it one more time:

lust

LUST

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.

Do I miss work?

March 5, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Posted in Starbucks, tax law is sexy, the firm, Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Ummmm…

No, of course not, though my last post begs the question. My new baby is amazing, and just today I had to put away onesies that he already has outgrown (and felt weepy!). My toddler needs me right now more than ever, and, despite her terrible two-ness, delights me dozens and dozens of times each day. I certainly do not miss the stress. I do not miss the client-driven deadlines, nor the pressure to bill hours. Nor the guilt I felt every evening when I slunk to the elevators at 5:30 p.m. to race home to meet the nanny and put Buggy to bed, knowing that my peers would be at their desks for another three or four hours. Nor the frantic checking of the Blackberry once I was home during bath time and story time (could the partner hold off until I put the baby to bed for me to get back online?) I d0 not miss the ever-s0-perceptible competition for assignments and partner-favor. I do not miss the pangs of regret I’d feel at times, looking out from my desk over Boston Harbor and Logan Airport, wondering what my child was doing at that moment. Napping? Playing? Did she miss me?

Now, of course, I know what she is doing each and every minute of the day, and sometimes I want to throw her out the window. And so here is what I do miss: my independence. I miss popping down to Starbucks whenever I pleased. I miss the occasional workout I’d sneak in at the gym in the building. I miss sushi lunches with friends. I miss dressing up in the morning, hearing the click of my heels on the driveway, sliding into my warm car and listening to a half-hour news cycle on NPR as I moved through the traffic on the Expressway. I miss feeling productive.

Here is what I really miss, though: my friends at work. I’ve written before how I did not expect that pursuing a law degree would result in a cadre of amazing, lifelong friends (I was too old, I didn’t need nor necessarily want any more friends, right?) I also had no idea that my law degree would result in a number of similarly true friends made at work. Friends I see socially outside of work. Friends who sent me baby gifts and whose children play with mine. As I mentioned in Wednesday’s post on loneliness, my friends at work are an integral part of my working life and, as such, my life. They are (for the most part) mothers or mothers-to-be who are brilliant (literally) lawyers but who also wonder if the regrets and confusion they feel when working such long hours are worth their fancy law degrees. I think because we are mothers we aren’t afraid to express our vulnerability or our emotions, nor are we afraid to take multiple coffee breaks to chat about them. We know we need each other and we also know that our children are far, far more important than our careers. Our careers provide financial stability and intellectual challenges, and I think we all more or less like coming to work, but there is no question where our priorities lie. These priorities can seem questionable to others in our firm, I think, and so we come back to each other again and again, for another coffee and another lunch, for reassurance and support.

When I started at my firm, my colleagues with children helped me navigate those frothy waters, and I miss having similar guidance in this new stage in my life. Oh, I know my work peeps are there for me — we email all the time. But they’re not sitting two offices down from me or a floor above me. They can’t meet me for a Starbucks.

So, no, I don’t miss work. I don’t miss working. My newborn may keep me awake at night and my toddler may wear me out, but they do not stress me out. I am beyond appreciative of my six months of maternity leave (though my feminist readers — you know who you are — might argue: you deserve that leave! You worked for it! If society values families, everyone should have such leaves! I know, I know…) But I do miss the camaraderie and the productivity — and the heels.

In which I consider getting happy

January 6, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Posted in law school, little bug, read this, tax law is sexy | 2 Comments
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Before you start thinking I have a major crush on Gretchen Rubin (which I do — a major career crush), based on my last few posts (I’ve previously written about her here, here, and here. And here.), I wanted to share my thoughts on her book, The Happiness Project, and why the book attracted me so instantaneously. (Actual reviews can be found all over the Internet — my favorite so far has been by Gwen Bell, here, who puts the book into a larger, Buddhist-oriented perspective.)

This is a bluebird of happiness, of course.

Rubin is a lawyer-turned-writer. If you are not an attorney, you nevertheless might be slightly impressed that she clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court. If you are in fact an attorney, you’re probably more impressed that she was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal (I mean, that is as good as it gets in terms of law school credentials!) Obviously, she’s smart and probably inclined towards perfectionism. She loves to write, she has an interest in the law, is driven, and she’s a mother of two. So I can relate personally to many of her motivations.

But the book is decidedly not written for a narrow audience and is relevant for anyone who has wondered, “Why do I seem anxious and ill-at-ease in certain situations?” or “Why do I feel like I’m wasting time worrying about small things?” or “How can I enjoy my life more?” She tackles such questions in what is probably for her a characteristically logical way: devoting each month of the year to examining a certain area of her life and then figuring out how to make herself happier in it. Even if you are not quite as logical, you’ll benefit from her extensive research into studies and literature and psychology — it’s interesting to read about areas such as parenting, marriage, energy, career, pursuing a passion, and friendship on macro level through the prism of becoming happier in them — even if you yourself don’t feel the need to make any major life overhauls.

Just as Rubin herself states that she finds personal anecdotes and shared stories as helpful as abstract anthropological studies, however, her own accounts of how she tried to become happier in these areas of her life were what drew me in. She devotes the month of February, for example, to her relationship with her husband. Her husband, as it turned out, wasn’t that pleased when Rubin tried to dump her anxieties on him right before they went to bed, and would rather watch TV sitting next to her on the couch than gaze into her face for a heart-to-heart. Rubin cites some studies that show that, really, women are best suited for face-to-face conversations with other women and men often are satisfied simply being in the presence of their partner — to them, side-by-side movie watching is as intimate as a dinner a deux. This is probably basic Men-are-from-Mars/Women-are-from-Venus stuff, but it was gratifying for me to see it explained both logically and personally. When Tim and I are finally tucked in bed at night is when I want to turn to him and talk, and I try to do so while he is trying to read and decompress, and he doesn’t focus on me, and then I get upset. After reading this particular chapter, I mentioned Rubin’s conclusions to Tim, and he immediately replied, “I could have told you that.” Of course he could have — but because Rubin has not only read studies and dozens of other accounts of relationships, but candidly examines her own interactions with her husband, her analysis was enlightening to me. And reassuring. For Tim, lying next to me in bed reading is contentment, and if I want to talk through my day with him, maybe I can rethink the time and place to do it. This is not to say that spouses shouldn’t make concessions to each other and strive to be active listeners, but it did suggest to me that there is a whole body of scientific, anthropological, and anecdotal evidence out there to support a slight change in my habits that would result in a desirable outcome for us both. My need to be listened to could be satisfied earlier in the evening (perhaps over dinner) and Tim could read in peace.

Rubin is more organized than I would ever be with her personal “commandments” (which range from “Be Gretchen” to “always carry a sweater” to “act how you want to feel”) and resolutions charts, but I already have gleaned a few tips from the book. For example, her “one minute” rule would greatly improve the quality of life around our house. I’m very clean (hate dirt) but I am not neat (I leave things strewn about, cabinet doors open, toilet paper off the roll, etc.). The one-minute rule suggests that if something takes less than a minute to do — do it! (“I could have told you this!” I hear Tim saying…) I’ve been trying to implement it. Were I Rubin herself, I’d mark off on my chart every night whether I have done so. Not sure if I’m there yet, but at least I have this intention in the back of my head.

She also thoroughly examines the importance of sleep — the lack of which makes us less inclined to do things that make us happy (play with our kids, read a good book, exercise). Duh, we all know this, but, on top of the usual summaries of studies on the importance of sleep, Rubin’s lighthearted account of how sleeping more improved other areas of her life was inspiring. While we’re often aware of good ideas in the abstract, seeing them applied can be hugely motivating. As a result, I’ve tried to get to bed earlier (knowing that, if I’m shooting to be in bed by 9:30, I really have to start the process at 8:30) and have tried to limit my reading in bed to 15-20 minutes. Has it worked? Well, two out of three nights I have committed to doing so it has — but last night I got entangled with Twitter and the Internet and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed (more on that book when I finish it — wow!) — and then it was 11 p.m. And I feel like crap today, and as a result have eaten like crap and am totally unmotivated to exercise — so there you go.

Of course, Rubin is a full-time writer who works out of a home office and has the flexibility to put her resolutions into action. One of her specific resolutions, for example, is to create a house full of memories for her family, which includes making homemade books with her kids. I had to fight to not get overwhelmed by this chapter (how would I ever find the time to make homemade books, assuming I like crafts — which I do not — in the first place?!). I already feel slightly guilty that I am horrible about documenting our family life, and Tim and I often talk about how we really should have baby books and albums. But neither of us has the time — or, more aptly, the inclination — to do so (because if we were so inclined, we’d find the time, right?). Thinking about it only makes me anxious. So, if I’m going to follow the advice in the book, I have to remember to “Be Kathryn” — I hate crafts, and I enough relatives take photos, etc., of Little Buggy that should she decide some day that she wants a photo album I could figure out a way to get it done. Still, I had to remind myself several times while reading the book that there is no way that a person not writing this particular book for a living can actually do all of these things. Instead, the self-improvement junkie in me has to remember that Rubin’s actions are suggestions, inspiration, and context.

This is not, I should note again, a self-improvement or self-help book. It really is quite personal, but I think even Rubin’s reading lists would be interesting to anyone (not just overachieving lawyer types!) — she cites everyone from St. Therese of Lisieux to Samuel Johnson to Elizabeth Gilbert. In short, yes, I’m totally impressed by Gretchen Rubin’s resume, but more impressed that she used her obvious intellect and attention to detail to create a book that goes beyond what seems to be a rash of “I spent a year [cooking Julia Child] [living by the Bible] [fill in the blank]” books and, instead, examines the philosophical roots of happiness and then applies them truthfully, rigorously, and critically to her own life.

What does it mean to be an attorney: Part II

December 17, 2009 at 9:28 am | Posted in tax law is sexy, the firm, Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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As I’ve written about before, my BigLaw job consists mainly of sitting at my desk in a tall office building reading the tax code. Last week, however, I ventured down to Government Center to accompany one of my clients to an asylum interview. He was referred to the firm through an organization called Human Rights First that helps place asylum seekers with lawyers who will take their cases pro bono. My client is from Iraq, and I’ll reveal no more about him other than we had a very strong case: were he to return to Iraq, his background, profession, and secular, pro-democratic approach to government would put his life in danger.

I had no idea what an asylum case entailed before meeting my client in August. I worked with two more senior attorneys: a fifth-year litigator who had some asylum experience, and a third-year benefits lawyer who has turned herself into one of the country’s foremost experts on cases involving Iraqis applying for asylum in the U.S. As I learned from hours and hours of meetings and interviews with my client, most Iraqis were actually jubilant at the U.S. invasion in 2003 and rushed to work with and for the Americans. If you heard some of my client’s stories about life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, you’d understand why. What these initially grateful Iraqis didn’t anticipate was that extremist groups would turn on the U.S. and, consequently, on anyone seen as supportive of the U.S. Many of these people who worked for the government or U.S.-affiliated organizations have since fled Iraq, and only recently has the U.S. government (largely because of the work of the late Sen. Kennedy) made it easier for them to acquire either asylum or what is now known as a special immigrant visa. Our client could have qualified for the special immigrant visa, which is almost automatically granted to any Iraqi who worked for the government or an American company operating in Iraq, but he would have had to return to Iraq to apply from in-country. Since he has been studying in the U.S., however, he could apply for asylum from here without having to return (indeed, once you apply for asylum you cannot return. These are all the legal technicalities of which I was unaware, and which I’m sure I’m even misstating somewhat here).

Because my client now cannot return to Iraq for at least five years, he may not see his mother before she dies. His hesitancy to apply because of this fact alone was heartbreaking. Yet it underscores the real danger to his life — his mother and he both know that he has to stay here. He is extremely well educated, fluent in English, and was hyper-involved with his case. Every meeting with him left me exhausted: not only because of amount of confusing asylum law there was to ingest, but because his story was so raw, so dangerous, so unfathomable:  the constant, daily fear that Saddam would come after him, and then, once the U.S. invaded, that he would be a target for insurgents. “I just can’t live with the fear anymore,” he’d say.

The two weeks before the hearing we worked late nights. Not only did we have to prepare a detailed statement about our client’s life and the specific dangers he faced, as well as a legal brief, but we had to provide proof that the country was as dangerous to our client as we were claiming. We photocopied articles and submitted a packet to INS that must have been six inches thick.

The interview itself went better than we could have expected. The immigration officer (himself a lawyer) had recently visited Iraq and was very familiar with the security situation and with other stories similar to my client’s. I feel confident that the interviewer understood exactly what would happen to my client were he to return. I’d like to say we overprepared — but how can you overprepare for something like this? Even as I was working at 3 a.m. (literally) with a cold one Sunday morning, I didn’t mind: if I didn’t do my job, my client would be killed.

Tax law is just not as interesting. Or important. At the same time, it is more sustainable. Do real human rights lawyers burn out after case after case like this? Or do they become inured to the drama and emotion? I’ve often wondered this same thing about prosecutors, such as my mother and Henry. I know that my mother’s time in family court was emotionally draining — I’m not sure she was really able to separate herself from her victims (but should a prosecutor? Does some level of attachment make you a better attorney?).

Working on this asylum case has undoubtedly been the highlight of my legal career thus far. Which is telling in so many ways: I didn’t mind working late, late nights for two weeks in a row. Yet, after the interview, I went home early and fell into a deep, early-afternoon sleep. Without sounding cliché, the experience was entirely what I thought being a lawyer would be like — the urgency and the relevance to the real world and to someone’s actual life. I missed being home with my child, of course — at the same time, I didn’t resent not being with her. What I was doing was too necessary. All of which has led me to one grand, and somewhat tangential, conclusion: tax law is just not as interesting as my child. So now what?

First snow

December 6, 2009 at 8:03 pm | Posted in little bug, tax law is sexy, the 'burbs, the firm, weekend | Leave a comment
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And, just like that — December 6 — it’s Christmastime.

Little Bug woke up and saw the snow and shouted, “I want to build a snow-man!” We tried…

…but all we could manage in the light fluffy snow was a snow turtle.

I’m not sure she bought it.

Somehow, I still managed to bill 8.5 hours today. Oh, I know how: I worked from 3-7 a.m., and then went into the office after lunch, leaving Tim and Little Bug to nap, watch football, and go to the market. I was wide awake at 2:50 this morning:  heartburn, post-nasal drip, and a stiff neck from trying to sleep propped up on three pillows thanks to the former two symptoms. My mind was racing thinking about all the work I missed Thursday and Friday while isolated in our family sanitarium. So I just got up and worked. The snow had stopped and outside it was utterly silent.  My little home office was warm and bright, I was snug in my fleece robe and wool slippers, and I accomplished more in those peaceful four hours than I would have had I even been in on Friday, or likely will tomorrow.

Review (phew?)

November 18, 2009 at 10:19 am | Posted in little bug, Starbucks, tax law is sexy, the firm | 4 Comments
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I was so sure I was going to be let go/laid off/fired (or whatever the current euphemism is for what is happening at BigLaw performance reviews these days) on Tuesday that I booked a painter to begin working on Thursday. Rumors were rampant at work about cuts to be made, not based on performance, but based on hours. Although due to no real fault of my own I’d like to think (I’m a tax lawyer, I don’t work on deals, I don’t do document review), my numbers were, by BigLaw standards, atrocious. So, by Tuesday morning I had done some cursory research of Massachusetts employment law as it relates to maternity leave (can your maternity leave be halted once you have begun it?) and also had consulted with former colleagues who had been downsized right before their maternity leaves to compare what sort of severance they had been given. I was prepared.

I walked into my review with a truly racing heart. My nerves were tingling in a way they had not since I opened up that letter from the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners. I also had convinced myself that being laid off right now would be great, actually. I would have three months at home with my Little Bug before the baby arrived. I could get the house decorated, prepare for Thanksgiving and Christmas, cook, watch Oprah. Tim could truly focus on his increasingly demanding job for awhile. I’d have the baby, and in the spring I’d think about what came next.

At the same time, I was thinking about how and with whom I’d network. I’d try to start freelancing for the Boston Bar Journal. I’d join some professional groups. I’d get my references lined up. And I had already started to do some soul-searching: why were my hours so low that I was laid off? What sort of message was I putting out – consciously or subconsciously – into the universe about my desire to work full-time at a big firm? What could I have done better? And, worse, I had started asking myself: was this really an hours-based layoff? Was I really a good lawyer?

In the end, I had a glowing performance review. I was truly stunned when, after the first few moments, it became clear that not only was I not going to get fired, but that people actually appreciated my work. “Come on, you didn’t really think they were going to let you go,” was the chorus from my family and friends. But I did – I truly did. See, I’m not sure I’m world’s greatest tax lawyer. This stuff is difficult, and not only do I not take to it as intuitively as others, I’m also quite sure I don’t work as hard. I get Starbucks with my colleagues. Most nights, I rush out of here to get home before 6, and I don’t work from home unless I really need to. I write on my blog, I read the news, I watch crappy TV. If they were going to have to let the lowest-producing lawyers go for economic reasons, why not me?

Oh, I am so lucky to have a job – any job – right now. I have stimulating, supportive colleagues. A caring nanny whom my child adores. A husband who rarely travels and will get home in lieu of me almost any night I ask (and when he can’t, family who can step in.) And, the bottom line is: I could stay home if I wished. I am acutely aware that I have this choice. But, historically, I’m also really bad with choices: I second-guess to the point of anxiety. (I’ve written about this before, of course.)  I am extremely satisfied and proud and grateful in the wake of this review that my choice to become a Big Law attorney seems to have been a good one, but it doesn’t make walking out the door each morning any easier. I am supporting my family and (hopefully) becoming a role model for my daughter, who can now say, “I want to be a lawyer!” But is that any better than being home with her, reading to her, making her lunch? I just don’t know. I can’t know. As irrational as it seems, maybe the choice should have been made for me.

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