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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Should I go to law school even if I’m old?

April 10, 2008 at 12:01 pm | Posted in law school | 14 Comments
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Not quite that old…

At law school orientation, I did a quick scan of the room:  was there anyone as “old” as I?  I saw two women clearly in their 40s, but everyone else looked about 22.  If that.  As it turns out, I actually was a demographic anomaly.  Apart from a handful of 40+-year-olds—obvious career-changers—I was one of only two people in my section (and, I’d argue, probably in my class) in their early 30s.  There were those who had come right from college, of course.  All the others were at most five or six years out of college.  No one else was in my same, strange quasi-career limbo (or, for that matter, had gotten through college without instant messenger…)

Recently several people from different parts of my life—as well as complete strangers who have found me through this blog (yay!)—have asked me about going “back” to law school in my 30s and why and how I decided to do so.  I had spent my first nine post-college years as a journalist/teacher/world-traveler/writer, and in October of 2004, sitting in a bar in Paris (where better to have an epiphany) I decided I would—finally—go to law school.  I was 30, my friends were having kids, I was beginning to think that my boyfriend was sort of not all that nice to me, and my job was boring.  After I got back from my trip, I had to act quickly to take the LSATs (five weeks later) and apply to schools by December 31. 

 

In the end, the financial opportunities law school would provide were the major impetus for my decision (not the French wine!).  Yes, I’d incur a six-figure debt, but if I studied hard and thus got a job at a good firm, I could pay that back quickly.  In addition, having bounced from city to city and job to job, I really didn’t have the sort of career longevity where the concept of opportunity cost played a factor.  Also, I should add, I had my mother as a shining example of a later-in-life law student. She went back to school when I was in the eighth grade and my youngest sister was in the first grade.  And not only did she do it as a single mother of three, but she loved it, and has had a rewarding career ever since.  So I knew that I didn’t have to go to law school at 25 to still “make it” as a lawyer.  (In fact, I’d argue that many firms are happy to hire people with some real-world experience—see below.)

 

If you go to law school in your 30s, you are not doing so in the “I don’t know what to do with my life” kind of way you would in your early 20s.  I will admit that I went because I didn’t know what to do with my life—but in a much more existential, crisis-oriented way.  Which drove me to succeed in law school in a way I might not have were I casting about on my parents’ dime.  Still, there is always some opportunity cost, and a large part of it may be incurring huge debt at a time when maybe you want to have kids or, say, move out of your studio apartment.  Inevitably, this also does affect what type of work you do after law school in that the siren-song of the big-firm payday is hard to circumnavigate.  Some schools (mostly, the “better” law schools), however, have loan repayment programs, which means that if you take a lower-paying public-interest job after graduation, your student loans will be partially if not wholly forgiven. (Harvard Law School, for example, has decided to waive third-year tuition for those entering the public service field.)

 

That being said, working at a big firm has other, non-monetary advantages:  the training programs, the networking, and the exposure are all important for a law career.  But if you already are in your 30s, you might not be willing to put in big-firm hours, especially if you have a spouse/partner/and, of course, kids.  I would imagine that it’s somewhat easier to stay at the office until 10 p.m. if you are coming home only to an empty apartment or a date to watch “The Hills” with your roommate as opposed to a spouse or a baby.  This is something I’ve been very conflicted about (see my post in the Washington Post’s “On Balance” column, here), but I also recognize that working for a firm will open a lot of doors to positions with more family-friendly hours down the road.  My father was a corporate M&A lawyer in NYC, and I honestly can’t remember a time he was home for dinner.  So I knew what I was getting in to when I decided to work at a big firm – and, in a way, this is again an advantage of going “back” to law school after a decade or so:  you’re going in with realistic expectations as opposed to being swept along on the heady tides of your 20s. 

 

Again, going to law school was a way to ensure my personal financial security, which was very, very important to me.  But with two parents who were/are lawyers, the law is a way of life with which I already was familiar.  Both my parents loved their careers, and I loved sharing their professional lives with them, especially as an adult.  As a former journalist, segueing into the law was a way to grasp the fundamentals of all that I had experienced out in the field, from local city council hearings to First Amendment questions. 

 

Going to law school at 31 was the best thing I have ever done.  Unequivocally.  While the ultimate decision to do so was made somewhat emotionally, it was done so in the context of a deep understanding of the ramifications.  What has surprised me is just how much I have loved it:  the intellectual rigor, the writing, and the friends I have made.  It also has been rewarding to find a job for next year that has some “cache” – both professionally and financially.  I know that I’ll be able to pay off my loans and will be able to support my family in a meaningful way.  Just as important, however, law school has reignited my literary fires:  editors have seen me as someone able to write about legal topics, and I’ve interviewed law school deans and judges.  It also has opened up a world of creative writing, as well – everything from this blog to the legal thriller that I’m just destined to write (a bestseller, no doubt). 

 

In short:  it will cost money, but if you are willing to put in the hours, you can pay that back and then some. You may have to change your style of living a bit, you will study a lot, and your friends/spouse/partner might get annoyed that you are in the library all weekend.  But they might also be jealous when you duck out for a run at noon on Friday.  Or of your week off in March.  If you decide to have a baby in the middle of law school, I can’t think of a more flexible environment (once you’re done with your first year).  And you certainly don’t have to work long hours at a big firm (although you might have to network a little harder in law school to find a good option; it’s very, very easy to sign up with on-campus interviewing!) I think the decision comes down to your degree of eagerness for a rigorous intellectual experience (with the potential for a nice salary at the end) and willingness to jump into the unknown.  The advantage of doing so at 30-something is that you already have exposure to something else, so you won’t have all those “what if’s” running through your head.    

 

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