What I Miss About My Former Life in BigLaw
The question I get the most these days is whether I miss my former life as a corporate lawyer. The answer is complicated. I've had over two years to reflect on my transition out of corporate law practice, and over a year to come to terms with my new identity as a stay-at-home mom. I've been able to clarify my thoughts somewhat, though I'm still processing what these identity shifts mean to me and what they signal for my future. Here's what I've figured out so far.
Let me start by telling you what I don't miss:
- I don't miss being sexually harassed at work with disturbing regularity. And it's not just at one place. I'll go into this much more in depth in future posts, but I have faced these situations since I started working in legal environments at the age of 21. It's not just one law firm, or even just law firms in general. This is happened to me at the World Bank, and at small and large law firms alike, both in the US and abroad. In big cities, and in small ones. It's not just New York. It's not just when you're a lowly paralegal. It's not just when you're in your early twenties and don't know how to respond appropriately. It happens much more frequently than I ever thought possible. And dealing with it is something I most certainly do not miss.
- I don't miss being gaslighted by my employer. This deserves its own post, but gaslighting is a classic tool that law firms use to keep associates in line. The People's Therapist said it best:
"Law firms gaslight associates, mostly by saying one thing and doing another, leaving you faced with a mass of contradictory impressions. They hold out the hope of a collegial, supportive workplace with mentors and professional training – then toss you into a sweatshop where the billable hour is all that matters, no one tells anyone anything, and young associates are reduced to a fungible commodity."
- I don't miss working with insecure people who mistreat others. This is self-explanatory, and a topic I will discuss in great detail in future posts.
- I don't miss living in a constant state of stress. Have you ever tried to make dinner plans with a lawyer? How many times have they canceled on you at the last minute? When you're a BigLaw associate, you are not in control of your schedule, and you're married to your Blackberry. That flashing red notification becomes both the bane of your life and your north star. You can never be sure an evening will be free. Or a weekend. Or a vacation. You never know what emergency or "emergency" will pop up just before a holiday weekend. For instance, this past Thanksgiving I was reminded of how, three years ago, I spent my entire vacation Thanksgiving week reviewing a document production because an insane senior associate had promised the partner (for no good reason), that we would have it done before the holiday. And sadly, there was no way I could've said no if I wanted to keep my job.
- I don't miss complaining about how much I hate most aspects of my job. Associates at white shoe law firms are good at a lot of things, but they are especially great at complaining (eloquently and often). And for good reason: there's plenty to complain about! The hours, the lack of communication among "teammates", the poor time management of superiors, the fire drills, the disrespect, the harassment, the opacity of the promotion process. The list goes on. Partners love to act like associates have no reason to complain because they're paid so much (objectively, yes, we're paid a lot, but if you break it down to an hourly rate, it becomes a lot less impressive; plus, do they know how much debt most lawyers accrue just to go to law school??). Partners love to act like the fact that we are paid to do a job means that any and all abuse is justified and should be tolerated. That is wrong. But it also serves as the foundation for our complaints. When I was an associate, I could (and often did) complain day and night about how messed up everything was. It gets exhausting. Sometimes it's the only way to cope. I feel a lot freer now because I don't have to constantly rail against The Man just to survive another day.
Here's what I do miss:
- I miss having a prestigious and hardcore job and what that said about me. Since moving to Dallas, I've been surprised at the assumptions people have made about me after finding out that I'm married to a surgeon. Even when I was working for a legal non-profit, hardly anyone asked me if I was working or what I did for a living. They assumed that I wasn't working and that I never had a career of my own. When I mentioned that I was an attorney who had just left a big law firm in New York, most people seemed genuinely shocked. The culture seems to be different here. My whole life, I've felt that I've had to fight against judgments about my intelligence and work ethic based on my appearance. I've held up my educational and professional background as a shield. I've used it as evidence that I'm smart, that I have character, that I haven't had things handed to me. My opening statement was that I come from a family of immigrants and that I've had to pave my own way financially and otherwise. My closing statement was that I was working insane hours in one of the toughest professional environments out there, and that I was succeeding. Now, that shield is gone and I have prove my character to people in other ways.
- I miss making my own money. Obviously, money isn't everything. And now that my husband and I share finances, I'm extremely fortunate that I don't have to worry about money at the moment. But I did feel a lot of pride that I could support myself in an intense and expensive city, and that I could fund my own necessities and luxuries without relying on anyone else.
- I miss my friends from work. The friends I've made at work over the years are some of the most wonderful people I know. We get each other. We've been to war together. I still keep in touch with many of them better than I keep up with most friends from college and high school. I miss seeing them every day, getting to know them better than I've known just about anyone else, and growing with them professionally and personally. It's a big loss.
- I miss the rigor and intellectual challenge. While work was often unpleasant, there were definitely some bright spots. One of my most time-intensive, crazy, and demanding cases was also one of the most invigorating and rewarding. I remember that on two occasions I had to pull 16-hour days to write emergency briefs (and one of them wasn't even filed!). It was awful and you'd better believe that I complained about it at the time to anyone who would listen. But it was exhilarating. We wrote damn good briefs. I, myself, produced some impressive legal research and writing, and I was really proud of it. Complex, nuanced issues. Great work product under insane time constraints. I loved it. I don't get the chance to do that anymore, and it kind of makes me sad.
- I miss the external validation. Yes, I said it. I miss getting my gold star. It's always a great feeling to get a stellar performance review, or get metaphorical or literal high fives after a really intense but well-done project. It feels nice to win. It feels nice to have people tell you you're a talented lawyer. It feels nice to have your writing published on national websites. It feels nice to win awards. I don't think anyone would disagree with this. One thing that's hard about being a stay-at-home mom is that you have very little, if any, external validation for all the hard work you do.
I've realized that most of what I miss about my old job involves feeding my ego. It's been hard to let go of what people think of me. It's been hard to embrace a new identity when I can no longer use the shorthand of "attorney at a white-shoe law firm in New York City". It's hard to have to bring yourself to account each day and give yourself the gold star. Being a mom and, more specifically, a stay-at-home-mom, is isolating. It's obviously rewarding in countless ways, but it's also equally thankless. Having a baby has stripped me down to the core of my being and has forced me to ask: Who am I, really? What makes me me now that I can't hide behind my job? What character traits remain once the framework has fundamentally changed? These are questions that I'm still struggling to answer, but I'll share my thoughts with you along the way.
Thanks for reading!
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