19 January 2011

Career Girl, Part I

A few people have asked me why I don't write about my job.  The answer is simple:  I'd get fired.  I actually need the paycheck, so until I can figure out how to get the blog ads up and running, and convince you all to click on them ruthlessly, mum's going to have to be the word about my current work.  I will say that I work as in-house counsel for a German company in midtown Manhattan, and I speak and e-mail in German all day with the management, some of the support staff, and many people on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean.

I became a lawyer because people have always told me that I write well, and I wanted to do something that allowed me to write but also brought in a liveable wage.  My dad tried to talk me out of going to law school ("Great.  Just what the world needs.  Another lawyer"), and my mom was concerned about what law school would cost, but I did it anyway, going to a reputable but not-so-expensive school and borrowing just about every last dime I needed.

I enjoyed law school, and I did well.  When I graduated, I found a job as a junior associate with a prestigious firm in Manhattan, and I couldn't wait for my life as a brilliant legal writer and orator to begin.  I was in for a rude, rude shock.

First of all, to my great surprise, it turned out to be a huge disadvantage to be female in this business.  I'm not going to open a can of hear-me-roar on you, but remember, I went to an all-girls' high school and a college where, at least in the classroom, my gender was irrelevant 95% of the time.  (I'll tell you about the other 5% some other time.)  My parents had always told me I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up, and they had educated me accordingly.  I was naive.  I thought that Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem had already done all the heavy lifting for me, and that I'd be able to focus on writing brilliant briefs.  Not so fast, lady lawyer.  Your chances of succeeding here depend directly on how many hours you bill to the client.  Being a wife and a mother, or having any interests outside of the office, will count directly and heavily against you.

Second, I was not writing, or at least I was not writing under my own name, and I was not appearing in court.  Those were the prerogatives of the older male partners.  I spent my days and nights doing research and writing summaries of what I found.  I quickly became known around the firm, and I was soon given more and more writing to do.  My words were incorporated into briefs, articles, and presentations.  Only none of the work was attributed to me.  I remember once writing a ten-page report for a partner on a hot legal topic of the day, and a month later it landed on my desk as the lead article in a glossy legal periodical, accompanied by the partner's byline and smiling photo.  I didn't know whether to be heartbroken or incensed.

Right around that time, I had my first baby, and it was clear to me almost from the moment of conception that this would be the end of my career as a high-powered corporate lawyer.  But I didn't care, because (a) I was in love with that baby, and no job was going to compete with her for my attention, and (b) I had had it with being a tiny cog in a huge wheel.  On my return from maternity leave, my request for a part-time schedule was denied.  I applied for a clerkship in an appellate court, secured the job, and moved on without regrets.

I ended up doing two clerkships, one in the state appeals court and one in the federal appeals court, and having two more babies over the course of the next three years.  I went back to the full-time law-firm life briefly right around the time my son was born.  I worked almost exclusively for a partner who kept a bowl of fruit on his desk and threw it at me whenever a court or agency issued a decision adverse to his client.  He also banged on the door and threw hissy fits when I locked myself in my office with a breast pump at lunchtime.  I could not get out of that place fast enough.  My partner boss searched the boxes of my personal belongings that I took home with me on my last day, to make sure I wasn't stealing any firm property.  I knew he was going to do so, so I packed my boxes full of tampons just to embarrass him.  (In case you haven't noticed, I have a snarky streak.)

A headhunter friend found me a part-time position at the New York office of one of the best law firms in the world, doing antitrust work.  Part-time was 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., and 80% of the salary that the full-timers were earning.  I was delighted.  The partners I worked for were true professionals, experts in their field, and genuinely nice guys.  (Yes, all still guys, but really, really great ones.)  I developed an expertise in their line of work (antitrust).  I co-authored professional articles with one of the partners, and I was given full attribution and even a byline.  I did pro bono work, volunteering to write briefs on behalf of indigent clients.  I made friends and connections.

And then the specter of autism cast a shadow over my home.

I hired speech therapists, occupational therapists, and behavioral therapists.  I attended classes (along with my husband and my nanny) on how to educate and parent children on the autism spectrum.  I consulted with pediatric neurologists.  I tried weird diets.  I read countless books.  I raised money.  I got to know other parents and children going through the same thing.  We met at the diner after hours and commiserated over coffee.

And then someone flew a couple of planes into the World Trade Center.  I gave two weeks' notice at work.

What happened next will follow in Part II.  I know you're on the edge of your seat, so I'll try to get Part II posted as soon as I can.  But in the meantime, I need to get back to work!

1 comment:

Jane said...

Oh Jennie! I just read Part II first - so fascinating to read the 'back story'. I have been putting off writing my post on lawyering as a mum - you've spurred me on now! J x