20 January 2011

Career Girl, Part II

When we last heard from Jennie, she had quit her job to be a stay-at-home mother to a couple of special-needs kids.  I hesitate to use that phrase, because there are a lot of people who say things like, "All kids are special-needs kids."  Let me burst your bubble:  not all kids are special-needs kids.  All kids are special, and all kids have needs.  But not all kids require endless doctor and therapist appointments, IEP meetings, psych-and-ed evaluations, and ADA lawsuits against the local board of education.  I have an acquaintance whose son has cerebral palsy.  If you told her that your soccer-star chess champion was also a special-needs kid, she might spit in your face.

But that's all I am going to say about that right now.  Right now, we are talking about my career.

Seven years later, I needed to go back to work.  To say that I jumped right back into the practice of law with a willing and joyful heart would be an outright lie.  I toyed with several other ideas first.  I responded to an online ad for writers, only to find out that the company in question ghost-wrote dissertations for lazy, dishonest graduate students.  We had a nasty e-mail exchange, and then I kept looking.  Because I had developed something of a reputation as a good baker, I thought about selling baked goods, but the barrier to entry was too high:  I needed a commercially-licensed kitchen.  If I had had the funds to come up with a commercial kitchen, I wouldn't have needed to go back to work.

I hounded everyone I knew.  I called my old heroes at my last law firm, but they had replaced me and didn't have the means to hire me back.  I canvassed the members of a professional group to which I belonged, looking for antitrust work in their firms, but they all became suddenly hard of hearing, and when I approached them at the Lawyers' Association cocktail parties, they started to sweat and ran for the door.  It seems there was something about being a stay-at-home mom that was even worse than being a working mom.  I had become a frivolous lady of leisure, unworthy of anyone's time or effort.

I took the New Jersey bar exam and set up my own little practice.  I represented people I knew in traffic court, and I wrote about twenty wills.  I did three house closings.  This seemed like a brilliant solution, but there was one problem:  no one wanted to pay me.  I drafted wills and then, on the night they were to be executed, my clients informed me that they had changed their minds.  Hours of work for naught.  One neighbor who balked at my quoted fee for assisting him in the purchase of a business actually said, "I didn't know you were going to charge me for this.  I thought I was doing you a favor, helping you to get started by giving you some work experience."

Someone knew a headhunter who knew a partner at a renowned antitrust firm, and the headhunter secured me an interview.  I drove an hour in the pouring rain, in a brand-new suit, to meet this gentleman.  He spoke to me for about ten minutes, told me he had agreed to meet me as a favor to his friend, and then actually crumpled my resume right in my face and tossed it over his shoulder into the trash basket.  "You've been doing nothing for seven years," he told me as I stood to leave.  "What made you think I might be interested in hiring someone who has been doing nothing for seven years?"

(The head partner at that firm has since been in the news for some high-profile pro bono work for a very good cause.  I get all sick whenever I see his face in the paper, which, for a short while, was every ten minutes.  But I digress.)

I cried all the way home.  When I got back to my computer, I did some searching.  I could not possibly be the first stay-at-home mother seeking to get back into the work force as a lawyer.  Someone must have gone before me, and I was going to find out who she was and what she had done.

And that's how I came across the idea of becoming a "staff attorney."  A staff attorney is something less than an associate.  All the major law firms hire staff attorneys to help them cope with the enormous volume of e-mails that need to be reviewed when a lawsuit is pending.  I could get a job as a staff attorney at a big firm, work long hours at a decent but not fabulous wage, and hope that they would eventually recognize my brilliance and promote me to the associate level.  I could start over again.  I regained my hope.

I did get a job as a staff attorney at a prestigious firm, but I learned, immediately upon my arrival there, that a staff attorney commands slightly less professional respect than a paralegal.  I interacted only with the most junior associates - people half my age who scolded me for leaving at 11 P.M. without their prior approval.  The associates sneered at staff attorneys in the lunchroom.  We were lawyers who were not good enough to get "real" jobs.  In two years of staff attorneyhood, I never once worked directly with a partner.  I liked the staff attorney supervisor very much, and I will always be grateful to her for taking a risk by hiring a stay-at-home mom.  But there was no meaningful hope for advancement.  One could become a senior staff attorney after five years, at which point one might become eligible for paid maternity leave and other exciting benefits.  But one could never, ever enter the partnership track from a staff attorney position.

I was a staff attorney for a couple of years, and then I fell into my current job by accident.  Someone I knew knew someone who knew someone who needed an attorney who spoke German.  I interviewed one evening after work, and I was offered the job before I got home.  It's been a happy ending of sorts, but it was a long, long road back for me. 

I now earn a fraction of that old 80% that I was so delighted with.  But my priorities have changed.  I now live leaner.  I know a great deal about the world of big law firms and the dark side of the legal money machine.  In the rare circumstances where I am in a position to farm out work to outside counsel, I try to steer it toward the young women.  The ones with babies and a nanny at home.  I never, ever stay late, and I never ask my outside counsel to work late.  My career experience has, like my experience with bullying, changed my outlook on life in ways that are subtle and ways that are decidedly not.

Another snow storm is on its way.  This is shaping up to be quite a winter by New York City standards.  I left work early last night to go help a dear friend appear in court on a minor traffic ticket.  She is a single mom who works at home so she can raise her son alongside her career.  I would not dream of charging her a cent for my help.


ami said...

Jennie - wow, what a journey, and wow, what a writer! I feel some of your pain. After a 2 year sabbatical of sorts, I had younger people interviewing me and asking how on earth I had kept up with the industry while I was at home. They did not like my answer. The fact of the matter is that you can always teach technical skills and convey information about the industry - but great drive, strong values and an open and flexible mind are not things to be taught and acquired and are much more difficult to find. Your new employer is LUCKY to have you!

Rev. K.T. said...

We're experiencing the same sneers and glares to a stay-at-home-dad here. And the sad thing is, while he's trying desperately to get back into ANY work that would boost his morale/see him as a professional, the sheer number of people who won't even return phone calls does nothing but perpetuate his low-self-esteem and his life as a stay-at-home parent. I would be happy to join forces with you -- Strong Woman -- to change the way the current world runs. Perhaps we need to meet and plan some things . . .

Jennie said...

Thank you, Ami. I know you went through the same thing and I deeply respect your opinion as a lawyer and a writer. K.T., there is plenty more reading out there on the subject of "opting back into the workforce." Start with the Motherlode blog in the New York Times. It's mostly about women, but B. will also find some good advice and links there and in the comments.

⚜ ↁℯℬℬᴵℰ⚜ said...

This is wonderful and so very interesting. I should have my almost Freshmen in HS read this. I am encouraging him to go into Law...he is just not sure yet, of course how can he be at this age. Thanks for your interest in a feature. I will let you know as details emerge. Have a wonderful weekend. Debbie

Jane said...

Hi Jennie

I'm your latest follower and cannot believe just how similar we are!

I'm 41 and have been a SAHM with our 3 pixies under 7 for 5 of the past 6 years. I'm a lawyer, too and am sitting on the 'what-am-I-going-to-do-when-I-return-to-work' Pandora's box with a tonne of lead!

And I speak German! I am just fascinated that we have so much in common. Waving to you from faraway Hobart, Australia!

J x

michele said...

note to self: remind daughter #1, who is L2, (and 1/2 at this point) to read this blog and post... do they call them posts?