By Kate McGuinness • April 24, 2013•Balancing Private and Professional Life
The Girl’s Guide to Law School and Amicus Tutoring recently organized a terrific conference for law students and new lawyers with the apt title of “Catapult.” I was honored to be included on a panel moderated by Lee Burgess about the twists and turns of legal careers. Lee posed several penetrating questions about the lessons the panelists had learned along the way.
She asked each of us to describe how we had overcome fear to make changes in our career. I confessed that I had failed to overcome fear and stayed in a position that I found unsatisfying. That may seem to be an odd admission because I spent 17 years in the same Big Law (10 as a partner) and left to become the General Counsel of a Fortune 300 company.
When I was about two years away from hearing the partnership verdict, I began to wonder if a life in (or more accurately a life of) Big Law was what I wanted. My work overshadowed everything else in my life, and by then I had lost some of the buzz from earlier days when I reveled in every aspect of being a Big Law corporate attorney: seeing my deals on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, staying in the finest hotels and taking clients to the final game of the NBA Championship.
Notice that intellectual challenge is missing from the list. Big Law’s justification for its enormous fees is its lawyers’ expertise; they gain that expertise by repetition. That becomes old very quickly.
Also, my personal life had become a quagmire of endless, negotiation with my husband about my desire to have a child and his refusal to become the default parent, the inevitable result given his 9 – 5 job and my usual week of 60 billable hours.
I can still picture the scenery I passed almost every day on my commute when the question inevitably arose in my mind whether I should continue in Big Law. The view of downtown Los Angeles from the crest of the freeway triggered the inquiry. My weariness with the work load and my yearning for a child couldn’t outweigh years of glowing reviews and the prospect of wealth and security. (The reference to finding security in a Big Law partnership dates me!)
I indeed became a partner so it’s hard to manufacture a dire consequence from failing to listen to my heart. I never bore a child but am blessed with a wonderful adopted son.
If I were to articulate a “lesson” from my experience I would say: listen to your intuition. One of the other Catapult speakers correctly observed that law school and legal practice crush intuition until it speaks in the softest whisper. Pay close attention to that inner voice no matter how faint.
Another lesson I would like to share has a longer backstory. I will say simply: Do not give up your moral compass. Pressure to compromise your principles from clients and management can be overwhelming. Your reputation is your most valuable asset as a lawyer. At the end of your career, you will not take pride in how many deals you closed or the size of your bank account, but how you stood for what you believe.
One lawyer who fights for her principles is Maggie Mahoney, the kickass protagonist of my legal thriller Terminal Ambition. The chairman of her Wall Street firm wants to whitewash the firm’s tolerance of sexual harassment and discrimination to cinch his nomination as US Attorney General but Maggie won’t let the victims be shoved out the door. The battle threatens both their careers and offers a revealing glimpse into Big Law politics.
To help share Maggie’s lessons, I offer Terminal Ambition free to any Ms. JD reader who'll post a review on Amazon. I don't necessarily expect five-star reviews although Terminal Ambition has a lot of those. Just a review in return for a free digital copy of a book selling for $4.99. (Amazon's algorithm takes into account the absolute number of reviews, and the 900 pound gorilla must be satisfied!) Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me if you'd like the book in PDF, mobi or e-pub.