Deborah R. Schwarzer

Be Open to Change

By Deborah R. Schwarzer, Of Counsel, GCA Law Partners LLP I’m reluctantly realizing that I’m ancient. But with age comes history, experience and, with luck, perspective. When I attended the University of Chicago Law School in the early 80’s, women made up about 30% of the class. We weren’t pioneers; those in earlier classes served in that role. We weren’t all alike. And we didn’t have to wear those horrible blouses with the gigantic self-bows that women just a few years back had had to wear (I have incriminating pictures of my sister, also a J.D., in one of those). But we still weren’t the same as the guys, especially when it came to employment. I fled West, fearing that my gender would stand in my way (I had clerked in Cincinnati one summer and was appalled by attitudes there, particularly outside the legal community. I didn’t like being called “a lady lawyer.” I did not wish to be regarded as a novelty, like a talking dog). Silicon Valley in the 80’s was a wonderful place, and most anyone with some skills, some sense and a desire to work harder than was consistent with a healthy life could do well. I made partner at my firm despite rarely clocking more than 2,000 hours per year (I think the always-full jar of cookies on my desk helped. Seriously. About 4:00 each afternoon as people needed a snack, a stream of seekers came in, many of them partners). At this point, I hadn’t yet managed to find a spouse. I worked too hard. I was dating someone, also a lawyer (I never met anyone other than lawyers, accountants or investment bankers, and I’d take a lawyer over the other two any day). He ran away from partnership at his old-line firm to start his own, and encouraged me to consider it. I looked around me at the partners 10 to 15 years older than myself. Several were, undeniably, married to the law (mostly men with compliant wives at home taking care of everything else), and I didn’t have ambition to match theirs. The others were no inspiration. Very few had meaningful interests outside the law. Most complained about lack of time with their children or spouses. Only a couple were in good physical shape. Granted, they were all rich. But after some months of thinking about it, I decided to make a change. It was terrifying. At the big firm, work came to me. I didn’t bring anything in. I didn’t have to; I could hardly do what I had on my plate as it was. As I considered leaving, however, a few things occurred to me. Why hadn’t the firm taken some effort to teach me how to find and land clients? I had grown up in a time when it was assumed I’d be a wife, not a rainmaker. My parents weren’t professionals. I didn’t have a clue, and the firm had no formal way to offer me one. I hear that’s changing, but it doesn’t necessarily come by osmosis to everyone. OK, I should have asked. But I wasn’t as good at identifying my needs and being assertive as I should have been. I particularly remembered a conversation I had with the partner for whom I did most of my work shortly after I made partner in 1988. There was a slight economic downturn, and he brought me into his office one day to tell me that he was going to have to cut me loose; henceforth, I’d have to find my own clients. I was too stunned to speak. When I told my boyfriend (now husband) of this conversation, he was outraged, and pointed out with that kind of loyalty shown to me I didn’t need to concern myself with being disloyal by leaving. I protested, saying I wasn’t ready to fend for myself at a small firm, that the world was too competitive. He immediately countered by saying that it’s the world INSIDE the big firms that’s competitive. I thought about it and decided he was right. Did the firm have some way of coordinating its marketing to potential clients? No, it was each (mostly man) for himself. Potential clients must have been bewildered to find themselves pitched by multiple lawyers from the same firm. Did the firm place huge emphasis on business origination? It did. Loyal soldiers were necessary, and to a certain extent valued and compensated, but it was the one who landed the fish who ate well. So either I needed to learn to play the game as played by the successful guys at the firm, or redefine my career. The biggest problem was I didn’t want to be like the successful guys at the firm. I had other hopes for my life. As Cher once said, “Life ain’t a dress rehearsal.” A little after one year as partner, I left. I never regretted it. I thoroughly enjoyed being in control of my life and my practice. I particularly cherished being able to fire clients I disliked. Life was too short to be a fiduciary to those who held lawyers in contempt, who had unrealistic expectations, who wouldn’t cooperate. I worked hard, but it was my choice. I wasn’t answerable to anyone other than the mortgage company. I got in shape, got married. It was the having kids that changed things the most. At first, I kept working. I was living in a medium sized city where fabulous nannies were available cheap. Heck, they brought the baby to me to breastfeed during the day. But when we moved back to the Bay Area during the dotcom boom, I had to make a hard choice. I spoke to my small firm, I spoke to friends at my old big firm. Everyone was working harder than they ever had. Part time wasn’t a choice; it was either full out or nothing. So I picked nothing. That nasty little voice in my head asked whether I was throwing away that fancy UofC education, whether I was confirming stereotypes of women abandoning their careers. But the saner little voice pointed out that I had practiced law very hard for 17 years. Many people change career paths in that time frame. I had used my fancy education very well. And there were lots and lots of really good corporate attorneys out there, but only one person who could meet my kids’ needs. I haven’t regretted that, either, although the loss of the paycheck hurts. Actually, it’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It was clear my oldest wasn’t suited to life in a regular school, so we decided to teach him and his brother at home. I’ve been doing that for 7 years, and it’s a kick. I’m of counsel with my small firm, doing bits and pieces here and there. I’m not doing anything cutting edge from a legal perspective. I’m not written up in law journals. I won’t impress the kind of folks at my upcoming 25th reunion who want to recite client lists or number of dollars involved in deals and cases. And I don’t care. My only advice to women starting out is to be open to change. Take time to think about what you want out of life. Even if you have your eye on a traditional goal, such as partnership, don’t be afraid to re-evaluate. It’s your life, and only you can live it. I have female classmates who have done fabulously well, who have committed much of their lives to building terrific practices at top notch firms. I think that’s great, and I’m very happy for them. And if you go that route, pick a place to work that explicitly teaches you what you need to know to be successful. But be prepared to listen to any little voice that admits of different ambitions.

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