By Dan Lear • February 03, 2014•Writers in Residence
Erin Snodgrass is a partner at the technology transactions law firm of Snodgrass Annand in Seattle, WA. Snodgrass Annand is a successful and well-regarding boutique law firm that counts Microsoft Corporation, Amazon.com, Expedia.com, and other well-known web and technology properties as current and former clients. In addition, Erin is married and the mother of 11-year old Eleanor and 8-year old Calvin. On a personal note, I’m honored to say that I started my professional career as a lawyer at Snodgrass & Kearns, a previous incarnation of Erin’s current firm. I hold Erin in very high regard both professionally and personally and she’s amazed me as I’ve watched her juggle her many commitments over the six years that I have known her. We met in mid-January in her law firm offices in the hip, startup-heavy Pioneer Square neighborhood, in the shadow of Seattle’s Century Link Field.
DL: So, tell me the story of your professional development. How did you get to where you are?
ES: Prior to law school I was a server – kind of a normal “during school” job. After law school I worked for two years at Foster Pepper [Ed.: a large, regional, Pacific Northwest firm]. I then went to Cairncross and Hempelmann [Ed.: a large (for Seattle) local firm]. After about 4 years at Cairncross, I started my own firm serving technology and business clients. I’ve been doing that for almost ten years, working with three partners and a few different associates and of counsel over that time.
My role at Foster was a classic “beginning associate” role, where it's super stressful and the learning curve is steep. My time at Cairncross was better. The billable requirement was more manageable but I still struggled to find balance.
I soon I realized that I didn’t love working from 7 AM to 6 or 7 PM every night and sometimes on the weekend. I wasn’t sleeping (I’ve always had a bit of insomnia) and I was stressed out all the time. I was miserable. I needed some kind of change.
After I had been there for about two years, I went to the firm management at Cairncross and asked if I could do a “reduced” schedule, something that I might not have been able to do at a lot of other firms. They agreed and I officially went to ¾ time and ¾ salary.
DL: How did the reduced schedule work?
It was better but still quite difficult. On one hand, I did get more free time. On the other, it probably slowed my progression to partner. Plus, as is the nature of life at most law firms, I still had to work long hours when things got busy. Even though I got a day off every week to take a walk, do yoga, or go to the grocery store, I still felt the pressure to put in hours and keep long hours at the office.
DL: I’m really interested in the discussion with your law firm to go to ¾ time. How did they respond? One the one hand this was only about 12 years ago, so it wasn’t Mad Men. On the other hand, a lot has changed in even the last 10 years in the broader workplace (but maybe not so much in law) as far as companies making accommodations for working mothers.
Honestly, as a firm, they were really great. Cairncross was a smaller firm and kind of a “touchy, feely” place at the time. I was also in a specialty that was making the firm a lot of money and in high demand, so they didn’t want to lose me.
I have to give them credit because I was pretty straightforward with them. I’m not very good at obfuscation. I said to them: “I’m really unhappy and I’d like my life to look a bit differently.” They obliged.
DL: But you made another change?
I did. I had my oldest a year or so into the ¾ schedule. It was getting harder and harder to keep up on my obligations at work. I had lunch with Patricia Raskin who was on her own. She convinced me that I could do the work on my own, with lower overhead, and make the same amount of money. So, I jumped ship to join Patricia as a partner at her firm after four years at Cairncross.
DL: And never looked back?
I never looked back at the firm.
I like being in control of my own destiny. If I can manage the stress of being on my own, the benefits are huge. I ride my bike to work every morning and I get in at 9 or 9:30 AM. I can leave at 3 PM and be with my kids if I want to or need to. I know that there are families out there that have two full-time working parents who need that income and I respect that. But I don’t need to do that and I don’t choose to do that because that’s not the life I want.
I do miss the safety of a big firm. I miss knowing that I’ll walk in and work will be there. On my own, I don’t always know that someone is going to give me work. That is scary but I’ve gotten more comfortable with it.
Bob, my husband, is great about it. He started a full-time job recently but when I was the sole breadwinner I’d freak out about money sometimes. He’d always say: “It’s just money. If worst comes to worst then I’ll go get a job, we’ll cut back on our expenses. You know that you can get a stable in-house job at any time. We’ll be OK.”
I’m a worrier but there’s no point in worrying about things you can’t control. I try to avoid future tripping . . . . Have you heard that term? It’s a therapy term. It implies a mindful approach to life. I try to live in the “right now” and not get caught up in worrying what could happen in the future. I acknowledge that there are a lot of things that I can’t control about the future. Things could go horribly, horribly, wrong but they could also be just fine. All I can do is live my life as best I can right now, today.
DL: I’m interested in hearing about what it’s like to be a woman both professionally and personally in the workplace and in our profession. Have you had particular experiences in which you feel like you’ve been treated differently or poorly because you’re a woman?
Honestly, not really.
To be clear, I’m not saying that sexism doesn’t exist or that I don’t think it’s a problem. I absolutely do. There are still a lot of barriers to be broken in the law but in the IP/tech industry, it’s a younger group of people who are usually open and respectful.
I also grew up with a strong male figure in my life. He treated me equally and had high expectations for me. I think that translated both into how I approach what I do and my perception of situations.
So, it’s hard for me to point to specific examples of my being discriminated against. In fact being a woman may have even been a benefit when I went to a reduced schedule at Cairncross. I didn’t have kids at the time but I could have said to them: “Well, I’m thinking about starting a family and I’d like to make some more time for that.” That would have actually been true at that time but I didn’t say it. The firm agreed simply because I wanted to make a change. I think it would have been harder for one of the male associates get the same deal. Everyone who did it after me was also a woman so far as I know.
DL: I think of your firm as a trail blazer. It would not have existed 15 or 20 years ago; certainly not with the clientele that you have. Do you think about that at all?
It was simply good timing. When we started our firm, things were really shifting in the business and legal community. In-house legal clients wanted different offerings and there were a lot of startup companies who wanted to work with small firms that looked like themselves. As far as our larger clients, I think that they were attracted to our combination of strong experience and competitive rates.
All of the clients also appreciate the relationships they have with us. Many of the companies that I work with would never have an ongoing relationship with an experienced partner like me if they hired a large firm. I would be too expensive at a big firm and associates would come and go as they either leave or get promoted.
DL: Thoughts about the future for you or the firm?
I feel good about my future and the future of the firm. I like the next 3-6 years.
I have some fear for 10 years from now. I’m 44. Are clients going to hire a 54 year-old female tech lawyer?
DL: You want to talk about cultural biases? We have huge biases against older people.
That's where I feel the burn. There aren’t a lot of older female tech transactions lawyers because there aren’t a lot of older female lawyers. There weren’t many women in law school 30+ years ago. A senior partner at a large firm here in Seattle was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Washington law school.
I fear that it’s going to be harder for me to get work in 10 years or 15 years when I still need to be working. And, at that point, will it be impossible for me to go in-house?
I don’t know.
DL: Another interesting dynamic is that women are starting to outnumber men in law school.
Right. Maybe there will be more women clients and that will take the edge off? Also, because I rarely meet face to face with clients, maybe they won’t know that it’s a middle-aged white lady giving advice on the other end of the line.
I’m glad for the path that I took. I’m in a good place. People should really think about what they want their lives to look like and be creative as to how they get closer to that picture. If that means that you are not on a career trajectory in which you’re a rock star in your industry try to enjoy the benefits of the path you’re on. Saying that you’re a rock star in your industry is only awesome for that one minute when you’re at a party and you get to say “I’m blah blah blah.” The rest of the time being a rock star isn’t that exciting and you’re trying to live your life.