By Paula Edgar • June 20, 2010•Writers in Residence
Carolyn Edgar is a dynamo. She is a respected professional, mother of two, writer, blogger and speaker. Despite our having the same last name, I am not related to her, but I wish that we were related! She constantly makes me smile when I read her blog posts and her Twitter updates because of her quick wit and her savvy insight. During our conversation, we discussed dealing with bias in the workplace, overcoming personal challenges, and finding the time for both your passion and your profession. I am positive that you will be inspired by her Esquisite Path. Enjoy.
Name: Carolyn Edgar
Employer/Title: Estée Lauder Companies, Vice President and Legal Counsel.
Practice Area: Commercial contracts (specializing in technology transactions)
Favorite NY Restaurant: Chez Lucienne in Harlem
Favorite NY Spa: Bliss Day Spa
Favorite Legal Themed Movie: A Few Good Men
Paula: What made you decide to become an attorney? When I was about eight years old, I told my mother, “I’m going to Harvard Law School.” I didn’t really know what Harvard Law School was. I can’t say that I had formed a real strong desire to be a lawyer. I just knew I was going to Harvard Law School one day.
I don’t know that I ever had a full desire to be a lawyer until I actually got into law school. I had professors who were begging me not to go to law school, saying, “I know you’re going to go to law school, but please don’t do it.” I even found a paper from a professor in a law class I took when I was in college. I had remembered this comment but actually found the paper with the comment on the back. It was an A paper and the professor wrote, “You really ought to seriously consider grad school in English or history instead of law school.” Of course, I ignored her advice and went to law school.
For a long time, there was a part of me that was torn, that felt like I had given up on a dream or was selling out or not really fulfilling my talent. I was just burdening myself with all of this baggage about the fact that I had chosen to, not only go to law school, but had chosen to practice. At some point it dawned on me; if I stopped beating myself up and was honest with myself, I would realize that I like being a lawyer.
I had to realize that whatever the unconscious, unstated reasons may have been, they existed for a valid purpose; that there was something about the practice of law that interested me, that engaged me in a way that just writing really didn’t. Then I modified it from “I’m going to practice until I get myself to a point where I can quit the law and become a writer,” really thinking through what I’m trying to do now, which is, how do I structure a life that allows me to do both? What does doing both really look like? Doing both probably doesn’t look like the life I would lead if I were a full time writer. I always look at the model of Scott Turow.
Paula: What was your lowest point professionally and how did you recover from it?
After law school, I went to work for Kirkland and Ellis’ New York office. I stayed at K&E until after the birth of my daughter. I think I was about a fifth year. I went out on maternity leave, came back and decided that being a full time associate was inconsistent with being a new mom. So I left K&E, and went to work for a small publishing company based on Long Island. I did that for two years and then realized that I found myself missing law firm practice. Conveniently, the company was being sold and I was able to cash out and go back to K&E.
I felt very comfortable going back into that environment, but things changed very quickly for me when I got back. The two senior partners who I had worked for, in fairly short order, both ended up leaving the office. One, a woman, had been working part-time and chose to stop working and become a full time stay-at-home parent. The male, who was the head of the IP practice in the New York office, who had recruited me from law school, and who was the lawyer I had worked for most frequently announced that he was leaving New York to open up the firm’s San Francisco office. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me.
Around this same time I was put on two very difficult transactions. One was difficult because the client was just a very difficult person to deal with. In both cases, I think there were some racial issues going on.
There was one client who refused to deal with me but who would talk freely to the junior associate I had working with me, at a time when I was trying to assert that I could run a deal and have junior people working for me, because I was up for partner. It was very disconcerting. On more than one occasion, I had to tell that gentleman he was not to call the associate. He needed to call me. That was, personally, very frustrating. When I indicated to my senior partners what was going on, I was basically told, “Just put an H on your chest and handle it.” So I got through that one.
Then the second was another very tough transaction with a client who, frankly, was fine with me until he saw me. I’d had numerous conversations with the guy. He’d never expressed any concern about my judgment, my abilities. When he met me and saw who I was and that I was a black woman, I fully believe that was the basis for the reaction. He jumped. He was startled like he had just seen a ghost. I felt very clearly that he was not expecting Carolyn Edgar to be who I am. From that moment on, everything I did was second-guessed, to the point that the partner ended up having to assign another attorney to the deal, in part to act as a buffer between me and this client who just could not see any merit in anything I did.
Although I did, in fact, make partner, -- with the experience of those two transactions, and the two lawyers who had basically mentored me from my time as a young associate leaving the office, I honestly felt exposed. The pressure of all of that, plus still having young children at home, it just really became a bit much. I made non-share partner. My son was born. I just felt like I had walked into a tornado. I decided, at that point, it was time for me to cut my losses. I initially took a leave of absence to give myself time to figure out what it was I was going to do. During that six-month period, my marriage fell apart. It was this perfect storm of crap. All of a sudden I went from New York City partner at a law firm to unemployed, basically. My marriage was in the crapper and rapidly in a point of decline that it could not recover from. I had young children at home. I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. I knew I could not go back to a law firm, not because I couldn’t get employed by one, but the situation just wouldn’t allow it. That was my low point.
I ended up taking a job through a temp agency. It was temp employment but full time temp. I ended up doing that for about ten months before the job at Estée Lauder came through. My divorce started at the same time my temp job started. When I got the job at Estée Lauder, one of the first things I said was, “I just started a divorce proceeding. I’m going to have to disappear from time to time to go to court. I hope that’s okay with you.” Fortunately they were okay with it and it has not been an issue.
It was just a really bizarre period in my life. I had been at such a high point in my profession and then within months, was at a point where I was really questioning whether I was going to be able to continue doing this anymore.
Paula: I have knots in my stomach hearing you describe that experience. How did you recover? My mom was still in my life. She passed away last year, but she was still in my life then. She was such an incredible source of strength and comfort to me. It really helped. Just to heap something else onto all of this, towards the beginning of my divorce proceedings, things at home had gotten very uncomfortable with my ex-husband. I called my mother one day in tears and she decided to come to New York. Two hours after she got off the plane, she had her first heart attack.
Paula: That’s unfathomable. Anyone who thinks that therapy is anything other than a godsend needs to understand. You don’t have to wait until you’re in your darkest moments. It helped me tremendously. When I finally had a chance to showcase what I could do, I think that also helped me by restoring the confidence I had in my legal skills. I was at such a low point that I wasn’t even sure really what I had to offer anymore.
Paula: What has been your most victorious moment as an attorney thus far? I’ll give one example from my law firm life and one example from my in-house life. The law firm example, early in my career, when I was trying to decide between being a litigator and being a transactional lawyer, I decided pretty quickly that a litigator was not going to be the right path for me. I got to work on a patent trial. It was the most fun I’ve ever had, still. It was such an incredible experience.
It was a four-week trial in Wilmington, Delaware. It was one of those situations where you don’t just feel like you’re litigating boring corporate law. You’re on the side of good. We felt that we were on the side of all that was good and right with the world, and that our opponents were these horrible patent trolls who were the scourge of the earth and needed to be defeated.
Having sort of set up this Marvel Comic good versus evil dichotomy in our own minds, all of us on the team sort of attacked this thing with a zeal that I hadn’t really seen very much in my practice years since then. It was a nice mix of young, junior lawyers and seasoned older lawyers. All of us got along really well. We kept it serious but we kept it fun. It was just a tremendous experience. Of course, good won over evil.
We had an amusing moment during the closing -- it was a jury trial, which was unusual for a patent case. In the closing argument, the opposing lawyer said, “If this company really thought that these patents weren’t valid, they would have just asked for a bench trial instead of taking this whole thing to a jury of ordinary intelligence.”
My best moment from having worked at Estée Lauder -- there are a couple that are sort of neck and neck. One of the things I got to do early in my time here, the company was divesting a company, a small brand that no longer fit with the rest of the portfolio. Because I had worked on a number of M&A deals while I was at the firm, I was asked to assist the team with this one.
It was something that allowed me a great chance to showcase what I could do. At one point, I was working law firm hours, but I relished the chance to really show what I was made of and what else I could bring to the table. It was a very tough deal. We were actually up against people from the K&E Chicago office, which made it even more fun and challenging.
At the end of that, I felt like my reputation and my stature in the department grew. People could really see that I had skills, had talents, could contribute in a lot of different ways. I think that sort of set the stage for the career that I have now.
Paula: What is unique about practicing in New York City? Really, for both the position I have now and all the other positions I’ve ever held, it’s all been very New York-driven. Even though K&E is a Chicago-based firm, it was rare that I worked on matters for the firm’s traditional Chicago client. New York has always been at the heart and soul of everything that I’ve done. Being at Estée Lauder, we are New York in many ways. It permeates everything that we do. We’re so enmeshed and intertwined with the fashion industry that I can’t see this business really existed anywhere outside of New York City; maybe Milan or Paris.
Paula: What advice would you give someone who wants to have a similar career as yours or to be in the position you’re in? The best advice is that you have to perform. You have to have an excellent background and work product to show for it. To get an opportunity to work here, you really have to distinguish yourself by having an excellent résumé, excellent credentials. If you look at the résumés of the people who work here, we have populated ourselves, in this department, with people who were stars where they were before they came here. First and foremost, you have to do excellent work wherever you work: excellent work in law school, excellent work at your firm. I think you could do my job if you had a general background in transactional law. You could definitely do this job with an IP background. More important than the practice area is really the willingness to be flexible to learn, and to view yourself not just as the lawyer, but as a business adviser to your clients.
Paula: Why do you think women of color don’t advance in the legal profession at the same rate as white men and white women in the profession? I think part of that is just what happens to women generally. We are born with biology that dictates that certain things happen at certain points in our lives. Unfortunately, that also happens to coincide with when corporations tend to dictate your career should be advancing. Unless a woman has made a decision to either not have a family or to delay or postpone family until she achieves certain career ambitions, or has a stay-at-home partner who will handle the parenting while she pursues her career ambitions, there’s going to become a logical stopping point.
When I think back to my own career at K&E, there were men who I felt myself to be on par with career-wise, that my trajectory and theirs were pretty much going in a similar or the same direction. I didn’t feel that they were being promoted ahead of me. I felt that we were pretty much neck and neck and could have stayed that way except I wanted to have children.
When I stepped off the path to raise my family, that took me down a very different road than those men ended up traveling. I think that’s just a function of the difficulty that women have, under today’s structure, advancing beyond a certain point in general.
Add the color factor onto it, I do think that when you have situations where -- like the two I described where I do think there was a racial element to how the clients interfaced or didn’t necessarily interface with me. I don’t know that companies really have an answer for addressing that issue. Unless it’s something that’s overt and blatant, I don’t know that there’s a really good corporate response. I think people get discouraged when they see that this is happening. They may not be able to document that it’s happening, but they certainly feel very strongly viscerally that it’s happening. The reaction from the organization is, “Figure it out but handle it. There’s nothing we can do. Deal with it.” You’re going to have people in your career who don’t like you for any number of reasons.
I don’t really know how to address either of those issues. The issue of women and biology would take a fundamental restructuring of corporations. I don’t really see that happening anytime soon. I have seen some positive signs. For example, when I graduated from law school in ’93, we were still at the point where women wore their hair natural and in braids in law school. As soon as interview season rolled around, people were getting perms.
I’m so happy to see more women, especially in New York, wearing their hair in styles that suit our ethnicity, whether it’s braided styles or natural styles. You just don’t see as many bad weaves in our profession as you once did.
Paula: Who has been your most instrumental mentor and why? I am actually a little between mentors right now. It’s something that I need to remedy. I felt that, during the law firm years, I had good relationships with a variety of people in the firm, both in my office and in other offices, who I could go to for advice and counsel on a variety of issues. The partner I mentioned, who was basically the person I worked for, was actually an excellent career mentor. He gave me some of the best career advice I’ve ever received.
One of the first things he said to me, and this has always stuck with me, is that this is your career. Figure out what it is you want to do and how you’re going to get there. I would go to him and say, “I really would love to work on some trademark cases.” He said, “Then go talk to the trademark partner. I don’t do trademarks. This is your job. It’s not my responsibility to help you figure out how to get all of those things you want to build in your toolkit. You’ve got to do that.” I thought that was excellent advice and I’ve continued to use that to this day.
There were women in the firm, both in my office and in other offices, that I could go talk to. I haven’t really replicated that. I have been a mentor to younger attorneys, but I have not been in the fortunate position of having my own mentors that I can rely upon for advice on how to get to the next level of my own career. That’s something that I’m actively working on.
Paula: Is balance something that you work on? If so, how do you balance the demands of your personal and professional life? I don’t work on balance. My approach hasn’t really changed all that much except I have more command over my hours now than I did then. I don’t think there really is such a thing as balance. I think you take your moments when you get them. If I finished a big deal, I was going to be out of the office for a few days, or certainly I was not going to raise my hand and say, “I’m available. I can do more work.” It was an opportune time to take vacations. If I found myself at the end of a day that was lightly scheduled and I finished a conference call and didn’t have a whole lot to do for a couple hours, I was going to take a long lunch or do some shopping.
I do still think that you take advantage of opportunities when they come to you. In-house, I have more control over my schedule than I did when I was at a law firm. I have a better ability to manage my clients’ expectations than I did. It’s still a service job. I still have clients that demand good service. I’m able to better manage their expectations in alignment with the other challenges I might be facing.
That’s been one way that I’ve been able to achieve “balance.” Frankly, the decision to take the in-house job and remain in-house versus opportunities that have been presented from time to time back in private practice has been a conscious choice. I could go back to a firm. I know I could make a lot more money if I did. My kids are older now. I could probably manage it better.
I’m choosing, at this point, not to do so, one, because I like what I do, but also, just because they’re older doesn’t mean they don’t still need their mother around. I don’t feel like now would be the right time to absent myself from their lives. I know that when and if I do make that choice, that’s pretty much what it’s going to come down to. I’m not going to be around as much.
The whole balance question, I think instead of looking for balance, I think it’s having a realistic, in your own mind, understanding of what your job requires; understanding how much, if any, control you have over your schedule; and taking advantage of the control you do have and not worrying about the control you don’t have. If you can’t change it, you can’t change it.
Paula: You do what you’ve got to do. You do what you have to do. If you’re in the position where you’ve got a flex schedule and can take off on Fridays or whatever the case may be, that’s wonderful. If you know that your job demands you to be in your office at 7 o’clock on a Friday night, then don’t bemoan the fact that that’s what’s required. Be there and be present. If it really becomes a hardship for you, you need another job.
Paula: What are some things that you do in your downtime? I write. I have a blog. I’m not as frequent a blogger as I have ambition to be, but I try to post a new post at least a couple times a week, sometimes more frequently. I also contribute to a moms blog, NYC Moms Blog. I have a requirement to post at least two posts a month. I’ve been pretty good about being able to maintain that. I’d say between my own blog and the moms blog, I probably put up six new posts each month. Some of them might be longer; some of them might be shorter. It ranges. I think probably my shortest post was about 300 words. I tend to be long-winded.
Paula: A lawyer, long-winded? No. We like words. We like words. I’ve become very enamored with my own words. Most of them tend to be longer, which takes me longer to write them. I’ve tried to post more frequently and shorter than more sporadically and with beautiful prose. That’s fun, getting the hang of blogging and building and audience and interacting with people.
As you know, I’m on Twitter a lot. I find that the interaction on Twitter helps drive blog traffic. It helps people know who I am, what I’m about, build interest in the audience that I’d like to have one day for the book that I’m going to write. While there’s a part of me that often wonders if I’m just wasting time, I do feel there’s productive value in it.
Paula: You’re building a brand. I say that in jest, but in all sincerity, I do feel like I’m building my brand.
Paula: What are your plans for the future? I do intend to do more writing. I also would like to do more public speaking. I do some as part of the profession, speaking on panels. I’ve taught PLIs. Since being at Estée Lauder, I haven’t done as much of it as I used to do when I was at K&E, again promoting my brand in a different way. I’m looking to find other avenues of expression that can enable me to do that more. I do enjoy it.
Legal career-wise, I’m comfortable where I am for now. I have a great job, challenging clients, challenging work. I don’t foresee anything vastly different from what I’m doing now in my immediate future. If Estée Lauder chooses to keep me, I’m definitely looking to stay here for a while. Just continuing to raise my kids and get them to a point where they can get out of my house.
Paula: What makes it all worth it for you at the end of the night? At the end of the night, if I feel like I gave 100 percent to something I did, then I feel like it’s worth it. You can’t give 100 percent to every single thing that you do. It’s just not realistic. Some things don’t require it. Sometimes you’re trying to do multiple things at the same time and you’re trying to split your attention. Sometimes you’ve got the kids tugging on your pant leg and trying to get dinner on the stove and your husband is asking you a question. You’re like, “Leave me alone.” The idea that you can give everything 100 percent is really more pressure -- we put pressure on ourselves that we really need to stop putting pressure on ourselves for.
If I end the day and I feel like, “I couldn’t give everything my full attention, but when I finally got a chance to get off conference calls and focus on that contract and really focus on it, I spotted some issues I hadn’t seen before. I got some stuff done” or “I finished that draft and got it out to the other side” or “I met the client’s deadline and they’re happy,” if I can end the day with at least one of those things, on the professional side.
On the personal side, if I can end the day and the kids seem relatively content, and somebody might have been yelled at but nobody has lingering anger issues, and they’re off in bed and happy to get ready for the next morning, then I feel pretty good.
Paula’s Two Cents on recovering from life’s low points and on combining passion with your profession.
I really appreciated Carolyn’s candor in speaking about the benefit and importance of therapy as a tool to recover from challenges. We all face hard times and adversity at some point in life, but we need to know when to ask for assistance. My two cents: Asking for help does not mean you are weak; it can in fact help to showcase your strength.
For many attorneys, practicing the law is both their profession and their passion. For those of us, like Carolyn, who endeavor to not just practice law, but to also follow other paths that make us happy, it can be hard to find the courage and confidence to do both. My two cents: I think that when we allow our true selves to shine by exploring our multitude of talents and interests, our work in our chosen profession is better because we are fulfilled.
Esquisitely Yours, Paula.