By Franklyn Kimball • September 15, 2010•Writers in Residence
Being a parent is the most challenging, important, difficult, and enjoyable task in the world. Building your professional career is complex, draining, and rewarding. Doing both at the same time often seems downright impossible. Of all the things you’ll be called in life - law student, law review editor, associate, partner, judge, Senator, or even President I think the best title you can ever have is Mom or Dad. This post and two which follow grow out of a 1992 presentation to Harvard Law School students about the transition from school to practice and a note written last year to a wonderful New Yorker who sought parenting tips from her friends just before her son was born. I don’t pretend to know all the answers or indeed all of the questions and I welcome reactions and suggestions. Some of the parables are practical. Others are philosophical. Others are anecdotal lessons. The first eleven parables focus on work life balance issues. The second column focuses on the business of parenting. The final installment will be less substantive and more irreverent.
Our nest is now empty most of the year — our oldest graduated from law school last year and our daughter is a 21 year old junior at McGill in Montreal. The month before our daughter was born I was gripped with anxiety about whether I could ever be good parent. A physician neighbor told me “Go to the Woodfield Mall parking lot. Exit your high-powered Japanese vehicle. Look at the thousands of people in the parking lot with children. You are probably smarter than most of them. You’ll be fine.” Excellent advice. I still haven’t made it to the Woodfield Mall but I’ve learned a lot about being a parent.
Have dinner as a family as often as possible. We live fifteen minutes from downtown - and made every effort to have dinner five or six nights a week as a family - usually Sunday through Thursday at home - sometimes out with them on Friday and Sunday. The conversations at the dinner table are priceless. While my law degree does not qualify me to explain the science - I think that family dinners cement the links in the family- and is far better than everyone just grabbing something when it’s convenient. You will learn what’s going on your kids lives and they’ll value the time. Get the kids involved in dinner - from cooking to clean up. For those with a Ph.D. from guy school - cooking is not that complicated, it is fun, and it can be done while watching a football game. Pancakes are not particle physics. You don’t need top make Law Review to barbecue chicken. Tater tots are one of the ten basic food groups. A seafood risotto is less complicated than assembling a grill. For you skeptical male readers - give it a try. You could be famous by Friday. We have about 200 recipes that were hits for many years (Linda can claim 85% as ones which she found) from our burgeoning collection of cookbooks —- and yes we’d be glad to tell you which books we treasure - but that’s a column for another month. Simple interesting and two thumbs up from kids and grown ups alike.
Live near downtown. The great downside of the suburbs is that the two hours a day you spend commuting is time you won’t spend with your children. For people in demanding professional firms, you won’t have breakfast or dinner with your kids that often - and that time cannot be recaptured later in life. Kids under four will get up later than you during the week and will head towards bed at 8 or 9 in the evening. There are choices to be made on expense, green space, the burdens and adventures of urban living schools, and all the rest. But capturing time with your kids (or time for yourself or time to sleep) is beyond priceless. It will also give you more flexibility to be involved in your kids’ daily lives - from school programs, to youth sports, to music recitals, dance lessons, and all the rest. And let’s not forget the 22 times a year you’ll have unexpected trips to the pediatrician, dentist, and Lenscrafters. This is not an easy choice. In many cities urban living options are limited, prohibitively expensive, or both. There are many wonderful places to work or practice law. Make a choice on where you live that gives you the freedom to work and spend time with your family.
Don’t marry a jerk (insert your own term here). I don’t mean the garden variety jerk. I mean the parent who is not fully involved or invested in the life of their kids. Parenting is time consuming, exhausting, and confusing - often all at the same time. There will be 3 a.m. runs to Walgreens, unpredictable and numerous activities at school, piano and dance lessons, little league sports, toys to assemble, books to be read aloud at bedtime and all the rest. It’s a ton of work and very hard to integrate into a demanding practice. Not impossible. Just very challenging. I’ve heard anecdotes about dads who don’t change diapers, cook, bathe kids, get up at night, or shop just because it’s not “their thing.” Man up Gomer - this is more important than Fantasy Football, cigar collecting, or planning your man cave. Try to figure out beforehand whether your life partner is willing to make the same investment in terms of time and effort. It’s one of the most important pieces of information you’ll ever learn.
Find Tricks to Managing Your Time. This important concept is not a one size fits all exercise. I’m a morning person - and have always found the 5:00-9:00 a.m. time a great time for serious writing and thinking and projects without the interruptions that cascade into the 9-5 day. It also allowed me to protect the late afternoons and evenings for time with the family. Some people are night owls but I was never able to focus well on work after an evening of dinner, chatting, reading books, and putting the kids in bed. Ten minutes of Jay Leno was my limit. The efficient lawyer who can do it once, get it right, and do it well has a far better chance of protecting her time. And the more senior lawyer who manages subordinates well - allocating responsibly, not becoming an omni-present micro-manager and glory-hog will have more time with their family. There are many paths and many great books on time management techniques. But every minute you save is a minute you can spend doing something you enjoy more.
Step away from the Blackberry. No sneak peeks during dinner. You and your employer will survive without it. Yes I know your Global Phone rings in Budapest, makes your lunch, and I am duly impressed. Looking at it late at night or when you sit up in bed at 3 a.m. is just plain weird. Whipping it out at the dinner table or cocktail parties is beyond bizarre. Wearing your phone? Seek treatment immediately. Do you really want your child’s image of her parents to be Mom or Dad hovered over their Blackberry at the playground, museum, or piano recital? A few years down the road it may help you persuade your kids that their time is better spent doing something other than sending 200 text messages a day. They might have learned that behavior from you.
Efficiency is as important as brilliance. Protecting your time requires you to be ruthlessly efficient in how you manage your time. Brilliance is a dime a dozen and getting cheaper every day. Being a great writer, a good manager, and not being a low budget control freak will help you manage your day. One of my strongest memories in private practice was sharing an office with Bill Kelly, now a senior partner in Davis Polk’s office in Silicon Valley. We shared an office as junior associates at Shearman & Sterling. Bill is an amazingly gifted writer and could dash off a 30 page brief effortlessly, not breaking a sweat, and not needing six rounds of editing before it was ready for a partner. I’d sit five feet away at my desk, knee deep in six wadded up, red ink-covered drafts, hyperventilating, and feeling as if it took me ten times as long to produce a work product that was not even in his shadow. No awards for efficiency. But as Clint Eastwood said at the end of Magnum Force “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Bill’s one of that rare combination of brilliance and efficiency. That he was able to perform at a remarkable level as an associate (and partner) at a leading Wall Street firm, raise a family as an associate, and maintain his equilibrium and remarkable sense of humor is a tribute to his efficiency and brilliance. I could tell you a story about how we would shop for discounted suits during the 2:1 hour specials at Syms, but that’s a story for another day.
Keep up with technology. I know you are on the cutting edge of the new Millennium. But I’ve got news for you. That toddler will zoom by you by the time they’re in 7th grade. Whatever tools, or gadgets, or software, or cloud ware is cool for that generation should be embraced by parents. Just like you learned how to use Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter - smart phones and all the rest keep up with your children lest you transition too quickly into the goofy parent who can’t use an ATM because whenever the Screen says “press any key” they look for a key that says “ANY.” You don’t want to be like that senior partner in your firm who has a big flat screen monitor on his desk but couldn’t log on if his life depended on it. You don’t want to use these tools to stalk your kids - but you have to understand how they look at the world and how they communicate. By the time your children are teens something we can’t even imagine today may well supplant Facebook, Twitter, and texting as the hot item that next generation finds indispensable. Keep up with your kids or you fall so far behind you’ll never catch up.
Architectural Digest is not on the way (yet) to photograph your home. Kids and dogs can generate more debris in an hour than a Kansas tornado. Remember Marley And Me? Seventy percent clean 30 percent of the time sounds like a terrific objective. Anything more than that requires using time and energy better devoted to being a parent rather than a “stager” for HGTV. For more detail on the importance of dogs in the lives of your children consider the next column in this series.
You will have to make difficult choices. Even the best and the brightest sometimes just let life happen to them and are burdened by the consequences. You are the fiduciary of your career. The firm exists to feed itself, serve its clients, and reward its partners. With rare exceptions it does not exist to put your career and personal development first. Over the 25 years that you are practicing and raising children you will have to make choices about how you spend your extra time — If you want to manage the firm, be the #1 expert in a specialized area, become professionally prominent, earn the highest income - you will have to make sacrifices in the amount of time you spend with your children. You should make this choice. You should understand what is important to you. You should not simply let events overtake your life. One of the fundamental challenges of parenting is that the time of life when kids need you the most coincides with the period of greatest professional pressures. Notwithstanding the mythology of “having it all” or “doing it all” - there will be choices to be made. Some water will be displaced from the bathtub of life. It’s a matter of deciding what’s important to you. Your employer is not your friend, your parent, or your fiduciary. Many of the people for whom you work have a checkered history as a parent. Many come from households where only one parent is in the work force and they are constitutionally incapable of walking a mile in your shoes or even understanding why women want to be parents and professionals. It just does not compute. No matter what the magazines and the rankings say don’t expect that your employer will always be your ally on balancing professional and personal demands. Their unsympathetic reaction simply reflects the choices that they have made in their own lives and their subconscious belief that you should walk the same path. When you least expect it you may have to make hard choices about your long-term career path, where you live, how much time you can devote to your professional development. It’s a personal, private, and scary choice. There is no one right answer but there is one certainty amidst the chaos - you only walk down the path of your life as a parent once and time that is lost cannot be recaptured.
It isn’t that law firms don’t care - but they may not. When you’re an associate on Strivers Row aiming for the brass ring of partnership and you become a parent you may be surprised at the lack of sympathy and understanding from senior partners. The silence flows from many causes including the following. First, most of the partners are so darned busy with their own professional lives that their personal lives have suffered. Second, they may feel as if they plowed dirt road with their noise and didn’t get any props from their seniors - so why should you. Third, they’re just trying to juggle practice, administration, and business development and get home on time occasionally. Fourth, some may just be embittered hollow souls who simply don’t give a damn or secretly get a sadistic charge out of seeing you suffer through what they believe is a rite of passage. Your friends and family - particularly those not connected with your work are invaluable. Cherish them. Too many professional firms embrace the awards they earn from magazines who declare them to be family friendly in theory but do very little in practice to help their associates and partners handle the challenge. Many recent graduates naively expect that their firm will dunk them in a warm bath of support and understanding and are profoundly disappointed when they learn that the firm does not speak with one voice or think with one mind about how to reconcile competing demands. Many large professional firms are run by “old white guys” who don’t understand the issue because they have a non-working spouse at home and because their involvement in the lives of their own kids was predictably limited because that’s the way it was during the Mad Men era.
Get help when you need it. Whether it’s outsourcing tasks around the house or seeking counseling don’t assume that you can do this on your own. It may not take a village to raise your child but it requires a ton of help. Just because you had great grades from a great law school you are not necessarily qualified to do everything around the house or to analyze the physical and psychological challenges you face. Law school trains you to spot issues with your lawyerly binoculars. It does not teach you basic plumbing, tuck pointing, therapy, or internal medicine. If you need a career counselor, therapist, or specialized advice on a child’s development - get help. Don’t rely on the internet, anecdotes from neighbors or the cross current of latte fueled rumors at Starbucks.
The next column will focus on more practical aspects of the process of parenting. In the meantime, I’ll welcome your reactions, comments, and suggestions. In the meantime many hours must be spent focusing on Michigan’s football season. Perhaps that’s the reason our daughter said at the age of 6 “My Dad’s obsessed with Michigan football.” You’d have to ask her.