'Leaning Back' from My Career as a High-Powered Lawyer – Kveller
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working moms

‘Leaning Back’ from My Career as a High-Powered Lawyer

Sometimes I wonder if the two parts of me will ever meet. There is one side that is hard-nosed and critical, with killer ambitions. That driven side dominated me until I became a mother, and then I reversed course. Now, as the seasoned matriarch of three beautiful souls, I am forever mush–and proud of it. But let me tell you more about these sides, where they came from, and how I resolved these dual personalities.

My parents raised me to be academically strong and career-hungry. Although I was the younger of two children, and female, they still imbued in me a fiery desire to succeed. By this, I mean that they wanted me to achieve a high income, professional status, and to spend my days either behind a large mahogany desk or with a stethoscope around my neck, rushing down hospital corridors. I was a good girl–obedient, hard working, and able to study for long hours at a stretch. In this, I was like so many other good Jewish children. I was bound for greatness–perhaps the Ivy League and, at minimum, a six-figure income.

My parents were not only Jewish, they were immigrants—so multiply whatever I’ve said by a factor of infinity. They not only wanted me to be a lawyer, but maybe a senator—perhaps even President (at the time that meant something). My father himself was a watchmaker whose own education had been aborted by anti-Semitism–for them, my trajectory into the vague firmament would not only redeem the family, but perhaps the Jewish people at large.

In any case, I made it to Yale Law School by the time I was 21. Almost immediately, I felt that I was in the wrong place. I had a soft, affectionate side, hiding in there beneath the ability to speak intelligently at a rapid clip, and cram complicated casebooks into my head. So when I would read about the apple tree that was on Mr. Brown’s land but whose apples hung over the wall, dropping into Mrs. Green’s garden, I thought less about the rules of contract and property, and more about Mr. Brown and Mrs. Green’s personal lives. Were they truly happy? Why, or why not? Did they even like apples–or perhaps each other? Could they not marry and share the apples, maybe in the form of pies?

Despite these inner thoughts, I graduated law school, passed the bar, and practiced as a litigation associate. Through it all, it was thrilling to be surrounded by bright, intelligent people who used their considerable skills to the max. I also loved having a perch at the top of the world, the sense that I had done my parents proud by becoming a person of worldly clout. Yet, things became increasingly troublesome to me. Success in the law meant being swept up by a firm that would keep you at the office for upwards of 12 hours a day, and often on weekends—and all this usually for no other reason than to create billable hours.

Since I was both terrified of not succeeding with the work (cases were worth millions) and inordinately bored by its content, the six-figure salary did little to comfort me.

Yes, on the late nights in the office I could order whatever take-out I wanted, and a nice black car drove me home, but the constant stress and inordinate meaninglessness of my work was not salved by sushi in the stomach or limo-leather. Would General Electric get even richer? Would Dow Chemical continue to make toxic substances? Would the victims of an industrial accident be deprived of compensation by the mega-oil firm that employed them? These were my clients; these were the sides I fought for, with my well-trained Yiddishe kop.

My darling husband worked and thrived at a similarly soulless place (in banking)–but found it exciting and enjoyed the work. Slowly but surely, my true vocation–writing—had been bubbling under the surface throughout my fast-track years. I was beginning to make a name for myself outside the walls of the law, publishing in places like The New York Times and New York magazine. And this was a career—a calling—that could combine with our newly growing family in ways my law career never could. So, after two years (it felt longer), I left my firm.

Did I drop out of law forever? No. When my children were all in school, I practiced for a time with a family law firm that specialized in foster care cases. It felt like time for me to get back into the fray, away from the isolations of parenthood and writing. By then, I had realized how many options there were besides corporate litigation. I could be a force for good, and raising children opened my heart, more and more, to the problems of the world.

But even doing this, it soon became clear that my passions (or ethics) never coincided with the structures of the legal system, no matter how much the topics appealed to my personal interests. Too often, I’d have to say less than I knew, listen to eloquent lawyers twist the facts of a case to serve the side that retained them, and see the sad results of our adversarial system playing out unfairly. I learned that I’d rather use my untethered words, telling the whole truth as well as I knew it, and not just one biased side of it. And so, eventually, I put my entire legal career aside to become a writer, working from home and attending to my kids’ needs.

I’ll admit that I sometimes miss the hard driving, fast pace of being a lawyer. The perceived drop in status alone is dizzying. It is displayed perfectly, of all places, at school pickup, where I’ve been shoved aside by men and women in snazzy suits, frantically busy with appointments to keep and deadlines to meet. To them, I must seem like Raggedy Ann, dear, sweet, and inconsequential.

After all, I know how they feel–I was one of them once, myself. But while I’ve lost fashion points in my yoga pants (and height by changing from heels to flats), I realize that I gained something I wouldn’t want to trade—the ability to move at the halting, unsteady, but always somehow perfect pace of parenthood.

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