Chapter 5. Misogyny, misery, screamers, strippers: all in a day's disastrous work at a top Chicago law firm
Phillis Wheatley, letter to Reverend Samson Occom, 1774
Diary of My Disastrous Law Career: From Harvard to Heaven Help Me
Let's start with something nice: pie.
If you've read the previous posts in this memoir of why I left my career as a lawyer, you've been with me through hell, through Hamburg, and through health crises. Before we go on, why don't we take a break for pie, something I missed while living in Germany and didn't realize I missed until I moved back to my hometown of Chicago. Today, I put chocolate on my pie, because: chocolate! Then, I was simply happy to rediscover slices of Americana, and pie seemed to represent all that I had missed in rigid, isolating Hamburg, such as my family, good vegetarian food, friendly people, a cultural attitude of innovation and positivity, and freedom to be myself.
I hoped that my job as a lawyer at one of Chicago's top firms would be the job I had been waiting for since graduating from Harvard Law School in 1996 and had not found in Hamburg up to 1998: one where I would work on interesting and meaningful projects with smart people, one that would allow me to contribute to the world and to my own personal and professional growth. As you know if you read the previous post, which looked at that job through a health-oriented lens: it wasn't. Onward!
Lawyer Job 3: Chicago (continued)
Some orientation of the law firm landscape, if you'd like it, before we dive into disasters:
What did I actually do as a lawyer? I was a corporate lawyer at a big law firm, and I specialized in m&a (mergers and acquisitions, helping large companies buy and sell other companies) and corporate finance (helping large banks lend money to large companies, or helping other large organizations finance large purchases by other organizations). What does that really mean? Fine print. My job was to write and rewrite the vast numbers of pages of contracts to document multi-million dollar transactions.
Who's who in law firm hierarchy? Partners were the senior lawyers, and associates were the junior lawyers. Within those ranks there were senior and junior partners -- senior partners were the equity partners, the owners of the firm -- and there were senior and junior associates. In addition to lawyers, there were paralegals, secretaries, and other staff.
As a young associate lawyer, I wasn't generally involved in negotiating though I did have client contact. My job was to "chain myself to the desk" at this "white collar sweatshop" as I used to put it, and write and rewrite and write and rewrite, days, nights, and weekends, with printed and marked-up copies piling up around me. After the contracts and voluminous ancillary documents for a deal were written and revised and agreed upon, closing a deal meant organizing rows and rows of documents for partners and clients and the other parties to review again, and arranging for transfer of funds once the documents were signed. After a deal closed, there were piles and piles of paper to organize and distribute. And, after most mergers or acquisitions, there are layoffs, which I wasn't involved in, but anyone could read in the news about people whose jobs had been terminated after their company was sold. I didn't like that I was working a job that cost others their jobs. The rich companies and rich banks would get richer, no matter what the deal was; that was the point, and they were our clients.
The work product had to be perfect, and done fast, and accounted for on your billable hour timesheets, and there was always more to do. Fine print, analysis, and logistics work didn't suit my personality or strengths, and the intense pressure and long hours added to the stress. We can play against our strengths, but why? If you're a pianist, and don't really care for saxophone, will you enjoy playing the saxophone 80 hours a week in some sort of all-saxophone band where everyone knows you're a pianist? Or, to use a sports metaphor as these were very popular at the firm, along with war metaphors and swear words, if you're a kicker, and you have to play an offensive lineman position, how is that going to turn out?
I did learn a lot about precision and professionalism, the latter sometimes through negative example, and I did meet some good people whom I respected; you can meet nice people anywhere you go. The firm produced first-class quality work. The work wasn't fun or meaningful to me however, the culture wasn't pleasant or equitable, and I couldn't envision myself moving up at the firm or even wanting to; I didn't have a goal in sight at this firm or in my career overall. There was one woman in my cohort of associates who seemed to be the woman chosen one to move up to partner one day -- she had worked for a client in her previous job -- and it wasn't me. I was sick every day.
That's what I did in my job, and now we're ready to jump into deeper disasters of this job. For example, we'll cover how I found out the way the firm put structures in place to prevent women from becoming partners, we'll look at the time I fell asleep on a date in a restaurant due to overwork, we'll examine some diversity and inclusion disasters, and we won't forget the plain fact that the work I was doing and the culture I was doing it in just didn't align with my values. Screamers and strippers below too, as promised. Let's ease into episodes of general misery, and move toward masses and messes of specific misogyny. Read at your own risk; take a pie break whenever you'd like!
|Smiling through tears: age 28.|
Week 1 episode, in which I don't fit in
At orientation at my new firm, one of Chicago's most prestigious, the other new associate attorneys and I -- some fresh out of law school, some young lateral hires like me -- went through interesting seminars and heard well-prepared talks to help us understand the firm's culture and techniques. One seminar was on personality types. We each took a personality test, which was a version of the famous Myers-Briggs psychological assessment. Afterward, the facilitator described the personality types a bit, and told us that most lawyers were in one of the categories that included analytical, logical, judging types (such as the SJs or the NTs, if you are into Myers-Briggs). She also told us that most administrative assistants (or secretaries, as many preferred to be called in those days -- at the turn of the century!) were in categories that included caring, loyal, generous types (such as the SPs). She gave some good advice on working with your secretary based on personality type, such as how not to hurt your secretary's feelings through brusque words (which advice I often saw lawyers disregard). Then she asked everyone with a particular personality type to stand, which turned out to be the intuitive, imaginative, feeling type (the NFs). I was one of around 5 people in our group of about 80 people who stood. Everyone looked at us. The facilitator said that people of our personality type rarely became lawyers. The 5 of us looked at each other. A fellow stray idealist and I asked each other, only semi-laughingly, if we should just quit now, in our first week at the firm. Maybe we should have. The facilitator had not asked any other types to stand. Why did she call attention to us? It seemed the rest of the group regarded us suspiciously, as though we didn't belong. In my case at least, I suppose they were right.
Diversity episode, in which there is literally no room for me on the race and ethnicity form
In filling out personal information when I started working at the firm, I left the race and ethnicity boxes blank. In those days, there wasn't a box for "two or more races" as you often see today in the US, or a write-in option as you also sometimes see today. Americans couldn't choose more than one race on the US census until the year 2000, and this was 1998. You had to choose one, and I was more than one, so I often left those boxes blank. You see, my mother is black, and my father is white/Jewish. I'm mixed, or biracial, like Megan Markle, Barack Obama, Mariah Carey, Rashida Jones, Colin Kaepernick, Lenny Kravitz, and millions of other people from this growing demographic. My heritage and family were always completely normal from my perspective: I have a mother and a father, and a variety of crazy relatives, just like anyone else. I never felt black or white, I always believed in self-defining, and I always felt like me; all of that was fine with me. Nor was there religious confusion in my family even though one side was Christian and one side Jewish; technically I'm not Jewish because my mother isn't Jewish, and anyway my parents always left it up to each of us kids to decide what we believed in. We had a Christmas tree every year, which was lovely and festive. I felt and feel a spiritual connection to all people and living beings. I did notice, starting in childhood, that outside of my family, there were some people who had a problem with my heritage, which made it exactly that: their problem.
For example, on my first day of school at age 4, a little boy ran up to me and asked: What are you? As a child genius, I was used to being around children who couldn't yet read, write, or do math, so I figured this must be a kid who couldn't yet speak his own language. I thought he meant Who are you, because people are who, things are what. I corrected him gently -- I was never condescending, always empathetic; after all, I couldn't yet tie my own shoes -- and replied: I am Valerie, who are you? He said: No, I mean what are you, black or white? I had no idea what he meant. Your skin, he said, is your skin black or white. I looked at my arm. Tan or beige, I ventured? Now it was he who figured I was the idiot, and he ran away. I had never seen anyone whose skin was black like black construction paper or my dad's shiny black shoes, or white like Elmer's glue or a wedding dress, and remained convinced I was not the confused one.
|Mom and Dad got married in 1968, and had me in December 1969. It was in 1967 that the US Supreme Court said state laws preventing interracial marriage were unconstitutional, in the landmark Loving v Virginia case. In the 1970s, one percent of American children were mixed. Today, ten percent are. I grew up in largely white neighborhoods and had never met another mixed person -- except for my younger sister and brother! -- until I went to college and joined a few gatherings of Harvard's biracial students club.|
|Me, age three.|
Now the law firm was making this a problem. I got a call from someone in Human Resources, who said I hadn't checked a race box and she needed that information for the firm's records. Clients were developing diversity programs and wanted to know the demographics of the lawyers working on their projects. I told her I was black and white and also Jewish on my dad's side, and that the form hadn't allowed me to check multiple boxes so I didn't check any, and did she have a way to fill all of that in? She said no, she needed me to choose just one. I explained again that I couldn't choose just one, because I wasn't just one. We went back and forth for a while; she didn't seem to be mean or hostile, and I knew she was just trying to do her job, but I was also just trying to be myself, and be honest. If I checked just one box, wouldn't that be a lie? And here we were working for a law firm, which I still believed meant believing in truth and justice.
The HR person seemed more frustrated than I was; this may have been new to her while it wasn't new to me, as I'd been biracial my whole life! I asked her what her ethnicity was, and she said Polish and Irish. I asked her which of those sides of her family she would disavow to fill out a form for her job. She said she wouldn't want to do that. Yet she and the firm -- and the racially insane system based on never-atoned-for slavery and never-ended oppression in the America I had missed so much in other ways while living in Europe -- expected me to do that. I finally told her I couldn't, and that if she needed to check a box on my form for her job, why didn't she just do that. I had billable hours to return to as an overworked associate, and didn't want to spend any more time on a non-billable phone call that was clearly not going to come to any sensible resolution anyway.
She must have checked the black box, because suddenly the black partner (there was one at that time, out of one hundred senior partners) took an interest in me, inviting me to a White Sox game with some of his clients, giving me work, and taking me out for lunch on my birthday with black lawyers at the firm (we all fit into one booth at the Chinese restaurant I chose). I had never felt accepted by black communities beyond my family before, and really still didn't. One of the black senior associates was rude to me at my own birthday lunch, and the black partner -- whom I hoped would become a mentor as he had built such a successful law practice -- never spoke to me again after I left the firm except for briefly to say he had forgotten about the lunch meeting I had set up to check in and talk about next career steps.
Side note: don't go thinking I am criticizing black communities, or that I identified with any racial or ethnic community, black, white, or other. Most of my high school classmates were white for example, and boys wouldn't date me because I was mixed, even though, as some liked to point out, their skin got tanner than mine over the summers. I've always felt more like an independent, an ally of those in need -- which often means an ally of women, blacks, Jews, and other people of color -- a believer in equality, a resister of oppression, and a soul on this journey through stardust like the rest of us. Radical? Yet wasn't this nation founded on these principles and natural laws of freedom, self-determination, and equality?
As biracial Bob Marley put it: "I don't stand for black man's side, I don't stand for white man's side, I stand for God's side." I've also always loved Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem Pied Beauty, about the eternal and God-given beauty of all things dappled, freckled, and original!
Would I find a job as a lawyer where I could be my full self without restrictions or repercussions, where honesty about my private life or in today's terminology "vulnerability" was valued for its own sake instead of used for other people's purposes? (Spoiler alert: no.)
Let's talk about money! How do people at your job, or in your family, talk about money, or do they talk about it? Salaries were a secret at the law firm. That is, the firm published the base pay for associates at different levels, as most firms do, but what about individual bonuses? Full compensation was kept secret, until one day, a secretary accidentally left a spreadsheet by a photocopier which showed everyone's salaries and bonuses. The information spread quickly throughout the firm as you can imagine, and so did the outrage, because we saw that the firm's male attorneys were being paid more than female attorneys at the same level. That meant for example that a male associate at my level was getting paid more money than I was, even that guy down the hall who conspicuously did less work than I did. I was being paid six figures, much more than the $8.59 per hour I made in Hamburg. (That's right: a disastrous $8.59 per hour, as described in a previous post.) But, why should a man be paid more, just for being a man? That is unfair, illegal, and disrespectful. I wanted to talk about it with the partners, but no one would talk with me. Their response instead was to fire the secretary.
I had read all my life that men are paid more than women in the same jobs, that women earned 70 or 77 cents to a man's dollar. I remember being outraged about this when I first read it at age 10. As a little girl, I went to my mother and asked if this were a typo. She said no. I asked her if that meant she was being paid only 70% of what a man in her role was earning. She said probably. After my mother worked to put my father through law school, and he worked his way up in law practice and investments and made a lot of money, he left our family of mom, me, and my two younger siblings when I was 7 years old, and he took all the money. This was before divorce meant equal division of assets, and before "deadbeat dad" laws were passed that prevent fathers from doing exactly what my father did. My amazing mother went back to school for a master's degree, and then back to work. Things were tough for our little family for a while. And then I learned that we had only 70% of the food or clothes or supplies we could have had, but if my mother were a man we would have had 100% of the earnings she deserved. That 30% really made a difference in our standard of living; for example, when my parents divorced, we went from having a housekeeper who cooked lovely meals for us to eating canned soup as a meal for so long that afterward, it was years before I could ever stand to eat any kind of soup again. Moreover, again, paying a woman less than a man was simply unfair, and grossly disrespectful. I became a conscious feminist on the spot. A friend from high school recently reminded me that I used to educate my classmates about the gender pay gap while in line for lunch at the cafeteria!
How had I thought that pay inequality wouldn't happen to me? It certainly had in Hamburg. I kept telling myself that when I got back to America, my homeland, the promised land, everything would be better. What was I basing that on? It was the same patriarchy. In some ways the gender pay gap situation was worse in the US from my perspective, because the methods were sneakier, and the demands were higher. And now I was expected to accept that the men at my firm could pay off their student loans faster than women? Men could quit or retire from law more comfortably than women? If I were in the men's shoes, wouldn't I feel guilty about stealing women's money or earning more than my share, or would I enjoy a sense of power over women even though enjoying someone's suffering or humiliation is a tremendously unworthy sentiment, or would I be so ingrained in patriarchal culture and greed that I wouldn't feel anything? I felt deeply disrespected, and I didn't see how I could continue to work at the firm, idealist that I am.
On a related note, I also heard about an unwritten "50/50" rule at the firm. This meant that when an administrative assistant reached the age of 50, or the salary of $50,000, whichever came first, she (there was only one male secretary at that time, I think) was fired. Age discrimination is illegal. I heard about the 50/50 rule from secretaries; they told me things, perhaps because I was known as "the nice one." For example, one secretary might ask another at the end of the day: Are you staying to work the night shift? And the second secretary might answer: Yes, I'm working for the nice one tonight. That's right, I was referred to as the one nice lawyer, out of the 375 lawyers at the firm at that time. And I didn't think I was that nice, because I was depressed and not as nice as I normally would have been, but the standard of nice was low.
And that's right, the day secretaries would leave at 5:00 pm, and the night secretaries would arrive, or a day secretary would stay and work the night shift to earn extra money, while the associates would sometimes be at work day and night. Occasionally I would take advantage of the transition between day and night secretaries and sneak out to the sandwich shop downstairs to see if anything (vegetarian) was left for a late lunch/early dinner, before going back to my desk. If a partner was staying late too, he might order in dinner for the team, so we could eat while working. And if we worked past 10:00 pm, we could take a taxi home and charge it to the firm. Those aspects saved me money, right? Though I paid for it in pain, it seemed.
Radicality again: I remember thinking that if I ever owned a business one day -- would that be my ikigai? my career and purpose that I could contribute to the world and that would also contribute to me -- I would pay men and women the same amount for the same job, thereby doing the right thing instead of the illegal thing. And, I would encourage and reward senior people for sharing their knowledge, not fire them for their loyalty. And, at my future business, we would have no screamers.
Screamers were partners who screamed and shouted at associates. I found this incredibly and unbearably rude and unprofessional. It didn't matter if the associate had made a mistake or not made a mistake, or if the deal was going well or not going well. Screamers screamed. Screamers were always men. Screamers seemed like aggressive bullies, playing an aggressive game. Screamers seemed to congregate; many of them were corporate partners on the 45th floor, called Murderer's Row. I asked myself: Why was I working at a place that had something called Murderer's Row?
The dynamic reminded me of a family I knew in high school: they were a "perfect" stereotypical family on the outside -- wealthy, the dad was a doctor and the mom stayed home, one girl one boy, lived in a McMansion house -- but behind closed doors, the father abused the daughter. The girl ran away to our house for a day. My mother was so kind to her, and told her she didn't have to go home if she didn't want to. But her family came to get her and pressured her and she went home. After that, I was at the girl's house one day, and her mother told her coldly that I couldn't be there. I knew that it was because I knew their secret. I felt sorry not only for my friend, but also for her mother, who seemed to think she couldn't protect her daughter and instead sided with the father and enabled the abuse. Mother and daughter were both victims, it appeared to me. And what would become of the son; would he break the pattern when he grew up, or continue it?
The firm was polished and professional from the outside, and everyone looked well-dressed, clean-cut, and rich, but we had screamers on the inside. This was apparently common at that time, at other firms and companies too. I never could tolerate bullying, and didn't want anyone to abuse me, verbally, financially, or in any way. When a screamer started shouting at me, it was very upsetting, and I would try to focus on my breathing. When he finished, I would tell him that I couldn't work effectively with him toward the client's goals if he were going to shout, and could we find another more positive way of communicating. Sometimes, that would be the last time that a screamer would ever work with me. A partner refusing to give you work was seen as a bad thing for you. Sometimes, however, the partner would shift his behavior, and tone down or eliminate his aggression. Doing my best to stand up to bullies has always been important to me for my own integrity, and sometimes this setting of boundaries and display of self-respect was the step that needed be taken to adjust (or end) a bullying relationship. Sometimes, of course, greater resistance is required, and I have always believed in non-violent action; in any case, I did find it stressful to have to deal regularly with bullying in various forms. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer; was my ikigai in non-violent resistance?
Imagine the feeling of finishing a deal, an enormous, intense project that has been taking your days, nights, and weekends. You are happy, relieved, exhausted, maybe proud of helping a client over a tricky patch or figuring out a creative solution or just getting it done. Maybe you are also a bit upset because you know the happiness and relief will be fleeting as before and that you have to dive deeper into your other projects now and they will take over your life, but at least you have concluded this big project, and the client is happy. Imagine then that the male partner tells the male associates that they're all going out to celebrate at dinner and then at a "gentleman's club," which is a strip club where women are paid to dance and take off their clothes, and that the female associates should stay at the firm and keep working, taking care of organizing the post-closing.
This happened after a deal I worked on at the firm, and I felt like the wind had been knocked from me. I talked with the other woman associate, who was even more junior than me and who was also disgusted. We agreed that we would go home, and give the post-closing to the paralegals in the morning, but what should we do about the strip club situation? We didn't seem to have any recourse or anyone else to talk to about it, just as with the situation of discovering women were being paid less. Recently, I read interviews with Hollywood actresses in the #metoo movement who said part of the problem with harassment in their industry is that they had no Human Resources office to complain to, and I understand that. Even if you are in a workplace with an HR department, however, be careful before you expect HR to take your side; the purpose of HR is in large part to protect the firm (such as by checking race boxes that may not make sense for the employee but help the firm; see above!). The newer associate ended up quitting a few weeks later. I decided for the time being not to work with that partner again.
I wondered what the male associates thought, though I didn't ask them. If I were a man, would I want to go to a strip club, with my boss and co-workers? How would I feel knowing that women were treated in a demeaning manner, at work and at the strip club? In a way, wasn't it as though the money the men were stealing from the women was going to the strip club to demean additional women? Or as though women lawyers were paying men lawyers to be disrespectful? Wouldn't I think this was all horribly unjust, and step up with the women to do something about it?
This was before #metoo, before allies, before women's initiatives at firms, before diversity and inclusion became important workplace words. Current statistics, however, show that women at law firms still work more, are paid less, and do not move up to partner at the rate that men do, even though today 48% of associates are women. Perhaps we need a world women's movement; did you hear about the Swiss women who went on strike recently for wages, time, and respect?
At the time when I was at the firm, not as many women were associates as you would find at law firms today, and only 6% of the senior partners were women where I worked. I sought out work with one of them. She had important clients, I worked hard as always, and I shadowed her hard. Almost every time she turned around, there I was! I learned a great deal from her about organization, professionalism, client relations, and more. I was able to take a lot of work from her plate, freeing her to handle other matters. I also saw some of what she had to sacrifice and tolerate to reach her position, and how at least one male partner actively begrudged her that position, even though she was brilliant and deserved what she had achieved. I turned to her when I had an odd situation in our next episode:
Performance review episode
At this firm, I had the strangest performance review I have ever had. Here's what happened:
Performance reviews at the firm were set up such that you went to the office of a partner you had never worked with, from a different department, who read your review to you. As my scheduled partner read my review to me in his office, he never looked at my face, just at his papers and at my legs. This might have been even more off-putting if I hadn't been a veteran at handling leg oglers; see posts 2 and 3 for accounts of Hamburg lawyers ogling my legs, and see post 2 for a photo of my legs. I let my face show disdain that the partner never saw. But this creepiness is not the weirdest or most alarming part of this episode. At the verbal level, I heard the partner read wonderful positive reviews: partners enjoyed working with me, clients loved me, overall my work was excellent, if I did make a mistake I learned from it and never made the same one twice. He paused. He said: There is one thing. I said: Yes? He said: People feel you're not confident enough. This was unexpected to me; I asked if he could give me an example, and he said no. I asked if there were any tips for improvement on this, and he said no. I asked if I could see the review, and he said no. That was the end of the meeting. I didn't know what to make of this, though clearly something was wrong. I'm not the pushy type, but neither am I shy, and my work style was generally polite yet certainly assertive. Lack of confidence was not something I had ever been accused of before.
I went to the woman partner I had been working for, told her what happened, and asked what it meant. Valerie, she said, every young woman associate is given one of two reviews: not confident enough or too aggressive, so that later if she comes up for partner, she can be denied. In other words, if you behave as more of a "feminine woman," you are labeled not confident enough even if that is not true. If you try to act like one of the boys, you are labeled "too aggressive" even if that is not true. Then, the partners can say: Yes, you do wonderful work, and everyone here thinks you're as great as your clients think you are, yet every year you've been told you're not confident enough / too aggressive, and you haven't changed this, so you can see why we're not able to recommend you for partner, and we wish you good luck in finding a new job.
So that's it, I thought, that's how the racket works. I was playing a rigged game, a losing game, just waiting to be fired for being who I was, or who I wasn't.
Before that happened, I quit. And before I quit, there were so many more episodes and disasters, so many more I want to tell you. I'll tell you a few more for now:
Why associates couldn't go to the holiday party
Office holiday parties are common, even at law firms. At my firm, there were actually two holiday parties: one for partners, one for staff. Associates weren't invited to either one. Here's why:
At a holiday party at some time prior to the start of my work at this firm, some of the partners (male) sexually harassed some of the secretaries (female). To avoid this in the future, it was decided not to have partners and staff at the same holiday party again. If I had been the boss, my response would have been different and would have involved educating the partners about appropriate behavior, and about how to respect women. Of course, I was not there; this is what I was told. The situation may have been worse than described; there were rumors of settlements. In any case, there were separate parties, whether to protect the secretaries, protect the firm from liability, or some other or additional reasons, and associates were left out of both parties and expected to stay at the firm and work.
A new associate, upon hearing this story, decided it must be a misunderstanding that associate attorneys couldn't go to the party with partners and clients, which was held at an elegant hotel, and that he was going to leave the office and go to the event. A couple of other associates and I told him we knew it was absurd, but associates really weren't invited, and if he went he'd be wasting his time and either ignored or thrown out as a party crasher. He went excitedly, he was thrown out immediately, and he came back to the office downcast and disillusioned. That moment stood out to me, and broke my heart more, in a way, than some of the other firm disasters that befell me, because I saw the pain that this job inflicted on others in addition to myself.
A few years ago, long after I had left this firm, I happened to be at the same hotel for another event where the firm office party was being held that same evening. I don't know if the party is still closed to associates, and I thought of posing as a client and crashing to avenge the honor of all former associates, but I was likely to be recognized and decided against it.
Why couldn't associates go to the staff party, by the way? To give the staff a break from any lawyers of any kind, apparently.
Overworked lawyer falls asleep on date in restaurant
There was no second date. Backing up: I had been separated for a year and then divorced for a year from my husband, who had been a truly wonderful and kind person until he developed schizophrenia and refused help. It took me a while to recover my own health and happiness enough to start dating again, and when I did, things started poorly. I kept putting off this date because I was on a deal that kept me working 80 hours a week. The fellow thought I just didn't want to meet up, but I did, so I finally agreed on a time and place. We went to a restaurant called Pasha in Chicago's River North neighborhood -- the restaurant isn't there anymore -- and at one point my date stepped away to visit the men's room. The next thing I remember, he was shaking my shoulder and saying Valerie! Valerie! I had fallen asleep in the restaurant. I jolted awake. I was terribly embarrassed, and my date felt hurt. The space was very dimly lit, but that was no excuse and I didn't try to make one, other than that I was desperately tired from my long days at work. As stated, there was no second date. If my mother hoped I'd find a second husband, this was not the way to do it. For my own sake, regardless of any future dates or spouses, I knew I needed to make a change in my work so that I could enjoy my life.
"Playing partner" episode
Speaking of those 80-hour work-weeks, this takes us back to the billion-dollar deal mentioned in the previous post too, during which we were sent home to sleep in shifts, and after which the client would lay off 15,000 people from their jobs. A situation occurred around the fact that one of the senior associates on the deal was being groomed for partner. What does that mean, and what does that look like? It means that the partners were giving him a chance to show he could become one of them and move up to junior partner. Toward that end, he got to attend client meetings, got to shadow the partners, and was more involved in the strategy behind negotiations than in drawing up the documents that would reflect the outcome of those negotiations -- and was also involved in laughing and joking around with his pal the current junior partner on the deal.
The problem occurred when the senior associate asked me to draft a contract that I knew would not be legally binding overseas. I explained that to make this part of the deal effective in European jurisdictions, we needed a different contract, which I would be happy to draft. No, he said, do it his way. Well, that wouldn't work; this was a multinational deal, plus, I was the lawyer who had come back from working in Germany and was running that portion of the drafting (this involved conference calls at 4 am Chicago time to accommodate lawyers on the other side in Germany, other parts of Europe, and, somehow, Japan), and I knew that this standard document in the US would not accomplish our goal for the Europe portion of the deal. I said that his idea made sense if this were a US-only deal, I explained why the document wouldn't work in Europe where the laws were different, and again I suggested a solution that would work. No, he said, do it his way. Having a logical discussion wasn't working, so, treating him like a bully since he was behaving like one, I said no. I told him we could not spend the client's money on a document that didn't work, nor would we take my precious time away from what did need to be drafted on our very tight time frame.
A good leader is not afraid to admit when he or she is wrong, but this senior associate was not at that point; he was just "playing partner" and from my perspective doing it poorly. There was another senior associate I worked with on other deals who always managed to be respectful; I was glad when I later heard that the respectful senior associate had made partner, as I guess that's what he wanted.
I was also dismayed that this firm which normally produced flawless work was in danger of generating flawed work due to a senior associate's ignorance. The senior associate who was behaving disrespectfully to me (and to the client's money) escalated the situation to his buddy the junior partner, who came to me and said, even though he agreed with my analysis that the contract the senior associate wanted was the wrong one: Just write the document for him. Two bullies. I told him that if letting the senior associate "play partner" was really that important to them, I could ask the senior partner if he wanted me to supervise a paralegal in drafting this extraneous document so that the client would waste less money instead of more money on a needless side project. I reiterated that I was eager to focus on doing my part to get this deal done for the client, and added that I was already over capacity with our long days as it was. The junior partner dropped the matter. We didn't have the term "bro culture" back then, but we had the term "boy's club," and that's what this situation felt like.
I had learned ways to work through or around somewhat similar obstacles at my Hamburg law firms, by either talking with my antagonist directly, or, if that didn't work, going above him (it never seemed to be a her) or threatening to. In this situation, the senior partner was actually a very nice person, who knew that I did not waste time and could be counted on to keep my part of the deal in excellent shape and on schedule. Maybe our senior associate / junior partner duo ultimately realized that if I talked with the senior partner, it would only make them look bad. Or maybe they just decided to drop this battle and go on with the war. Or with bro-joking in the conference room.
What if I told you that after I left the firm, I heard that the disrespectful senior associate did make partner, and that later he received jobs in Republican governments in Washington DC including the current (illegitimate unconstitutional kleptocratic) one? What if I went further and told you this was someone I went to college with, and when I asked him at the firm why I didn't know him before, he said it was because he stayed in his dorm room playing Dungeons and Dragons all the time? (He was ahead of me at the firm by the way because he went straight through from college to law school while I took gap years for travel and more.) The legal profession has found places for him, but not for me.
War and sports but what about manicures
War analogies were, by the way, used frequently by partners and others at the firm, as were sports analogies, and swear words. For example, one partner told me, as we were discussing how I would wrap up a deal: Take the hill! He meant it encouragingly, I think. And I liked working with this partner; he was one who toned down his aggression with me and stopped swearing, and we actually developed a good working relationship. I looked at him and laughed a little bit and said: What hill! I don't think he saw that I was trying to tease him; the firm was again so steeped in war and sports analogies that most people couldn't seem to see it.
Yet if I had said something like: Let's finish the manicure! or made up some other sort of nail polish analogy or spa reference, that would have been seen as frivolous. Why were the client outings to baseball games or golf seen as normal, but anything feminine such as a spa outing would have been seen as ridiculous? What's the difference? Years later, after having left the law, I would found a Spa & Cupcakes group where business women and professionals could do what men had always been doing: network and relax, but instead of doing it over drinks at a football game we did it over manicures and cupcakes at the spa!
Meanwhile, the partners could speak and act how they wanted to, but I couldn't; this felt to me like another way I didn't belong.
Opinion letter -- an episode that is about as close to lighthearted as we will get
Now I'm thinking of the time I got lipstick on an opinion letter. If you are a corporate lawyer, your heart probably sank upon reading that. Not much seemed humorous or lighthearted at this firm. It was serious and masculine and aggression-driven. Little absurd moments happened, however, because that is life. Sometimes these moments happened when femininity said: Look, I'm here, adjust to it.
An opinion letter is one of the most important documents a law firm generates. It is written by a partner at the law firm at the request of the client, and it is addressed to the other side in a corporate transaction. This transaction might involve buying and selling a company, or a complex financing and loan arrangement between a syndicate of banks and a corporation borrowing money from those banks. The letter promises that the partner's client is authorized to enter the agreement at issue and is not violating any laws or other agreements by doing so. If something goes wrong in the deal, not just the client but the entire law firm could be held liable. That means a lot of money is at stake, and the letter itself, as well as the underlying facts, must be perfect, so that the firm lessens or eliminates its risk and cannot lose money or reputation.
Preparing an opinion letter at the end of a deal was like delicately putting the cake topper on top of an elaborately decorated multi-tiered cake: so much hard work and so many long hours had gone into the project, that you had better not mess it up now. The associate would prepare the letter, and would bring it to the partner who would review it very carefully before signing it. Then the associate would add the signed letter to the closing documents, and the parties would conclude the transaction. Imagine the letter being carried on a velvet pillow at all times, or being escorted by a team of bodyguards, or being in a metal suitcase handcuffed to someone's wrist for security -- none of those things was reality, but that gives you an idea of the importance of an opinion letter and how seriously the entire process was taken.
Well, after we had gone through all of the main steps, and I had prepared the opinion letter, and carried it carefully to the partner's office, and stood while he read it and read it again and signed it, and carried it carefully back to my desk, I somehow smudged it with lipstick from my finger. I tried to get the lipstick off, but that only rubbed it in more. I thought about trying white-out, but that looks sloppy and would not be acceptable. I asked the secretaries for help; no one knew a way to remove lipstick from opinion letters printed on expensive letterhead. I did the only thing I could: printed out a new unsigned original, told the partner what happened, and gave him the new one to sign. He sighed, but signed it without a word.
This was the same partner who said Hrmph in the previous post when I told him I had to have emergency surgery on a Friday, and who lectured me the following Monday on why it was wrong not to have changed my outgoing voicemail message to let him (or any other callers, though there were no other callers, at least none who left messages) know I wouldn't be checking messages over the weekend (while recovering from the general anesthetic).
Well, so much for my attempt at a lighthearted story from this firm.
I would add to that: sometimes after you cut, you still have to alter.
Terrible lesson: The misogyny I thought I'd left behind in Germany was waiting for me in greater force in the US, at a law firm that was elegant and prestigious on the outside, but where inside the partners wanted me to sacrifice my health and dignity, paid women less than men, and had a system in place to eject women for being women.
Positive lesson: I could still stand up to bullies. But why was I in an environment with bullies? When would I find an environment that matched my values?
There I was, a young lawyer who didn't enjoy my work, and didn't feel respected due to a gender pay gap and a culture that not only felt abusive and non-inclusive but apparently was constructed to be exactly that. I didn't see a future for myself at this firm. Or a future for myself in dating if I didn't arrange my life to be able to stay awake during dinner. Where was my ikigai, my purpose? Would you have quit at this point if you were me, and if so would you have quit just the job, or the entire legal profession?
Before I did any quitting of job or profession, there were more disasters to come, including in New York, and including with a stalker. There were also disasters at my next job as a lawyer, at a firm where the quality of work done by the people I worked with was atrocious, on top of the misogyny and misery and general ramshackle-ry. For example, a partner threatened to fire me if I didn't sign an opinion letter even though associates don't have that authority. That's like your boss threatening to fire you if you don't sell him the Brooklyn Bridge when you don't own the Brooklyn Bridge. Also still to come: disasters at my job after that, as an in-house attorney at a multinational corporation, where my boss -- also a lawyer -- told me that if I didn't break the law he would make my life miserable. I didn't, and he did. I don't even put those two jobs on my resume. Are you starting to think I was starting to realize I didn't want any more bosses?
Those disasters and more ... coming soon!
But first: pie.
|Recently I put Dick Taylor chocolate onto Hoosier Mama pie, and put both onto one of my beloved blue-and-white plates. I bought these dishes new when I was a lawyer, and they are now vintage, having outlasted my law career!|