I Wish I Would Have Known

5 years ago

I recently marked ten years since my university convocation (or in simpler terms, my graduation from law school). It seems like yesterday and a lifetime ago all at once. This time of year always brings out the commencement addresses and valedictorian speeches - all reflections of what our time spent at these institutions of higher learning has meant, and what it will mean to us down the road. For all the generalizations, this is ultimately a personal endeavour. The only truism that applies to everyone is that it has had an effect. Period.

As I was reflecting on the fact that "OMG HOW COULD IT HAVE POSSIBLY BEEN TEN YEARS?", I thought about what advice I would have for young women graduating from law school today. Had I known then what I know now, would I have done things differently? What would I tell my 23-year-old self about what was ahead?

1. You must learn to manage your expectations.

I don't know what exactly I expected for my career when I graduated law school. I think there's a general expectation when you graduate with a law degree that it's only a matter of time before you're making the big bucks. But then maybe you don't get hired back. Maybe you start to doubt whether you want to practice law in the first place. Maybe other, more interesting opportunities appear. Maybe you realize that instead of being a big time corporate lawyer you would much rather practice family law, or estate law, or something not quite as "glamorous" as you originally thought you'd like. Not living up to your own expectations can be difficult to come to terms with, but it's essential if you ever want to be happy with your life.

2. If you are aiming to win the rat race, you will lose.

Lawyers are inherently competitive. It's why we find the profession so attractive. We want to win in court. We want to negotiate the better deal. Our client will always come out on top. It's natural for this mindset to extend to who has the bigger house, or the bigger salary or the most toys. There is, however, a problem if you are spending your life at a job you don't like just for the privilege of coming out on top in this fictional contest. If you realize that this is happening in your life, then you need to...

3. Ask yourself, What are you working for?

All the money and toys in the world will not be worth it if you do not like the answer to this question. The thing about a law degree is that it is so transferable. It is nearly impossible to not find at least one area that you are passionate about. You may use it to practice law, or you may turn to another career path. At one point you may realize that you do not define yourself by your job title. As one friend said, "I no longer say that I'm a Professor. I say that I teach at the university."

I know that I have found the greatest satisfaction when I feel like I'm helping people solve problems that are having a profound impact on their life. So much about law is helping people "win" or make more money or not lose quite as much money. It just seemed trivial in the big picture. Find something you can truly believe in.

4. You may need to adjust your original career goals once you have a family.

I know a lawyer who worked as a paralegal when her kids were small. Once they were in school she went back to practice at a mid-size firm, and eventually found herself working in-house at a bank. She has established herself as an expert in her field and is widely sought after and quoted by media across the country. Working as a paralegal may have delayed her career path, but then again, it might not have turned out quite the same way either (this also relates to #1, managing expectations).

I also know of several lawyers who have settled into life as associates, realizing that partnership is not a Gold Star, but an incredible responsibility. Some have even managed to negotiate arrangements with their firms to work from home or have a reduced work week so that they can spend more time with their kids. Maybe you will seek out an area of the law that is more conducive to accommodating family life (like the government!). These women have found that they can have a very fulfilling career without following the traditional career trajectory.

I know that I intentionally avoided applying for jobs at big firms because I didn't believe that I would be able to balance those particular job demands with a young family. It might be too late for you now - you may have already snagged one of those prestigious articling positions - but remember that you don't have to stay if you don't want to.

4. Your children can be just as pushy and insolent as any senior partner, and both have the ability to make you cry. Just don't ever do it in front of either.

Still, you might ask yourself if you want to work for someone who makes you cry.

5. Accommodating the needs of your family does not mean that you are any less committed to your job.

This is an important one for women and is something that you likely already know in your heart. No matter what the profession, there is a tendency to equate face-time in the office with commitment to the job. While it's true that someone with a thriving practice of their own - or their own firm - might not be able to take a long maternity leave, you shouldn't have to feel guilty if you have to leave to look after a sick child or be scared to ask if you can leave for a few hours in the afternoon to attend a dance recital or take someone to soccer practice. Not to mention, telecommuting has come a long, long, way. There is very little that cannot be done from home.. What I have noticed among my colleagues is that if you do good work, get the job done, and treat your clients well, then your employer will be more willing to give you this kind of flexibility.

Take, for example, the Mother's Day Tea at my son's preschool. First, I need to recognize that my own employer has let me adjust my schedule to be able to take my son to preschool. This is awesome and not something I ever take for granted. I go to work early on Tuesdays and Thursdays and leave just before noon. Among the other Moms at preschool there are several that work outside the home, but I'm almost sure that every single one was there that day. At least three had taken time off work to be there (usually dads or grandparents do the drop-off). One told me she had rearranged a conference call so that she could be there.

These are the kind of people you want to work for: ones that don't blink an eye when you say that you would like to rearrange a conference call so that you can go eat cupcakes with your son at the preschool Mother's Day Tea.

6. Balancing a career and motherhood requires help.

If you do not have a supportive partner, it will be very tough. I don't know if there's an easier way to say that. Failing a supportive partner, perhaps you will have family or friends nearby who can also pitch in. If you have none of these, then all I can do is wish you good luck and hope that you can at least find good child care.

7. When in doubt, go with your gut.

There is probably a lot more I could say. The problem is that advice - when you're not directly in the situation - is always taken with a grain of salt. We think that it will be easy to follow until we're actually in the situation and then it all goes out the window.

Like, how to deal with a boss who calls your pregnancy a "problem" because it doesn't fit into his plans? How do you go about finding and interviewing child care that fits for your family? How do you make the decision to stay home? To go back to work? When?

I don't pretend to have all the answers. Actually, that's not entirely true. Sometimes I pretend to have all of the answers; now is not one those times. This advice won't necessarily work for you. It is simply stuff I wish I would have known.

I'm interested to hear what advice any other lawyer moms have for new grads. Am I totally off the mark?

Credit Image: Ricky Romero via Flickr

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