Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Link List: "Tiger" Moms and Ann Taylor Dresses

The photo is from brunch at the trendy Butcher's Daughter, which was only okay. It was one of the less flavorful avocado toast dishes I've ever had. That's not dirt on the outer edge of the plate, it's just... intentionally chipped, or at least, intentionally not replaced after it chipped.

1. // I generally appreciate a reminder about Amy Chua's much talked-about memoir from years back, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (affiliate link), as it's one of those books that's really had an emotional impact on me. For better or worse (probably mostly the latter), I relate to Chua as she describes herself, though I find her general approach to book marketing and sensationalized scholarship rather... unsavory. Except that I'd also absolutely love to have her life, be a legal academic who doesn't actually write about law and instead sticks her nose into topics she doesn't have a higher degree in, so you know, maybe I'm just jealous.

The article I linked does start from a flawed premise, as I don't think Eleanor Young from Crazy Rich Asians (affiliate link) is a "Tiger Mom" in that stereotypical sense. She's just rich and stuck up. Still, I always appreciate more discussion of Asian-American identity.

2. // Rarely have I seen someone affected so quickly and dramatically by internet mob justice. It's shocking how bad his public behavior had been over the years, enough that several people, at several points in time, felt the need to film it, and now it's all coming out. I don't feel even an ounce of sympathy, though I'm also not sure he can be disbarred for speech made outside the context of his work as an attorney. (The answer to this legal question is likely fairly complicated, enough that there are probably colorable arguments both ways. It's a bit beyond the ambit of the basic required education in our professional responsibility rules.)     

3. // There was some interesting discussion on r/blogsnark about Refinery29's Money Diaries. For all that this particular subreddit has its roots in a strange and nasty corner of the internet, and things sometimes get weird, I've found that it's generally pretty good, as far as internet spaces go. It attracts a crowd of mostly fairly reasonable and intelligent women. I certainly find them more consistently reasonable than, say, the Corporette crowd. Sometimes, some really mean stuff is said, but it usually gets swiftly and decisively downvoted to oblivion. Someone made the sad but accurate point that, even as the Money Diaries commentariat is unusually nasty, they're also generally pretty ill-informed about basic things like how tax and pre-tax deductions simply won't look the same at every job, in every state, among other things.

There were some interesting discussions on r/femalefashion advice too, one about what to do when a significant other makes critical comments about your style and how complicated that relationship question can be (though in general, they really shouldn't be doing that), and one far more lighthearted discussion about what your favorite brand says about you. As for me personally, the question of whether I even have a favorite brand is difficult to answer, much less what it says about me. There's also a difference between brands I like and brands that would do a better job representing who I am.

4. // Congratulations to Audrey on being done with college! College can be such a wonderful, special time, one that I did not appreciate enough while I was there. (I really hoped that law school would be College 2.0, but alas, that's not usually the case. I do really miss being a student, though.) Luxe did a great interview with photographer Alice Gao, providing an unique perspective on personal finance. I came away from it with a lot of respect for Alice's entrepreneurial spirit (and for Luxe's interview-writing skills)! Jess did a post about that life milestone of moving in with a significant other and needing to downsize and Engineer L did a post about the feeling of empowerment that comes from finding and taking to a new physical fitness habit, both experiences that I can relate to. (My own fitness epiphany, that brief time in law school when I had time to run outdoors and a nice nearby park to do it in, was, however, extremely short-lived.)

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5. // Speaking of brands that might sort of represent who I am, for better or for worse, one of those brands is still Ann Taylor, even if I've become distressed by their design choices and quality issues over the years. While their sister brand Loft is suddenly and decisively "dead to me", Ann Taylor still does the occasional dress of the type I look for (conservative, generally with little feminine details here and there, and has potential for both work and play, though the dresses get boring if I wear them to every single wedding I attend).

As for what Ann Taylor says about a person who gravitates towards it? Well, I'm not sure it's terribly flattering. At some point, someone pointed me to this very old Washington Post piece about the brand and its place in Washington D.C. style. The article's not very nice, nor is it likely accurate about any of it, really, but I confess I was sort of entertained by it and could relate to bits and pieces. There was a response piece. All this provides a strange and awkward transition to the below, a short list of Ann Taylor's current dress offerings that I would consider buying, if I were in the market. For certain wardrobe needs, they still get it right (but that's not very high praise).

Is there a brand that you think represents you? Is that the same thing as your actual favorite brand? Did you have any thoughts on Amy Chua's memoir back in the day? It really brings up some complicated feelings for me, including that I resent her use of the stereotypes (which are harmful) to sell her book. Except that I also see a lot of myself in her, which is an uncomfortable thing. (If I was living the dream of being a legal academic that could write about whatever I wanted, I'd probably write some really boring and probably not very good scholarship about Chinese bistory that nobody would read or buy.)

Friday, May 18, 2018

A Biglaw-Ish Attorney's Money Map

This post is inspired primarily by the money map posts by Luxe and Jess. I tend to be a little obsessive in how much I enjoy tracking my money data every which way: I use Personal Capital and YNAB near-daily, and draw up an additional Excel spreadsheet now and again, so making a visualization like this was right up my alley. Whether all my tracking is useful is another question entirely. I'm notoriously averse to actually doing math and attempting to make projections for important things like when I'll finishing paying off my student loans, even though I totally have more than enough data for the task. (The projections above are courtesy of plugging the numbers into Unbury.Me. For more advanced calculations, I recommend Vertex42's debt reduction spreadsheet.)

Longtime readers may know that I'm not shy with transparency about some very specific financial details, though I'm also oddly reluctant to type out actual numbers in full because, to be frank, they're big and scary (the loans for obvious reasons, the salary because it's so temporary). There's no point being too coy, though, because the biglaw payscale is so standardized and transparent, including bonuses, as were clerkship salaries (rates in the larger NYC metro area, term clerks are generally limited to step one of JSP-11, JSP-12, and JSP-13, so only a sliver of the chart is relevant). I'm in a different part of the industry now, but my salary matches biglaw, though my bonuses will be less (maybe far less) than half of the biglaw market rate.

Some percentages in my money map are fudged, but the general picture is accurate. For instance, I set my actual 401(k) contribution rate last year, before my annual raise, so it's higher than ~8.8%. I'll stop making contributions in mid-November, once I'm maxed out. I've already maxed out my backdoor Roth IRA for 2018, so my contributions were higher in earlier months, but I'm done now.

The student loan-related numbers, arguably the most important ones, are accurate. And I wish it weren't so, because darn, there's still a long way to go, years after graduation and after ~$65,500 in payments and counting. My ability to repay in earnest was curtailed when I spent ~14 months clerking, which brings a significant pay cut. (It's an extravagantly expensive choice, but one that opens certain career doors that would otherwise be closed.) The hypothetical three-year plan I described, which isn't actually in the cards, requires monthly payments of more than $4,700! For 36 months going forward! The six-year plan still calls for monthly payments of more than $2,500! (I'll probably be able to knock a few months off the projections with year-end bonuses, which I couldn't factor in here because the numbers are so uncertain. Either way, terrifying!)

The main thing that requires further explanation is the "E-Fund, Planned Expenses >6 months" piece that I group under "Net worth positive" activities. Classifying the emergency fund that way is uncontroversial, I think. I really hope not to dip into it in the forseeable future, but in the unhappy event that I must, that's why it's there. Classifying money set aside for other major expenses expected to hit more than six months from now this way is perhaps a little odd (at least when that number mostly represents a certain elective surgery), but at some point savings for more traditionally "net worth positive" things, like a down payment on a home, will be part of that number.

One big omission is Charitable Giving, which will likely be done late in the year in a lump sum or two of yet to be determined size, to yet to be determined cause(s), but probably something like Planned Parenthood and a local pro bono legal services organization. I must confess, with regards to charitable giving, I struggle sometimes because the benefits of the small amounts I'm able to contribute (thanks, student loans!) feel so minuscule and abstract, especially when compared to the far more concrete benefits of my pro bono work. I've had a pretty good run of success with my cases (lion's share of the credit to my wonderful, dedicated supervisors), and my 150+ hours of service a year while practicing have truly helped people, which is incredible. But I'm also acutely aware of how much work and resources (and thus, money) it takes to meaningfully assist just... three or four individuals and their families. It'll never feel like enough. Of course, the organizations I would donate to are far more efficient in their good works than I am! Still, as an attorney, I may be in a category where, due to highly specialized qualifications, my time is far more valuable than what money I'm able to put to charitable giving at this point.

Another thing I didn't break out into its own category, but that is a significant part of my expenses, is Travel, for which I allocate around ~3.5% of my post-tax income most months. Presently, about half of that is in "Living Expenses" (for a trip sometime this fall with K, probably to Japan) and another half is in "Planned Expenses" (for a trip to Europe with my mom and sister sometime in 2019, which I'll shoulder most of the financial burden on, in keeping with my income). I broke out shopping into it's own category just for fun. The ~4% of post-tax income is for the year to date, but it should decrease as the months go by because my first few months were unusually spend-y.

Please follow the link below for some additional rambling about the cost of law school!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

On the Hunt: Cuyana Tall Tote

Once in a long while, I'll get an odd and powerful fixation on a very specific item, months or even years after I first encountered it, whether on a blog or on some stylish stranger I saw walking around on the street. Such a thing accounted, most recently, for my rather sudden purchase of the Coach Rogue.

It's a separate and distinct phenomenon from if I ever make a decision about a "distant future splurge", whether a designer bag or something similarly lofty. These are, instead, desires for something that often started at a relatively modest price point, something like a  particular Madewell or J.Crew dress that I totally had the opportunity to buy (on sale, even) while it was still in stores. Sometimes, I specifically considered the item too, and chose to pass on it at the time, only to regret it later. They tend to be somewhat obscure items, not the kind of thing one could easily obtain right away in the correct size and/or color, even with a ready willingness to pay close to retail, though the process often turns out somewhat quick, only a few weeks or months of occasional Ebay searches. 

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My most recent such fixation, which has simmered for quite some time, is the long-discontinued Cuyana Tall Tote in black. A few years ago, I saw someone carrying it in an airport, and it seemed, with its squared off sides, to have a neater and distinct look compared to the wider Cuyana Classic Tote (which they still sell in a wide range of colors). Even then, the black tall tote had long since sold out. I checked back frequently and put myself on the waitlist, only for it to never return. I have the classic tote in brown, actually, a generous Christmas gift from K the year before last, which I love and use quite frequently. If I was able to find the tall tote, it'd fill a slightly different niche, the one that is admittedly already sort of occupied by that Marc by Marc Jacobs Too Hot to Handle hobo bag I splurged on last year (similar in other colors). The dimensions for the tall tote may not even be that different from those of the classic tote, as seen below, but from that one quick glimpse at the airport, I suppose my brain is absolutely convinced that the slight size and shape differences have a  noticeable impact, and make it a very different bag.

I've been searching hard, and have yet to find anything similar in the same general size, in black leather, and with the squared off sides. The Baggu Basic Leather Tote doesn't seem to be the right shape or size, it's probably a bit too tall and floppy (though there may be different sizes? either way, it lacks the squared off sides). The Everlane Day Magazine Tote may actually be the right shape and size. To my eyes, it has almost the exact look of the Cuyana Tall Tote, except that the leather texture appears quite different, smoother (and possibly more prone to scratches and scuffs as a result), and less "squishy", for lack of a better word. Because I know I quite like the texture of the Cuyana leather, from my experience with my Classic Tote (it's highly resistant to showing wear and tear), I suspect I'd find the texture difference distracting, and the Everlane one is off the table.

So I'll be hunting Ebay and Poshmark (this particular fixation could result in my first ever Poshmark transaction, should I find it there). This item's proven  rather elusive, and searching occasionally on Ebay over the months, even years,  has proven unavailing. 

Do you ever get oddly specific shopping fixations like this? Does it usually take long to find the item you're seeking? In my case, it's normally a relatively quick process, because I most commonly end up looking for items that were still available at retail stores within the last year, so it's generally easy to find them in at least a few sizes, though not necessarily my exact size/color combination. Older items can take much longer, though, as in this case!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

An Overworked Attorney's Blue Apron Review

The ingredients for pork chops with "salsa verde".

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we've been trying Blue Apron. I feel guilty about it too, because I know its a questionable choice, from both environmentalist/low-waste and frugality perspectives. I really would prefer a lifestyle where I could plan and cook my own meals. But neither K nor I have such a lifestyle right now, so it came down to either this or ordering delivery food from Seamless more often. And we're really tired of even our favorite local places on Seamless, where, as with most restaurant food, the dishes are often less healthy and come in excessive portions.

So that's how we decided to try Blue Apron. We ended up getting  Blue Apron for nine weeks total, getting one box for free due to using a friend's referral code. That should be enough time for a full assessment. My overall conclusion is that it often feels like a bad value and the recipes take too long (60 to 80 minutes each), so I'm inclined to cancel. Cancellations, by the way, must be done by contacting their customer service, rather than simply logging in to their website. (I generally don't like this retention tactic by online subscription services. It's not promising when they make it hard to cancel.)

First, the nitty-gritty: Including shipping, the smallest Blue Apron box option, for two meals for two people, or four servings, a week is $51.95, which works out to ~$12.99/meal or ~$26.00/dinner for two. Portion sizes for grains (farro, quinoa, couscous) are large, and could generate enough food for a third, or even fourth serving, but they're a bit stingy with everything else. For meat and fish, they generally promise approximately 10 ounces for two people. While groceries are very expensive in NYC, I could generally make a much more generously sized meal  for two with a "fancy" protein like salmon or beef for around $17 to $21, so Blue Apron is expensive even by NYC standards. This probably makes it a major extravagance in any other part of the country!

The completed pork chops and "salsa verde" with sides of sautéed kale and roast potatoes.

Blue Apron Pros: 
  • (1) Wide range of recipes to choose from each week, usually four dishes with meat or fish, four vegetarian dishes, and a pasta dish that might or might not contain meat; 
  • (2) every shipment is on time and problem-free, and I don't doubt that they'd be willing to make it right with a refund if any problems arose; 
  • (3) the service is quite convenient (obviously) as everything comes in the right quantity, no meal planning or shopping needed; and 
  • (4) it may be a good way to build kitchen skills and expand one's comfort zone with cooking, allowing one to start planning and cooking their own meals in the future. 

Blue Apron Cons:
  • (1) Expensive and a bad value, even by NYC grocery standards, as I mentioned above, and they also sometimes nickel and dime us with smaller than promised portions (I got 9.1 ounces of salmon instead of a promised 10 ounces once) or meat that feel like cheap trimmings (any of the dishes with chopped up beef); 
  • (2) lack of variety in flavors and ingredients, in nine weeks I got dishes with this same "salsa verde" of chopped capers, parsley, and garlic no less than three times, and had carrots and kale almost once a week (I like kale, but I don't like carrots), and by now I feel like I've seen all the flavor profiles they have to offer;
  • (3) extremely fussy recipes, they say their recipes are supposed to take 30 to 40 minutes, but 70 to 80 minutes is the actual norm, unless I start dramatically omitting steps, and most of it is "active" cooking time where I'm busy chopping or tending something on the stove and often multitasking, rather than "passive' cooking time waiting for something to simmer or roast; and that leads into 
  • (4) the recipes don't seem optimally designed, and while I'm an experienced home cook with a high level of comfort in the kitchen, many of the instructions seemed odd or clunky to me, resulting in a few memorable mistakes (couscous instructions, in particular, didn't work). 

What do I mean by "fussy" recipes? Well, I recently received my first Hello Fresh box, and while the jury's still out on whether I think that's a better service, the first recipe I cooked, pesto chicken with roast potatoes, was such a refreshing change from Blue Apron. It was so much simpler!, I chopped up and lightly seasoned some potatoes and popped them in the oven (<10 minutes); put some pre-made pesto on chicken breasts before coating the tops in a bread crumb mixture and put that in the oven (<12 minutes); and made side salad (<5 minutes) while the other items roasted for ~20 minutes. If it was a Blue Apron recipe, they'd have me making the pesto, which ultimately would have been time consuming and likely wouldn't have been as good as what Hello Fresh sent in a jar. They'd probably have swapped out the salad for sautéed kale, and might have had the chicken cooked on the stove, in the same pan as the kale. (Blue Apron's generally reluctant to ship vegetables less hardy than kale or broccoli, which contributes to the lack of variety. They'd almost never send salad.)

Monday, May 7, 2018

Will I be Judged for Not Having Expensive Clothes or Bags (in Biglaw)?

I often allude to feeling some anxiety about dressing more cheaply than many of my peers, and sometimes feeling out of place, "too poor" for this profession. It's madness, because I grew up privileged and never wanted for anything. I just don't come from the kind of background so many of my peers and colleagues seemed to (given, say, how more than half my cost of attendance for undergrad was covered by need-based financial aid). This worry isn't a big part of my day to day life. In the end, I'm reasonably comfortable wearing my J.Crew Factory suits to court and to interviews, and it's all turned out fine. That being said, because I've never been discerning enough to tell the difference between a cheap and expensive suit on anyone else, and because I've never tried on a suit more expensive than Ann Taylor, there's always a part of me that wonders whether other people can tell. I'm confident it's never cost me a job or anything, but this is a profession that values conformity to expectations and rules more than most. 

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So my answer to the this question, which came up recently on "TLS" (the primary internet forum for law students), might be surprising. It's a firm no for women in NYC biglaw. No one will judge you for not having expensive clothes or handbags, provided that items fit you reasonably well and are appropriate for your setting (dress codes and levels of formality can differ quite a bit by firm). I've never been given any real reason to believe my occasional anxiety about this topic is well-founded. I had a hard time with my first-ever law internship because I simply didn't have enough work-appropriate items, and I ended up feeling very self-conscious about how my attempts to "make do" didn't quite work, but since then, I've not had any real problems. Some might assume that at the biglaw income level, there's an expectation to wear expensive clothes all the time, but that's definitely not true. Most of us are far too busy to pay attention to what anyone else is wearing, unless it's standing out in some glaringly obvious way. 

Out of anything on TV in recent memory, I find Karen Page's wardrobe in Daredevil to be a very good approximation of what biglaw associates wear at business casual firms, with the exception of the dress in the middle (at least without a sweater or jacket). 

The answers people gave largely conformed with my understanding, that the price of the items in your work wardrobe is not a thing to worry about, and that people only notice things that stand out, and generally only because they're not appropriate for the particular dress code culture of the office. Other fashion-conscious individuals might pay a bit of attention to something that looks very snazzy, but that's generally just to notice that their colleague is fashionable and has good taste.

The suggestion of getting a nice watch is a bit off base, at least at the firms I've been at, where most junior associates don't wear or notice each other's watches (the fanciest one I ever noticed was a Shinola). Someone more senior is just as likely to be sporting an Apple Watch, with the silicone sportband no less, or a Fitbit, as anything else. I myself am partial to Skagen, either the larger Anita or the smaller Freja.

The $50 handbag price OP mentioned probably won't get you a leather bag at retail, but can definitely buy a suitable professional-looking faux leather tote. If one is willing to step up a bit in price for leather in the under $200 range, the Fossil Emma tote is fairly affordable, and I've also heard someone vouch for the Cuyana zipper tote. For non-leather professional-looking bags in the under $200 range, one will always fit in with the large Longchamp Le Pliage in black, gray, or navy, or the black Lonchamp Neo. Note that, outside of one's time as a summer associate, when there are frequent social events, or when one is headed to court or off-site meetings, few people will ever see your handbag except when you're on your way in or out of the office for your commute.  

My one concern about OP's post was their mention of how they generally relied on business formal-looking things from Zara, not so much because of the price point, but because, in my experience, it is harder to find a well-fitting, definitely work-appropriate item from Zara than from other brands that cost about the same, or only slightly more (Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, J.Crew with their frequent sales, J.Crew Factory, and in the past, Loft). I have a basic blazer from Zara that I really like. It somehow fit perfectly, was affordable, and is made of a softer fabric that is comfier most, but I'm fairly certain that's a rare find. So I'd likely encourage OP to shop more from one of those standard mall brands for workwear. One also finds the occasional piece from Uniqlo (like the smart style ankle length pants) or Old Navy (like that ponte blazer). And of course, there's always the (probably better) option of shopping secondhand. Thredup always has a robust selection of J.Crew and most of the other workwear brands. Certain arguably "fancier" brands like Tory Burch or Diane von Furstenberg can be found for more J.Crew-like prices at TheRealReal.

One other thing I'd be concerned about with business formal from Zara is durability. K and I have found that some suits don't hold up that well to frequent wear, even if trips to the dry cleaner are kept to a minimum. As I mentioned in a discussion with Archana, even pricey men's suits (his primary interview and court suit is wool from Brooks Brothers, nicer than anything I own) don't necessarily hold up well to only occasional wear over several years. I had thought my collection of older all-synthetic suits (mostly Ann Taylor Seasonless Stretch) was holding up extremely well, though more recently, I've noticed a rip where the shoulder attaches to the sleeves in one jacket. Previously, the only problems I've ever had were with jacket linings, which do tear with frequent wear. Granted, I don't have any direct experience of whether something from H&M or Zara would do worse than something from Ann Taylor, but the lesson I take from this is that suits are more fragile than one might expect. Spending a bit more upfront may be a good idea for something that absolutely must look presentable, and for which the need will come up with unpredictable frequency.

Certain other categories are particularly good for "saving" on, such as shoes for wearing around the office, because so many office-dwelling women commute in sneakers or boots and switch shoes at their desk. There are several biglaw associates out there who swear by the Payless Karmen pump, if you're so inclined. I do think people are better served by shoes that are comfortable for walking in, which for me, often means spending a bit more (mostly Cole Haan and Sam Edelman), but one generally only needs fancier shoes for walking within the building, from office to conference room. Court appearances and off-site meetings can be rare for junior associates, so there's not as much need for one's more formal-looking shoes to "travel" well. Still, the need could come up, so I value having walkable formal-looking shoes. For me, that's the Sam Edelman Petty booties in fall/winter and the Cole Haan Tali bow flats when the weather is too warm for tights. The former are comfortable for a whole day of walking, but the latter are only good for a half day.

Do people judge each other for what they wear in your profession? I assume that NYC law and finance-type offices are some of the most conservative and formal anywhere in the country, with the possible exception of Washington D.C. (though I imagine the rules of professional dress there are slightly different, and maybe a bit more conservative).