Tuesday, April 16, 2019

That Five or Ten-Year Plan

Via the New York Times, from a series where they interviewed a group of women junior associates at one biglaw firm in 2001, and then checked in again with some of them in 2013.

I'm a regular reader over at Corporette, a habit that began around 2016 or 2017. It's a bit of an odd internet community, more a message-board for whatever readers want to talk about rather than anything to do with the blog's actual content. Things get weird sometimes, people occasionally say absurd and unkind things (see, e.g., this discussion), and there's the occasional troll about. But many other comments can be insightful or interesting, and so I keep going back. And hey, to the extent that I still feel a powerful nostalgia for an old-fashioned and "retro" style of blogging (circa 2009), Corporette certainly fits that bill! I specifically remember a college friend recommending the site to me in 2009, but I couldn't quite get into it then, maybe because I hadn't yet started working. In any case, the site has changed very little since.

There was a great discussion there recently about people's five or ten-year plans, both on a personal and professional level. A little over five years ago, in November 2013 (so if one is inclined to split hairs, it's turned out to be a discussion about six and eleven-year plans instead), they'd posted something asking about where readers hoped to be in five years, and then in ten. This year, it was time to check in about whether things had gone as planned. The answers were a mixed bag, which isn't exactly surprising, as life is complicated and unpredictable. When it comes to my own life, things also didn't turn out exactly as I hoped. But that's actually a good thing! If things had happened the way I planned, I wouldn't be in this new job that I greatly enjoy.

The original inspiration for this discussion was a set of New York Times features that had done essentially the same exercise in the decade prior, interviewing 21 women junior associates at one top biglaw firm in 2001, and then going back to some of them in 2013. And the pattern of how things changed between 2001 and 2013 is, in my view, substantially similar to the pattern of changes for the 2013 and 2019 group. That's consistent with how diversity and equality-related conditions have not improved substantially in the legal industry between 2001, 2013, and now. (Things are far better than when Justice Ginsburg was starting out, when many firms openly stated they would "engage no women" as a matter of policy. But it's commonly understood that, at some point in the decades since, things began to stall.)

One theme common to many of the Corporette updates was that people (particularly those on the cusp of starting their career, or in the earliest stages of it, in 2013) often found that certain obstacles in their industry or workplace, particularly ones related to discrimination, including harassment and #metoo problems, were far more powerful than expected. Oftentimes, people who, in 2013, were optimistic that discrimination might not directly affect their own career trajectory or workplace had those hopes dashed somewhat, and would now describe themselves as having been too naive about these realities in 2013. Many who encountered those types of challenges made a choice that it wasn't worth it to stay where they were. A lot of those people were attorneys, and I can vouch for how common that experience is in this industry.

More happily, there were also many who found that, for serendipitous reasons, life moved in a different direction from what they originally planned. And indeed, even for some who ran face-first into discrimination-related challenges and found that they couldn't stay with their original company, or even in the profession they originally planned on, there was also some of this more positive effect at play. That's another thing I've also found to be true for myself.

With that context in mind, this is how I would answer the questions about where I was in 2013; where I am now in 2019, and whether things had gone according to plan; and where I hope to be in 2024:

2013: In November 2013, I was almost done with my first semester of 2L year. I had accepted an offer to be a biglaw summer associate, and I was cautiously optimistic. It would be my first white-collar office job. I thought of myself as smart, hard-working, and driven, so I hoped I'd be a good associate. I knew that, for financial reasons, I needed to start my career in biglaw, and would need to stay for several years. By 2019, I expected to still be in biglaw, where I would be a fourth-year associate with, hopefully, a fair amount of responsibility. But I already knew, deep-down, that I was unlikely to stay in biglaw forever. By 2013, it was already well-known to my peers and I that "making partner" was extremely unlikely, something that could only happen for a small percentage of any given class of new associates (less than 25%, maybe far less). So it would have been foolish to count on making partner, just as a matter of cold, hard math. Thus, by 2019, I'd also expect to be thinking about next steps in my career, outside of biglaw.

But if anyone senior to me at my new firm asked, I'd never actually tell them I thought I'd need to leave the firm someday, as that would make me sound less than fully dedicated! Actually, a lot things I would have said about my hopes and expectations for my career would have sounded noncommittal and undecided: I didn't yet know what practice group I wanted, whether transactional or litigation (though I had enjoyed all the litigation-related work I'd done thus far, so in hindsight, I was ready to commit). I had some inkling that I wanted to clerk, but not immediately upon graduation, again for financial reasons. That, in hindsight, was arguably an inherently wishy-washy plan, one likely to be harmful to one's trajectory at many firms. Clerking conveys certain writing skills and insight into the perspective of the courts that can't be so easily gained so quickly any other way. Those skills are not, however, that useful for much of the work in biglaw. And there's significant opportunity costs as well, beyond the quantifiable financial ones; a year spent clerking is a year not spent building one's reputation and network at the firm.

Like many Corporette commenters in 2013, and the new associates interviewed by the New York Times in 2001, I did not expect sexism or racism to seriously affect my upcoming career and my time at my first firm. I was fully prepared to work hard and take responsibility for my career, both for any successes or failures. I was cognizant of sexism and racism, and didn't expect my profession to be immune, but I thought it would be fully in my power to do good work and earn my place at the firm until I was a senior associate. I expected to be pushed out eventually. But when it happened, I expected it to happen in large part because business realities meant that only one or two candidates at most could be made partner, and because, on the objective merits of my work thus far, firm leadership did not expect me to be as suitable for partnership as some of the others. And if "model minority" stereotypes made it difficult for many senior attorneys to see me as anything but quiet and diligent, and lacking a certain assertiveness necessary for firm leadership and for bringing in business, that was mostly fine. I'd bristle slightly at being stereotyped, but couldn't exactly say that the description was completely without some ring of truth. I'd be more worried on behalf of other Asian-American women being unjustly weighed down by a stereotype that didn't actually apply to them at all, but I wouldn't think it unjust enough when applied to me to spend much time or mental energy on fussing. In hindsight, this perspective was incredibly naive.

Within a few months, I'd encounter how summer associates from certain (more white, more male) demographics were openly favored, and more "equal" than others in terms of access to opportunities to do more substantive work in my practice area. ("Over time, I noticed that more of the summer intern men are constantly bogged down by interesting assignments that randomly come their way. More of the women spend more of their time twiddling their thumbs because no such serendipitous assignments were offered, and their best efforts to rustle up some work . . . also didn't turn anything up."). Even after that, I still managed to be naive and hopeful that things would be different once I started full-time. And thus, in summer 2015, I wrote something that now makes me cringe, that "I have almost never experienced explicit and direct sexism in any form." Clearly I was too blind, or too in denial, to realize I had already seen it happen right in front of me.

As to my personal life, I had recently decided, in July 2013, to stop dating. I'd given online dating the college try for about a year, using mainly OkCupid (on my computer, writing longer email-like messages to potential matches; that approach to online dating might seem primitive these days!). And it was perfectly fine. I'd gone on somewhere between 15 and 20 first dates, and a handful of second and third dates, and enjoyed pleasant conversations with everyone. But I never felt a "spark" of interest that made me want to continue seeing anyone who also felt the same way about me. I should note that I was not particularly "good" at dating, I couldn't help but talk about controversial topics, including abortion (being anti-choice was a hard dealbreaker) and affirmative action (being against that was a dealbreaker too). This may, admittedly, have been a factor in the small number of second dates on offer. I wasn't in the right mental space to be serious about dating, wasn't open-minded enough about anyone I met, and I also wasn't enjoying it anymore, so it wasn't the right time to continue trying. (My mindset in late 2013 had a lot in common with what Jane wrote about a few years ago.)

Separately, by November 2013, I had become close platonic friends with K and had been for a few months. Little did I know, we would start dating a few more months after that!

2019: I never thought I'd be one of those people who left biglaw after slightly less than a year, but here we are. Once I started as a full-time associate at my first firm, the disparity between the opportunities given to white male associates in my class and practice group at the NYC office, and those given to everyone else, was extremely obvious from practically the first day of work, exactly like when I was a summer associate. This may not have been an absolute "dealbreaker" if our group was busier, so that there would be enough moderately substantive work to go around (such that everyone could get at least a small share), but there wasn't. I had serious concerns that, if I didn't find a job elsewhere after my clerkship, I might never gain enough substantive experience to have an easy time finding a new job after my first firm inevitably pushed me out some years down the line (in keeping with biglaw's "up or out" business model). I practically cried with relief when I received the offer for the job I have now.

Not every biglaw experience is like mine. Heck, there were probably other practice groups at our exact office that didn't have the problems I encountered. But my experience, in which most women and minorities entering my practice group that year found that they never had a real chance of getting the same amount of experience and substantive work, practically from day one of their summer associateships (before they ever had the opportunity to prove their mettle as associates, whether for good or ill), is also not uncommon. There was a Law360 article about this phenomenon, and I found the hypothetical story of "Jessica" to ring painfully true. In addition to my story, I've heard of more than a large handful of similar anecdotes from various other biglaw firms in recent years.

I'm happy to report that both my workplaces since then have been wonderful. I've never doubted for a moment that my work at each has been judged fairly and objectively, solely on its own merits. I love my current job, and have gotten considerably more substantive litigation experience than I would have had in the same amount of time at my previous firm. I've occasionally spent periods (of anywhere from a few days to a few weeks) working hours as long, or even longer, than some biglaw associates do at times. Part of me is even excited to do so, because that's further proof that what happened at my first firm wasn't my fault, I was always willing and able to do the work, and it wasn't because of any defect with me that I was never going to have the opportunity at my first firm. But in general, the hours expectations are not quite as intense. Total compensation is, accordingly, less than I would have had if I stayed.

On a personal level, K and I have been together for five years. We moved in together right before I started at my first firm in fall 2015, admittedly without having first had some of those big, important conversations that people really should have beforehand, including about how we wanted to split household responsibilities and merge finances (or not) someday. We did know our values were remarkably aligned in many essential areas: We felt the same way about my "dealbreaker" issues, and we share similar views about racial and economic justice; we both wanted children someday and were flexible as to how many; we also have similar hopes and aspirations about how to raise and educate them; and we also view our future financial obligations to our parents, and possibly our extended family as well, in similar ways, and prioritize them to a similar degree. Furthermore, we have very similar approaches to saving, he was even a good influence on my money management when I was starting out.

We may be a little taken aback at how our financial situation and choice of profession (we both started with over $150,000 in student loans, mostly from law school) makes it so that we feel as if we have very little control over timelines for our personal life, and, eventually, for family planning. We are both 30 this year, and any plans in those areas remain fairly abstract, in some part due to certain things at the office. We admittedly are the type to give work a bit too much of our mental real estate, but it's also not uncommon for other associates to be forced to let workplace demands take precedence over important personal matters. (Among other things, as another recent Corporette discussion suggested, for many associates who are single and in biglaw, it's extremely hard to find time to date, even if it's something they want to prioritize.)

2024: As for where I hope to be in five more years, my answers may continue to sound  somewhat noncommittal. My current job is wonderful, and I'd love to still be there in 2024, but I'd also need to keep in the back of my mind that there isn't a realistic path to promotion and making it a "forever" job, not without first leaving and building a particular skillset elsewhere. Further out than 2024, I have many ideas about what I might like my "forever" job to be, and also some secret hopes for certain distant future "pipe dream jobs" that would depend a lot on luck and serendipity. In any case, it would not be possible for all the necessary factors to fall into place by 2024.

In terms of family life, K and I hope to be married and have a child by 2024. I'd like to have two children eventually, but expecting to have them by 2024, when we're getting into our mid 30s, is likely too ambitious. And it may be that we have such a hard time balancing our working lives with and comfortably handling the cost of childcare for just one child, such that we give up on my hopes for multiple children.

I don't know if we'll still be working in NYC, but because I was raised in the suburbs, that's the lifestyle I hope to give my children. I'm personally extremely flexible about where to live and work, I could see myself moving to the DC suburbs, to Houston, even to Southern California or back to the Bay Area someday (though the cost of housing in the Bay is especially formidable, even to two people currently in biglaw-ish). K's list of places he'd be willing to move to is a bit shorter than mine, though.

Oh boy, I sure did ramble, and still wasn't able to get to all the bigger ideas I hoped to talk about. This post touches on many things related to diversity and the legal profession that I've been thinking about for years now, but have rarely been able to articulate quite the way I wish. It's all very complicated, and I'm so early in my career that my thoughts are very much still in flux. Plus, I haven't even needed to juggle family and working life yet, and I'm certain that development will bring all kinds of new challenges I can't yet fully predict. And gosh, I feel considerable trepidation for having been so blunt about certain things to do with my first firm. I hear a lot of stories like mine, but even more overt, mainly from women in tech (with all that I encountered, it's still the case that no one's ever actually said anything to my face that could be actionable evidence in an employment discrimination case), but it's difficult to find people in my industry that would speak openly about experiences like mine. Back in 2013, it had been years since the last time an associate filed a well-publicized employment discrimination lawsuit against a biglaw firm, but that's changed in recent months.

What were your hopes and expectations for your career and your family in 2013? Did things turn out as planned? Where do you hope to be in five more years? 

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