Friday, September 18, 2020

Social Distancing Life Lately: Six Months and Counting

via Unsplash

When my colleagues and I abruptly rushed home from Luxembourg in mid-March, none of us could truly have imagined that, six months on, life would still not be anywhere close to normal. As we transited through Heathrow that day - after having booked new tickets last-minute in the wee hours of the morning, upon being woken up by concerned friends and family back home following the President's sudden announcement of a proposed Western Europe travel ban - the pandemic didn't feel real yet. Barely anyone at the airport was wearing a face mask. Things still looked almost normal, even if we knew they were not. 

Local Policies in NYC 

Now, six months later, NYC has - since June or so - controlled the spread of COVID-19 better than many other places in the US. Yet the prospect of resuming any substantial new indoor activities here - things bringing bigger groups of people together in closer quarters than the retail stores or museums that are currently open with drastically limited capacity - still feels potentially perilous. For the attorneys amongst us, participating safely in in-person court proceedings - particularly jury trials - and in-person depositions still feels like an impossibility. (Especially when we keep in mind that at least some participants or attorneys typically need to travel from out-of-state for such events.) 

Our state and city government are generally moving slowly and cautiously to gradually allow more significant indoor activities. In-person schooling at NYC public schools may restart in phases starting next week, on a partial schedule for the families that opt-in. Restaurant dining rooms may be allowed to open at the end of the month, at 25% capacity. 

Personal Comfort Levels

Completely separate from the issue of what's legally allowed, there's also the question of my personal comfort level with additional activities. I would not be happy about being forced to attend in-person court proceedings anytime soon. Nor am I willing to put others and myself at risk by partaking in indoor restaurant dining before a vaccine becomes widely available. Nothing short of a court order - and the fear of being in contempt of court - or a serious family emergency would get me on a plane before I'm vaccinated. 

I am somewhat apprehensive about when my workplace might start requiring attorneys to come into the office more often. New York officially allowed white-collar workplaces like law firms to reopen with certain safety precautions back in early July. But up to now, state law has also required that categories of employees who can perform the vast majority of their duties from home - attorneys included - be offered the choice to continue working from home, something I've availed myself of to the fullest extent. I'm not sure when that state policy might change.

K and I have loosened up somewhat since I last wrote about our ongoing social distancing experience in late July. We've both had our long-overdue haircuts now, and we each felt quite safe with all the new safety precautions at New York salons. In the next month or so, we'll probably both go to our first routine doctor's appointments since the COVID-19 shutdowns began. As mentioned in my recent money diary, we also ended up needing our building's superintendent and then a contractor to come in to our apartment for some repairs, across a few different days. And that also felt just fine, with everyone wearing masks and given NYC's continuing trend of favorable COVID numbers. 

While we've applied for absentee ballots, we may yet decline to use them and choose to vote in-person instead - most likely by early voting - knowing there were... some issues... with absentee ballots actually getting counted during the recent New York primary. To be fair, our election procedures have changed to directly address these problems, including to allow voters to track their own absentee ballots and have an opportunity to cure alleged defects instead of the ballot just being thrown out.

But I think it's fair to say our household is technically still practicing fairly strict social distancing. Outside of the errands described above, we are still staying home except for essential grocery and pharmacy trips, which we continue to limit to approximately once every three weeks. And our friends in NYC are still not quite ready to socialize yet, even outdoors.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Money Diary: COVID-era Staycation, Part 2

And here's part two of the COVID-era staycation money diary I started last week! When I left off, a contractor was in the process of replacing a large swath of floorboards in our living room, and we'd relocated our coffee table and office chairs to our bedroom for the duration of the work. The repairs were going to take three days total, factoring in that certain things needed time to dry or set. 

Only day one of the work had been completed so far, and the contractor needed to come in at 9:00 AM the following two days. This meant we needed to set our alarms for 8:00 AM to have enough time to get dressed and eat before the contractor came by. That's a very early wake-up call by our standards, alas, but we'll be glad to have the repairs done before we're technically back to work next week. 

We wake up at 8:00 AM so we can cook and eat before the contractor arrives at 9:00. The easiest and fastest dishes we can make are either grilled cheese, like we had on Monday, or eggs and bacon, like on Tuesday. So it's grilled cheese with mozzarella (Trader Joe's pre-sliced fresh mozzarella log, to be exact) and prosciutto again! I cook and K cleans up after. 

We mask up when the contractor arrives, before letting him in, and then we stay masked if we're in the living room while the contractor is working. We have an ample supply of disposable surgery masks, because my mom and her friends in California participated in charity drives to order dramatically large quantities of surgical masks and other PPE to donate to local hospitals, senior centers, and the like. While doing those orders, they also bought enough surgical masks for their families, so my mom has kept my sister and I well-supplied. 

That being said, now that K and I know we need to settle in for the long haul when it comes to COVID precautions, we're trying out some reusable, washable fabric masks. A friend of a friend recommended "Happy Masks" a small company that sells masks with an extra filter layer sewn in, and that's what K and I use today. I find these Happy Masks very comfortable because the elastic ear loops are quite secure, yet also quite soft, causing no discomfort even after several hours of staying masked up. The front of the mask is shaped so there's some space under the mask (like with a N95 or a cone-shaped mask that's molded or sort of 3D in shape, so only the edges of the mask sit on the face) and the fabric isn't directly in contact with the nostrils and mouth (like with a standard disposable surgical mask that's fully touching the face). I like the Happy Masks a lot, but I don't have enough knowledge about the science to vouch for the relative merits of the extra filter layer they sew in. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Money Diary: COVID-era Staycation, Part 1

Approximately once a year, I get inspired to write a money diary post in the Man Repeller format (focused on that week's spending only, without additional details about overall finances like at Refinery 29). I've done a 2018 "atypical week" money diary (part one, part two) and a 2019 "slightly more typical week" money diary (part one, part two). And now, with COVID-19 and everything else that's been going on, here's part one of a 2020 money diary! (I was definitely also inspired by Luxe's recent COVID-era weekend money diary.)

This year's money diary covers a six-day period. There's no point extending the diary to a full week, because the days immediately before and after this six-day period were both extremely boring, with no spending or outings further away than our apartment building's lobby. Heck, there are already two no-spending days in this diary, which was unthinkable for me in pre-COVID times! 

During the six days covered by this diary, both K and I were technically not working, and were instead enjoying a staycation. Though you'll see I still needed to do some work, some of it billable and some of it not. Until late August, I hadn't taken any vacation time in 2020. My supervisors at work encouraged me to take some time off, even if one can't go many places without potentially needing to do a two-week quarantine afterwards, pursuant to New York state law. 

For my part, I've always enjoyed staycations. I'm even known to take an extra vacation day after a trip is over, so I can relax at home a bit before returning to the office. (K prefers not to do this, as he doesn't think it's a great use of a vacation day. He'd rather head straight back to work!) 

But, well, I obviously also miss normal, pre-COVID times, when we'd have been able to freely use our vacation time to, say, go to Taiwan and Japan, as we were about to do in April. Maybe in late 2021? I can only hope...

Wow, a no-spending day! I didn't have a single one of those across my 2018 and 2019 money diaries... 

We sleep in a bit, as is typical for us on the weekends. I wake up around 10:00 AM, a bit ahead of K. Once K is up around 10:30, I start making brunch. I use the oven to cook Trader Joe's frozen hash browns and make an egg scramble on the stovetop with cheddar and chopped-up Trader Joe's "garlic herb" chicken sausage. (That's not my favorite flavor, the "spicy jalapeno" - which isn't actually spicy - is better, but they didn't have any in stock on our last Trader Joe's trip two weeks ago.) I cook and K cleans after the meal.  

Monday, September 7, 2020

Link List: More About Workplace Discrimination


Of late, I've been preoccupied with some of the smaller topics that have come up in connection with recent conversations about race and discrimination in the US. Because of certain of my own less happy professional experiences, and because I've experienced firsthand how difficult it is to truly and meaningfully challenge discrimination in the legal profession, I have a deep interest in discussions about workplace discrimination across various industries, not just in the law. 

1. // This first article, from Vice, is not technically about workplace discrimination, though my personal encounters with its subject matter have tended - distressingly, and somewhat creepily - to occur in the biglaw workplace and the law school recruiting process to get into said workplace. The article is about a joke t-shirt displaying the message "I Don't Need to Know About Your Asian Wife" and about the experiences with racism and sexism that caused the frustration and anger leading to the creation of said t-shirt.

One recurring theme to my personal reflections about all these discussions is that I'm fully cognizant of the relative privileges I've experienced as an Asian-American of East Asian descent - solidly within "model minority" stereotypes - and this is true here too. Within the article, the most distressing and sexually objectifying experiences with "Asian wife guys" are generally not from interviewees or Twitter users of East Asian descent. 

This is consistent with my personal experience. My biglaw and on-campus recruiting encounters with a number of "Asian wife guys" have all been comparatively... benign. They're definitely not making a pass at me, they genuinely just seem to think - perplexingly - that... it's a good way to make friendly small talk with the Asian-American junior associate or law student. And if this "Asian wife guy" is someone at your firm and in your practice group, this particular trait is probably going to be part of a combination of things that clearly show you over time that this person - almost always a partner, ugh - is likely... not going to be a particularly good professional mentor or sponsor for your career development.

2. // This next article from The Cut is actually about workplace discrimination in biglaw. Specifically, it's about how "Racism at my Job Literally Gave Me PTSD" ( link, if needed), from the perspective of a Black woman and former associate at a prominent biglaw firm in NYC. (She's previously written at least one other article about her time in biglaw.) 

Here's another instance in which I recognize my comparative privilege as an Asian-American of East Asian descent, one with many markers of the "model minority" stereotype. While I had no real chance to succeed from my very first days in biglaw, well before I had a chance to prove myself a good or bad worker (so it had nothing to do with my merits as an associate) - and while I also felt some of the emotions the author describes in The Cut article in my first months at my subsequent jobs as a result - what I experienced is still nothing in comparison to what my Black and Latinx colleagues face. In the end, no one ever actually said anything to me that could form the basis of a Title VII discrimination claim, and people from my demographic are extremely well-represented in the biglaw junior ranks.  

I'm reminded of a moment from my summer associate days: A well-meaning - but somewhat graceless - white classmate questioned how the firm described our summer class as extremely diverse; if almost every attorney of color in the class was Asian-American, that isn't exactly meaningfully diverse, is it? For context, the summer class consisted of several dozen people (I'm being intentionally imprecise to protect my anonymity). Almost half of us were attorneys of color. (And I can further confirm that most Asian-American members of the class happened to be of East Asian descent, to add to the sense of lacking genuine diversity.) My classmate probably shouldn't have said this thing in front of me, it resembles the "there's too many Asians here" type of racism that's reared its head a number of times in my life, in descriptions of communities I'm a part of - commentary often affirmed by fellow Asian-Americans, it's a very complicated thing - but this classmate also wasn't wrong. 

The author described her entering law firm class in her office as counting only four Black women among its roughly 60 members. My entire firm's newly entering class my year - including robustly-sized classes in several other major-market offices besides NYC, for a total of well over 100 new associates firm-wide - barely had more than that. 

3. // Going back to discussions of workplace discrimination in other industries, here's a Grub Street profile of Tammie Teclamarian ( link, if needed), a.k.a. @tammieetc on Twitter, who can fairly be described as an important food media whistleblower. Teclamarian played a significant role in revealing the misdeeds and problematic behavior that led to the departure of Adam Rapoport, former Editor in Chief at Bon Appetit, and also of Matt Duckor, former head of video at Conde Nast, as discussed in one of my July blog entries.

Teclamarian has also been a major player in the discussions that led to the resignation of Peter Meehan from the Los Angeles Times food section. In the weeks since, it became clear and was well-corroborated that Meehan was often an emotionally volatile and terrible person to work under, just like Teclamarian reported before his resignation. 

Sadly, it's now clear that Conde Nast won't fix the pay disparities associated with the Bon Appetit YouTube channel, which became public knowledge in June and which has since caused the departure of a large percentage of the individuals previously appearing in their videos. As I stated, I personally committed to never again viewing another Bon Appetit YouTube video until this problem was fixed. So because Conde Nast doesn't ever plan to fix it, the Bon Appetit YouTube channel is now dead to me forevermore. Good riddance! 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Some Recent Money Wins (And a Really Wild Money Diary)

Tory Burch Perry Card Case (affiliate link)

Two good money things have happened recently, one small and one not-so-small. Both of these money wins came with essentially no effort on my part, I was just lucky they happened!

And there was also a truly wild Refinery29 money diary this week (see also the very active r/MoneyDiariesActive discussion) that I just had to share. Normally, when a money diary becomes controversial mostly because of the diarist's high income, I generally think much of the skepticism is unfounded or unnecessarily nit-picky. But the numbers in this one really don't make sense if the diarist actually derives all their income from a law firm, as described. 

Actual Refinery29 employees have confirmed on Twitter that their editor "worked extremely hard to protect this person's identity," but without specifying exactly what measures were taken, outside of - at a minimum - taking out "a whole lot of fun stuff... for security's sake." And even if they only subtracted and didn't actively change or add details, there's maybe a question about whether something becomes misleading because too much material information is removed. But I digress... 

Money Win 1: The Mysterious Unclaimed Property

By now, most Americans have probably heard it's good to check your state's unclaimed property listings once in a while, because various types of payments or reimbursements often get lost. I've never really thought it likely I'd ever benefit much from this advice. Because I closely track all my finances to a somewhat excessive level of detail, it'd be a shock to discover I'm owed any money I wasn't already aware of. I keep a close eye on everything, and am generally prompt and proactive about following up if I think I'm missing any payments or refunds, no matter how small. 

But recently, when I checked New York state's unclaimed funds page, I was surprised to discover I apparently had some unclaimed money to my name, apparently from CVS Caremark and associated with my law school apartment address. This was strange, as I didn't recall having any dealings with them during that time. Getting my unclaimed property was painless and quick: I entered some information on the state comptroller's website to confirm my identity and they promptly sent me a check, which I received within a week of making my claim. I had no clue what the amount would be until I received the check, and was pleasantly surprised to see it was $20. (I was expecting more like $5 or $10.) I still don't know what it was for, though... 

Money Win 2: A Better 401(k) Provider

I used to have no choice when it came to the investment of my 401(k) at my current workplace. There was only one actively managed fund, with shockingly high fees - approximately 1% - several orders of magnitude more expensive than anything I'd ever choose for myself. And, to add insult to injury, the fund more or less consisted of what's in a S&P 500 index fund, except in different proportions and it tended to underperform the index in recent years. 

Well, all that is over now because my employer is officially switching us to a better 401(k) provider! We'll now be investing through one of the "big three" providers known for offering a wide range of low-fee index funds (Fidelity, Schwab, or Vanguard). And we'll have access to a full complement of competitively-priced index funds, even more than the solid range of offerings available through my first biglaw employer's 401(k) provider at another of the "big three". I am super, super excited. 

And a Controversial Money Diary

One of this week's Refinery29 money diaries - by a purported 36 year-old Salt Lake City-area family law attorney making $700,000/year, as part of a $1,600,000/year household with 9 children - is truly wild. There's a lot that doesn't add up in this diary, as many people pointed out in the comments there and on Reddit. (I am, by the way, one of the many participants in the Reddit discussion.) 

Keep in mind I'm normally the type of reader where my first impulse is to say "well, actually, this income level is plausible" when I see money diary-type stories that many people decry as fake mostly because of very high income at a relatively young age. Do you recall that controversial - and most likely fake for other reasons - graphic that went around Twitter last year about the alleged $500,000/year two early 30s-lawyer, two-kids household that still felt "average"? One of my first gut reactions was that it quite frankly probably understated the real household income of two attorneys like that, given where the biglaw salary scale has gotten.  

It's difficult for someone like me to confidently state exactly what an accurate-ish income would be for a 36 year-old family law attorney - likely a partner - at a smaller law firm in a lower cost of living area. There's not much transparency in biglaw about how much the partners make, unless you're actually a partner or maybe a fairly senior associate in serious contention. In any case, biglaw in a major market like NYC is not going to be at all comparable to a small firm there, much less to one in a very different market. 

But I still believe I can reasonably say the $700,000/year is not realistic here. I know of quite a few reliable anecdotal data points suggesting that a good number of younger partners at highly profitable NYC biglaw firms make ~$400,000 to ~$500,000/year. And that's within a giant firm where even the most junior associates might bill over $400/hour, mid-level and senior associates over $700/hour, and partners over $1,100/hour at the high end, with the majority of attorneys trying to bill at least 2,000 hours a year (which generally requires significant late night or weekend work at some point). Biglaw-level family law attorneys and practices certainly exist, but they're not common. 

The more interesting issue raised here is the offhanded admission by at least one Refinery29 employee that certain editing work is done to "protect" a diarist's identity. And that apparently they do fact-check with "ID/receipts/documentation."

I doubt anyone from their team will ever share anything more than these vague comments, but this does lead to many big questions: How much editing do they do to "protect" the diarist's anonymity, and does it involve more than just taking out "a whole lot of fun stuff" for "security's sake"? Do they add or revise details, not just subtract? (Regardless, it's possible for certain omissions to be so drastic they render the entire story misleading.) What exact type of documents do they think make for adequate "ID/receipts/documentation" to confirm a $1,600,000/year household income? And why would a purported lawyer share such documentation with Refinery29, essentially just for fun, without even getting any clout or fame for it, if the diary is anonymous?