Inside Perspective: Lawyers in the city

Anita Wilson is VP & Chief Employment Counsel at TreeHouse Foods Inc. in Westchester, Ill., where she handles all labor, employment, benefits, ethics and compliance issues.

I am not excited about the new “Sex in the City” movie.  I don’t fault anyone who wants to see it.  But I absolutely cannot relate to the women in this movie.  I don’t live in Manhattan. My group of friends is a lot more diverse and I don’t sit around drinking Cosmopolitans … most of the time anyway.  And I definitely don’t relate to the character Miranda who is a lawyer.  In the previews, Miranda appears miserable. She’s a partner at a law firm and hates her job … blah blah blah.  Now before you send me nasty e-mails, let me say that, without spoiling anything, I heard that Miranda finds some sort of happiness in her role at the end of the movie.  But I’m trying to make a point here.

Where are the women lawyers in movies who are kicking butt and taking names? Or does art reflect life here?  What are we telling young women lawyers? Are women lawyers really that miserable and unhappy – whining over pomegranate martinis? I’m sure there are some women lawyers who are unhappy for various reasons.  But what I want to know is:  as a whole, in real life, are women lawyers finding satisfaction practicing law?

As I tend to do, I took a very scientific, statistically accurate poll to get more information about this issue.  In other words, I asked a couple of my friends – two law firm lawyers and two in-house lawyers – whether they like practicing law.  For the most part, everyone said “yes.”

Patricia Brown Holmes, a law firm partner, former judge, former prosecutor, mom and by all accounts, a lawyer who could give Miranda a good kick in the pants told me: “I LOVE being a lawyer – it gives me power to help solve other people’s problems. I love problem solving and have been told that I have excellent instincts and impeccable judgment. Also, being a lawyer provides security – I will always be able to earn money, even if I have to hang out a shingle – so I will, hopefully, never be jobless. My kids view me as an important person. I like that they look up to me and are proud of my profession.”

Another friend of mine, we’ll call her “Sue” used to be a partner at a law firm in Chicago and now practices at a firm in California.  She is a busy, new mom who could beat you at both poker and soccer with her eyes closed.  She stated: “Its fun and rewarding … [it’s] a balancing act with trying to take care of the baby (including husband), take care of the house [and] take care of the social calendar.”

Women in-house counsel also enjoy their jobs.  Dierdre White is the general counsel of a credit union in Florida. She also has a MBA and will probably be my boss (and yours too) one day. Dierdre echoed Patricia and “Sue,” saying: “I like it well enough.  I really like that being a lawyer seems to give me a credibility with people who would otherwise dismiss me.  I like that I am able to evaluate situations more objectively than many and give “logical” advice that the asker may not be able to see.  It’s also a great vehicle through which to encourage honest and ethical behavior.  In the grander scheme of things, I am also motivated by the daily challenges and variety of situations that I can rarely predict as I walk into the office each morning.  I learn something new every day and I do get to participate in some cutting edge projects and hob nob with some of the most intelligent, amazing, and powerful people.”

Now, of course, it’s not all puppy dogs and roses for women lawyers.   Another friend of mine – we’ll call her “Mary,” speaks about five languages, serves as a certified yoga instructor, is the mom of two globe-trotting teenage boys and works as in-house counsel for a large, multinational organization. Mary presented another aspect of practicing law and stated:  “Law is a macho environment and so is the business world that I find myself in.  It [has] softened a little since I began my career but it still has a long way to go.   I work with mostly men, both in the law department and on the business side.  Few of them have working wives and do not seem to have to juggle family responsibilities.  However, I did get what I bargained for when I opted to pursue a law degree and join the legal profession. I wanted stability, a reliable income and to be respected for my intelligence and have a certain amount of status. I have all that now, but at a price.”

Like many young lawyers, I was a little unhappy early on in my career.  The law was male-dominated and, at times, confusing.  I saw women working long hours, gaining weight and conducting conference calls from the hospital delivery room.  But as I grew in the profession, I became a lot happier.  I became more confident.  I learned how to better manage my time because I understood things better.  I even left a few of my own work voice mails from the hospital after delivering my daughter.   Even though I juggle parenthood and a busy social life, I continue to enjoy solving complex business problems.

But characters like Miranda on “Sex in the City” scare young women lawyers who wonder whether the long hours and work/life balancing challenges are worth it.  My survey was totally random but showed me and hopefully shows other young women lawyers that it pays to stick with this profession which, although scary at first, pays off and is ultimately rewarding.  So somebody please tell Miranda on “Sex in the City” to put down the martini and get a grip.

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