I was asked to contribute a lesson for the book “50 Lessons for Women Lawyers-From Women Lawyers,” by Nora Riva Bergman, which is available soon on Amazon. Here is my contribution:
In a few months I’ll be 62 years old. Actress Jane Fonda recently announced she is in her “last act” and although I hopefully have many more years of life, the finish line in my life as a lawyer is more clearly in view.
I want to chart an intentional path for my last act, living mindfully and finishing strong. As I begin the process, I’m struck with paralysis. Where do I want to go? A good starting point might be to reflect on where I’ve been.
I was the youngest in my law school class of 1981, graduating at age 23 and entering full time law practice at age 24. I’ve had many legal jobs: in-house counsel, associate at firms of varying sizes, solo practitioner and even senior partner at small law firms I’ve formed. I’d gone to law school to “help people.” I was a kind and compassionate problem solver, a good listener, and a lover of people from the time I was a little girl.
I launched from law school in one of the early waves of females deployed into the profession. Our role was clear; act like a man. After all we’d been told that we were taking a spot rightfully belonging to a man with a family to support.
“Mr. Durant died right here at his desk,” I was told by an associate at my first law firm job as he pointed to an office with an empty desk. It was as though Mr. Durant was a warrior who died in battle saving the world. I got the message.
I dove in as the only female in the firm’s litigation section, charting my course as a workaholic, billing hours like a trooper. I silenced my inner voice and went full speed ahead, learning to be tough. Law school and the lawyers mentoring me convinced me that compassion was a weakness and aggression was a strength.
In my private life I paired with a man also constrained by his job, traveling for business five days a week. We married and had three children. What was wrong with me? I loved my babies but I was obsessed with being a lawyer. I heard a new term called “work-life balance” so I joined the part time work committee of the local bar association. The all -female committee soon disbanded with the summary finding that for women lawyers,”part time” meant shoving all your full -time work into fewer hours and getting paid less.
I navigated as best I could with no women mentors to guide me. I’d race to little league baseball games, editing documents in the stands while waiting for my son to bat so I could wave and give a thumb’s up, and then race back to the office. I tried to be nurturing but I never took off my lawyer hat, often telling my children to “toughen up” instead of acquiescing to the sorrow of childhood bumps and bruises. Nannies were enlisted to help assuage working mother guilt. I’d try to mother my children when I came home exhausted from the office.
My marriage began to deteriorate so I stopped practicing law and tried staying home. I was an outcast among the other mothers. Their conversations were boring and their obsession with their children seemed unhealthy to me. I prepared spreadsheets for class cupcake volunteers and felt incompetent in my new role. I became depressed and like an addict who needed a fix, I yearned for the office.
At the same time, my lawyer father became ill at age 65 and came into my home for hospice care as he was dying. Towards the end he would hallucinate often saying he saw dead lawyer colleagues in the room. I wondered why the lawyers would show up to him instead of cosmic visits from loving relatives or his golfing buddies.
My father died and I was divorced. Even though I wasn’t working I was “imputed” with the income of a lawyer in the divorce. After all wasn’t that who I was? I had to recreate myself and start making money quickly and the most logical step was to reclaim my lawyer-self. When I went back to inhabit her skin, I noticed she was different. She was weary, having sustained a whirlwind of life, tragedy, and brokenness.
I set up a law practice focusing on family law and mediation. I’d experienced devastation similar to what my clients were facing. I encouraged clients to find healing, forgiveness and compassion and decided to claim those things for myself. I still fought for client’s rights and equity, but I did it with dignity, calmness and compassion for all.
I felt more authentic as a person and a lawyer. I began to write. I transported my brother diagnosed at that time with cancer to his chemotherapy appointments. I watched the IV drip, drip, drip of the drug infusing him with life. The writing did the same for me. Each moment in the chair typing was life-giving, healing, rebuilding, and renewing myself.
I wrote and self-published “The Compassionate Lawyer” in 2014 and started speaking to lawyers about compassion in the practice. I mentored several lawyers and helped three women lawyers start their own firms. I encouraged lawyers to be compassionate problem solvers and for women lawyers to realize we should celebrate our unique gifts and skills as women.
I continue to practice, write and teach about what I’ve discovered. Earlier this week I saw a woman lawyer in her first few months of practice aggressively tell off a male lawyer on the phone and then hang up only to burst into tears. ”I’m such a wimp for crying!” she declared.
I told her that being tough and aggressive is uncomfortable for many women. We can do it, probably even more biting than men, but is it really who we are? The crying was undoubtedly from the adrenaline but it was also a warning sign of living outside her authenticity. It hurt to watch her minimize her body’s warning and I tried to tell her so, encouraging her to use compassion and dignity instead. I’m guessing it fell on deaf ears as it would have to me at her age when I ‘d set out to “make my mark” as a lawyer. But at least she is getting a message I was never told.
In my last act, I see a woman enjoying life, available to her three children for long talks instead of saying “I’ll call you after this meeting.” She is a compassionate, kind person to all she encounters. She practices law in an authentic way that is uniquely hers, until she decides it’s time to stop. That woman will die as far away from her desk as she can get.
From the moment she walked into the doors of law school her identity as “woman” and “lawyer” were permanently fused together. She’s learned many lessons as a woman lawyer. She will claim her journey without regret but with gratitude for the wisdom she’s gained. And most importantly, she’ll live out her last act with compassion for herself.