Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Jill Woods to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
I used to look out at the Hudson from the window of my beautiful office at a Biglaw firm in Manhattan and pinch myself, not believing that I had made it.
As a young associate, I had a passion for making connections and building relationships. I quickly realized that such skills would set me up for success as a partner. But our practice group was busy, and we had a ton of clients that I had to service. Of course, as all associates are, I was brought in to bill and work.
I was newly married and had just bought a house in the suburbs without any kids. Before I took the job, my husband and I had a serious conversation, where we candidly discussed what our future would look like if I took this job and if we started a family. I would be over an hour away from our kids, and my husband would be the one on duty if he needed to run over to daycare, take them to the doctor, or just be the contact at home. I would have to skip school events for work. I would be the one commuting into the city on a Saturday if we had a major case to work on. I would not see them for days at a time, because I would be on a bus before they would wake up, and I’d get home when they were already asleep. I would miss family functions for work. We talked it all out, and as DINK (dual-income, no kids) couple, we decided that it would be done.
I signed my name on the dotted line, and thus began my Biglaw journey. I hit the ground running, eager to be a part of my team and absorb everything like a sponge. I said yes as much as I could, worked as much as I could, and did the best that I could. I was committed to a career in Biglaw, and was out to prove to the world that I could be a great wife, friend, lawyer, and a mom (one day). Things went really well for a while. I was able to balance my life outside of work with the high annual billable requirement. This was on top of all of the nonbillable work I was doing to help build the practice because I wanted to be a partner there, so I put in the energy as if it were my own business. We became so busy that over time, I started having to cancel dinners with friends, weekend plans, doctors’ appointments, and the like, all for work. I canceled a vacation and skipped weddings.
And then I forgot to RSVP to one of my best friend’s baby showers. I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was at the time, but my friends reached out to me very upset and concerned. The words flew out of my mouth, “I’m so sorry. I’m slammed at work. I completely forgot.” And that’s when I realized my entire life was consumed by work.
The first panic attack I ever had was in the middle of the day. I felt the office spin around me, and I had to go outside for a walk. I came back inside after, sat down at the desk, and immediately began to sob. And I couldn’t stop. It was 2 p.m. on a Friday, when I usually worked until 6 or 7, but I packed up my things and went home.
I came home and still could not turn off the water works. I had no idea why I was crying. I went to log back into my computer when my husband stopped me and, with a warm smile, suggested that we instead walk over to an Italian restaurant. We enjoyed an early Friday dinner together for the first time in a while.
The next day, I accepted that I had hit burnout. And it was no one’s fault but my own. I had gotten myself there. The Biglaw machine can be intense, but it also can be a refuge for associates who want resources, support, and partners that are willing to train them. I had everything I could’ve wanted at my firm. But what I didn’t have was control over my life. I realized my current lifestyle was not sustainable and that I needed a change.
I knew then that it was time for me to start a new chapter and say goodbye to big law.
I ended up moving to a boutique firm that gave me the flexibility to build a practice and start a family, all on my own terms. I realize now that life comes in seasons, and am grateful that I listened to my mind and body to begin the next chapter in my law career.
Jill Woods is a partner at a national boutique firm. She previously worked at a Biglaw firm in Manhattan and went to law school in the Manhattan area. She enjoys writing and mentoring young law students and lawyers.