Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas Miracle

I was recently pulled in on a case at work that is extremely messy. The case involves all of the elements that make a lawsuit especially unpleasant – angry clients, irritated lawyers and an impatient judge. The case has been pending for years (hence, impatient judge), and during that time the anger and animosity that originally lead to the lawsuit appears to have done nothing but grow. Parties now refuse to agree on even the most menial of requests and the onslaught of ALL CAPITAL e-mails is practically server-crashing (although it has been 72 hours since the last one, a new record).

I was first brought into this case for a relatively simple task: research and write a portion of a brief. I did this. In September. Someone else handled noticing the motion and getting the briefing schedule, so my work was done. Then, in November, I was asked to draft the reply brief. Again, no problem. I drafted the reply and got it on file. I was added to the service list and the onslaught of e-mail began. But even I can handle filing a few extra e-mails a day. It seemed like no big deal. Then, last week, I was asked to argue our motion. The request made sense - I had briefed most of the motion and all of the reply. I should make our argument in court. The only problem was that way back in September, someone else had set the briefing schedule on this matter. And that person didn’t have his son’s school Christmas program on the exact same day as the hearing. I did.

Navigating the personal/professional waters of a law firm is tricky. In my career I’ve noted a double standard: if a mom leaves work early to attend her kid’s band concert, she’s viewed as not committed and always putting her family first. If a father takes off early every Wednesday to coach his kid’s soccer practice, however, he is praised as being an involved father and held up as an example of the firm’s dedication to work/life balance. In light of this double standard, I’ve generally just gone about my business without offering any explanation for why I might be out of the office at any given time. I’ve taken the view that it doesn’t matter whether the doctor appointment is for me or my kids (although unless I’m pregnant, the doctor appointment is never for me. I don’t even have a doctor). I’m simply out. But bailing on the argument of a substantive motion in a hot-button, emotions-are-flaring case? Somebody was going to want to know why I couldn’t be there.

So I was left with the decision of whether to (1) try to do both the court appearance and still make KJ’s Christmas program; (2) lie; or (3) tell truth. Number one wasn’t really an option. Last year, I argued a substantive motion on KJ’s Christmas program day. The motion was complex and required all kinds of testimony. I vividly remember questioning an engineer, glancing at my watch and sweating bullets that I’d never make it in time. After some terrible, likely-to-send-me-back-to-court-on-a-ticket driving, I made it to KJ’s program, but only with about 2 minutes to spare. I did not want to do that again. So, I was left with the decision to have a “doctor appointment” which would be more acceptable, or to tell the truth. I chose to tell the truth.

And a Christmas miracle occurred. The partner who I asked to cover my – the newest, most junior person at the firm’s – court appearance said yes. Actually, he said, “Christmas program? I remember going to those. Let’s look at my calendar and if I’m free, I’ll go.” And he is. No one gave me any crap for choosing my kids over court. And no one said anything about a Christmas program being a waste of time (or that KJ won’t remember if I’m not there, which is what people at my last firm said). Instead, the partners valued my dedication to my family and approached the situation as a team. And didn’t say anything more about it.

I’m too new to know whether my firm is as family friendly as this situation makes them out to be, but this experience certainly gives me hope. My firm has taken a step to recognize the importance of my family in my life. It only seems appropriate that such a big step for the legal profession be celebrated by a choir of three-year-olds singing.


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