Saving Face

Chapter 21
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Dec. 23 2009 6:25 PM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

There's not an empty chair in Caplin Pavilion. It's teeming with what looks to be every last woman at the law school. And a whole lot of the men. Posters of my face appear on every vertical surface in the building. This must be what it feels like to be Angelina Jolie.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

I'm sitting in the front row between Cole and Marina, waiting to be introduced. Bob is next to Marina, and a bunch of our friends on the faculty have swarmed us to wish me luck. Also to pay homage to the suit. I smile and make small talk and look at my watch. Just a few minutes to go. As I review my notes, a young man with gorgeous gray eyes introduces himself as Chris Wilson, editor of the UVA student paper. "I am a big fan of your work, Ms. Hirshblatt," he says. "I was hoping to grab you for a photo and a quick interview after your talk today?"

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"Sure. I have a bit of time before I have to run up to D.C. to do Spencer Buckley tonight," I smile. "I'd love to."

He introduces me to the young woman who's clutching his left hand and bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. It's Lally Singh, from the brown bag lunch. "My girlfriend is big a fan, too," says Chris. "Seriously …" Lally cuts in. "I think you are giving a whole generation of young women law students some hope that the light at the end of the tunnel isn't going to be a train."

"Hey." I smile. "That's a good line." I shake Lally's hand. "I might have to steal that. Great to see you again, Lally." I am surprised I'm not more nervous. It feels like a homecoming for me, and I am well aware that I am speaking to a group of young women desperate to hear anyone tell them that it's all going to be OK for them in the end. Of course, I'm not at all certain it's going to be OK for them in the end, but I'm going to try to clear a path toward something that isn't the typical Big Law corporate funnel.

Lally steps up to the lectern to introduce me, and the audience slowly quiets down. She's so cute in her little gray interview suit and her big black laptop bag. I can barely remember a time when it was more than enough to just be young and smart.

"Hey there," she says, adjusting the microphone. "Hey. Welcome to this Virginia Law Women event called Having It All: Balancing Work in the Law With a Career and Family. We are so lucky to hear from one of our very own alumnae, Erica Hirshblatt, UVA Law class of 1998. Erica went to Columbia undergrad, where she majored in history and graduated magna cum laude. While she was here, she was editor at the Law Review. She then clerked on the 4th Circuit and worked for several years at Stanley, Frisk & Fortune in Manhattan.   But she's recently become an overnight Internet and TV sensation with her brilliant new blog, Splitigation. She has two gorgeous kids and an amazing legal career, and she's empowering women all over the country to be brave about their work choices. She's the woman who gave new meaning to the immortal words 'take the hard drive.' Ladies and gentlemen, I can't think of anyone better to talk about having it all. Erica Hirshblatt."

The crowd explodes in applause as I climb the steps of the stage and adjust the microphone. I catch Cole's eye and grin, then wink at Marina. I take a sip of water, smile and begin:

"Thank you so much for that really lovely introduction, Lally. I'm not sure that I am the best person to talk about having it all, mainly because I really do believe what a teacher once told me about that in college: 'Sure you can have it all, just not all at once.'   My guess is that if your law school class is anything at all like mine was, about a third of you are vaguely worried about someday balancing a family and a law career, but you don't want to think about it; a third of you are fiendishly worried about balancing career and family but don't know what to do about it; and a third of you aren't worried about balancing career and family because you plan to think about it later."

Laughter and raucous whispering.

"I want to talk to you today about your expectations of yourself. Because so far in your lives, you've mostly learned that if you study really hard for the test—be it the spelling bee, the SAT, or your torts exam—you will always succeed. But once you leave law school, if you find a partner and a job and a house and someday have some delicious kids, I guarantee that you'll find that you are expected to take five exams a day. And I am here to tell you that you can't. You simply cannot be the best attorney and the most attentive mother and have a spotless house and volunteer for every organization that needs your help, all at once.   If by 'having it all' you intend to be Martha Stewart, Mother Teresa, and Sandra Day O'Connor all at once, I think you need to let go of the fantasy."

I look out at hundreds of rapt eyes and continue: "Look, law school exists mainly to drive you into big law firms, and big law firms exist solely to wring thousands of hours from you that you don't have and shouldn't be willing to spare. It's a recipe for disaster, and for failure, which explains why women tragically have yet to break through the glass ceiling in the legal profession, even as we have done so well at law school. So here's my advice for you: Treat your life like a Chinese takeout menu and pick and choose what you want. Don't accept any deal on its own terms. One of my law school lecturers once told me that you can't have it all, but you can have two out of three. Her 'three' were husband, kids, and work. In her experience, she said, a woman could probably do a good job at two out of those three, so you could either give up kids, ditch the husband, or accept that the best you could ever do was about two-thirds of a good job on each.  

"Law firms aren't going to change the way they do business until we all march in and demand that they torch the 'mommy track.' Your house isn't ever going to clean itself, so you'd better get comfortable either hiring someone or learning to love the crunch of day-old Rice Krispies underfoot. Men don't spend their days bonking themselves on the head for the things they didn't do. Good grief, men don't even bonk themselves on the heads for the things they do. I am here to tell you to make up your own life and contract out the rest. I couldn't do what I do without a gorgeous husband who has learned to live with takeout dinners, a darling manny who loves my kids like he'd love them for free, and a publisher at BarCzar who lets me blog in my PJs at 3 a.m. But I want you to know that I have very deliberately designed a life that lets me work from home: My kids don't even know I have a job! I'm a stay-at-home mommy with the benefit of a national audience. I get to influence national conversation on the law, then run home and pack lunches and read Babar."

I take another swig of water and wave my hand at the crowd. It occurs to me that while I have been good, sometimes terrific, in moot court rooms and boardrooms and courtrooms, I am really, really good when I am outside the law, looking in. "Listen," I conclude. "This is your life, your moment. You can either waste it with regrets about not being three different kinds of perfect. Or you can pick and choose something that is better than perfect, and that is the authentic, real you."

Thunderous applause washes over me and I exhale, relieved. Cole grins, probably secretly grateful that I didn't humiliate him. Marina gives me two thumbs up, Fonzie-style. I tug down my jacket and solicit questions from the audience. Two long lines instantly form in front of microphones at either side of the auditorium. I tell myself that the hard part is over—now its just hand-holding, glitter, and a shot in the arm.

"Hi, my name is Mason Perry," says a nervous young woman with red hair.  "And I am so happy to have you here to talk to us because there should be a whole class on this!" She looks around waiting for laughter. Then she looks back to her notes and asks, "Given that women make up more than half the entering law school classes and graduate with comparable grades, yet are dramatically less likely to make partner in big firms, what do we do about the fact that—in order to accommodate work]life balance—women have become substantially over-represented in lower-paying public interest jobs. Why is it always the women who will accept those lower-paying jobs, and how can women ever change the economic structure in a way that will change these incentives?"  

I tell the audience that if women dominate law schools and don't manage to change the economic structure of law firms, they have only themselves to blame. Another young woman who introduces herself as Ellen Woods   asks if I have any regrets about having gone to law school in the first place. She wants to know whether, having created the type of alternative career I have, I should have skipped all the debt and time and anguish.   I tell her I don't think I could cover the topics I cover without a law degree but that if I had known in law school how great it would have all worked out for me, I would have worried less and played a lot more beer pong.

Lally Singh stands at one of the microphones and says, "I think a lot of us want to know why men don't seem to have anywhere near the same difficulty striking this balance as we do. Are they less self-critical? Do we just put this pressure on ourselves? Why don't they worry about their balance?"   I laugh and tell her it's very efficient for them to contract out all the worrying to us since we are so good at it and so willing to do it for free.

Then I squint toward the microphone and see none other than Amanda Matthews, aka Quid Pro Ho, and I smile at her. "Hi, Amanda. Do you have a question?"

"Well, yes.   With all due respect, I can't exactly understand what it is that you are advocating here. You paint a picture of a sort of fairy-tale stay-at-home career while your babies toddle around at your feet,   but you have almost full-time child care. You're telling us that blogging is a viable legal career choice for women, but if you're like every other blogger, I have to assume you make less money than a summer associate at a law firm.   You say you're a lawyer, but you talk about the law on your blog like it's some ridiculous old relic that you'd like to blow up. In fact, you seem to shun all the legal methods—balance, rigor, and thoroughness—in favor of policy ends."

I feel a flush rise up over my whole body. My cheeks are sweating. People have begun to whisper and some are even booing her. But she persists. I try to compose my face into a mask of calm tolerance, but I feel my knees start to shake.

"You talk about your husband like he's a saint, but you write about all husbands like they're just one cute secretary away from an affair. You're for trust and old-fashioned marriage and families but also for hiding your assets from your partner. You talk like a feminist, but you write to women like they're exceptionally slow infants. You say you're totally in love with your husband, but …"

My heart starts pounding. She's had access to my computers. I perpetually leave my iPhone lying around. She must know. She. … Cannot. ... Mention. … Whit.   I can barely hear around the roaring in my head as she finishes her sentence:

"…. you have probably done more to undermine what real divorce lawyers like your husband do than anyone in America today. With all due respect"—I really need her to stop saying that—"I thought feminism meant putting down all the masks and the make believe and the trying to please other people. I thought feminism meant that your inside self could finally match up to your outside self; that the person you show the world is the person you really are. I really liked your speech, but I just don't accept that having it all means being all things to all people without having any idea what you really think about anything."

Amanda walks away from the microphone and takes her seat. A few of her fellow students glare at her; a handful clap. Most look expectantly up at me. I struggle to formulate an answer. I avoid catching Cole's eye or glancing at Marina. They are probably more desperate to hear my response than Amanda. I take a sip of water and clear my throat.

I want to tell her that the instant a woman gives birth to a child, her insides and her outsides will fail to match up ever again, that the membrane between them becomes so porous that breast milk is forever leaking onto the conference table and cable images of starving children in faraway lands will bring tears. I want to tell her that having kids turns you into something that will forever annihilate the line between you and the world that really has no interest in hearing about your kids. I want to tell her that if Whit Campbell knew how many hours I had dedicated to pureeing spinach to hide in the kids' spaghetti sauce that he would never e-mail me again, and that if Cole had ever spent an entire day with nothing to do but stories, then face-painting, then snack, then dress-up, then blocks, then lunch, then nap, then educational programming, then coloring, then snack, he would probably stop complaining once and for all that there aren't enough hours in the day.

I want to ask her why she hates me, but I don't actually think she does. I want to tell her that none of us who stayed at home with our kids expected to be a part of some so-called "opt-out revolution"; most of us never even knew we had made a choice.   I want to tell her that being sandwiched between my mother's judgments and the judgments of budding feminists a generation behind me is not really my dream life, either. I want to tell her that I love Cole but he makes me crazy. I want to tell her it's not my fault that cable news talks about the law the same way it talks about sports. I don't know what to say, but if I don't say something, this life I'd so painstakingly created for myself; this life I thought I had finally chosen for myself, will look like a series of small accidental train wrecks. So after an eternity, I wrench my jaw open and manage to stammer: "You make some good points, Amanda. But I imagine you'll feel differently about some of these things when you've had a few years to think about them." If "having it all" means that you can have a legal job you enjoy that has a reasonable work-life balance (that pays $35K) only because you have a high-earning spouse, maybe that's not an acceptable system.

It's the single most patronizing thing I can say. But better than all the patronizing things I have swallowed back. I can see Chris Wilson scribbling furiously into his little reporter's notebook. Then Lally Singh is up at the microphone beside me, clapping enthusiastically and thanking me for my time while she pulls me by the elbow from the stage. The rest of the clapping is less enthusiastic. I slowly descend the stairs, wondering if the choices that had gotten me to this place were just a string of personal hypocrisies. And I wonder if everyone from Frances to Amanda to Cole to the hundreds of strangers gathering their sweaters and bags to flee the crime scene, have all known it all along.

******

Dear readers: Thank you for hanging in with me. Next question: What happens when Erica goes on Spencer Buckley later, and, more important, what happens when she finally meets the famous Whit Campbell?  Send e-mails to savingface.slate@gmail.com or post on the Facebook page. You can also follow Saving Face on Twitter.

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