There is a scene in Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, in which the protagonist imagines her life as a sprawling fig tree, each fig containing a different life path that she might choose. One fig is a husband, a happy home and children; another is a poet; and a third is a professor. The protagonist can’t decide which fig would be best, because choosing one would mean losing all the others. Paralyzed by indecision, she watches as each fig rots and falls to the ground.
I recently left my job as an associate at a large Bay Street firm to move in-house. And as I made that decision, I thought frequently about The Bell Jar. Much like to the narrator, I imagined my own fig tree containing possible life paths. Maybe I’d make partner at the firm. Maybe I’d have a fulfilling relationship with someone I love and care about deeply, as well as friendships with people I respect and whose company I enjoy. Maybe I would become an active leader in my community, advocating for more representation and opportunities on behalf of people who are traditionally ignored and overlooked. In my mind, each option presented a separate and irreconcilable choice, where choosing one meant giving up on the others.
The benefits of working on Bay Street are undeniable. Many of my peers and mentors have thriving careers while also pursuing happy relationships, family lives and hobbies. My own experience on Bay Street was generally positive. I had supportive coworkers (some of whom are now good friends) who readily gave me advice on a file or on life. The partners cared about my career growth and looked out for my interests. I also enjoyed the strange adrenaline rush of being in a transaction-driven practice, where I often raced against the clock to finish an impossible task during the course of a deal and, therefore, felt a unique sense of accomplishment and relief once the closing date came. I gained credibility and access to a network of influence, something I wouldn’t have gained otherwise as a racialized person whose parents are first-generation immigrants.
But there were many challenging aspects to life as a lawyer in private practice: the volume of work, the inability to control your own schedule, and the general feeling that you were never doing enough. It often felt like I couldn’t do anything that wasn’t docketable: going to doctor’s appointments, filling out insurance forms, mailing a package and maintaining a semi-regular exercise schedule. In an environment where all my time was measured in six-minute increments, and where I had to prepare a daily narrative that accounted for my productive hours, it felt inappropriate and self-indulgent to spend time doing things that seemed to serve nobody but me.
This mindset can have tragic consequences. I remember reading about Gabe MacConaill, who was a partner at a major U.S. law firm when he died by suicide. His wife, Joanna Litt, wrote an account of his life and the intense pressure he felt at work. I was struck most by what he told her as she drove him to the emergency room after he had a breakdown: “You know, if we go, this is the end of my career.” It saddened me to read about how he cared about setbacks to his career more than he cared about his health. “During this terrible spiral, I told him to quit,” writes Litt. “He said he couldn’t quit in the middle of a case. The irony is not lost on me that he found it easier to kill himself.”
The common solution to a busy work schedule is to outsource our life tasks. And, in a sense, it’s true that I could have ordered groceries and toiletries to my front door, hired someone to clean my apartment and had someone take my future children to daycare and school. In this so-called “solution,” though, I would not have been rebalancing my own set of responsibilities, but would have instead been transferring my responsibilities to someone else. In some ways, this “solution” raised more questions for me than it answered. To whom would my responsibilities be transferred? What if the transferee’s plate was also full? How would they fit into the equality equation? To outsource my life would have, in all likelihood, involved subjecting another woman of colour like me to a lower rung of a social hierarchy, where she would have been responsible for servicing my needs before her own.
I don’t say this to shame women who hire people for help. I, too, have paid someone to clean my apartment when I felt too overwhelmed, and I’m someone with no dependents or other caregiving responsibilities. But while this “solution” works for many, I am navigating my feelings around it still. As I considered leaving Bay Street, I decided I wanted more direct involvement in my own life for the time being. I know that, over time, this feeling may change as my responsibilities grow.
As a racialized lawyer, I thought a lot about what my decision to leave private practice would mean for the broader community I represented. At a networking event for Korean lawyers, a senior lawyer told a group of juniors (including me) how proud he was that so many Korean lawyers were now on Bay Street. Was I being selfish for leaving? I had always tried to be a conduit for racialized students that wanted a chance on Bay Street, and I tried to hold the door open for them. Would leaving diminish my community’s potential? The burden of being a racialized lawyer is feeling as though your decision is never truly your own, but rather is one which impacts your whole community.
I have no soundbite solutions on how to move forward as a profession. I also know that many of the issues I touched upon are not unique to lawyers. But maybe we can build a future in which we no longer feel that being a good lawyer, a good partner, an engaged citizen and a compassionate neighbour feel mutually exclusive. I’m trying to get to that place.