5 tips from a BigLaw partner on ‘making it work’ in real life

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Making It Work

Joanna Horsnail

Joanna Horsnail

Making it Work is a new column in partnership with the Working Mother Best Law Firms for Women initiative in which lawyers share how they manage both life’s challenges and work’s demands.

I am fortunate to have enjoyed the last 20 years of my life practicing law. I can truly say I enjoy my work and I am proud to be a partner at Mayer Brown. This is not to say, however, that the practice of law is not without its challenges. Life brings its own challenges, as well.

I faced the toughest challenges of my life, and career, over one particularly turbulent 10-year period: My mom died; I got married; I got pregnant; I made income partner; I had a baby; my dad died; I had a second baby who was born with significant disabilities; my marriage ended; and I made equity partner. I navigated these ups and downs by keeping sight of my goals and leaning on friends, family and colleagues for support. After being a single parent for 10 years and a partner for 13 years, I feel I can offer tips for “making it work” while real life goes on around you.

1. Don’t leave before you ask for what you need. This is the corollary to Sheryl Sandberg’s “don’t leave before you leave.” You may be surprised by the accommodations your employer is willing to make in order to retain you. And you may be surprised that even some simple fixes can make what’s on your plate seem manageable. Before I went on maternity leave with my first son, I made it clear to my management that I hoped to be put up for income partner but that I also wanted to return to work on a 70 percent schedule. Friends told me I was crazy for disclosing that I wanted to reduce my hours before I got the promotion. But a career is built on trust and relationships, and I felt I had to be honest and ask for what I needed at that time. I got the promotion and the modified schedule, and I proceeded to have an alternative work schedule for the next 10 years as I was promoted to equity partner and given a number of leadership positions. Now I am back to a full-time commitment as my kids are older, and I am loyal to the firm for this flexibility. Ask for what you need to make your career succeed before you give up.

2. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Most lawyers have a “high need for achievement” personality type, and it can be paralyzing when we don’t feel we are doing everything perfectly. But “having it all” is such a strange thing to strive for—no one is perfect at everything every day. You can’t be a perfect lawyer, perfect significant other, perfect parent, perfect child and perfect friend all the time. Triage, prioritize and drop things that aren’t critically important to you. Practice saying no to things that you don’t have to or want to do, and say yes to the things that bring you the most satisfaction.

3. You can’t clone yourself—ask for help. Even when we are not striving to be perfect, we encounter times when we are expected to be in two or three places at once. I used to hate asking for help, but I have learned that there are times when I simply cannot be in multiple places and I must ask others to step in. Now, I initiate the requests for soccer carpools, I pay my nanny for some extra hours for grocery shopping and other errands, and I ask grandparents and friends to pitch in with my kids when work travel is demanding. And I ask for help at work. There have been times when my son has been hospitalized and I have had to ask a colleague to handle negotiations on a deal on a moment’s notice. I find if you are a good colleague and you support others when they need help, they will do the same for you. I have been touched to learn that many people truly enjoy helping.

4. Strive to keep perspective—life really is a marathon and not a sprint. Don’t blow challenges out of proportion and assume they will last forever. I have been surprised to learn that I can change more than I ever thought, and that circumstances around me also change in the blink of an eye. Time brings perspective and changes how you prioritize your goals. So don’t be impetuous about making life- or career-changing decisions. I certainly had points in my career when I wanted to throw my hands up and quit, but those were the times when I had a particularly challenging client and a new baby and a bad cold. I also have days when I’m on the beach on vacation with my kids and I can’t believe my great fortune. If you are faced with a hurdle that seems insurmountable, ask yourself how it may seem different in a week, a month, a year. Sleep on it—for a while.

5. When you make it work for you, you make it work for others. When we push the boundaries in the workplace, we change the possibilities for future generations of lawyers—women and men. The more you reach for what you want, despite your hurdles, the more you are a role model for others that it is possible. I talk openly about my challenges and my coping strategies in the hope that it may inspire others. Volunteer your time to talk to colleagues who need support in making it work, and advocate for what others need when you are in a position to do so. And try not to judge others for making different choices than you. We all make it work in different ways, and that is the beauty of this sometimes crazy life. It’s yours to live as you choose.


Joanna Horsnail is a partner in the Chicago office of Mayer Brown with a focus on complex design-and-construction transactions. She received the firm’s 2015 Diversity Champion Award and serves on the boards of the Anixter Center, Cabrini Green Legal Aid and the PURA Syndrome Foundation. Horsnail gave a TEDx Talk in 2016 about her journey with her younger son.

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Making It Work.”





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