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Opting Out / Opting In at Cleary Gottlieb

Vivia Chen

October 18, 2011

J.KromanHow do you go straight from a partnership at one of the most prestigious firms in the world to full-time motherhood?  You might ask litigator Jennifer Kroman. In 2006 Kroman quit Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton to take care of her two young daughters.

But she's back at Cleary again--this time as the firm's director of pro bono.

You must have busted your buns to make partner at a place like Cleary. Then you walked away from it all three years later. Why did you put yourself  through all that torture in the first place? 
I worked hard, and I was very directed. I never thought I'd be a partner at a law firm. But I really liked being a lawyer. It was a great job, and I worked with great clients.

If you liked your work, and you made it to the top of the heap, why quit? 
After my first child was born, I came back at 100 percent, then dropped to 80 percent, then eventually to 60 percent. The firm was very accommodating, and I felt supported. But deep down I felt conflicted.

So by the time you had your second child, you didn't want to go back? 

Was there anything the firm could have done to get you to stay put?
At one point, [then–managing partner] Mark Walker asked me, "What percentage would you like to work?" And I said, "Zero." My story isn't about how a reduced schedule didn't work; mine is about a bigger picture. I just wanted to be home.

Quitting cold turkey is pretty drastic. Why didn't you take a leave of absence to test the waters?
To me, there would have been a moral commitment to go back after X time. I didn't feel comfortable with a timeline.

People must have been shocked that you were quitting.
Some said, "I don't think you really want to stay home--you'll go crazy." Some said, "You're so lucky." It's hard to have these discussions [because] there's a value judgment in whatever choice you make.

As a young partner, you must have been a role model for the women associates. Were you afraid that you were sending a discouraging message?
If there's one group that's supportive, it was the younger women. They said that they look to someone who's willing to do something off the traditional track as a role model. It's a bit of a countercultural attitude. I was really touched.

So one day you're sitting at your big partner office, then the next day, you're home all day with the kids. What was that like?
I was crazy happy to stay home.

But you obviously didn't want to be Suzy Homemaker forever. When did you start itching to go back to work?
I always knew I would go back—but I wasn't sure when.

You decided to go back when your girls started going to school. How did you plot your return?
I networked with cocounsel, opposing counsel, everybody. I told people I wanted to go back to work. I got four or five leads. In May 2010, I also started doing [nonpaying] work for Sanctuary for Families, where I worked with law students. That got me started thinking about being a pro bono coordinator.

How did that lead you back to Cleary?
I bumped into [Cleary's] chair of litigation, and he mentioned that a lot of firms had lawyers as pro bono directors, and that planted a seed. I submitted a job proposal about what I saw myself doing in that role. I worked with them to create the position.

Is it weird to return to the scene of the crime in a different role?
I feel people listen to what I say. If I say this is a project worth doing, people are comfortable with my suggestion.  

What is your day like now?
I'm back full-time; I'm in the office every day. But I have a lot of control over my schedule because most of what I do is not direct client work. I get into substantive work. A lot of what I do is lawyering. I review drafts, and I do staffing of associates on cases.

Do you miss anything about being a partner—like that nice, fat paycheck?
I try not to think about that. The answer is no, because I wouldn't want to work the way partners do; it's your whole life.

What about the trappings of power--like going to partners meetings and having a voice in shaping the direction of the firm?
I don't miss them at all! No one can tell me that I have to go on the worldwide IT committee now.

Any advice to those thinking of opting out or going back to work?
Even if you think you're not going back, you can't drop out 100 percent. Keep up your network and your CLE. You can't take five or ten years off and expect to come back. Follow your heart, but be thoughtful about it.

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.


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I appreciate you posting this about someone who felt the need to opt out completely, even if only for a few years. A lot of us feel the need to do that but it's usually the working lawyer moms that get written about. Her advice to stay connected is key.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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