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Big Firm Valentine

Vivia Chen

February 13, 2011

Victorian-valentines-cards-two-cherubs-red-hearts

The following originally appeared in the print edition of The American Lawyer, February 2010.

It's a cold February morning in Brooklyn Heights, New York, and the Seymours are huddled under the duvet, each clicking on his-and-her Black­Berrys. Across the bridge, the DeMasis are in the kitchen of their Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, eyes also fixed on their incoming e-mail messages, as their kids clamor for Cheerios. Halfway across the country, on a leafy street in Houston, the Rodriguezes are getting their daughters ready for school as they--you guessed it--toy with their BlackBerrys.

Welcome to the world of Am Law 100 power couples--the cream of the profession, times two. Their very existence provokes questions from the mere mortals who work with them: How do two ambitious, type-A people with family demands make it all work? Do they lead hectic but opulent lives (think $2 million in income and, quite possibly, much more), with a platoon of household help? Or are they just like any other working couple in America, except with more drive and more money?

The three couples we profile here try hard to inject some predictability into a profession notorious for long and unpredictable hours. Almost without exception, they put a big priority on being home to have dinner with the family. For Timothy and Karin DeMasi (both litigators, she at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, he at Weil, Gotshal & Manges) and Mark and Cristina Rodriguez (she's a litigator at Baker Botts, he's an oil and gas lawyer at Vinson & Elkins), that means getting home by 7 p.m. For Karen Patton Seymour and Samuel Seymour (both litigators at Sullivan & Cromwell), family time starts late—it's usually 9 p.m. when they sit down with their two teenage sons for dinner. "We have a strict 'No BlackBerry' rule at the dinner table," says Patton Seymour. "We turn things off, and enjoy the family." But when the kids are asleep, the lawyers turn back to work. "I work every night," says Karin DeMasi. "I sign on [the computer] at 8 and work until midnight."

These couples say they never debated about whose career should take priority. "There was never a discussion about one of us taking a slower track," says Cristina Rodriguez, who met her husband at orientation at Harvard Law School in 1992. "If a job is meaningful to you, it's all doable." Sam Seymour says that he and his wife "always viewed our careers as equal." And though Tim DeMasi was already a partner when his wife was a rising associate at Cravath, neither thought that she should slow down. "She worked very hard as a senior asso­ciate," he says, adding that she was pregnant when she came up for partnership.

Of course, it's easy to say there's equal career opportunity in a marriage, but how does that shake out in practical terms? What makes these households function? First, a high degree of organization. More often than not, the woman is the primary mover. Cristina Rodriguez says she creates a spreadsheet for everything, including car pools and playdates: "We have lots of lists and flowcharts; I make them and tape them to the walls." But the role of organizer is self-imposed, suggests Karin DeMasi: "I am a control freak. And mothers, by nature, tend to do more."

Second, lots of help. "The nanny texts us all the time," says Mark Rodriguez. "She carries a lot of the load." Remarkably, none of them have live-in help. "It wouldn't work for us," says Karin DeMasi who has three young boys. "It's important for our kids to wake up to us."

These power couples are a study in how far modern marriage has evolved into something that approaches partnership. Borrowing a page from the corporate world, they use terms like "collaboration" and "teamwork" to describe their marriage. "We both go to doctor's appointments, soccer games, Halloween parties," says Cristina Rodriguez. "We don't want the burden to fall on one person; our philosophy is that we are both involved."

And there are upsides to the intense demands of the dual power career dynamic. Foremost, the empathy factor runs strong. The typical tug of war between a workaholic spouse and the stay-at-home partner doesn't exist in these households, because "as lawyers, we understand each other's schedule," says Karin DeMasi. Resentment about long absences still happen, but go away quickly, says Cristina Rodriguez: "I was frustrated when Mark was gone for seven weeks [on a case], but I paid him back the favor later with a two-week trial."

Another advantage is enjoyed by the Seymours, who share what to some would seem to be impossibly close lives--white-collar criminal defense lawyers at the same firm. "At least I don't have to worry about keeping confi­dential papers around at home," says Karen.

Finally, relationship experts always counsel that it's important to share interests, even if that means talking shop at home. "This is so geeky," confesses Karin DeMasi, "because we talk about what goes into a good brief and deposition techniques."

As these couples exchange romantic messages on their BlackBerrys this Valentine's Day, they can be glad that they've found each other. Who else would put up with them? 

 

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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.

Illustration: Victorian Valentine, Vintage Holiday Crafts

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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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