Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The storm before the calm

Let's be frank.  The whole reason I took the foreign service exam was because my law firm was crumbling around me.  The writing was on the wall after a partnership dispute and various other misfortunes left revenues unable to keep up with expenses.  We did quality work and were involved in some high profile patent infringement cases, so I optimistically told myself it was all temporary.  The partners did a pretty good job of hiding the seriousness of the firm's plight, too, borrowing to pay Christmas bonuses.  This is probably why I was shocked when I was given three months' notice that the firm wasn't going to be able to afford my salary. 

As part of my job search, I discovered the foreign service.  I fell in love with the job on the spot.  I wanted to live all over the world and to learn languages for the betterment of my country.  All that was and is still true.  But what I also wanted were tangibles the law doesn't provide.  Foremost, I wanted stable employment.  Lawyers, and especially litigators, are only riding as high as their last win, their current client list, and whether they can bill enough to keep themselves going.  It's lucrative, but also extremely unstable.  If you're new, stability is something for which you are entirely dependant upon the partnership.  Can they generate enough business to justify my presence?  This question is constantly on everybody's mind.  Not a fun way to go through the work week.  Couple that with the long hours, the time away from family, the pressure, the travel, and sometimes, the abuse, and it gets a lot not funner.  Next on that list of tangibles, and somewhat related to stability is down time.  In the almost four years I have been in practice, I have not taken one extended vacation.  Weekends, holidays, and even traditional federal and bank holidays, are all meaningless to litigation attorneys.  The deadlines, the discovery requests, and client demands never take time off, so rarely do litigators.  Time with family, birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, state-of-the-union date nights, all take a back seat to whatever brief is due, finding a smoking gun document for trial, or traveling to that deposition in northern Michigan.  As we age and have children, the most irreplaceable commodity we have is time, and successful lawyers rob themselves of what is most important in life, in my opinion.

Fast forward two years.  That obscure written exam, which was one of a hundred nets I cast in the winter and spring of 2010, led me to receive an offer.  But in the meantime, I have put in amazing runs at two different firms.  The first was a real estate and banking firm.  The second, my current firm, is involved in one of the largest pieces of litigation in history.  When I got the call, we were (and are) gearing up for trial.  This trial is going to be epic.  I am finally doing the kind of work I went to law school to do.  In order to facilitate my departure in a manner that isn't going to burn bridges, I am working right up until A-100.  The firm is short-handed as it is, but part of me also selfishly doesn't want to miss anything.  The case could settle tomorrow or go on for the next four years.  Nobody knows.  What we do know is that we go to trial in two weeks, and we haven't got enough bodies to handle it.

So in addition to wrapping up my family's entire life here, I am working longer days than ever.  I'm sure the registrar is going to want to kill me for completing my paperwork at the last minute (it's due in next week), but I simply don't have enough hours in the day.  So one of my primary reasons for becoming an FSO -- time with my family -- is something I am completely abandoning for the next three weeks.  I have no doubt that A-100 will be exciting.  I've already read some of my classmates' amazing bios.  But I'm looking forward to the hours.  I'm sure I'll find them almost relaxing compared to this.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Anticipating the unanticipatable

State announced its May, 2012, specialist class well before announcing its May, 2012, generalist class.  Let me explain.  Specialists are folks who are hired by the State Department to do very specific types of jobs.  Some are security specialists, some are doctors, some nurses, some administrative, etc.  They don't have to undergo the gauntlet of testing and retesting that generalist undergo.  Generalists are foreign service officers.  State has a tentitive schedule of classes lined up for the rest of the fiscal year, which calls for specialist and generalist classes to be held in January, March, May, July, and September.  State stressed time and time again in its online forums that these dates are tentitive, especially given the cuts State anticipates to its future budget.  And here I was, absolutely CERTAIN that State was going to make copious generalist calls to its March class, with the remainder of the budget secure for the year in November/December of 2011.  After all, the January generalist class was called as soon as the budget was finalized and organized in December.  This gave me much hope that I would be called next, since the January class dipped into the 5.5s on my register.

But State began making specialist calls several weeks ago, leaving the hopeful generalists in a state of panic and fear that the generalist class might be cancelled.  I called in a favor with my local ambassador-in-residence to determine what the holdup was.  Word came back that the undersecretary in charge of the hiring decisions hadn't decided whether to even have a generalist class in March.  To make matters worse, my plum position on the register began looking less so as several new consular candidates with better OA scores or language points made their way aboard.  After the specialist class calls went out, I discovered I'd dropped 6-8 spots!  The horror!  I told me wife to stand down on the pins and needles because it no longer looked good for us in March.

Then the announcement came that a March class was, in fact, approved, but only for "about 60" officers.  Suddenly a rank in the high 20s wasn't looking so hot with an average of 12 people from each of the five cones getting calls.  So I told my wife to forget about it.  Perhaps my 5.5 would never be good enough given the rate at which new candidates were added.  Perhaps the 5.5s called in January were a fluke owing to short notice for the January 17 A-100 and copious invitation turn-downs under the shortened timetable.  I watched from the sidelines as folks in the A-100 yahoo group announced their March invites and resigned myself to business-as-usual, living by the billable hour and working hard for a faceless corporate client.  I was very happy for the lucky souls who were in, but I knew I was not likely to be one of them.  To make matters worse, the schedule of a litigator did not lend itself to the Spanish Skype lessons I would need to pass the telephone language test.  I chalked my foreign service dreams up to being just that, and patted myself on the back for making it as far as I have.  I told my wife we were doing fine where we are, and half-heartedly said we'd see how the May class panned out.

But to my surprise this past Monday, the coveted (and, for the first time, unsolicited) email showed up in my in-box from the State Department registrar.  I am in!  It's four days later, and I still can't believe it!  It's a second round invite, but they all have the same effect.  I told my firm Monday, because it's going to take them at least six weeks to logistically plan for my absense, and for me to train a replacement.  My wife is also ecstatic, but she has to find a replacement for herself at her job as well.  There's so much do to and to plan for these next 40 days, but I am relieved, nervous, excited and thrilled!  Let the adventure begin!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Late nights at the lawberdashery

My wife noted the other day that I never talked about the birth of our daughter in my blog.  She pointed out this discrepancy, as well as the fact that my blog is sporadic in terms of entries.  So today I'm going to try filling in some gaps.

In early September, my wife and I welcomed our firstborn into the world.  She was breach, so that made the process a little more involved, especially for my wife.  C-sections are no fun.  Nonetheless, everyone is healthy and happy, so we can't complain.  I was getting up to play golf at 5 in the morning, and discovered shortly thereafter that my wife's water had broken.  So we went through some contractions together for a while, called her doctor, and then called the hospital and her parents.  My wife was calm and heroic throughout the process.  And in the end we had a healthy baby girl!  Four and a half months later, our girl is in the 95th percentile for height and right in the middle of where she needs to be weight-wise.  Table for three, please!

I have learned to bathe, launder for, feed, swaddle and dress an infant, something with which I had no experience before.  Every day is an adventure, and coming home is now doubly pleasurable.  To counteract my work schedule, I try to be super daddy when I'm home.  I bath her and change her before bed.  I feed her and put her to sleep when my wife isn't breastfeeding her.  I also get her ready for daycare in the morning and drop her off.  It's made for some mad dashes to the office, but it's worth it.  We maximize our face time this way.  Being a father is so much more fun than I ever imagined it would be.

Trouble is, I'm a trial lawyer.  More so than any other time of my life, I am coming to terms with the value of time.  As we speak, I am in the office awaiting a section of a trial exhibit list on a very big case that's approaching.  It's so very not fun compared to what I have waiting for me at home.  We really do only get a finite amount of it in our lives.  With a wife and baby at home, the time lost with them is an incalculable quality-of-life hit.  When I think about the opportunities I will lose with my children if I stay here on a partnership track, leaving is a no-brainer. 

I don't disparage the profession as a whole.  Goodness knows, it has done great things for us.  I am very lucky to be able to think and to write for a living.  I have had the opportunity to learn things I never would have learned otherwise.  In my spare time, I freed accused men and women in a state that is VERY reluctant to let them go .  I have argued in front of juries.  I have made passionate, intelligent friends.  The life of a lawyer is very rewarding to a great many people, myself included.  But it's not a life of balance.  One lives and dies by the billable hour.  The work is hard and long for very little immediate and tangible benefit given your efforts.  [Employed*] Lawyers are paid well, but sacrifice so much in return.  From what other profession would the foreign service be seen as a chance to spend more time with family!

So I wistfully await my trial exhibit list draft, peruse photos of my daughter on my phone, and dream about future possibilities. 

Word on the street is that State hasn't made up its mind about having a March generalist class, so there will be no resolution this week about my future.  So be it.  Happy Friday, blogosphere.  Tell my daughter I love her.

* We'll talk about what it takes to be an employed lawyer out of law school another time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What's another day?

I like my place on the register.  I mean I really like it.  I feel as though the call could come at any moment.  Only it hasn't.  I know this is psychological, but my attorney job feels more precarious by the day.  I review documents, I do legal analysis.  I take a few criminal clients on the side and hope I last long enough to get the call and have a smooth transition.  This is not reality, of course.  I'm doing fine at work, and I enjoy the criminal appointment cases I occasionally take on the side immensely.  There's no reason to think I'm doing poorly as a lawyer at all.  If the call never comes, life will go on and I will be fine. 

That said, I know State's budget for the remainder of the fiscal year is set.  A March 12th specialist class has already been approved.  These signs indicate that approval could arrive for a generalist A-100 at any time.  Needless to say, I'm distracted, nervous and excited.  And I'm not alone.  I get multiple texts from my wife every day asking if I've gotten any emails.  We're both chomping at the bit to move on.

But if the call doesn't come, part of me will be relieved.  We're doing well here.  We're prepared to buy a house, new cars, and to have another baby.  Our children would get a break on tuition at my wife's school since she's on the faculty.  We're on the waiting list for one of the best pre-K day cares in the city.  Our plan B is going smashingly.  I never thought I'd say this in my life, but I would feel real regret at leaving the south.  My wife and I both worked hard and did well here.  Would being in the foreign service top that?  We may never know, and that would be okay!

Friday, December 30, 2011

A room with a view

Hey, non-existent readers!  There's been a brand new development here at the firm.  I got a new office!  The view is much better and I'm right next to the biggest and most powerful partner at the firm.  It's very exciting.  It doesn't come with a big raise or anything, but I am beginning to get recognized for my superior briefing abilities.  It's a nice development during this holiday week (well, holiday week for everybody else, anyway).  I'm working with a partner on a brief (of course), and my wife and daughter are spending the week visiting the in-laws.  So life here has been very quiet.  Tonight I'm driving out to join them for New Years Eve weekend.  Happy New Year, everyone!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's all coming together

It has been a few months since my last entry.  The new law firm job is going exceedingly well, although it keeps me busier than I would like.  Congress has managed to pass a budget through the end of the fiscal year.  State has steadily been filling its A-100 classes.  In fact, consular candidates with my OA score were called off the register for the January class, leaving me at approximately the eighth spot on the register for the March A-100.  I'm not counting on it, but things are looking pretty good.

Of course, such an early call would be disruptive.  My wife would like to complete the school year at her school.  She is also organizing a trip to Europe for the language department.  I am working on one of the largest pieces of litigation in American history, so ideally I would like to stick it out at the firm until our client settles -- something we all believe is imminent.  Unfortunately, the foreign service doesn't operate in the realm of ideals and what is most convenient.  We might as well get used to it from the moment we get the call.  IF, we get the call, that is.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A light at the end of the debt crisis.

I only have a moment to write this evening.  There have been no new A-100 classes scheduled owing to the trouble in Congress over the debt ceiling and the budget.  As frustrating as the situation is, I am happy to report that I landed a job with a larger, more stable law firm to keep us fed and in business for the foreseeable future.  I will be litigating one of the largest corporate litigation cases in the country right now, so the prestige alone is enough to keep me interested.  On the home front, the salary is significantly more than I was already making, so the financial pressure of having a new baby and a wife who might not want to work after she arrives is off.  For the time-being I'll be rolling up my sleeves and putting on my lawyer hat.  Hopefully State will be an option the next time I come up for air.