Opting out

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By Many Indian women lawyers in the US are quitting high-paying jobs with prestigious firms to have a better quality of life. Koli Mitra reports
  • Published 27.09.06

I like to work hard, but I’m not a machine,” says Shivali Puri, leisurely cutting into her roast turkey, sitting in Manhattan’s Mayrose diner. Just last year, this would have been unthinkable on a Thursday evening. She would probably be speed-eating at her desk in her office in the World Financial Center. She would have had one eye on her computer screen and one ear on the phone, all the while trying to fight the fatigue that she had built up over a long period of sleep deprivation. Puri is a finance attorney who left Wall Street to “have a life again”.

“Horrible” is how Pali Chheda, formerly a Park Avenue corporate lawyer, described her first law firm experience. She spoke softly, because her sister, who is visiting, was putting her children to bed upstairs. Chheda rarely had quality time with her family when she was a practising lawyer. Now the contentment is unmistakable in her voice.

Puri and Chheda are two Indian-American women who are part of a larger trend of minority women lawyers leaving high-paying jobs with prestigious law firms, sometimes without finding another one first.

A study by the US law placement organisation, the National Association of Law Placement (NALP), discussed in the American Bar Association Journal in August 2006, found that roughly 66 per cent of minority women lawyers leave large law firms within the first five years.

“The choice is often easier for Indians,” observes another Indian American lawyer, a former colleague of Puri, who too recently quit Wall Street, “because we have certain options, like moving in with our parents, which are not culturally okay for some people, no matter how close their families are.”

Both Puri and Chheda say that although they had enough financial security to afford a hiatus, the decision would be harder without their families’ emotional support. Puri knew she could live with her parents if needed. Chheda already did.

What is it about these high-profile law careers that so many are shunning? While the NALP study suggests discrimination as the key factor, all of these women also cite ‘stress’ or ‘lifestyle’ issues as reasons. Puri says it’s partly the ‘insane’ hours and partly the ‘politics’. “These firms get all they can out of you until you burn out. There are always new law school graduates to replace you.”

“Wall Street has an age-old reputation for ruthlessness,” says Puri’s former colleague, who prefers to remain anonymous. “But the market’s staggering pace in recent years has made things worse. We’re working 15 hours a day. We’ve no social lives. I had a date last year but I kept checking e-mail on my PDA (personal digital assistant) all through dinner to see if a document was cleared by my client. The guy never called me again.”

Monu Singh, another Indian-American lawyer, is convinced that much of law practice “is not conducive to living like a human being. We neglect basic things like eating, sleeping and exercising, never mind things like going to see a play. Even worse, there’s an egregious amount of kissing up to people and worrying about how much ‘face time’ you’re doing. Even people who hate being this way find themselves under pressure to compete on this level.”

Discrimination itself is often a source of stress. Chheda’s experience bears this out. Describing her old firm as “hostile,” she explains, “all the partners were white and I had absolutely no rapport with them.”

Some feel that things are especially hard on women because of conflicting social and professional demands. “It’s hard to maintain stable relationships,” says Puri, because she believes women bear more of the burden of “making it work”. She started practising law at a young age, but with no time for a life beyond work the years passed quickly. “Suddenly you’re 30. Your mother is losing sleep because you aren’t married. You let work keep you from having a satisfying personal life, but work isn’t satisfying either. It’s a no-win situation.”

So are they through with working for good? Not at all. It wasn’t long before Chheda, a self-confessed ‘type-A’ personality, felt restless and wanted to get back to work. She resolved, however, that whatever she did next, it would not overwhelm her life and it would not be in a law firm. Puri too was initially uneasy with leisure. “I was hooked on my BlackBerry. I used to check my e-mail at all hours — even on vacation. I had to get used to freedom.”

Both Puri and Chheda are working again. Chheda works as an editor for a provider of legal research materials. Puri works as in-house counsel for a bond insurer. Both women earn a mere fraction of their former salaries, but enough to live on. They enjoy their work. They have lives beyond work. They are still using their law backgrounds. But as Chedda says, “Right now I don’t have a career; I have a job I don’t hate. I am fine with that. I find fulfilment in people, family and community. Work is important, but it’s just one part of life.”