Until I became a parent, I found the world of success to be a wholly vertical matter. You leaned forward, into, and upwards. Nothing complicated about it. My parents, war-torn Holocaust survivors, had stressed security as nearly the highest goal in life. My father, in particular, had told me that he wanted me and my brother to be the ones in authority—the ones who wore what he called the “brass buttons.” All the kids from my immigrants’ enclave, Washington Heights in northern Manhattan, became doctors, accountants, attorneys, and professors. Some of the more entrepreneurial ones became business owners, systems-makers, moguls.
After little real consideration, I ended up at Yale law school. It was a place where, almost immediately, I knew I did not belong. The corridors rang with the shouts of ambitious masculinity and the refrain, said half-kiddingly: “Big bucks!!” Still, I worked at it, passed the requisite classes, and got the requisite grades. I was proud to be interviewed by the most prestigious law firms in the country. These were the “white shoe,” Wall Street sort, the kind where the clients required not one lawyer but a phalanx, carrying swollen briefcases soundlessly into court for long, Dickensian battles. The battles would cost the clients bushels of money (good for us) and would, almost inevitably, be won (also very good for us).
But was it good for the world? Pretty early, I learned that the very firms that wanted to hire me were the ones with the most dubious clients. Did they despoil the earth? Cause misery? Put small businesses out of existence? These were our people. In my summer job at a large international firm in France, I recall hearing about what at first seemed to be a highly sympathetic case. A construction mishap caused a landslide that had killed a lot of laborers. My heart went out for these poor workers, not to mention the widows and orphans they left behind. Silly me. We were defending our massive client against these unfortunates, whose relevant name, in this context, was “plaintiff.”
When I started work at my full-time job overlooking Rockefeller Center, my first case required that I displace middle- and low-income people from their homes. The firm, moreover, had been implicated in a suppression-of-evidence scheme—not all that unusual, I was to find out—and certainly an ethical quandary that many partners felt less than guilty about. After all, weren’t we paid to defend our clients? Didn’t everyone deserve the best, most passionate advocacy? And what, after all, did juvenile concepts like “right” and “wrong” have to do with seasoned legal professionalism?
At law school, I’d tried to learn to “think like a lawyer,” to argue both sides in my head with emotional equanimity, to take on the one who paid me and “dance with the one that brung me,” and champion anyone’s views. But once I had children, I could no longer stomach this path. I was teaching them to know the world, and the values I tried to give them were not as equivocal as the ones I’d been practicing. Even as a law guardian for foster children, I found the “legal method” of fact-finding to be anything but a straightforward search for the truth. And so, I returned to my former self, the lover of old-fashioned concepts like right and wrong, good and bad, and true and false. My children made a hopeless amateur out of me, and for this I thank them.
And I thank both parenthood and the legal profession for providing the background to my new novel Great With Child. In it, I tell the tale of a young, ambitious woman whose firm’s practices are slightly suspect. When she becomes pregnant, her perspective enlarges as much as her abdomen. I hope both the motherhood story and the legal subplot make for interesting reading. Living aspects of this story, and writing it, have offered me the sweetest kind of success—that of using my brains, my words, and my soul in as honest a way as I can.