Most lawyers are quick to discover that corporate law is, in the end, a service industry. One where client demands supersede employees’ work-life balance and the resultant emotional and physical damage gets swept up in bonuses and perks. Anyone who doesn’t conform to the cookie-cutter mold is forced to eke out a space to get the job done, perhaps quietly chipping away at the status quo from the inside. That’s the bargain after all, right? But sometimes that space is in your office under your desk — overnight.
Gila Jones started life as an associate with full understanding of this, but little concern. As a black woman who struggled with both black and white perceptions of her in college, she had already come to terms with the challenges and biases she would face. Interestingly, in my interview with Gila, being black in a law firm seemed less of an issue than being a liberal. Her role in the struggle, which intentionally wasn’t one of a leader, served her well as she swam with the sharks, befriended a few, and worked her career the way she wanted.
Though she’s not under a desk anymore, as for a husband, a family? Sorry, she’s more interested in her career right now. And the way her career is going in the fashion industry, she may just have it all sewn up.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Gila Jones: Since 2012, I’ve been the General Counsel of James Perse Enterprises, which is an L.A.-based designer and manufacturer of men’s and women’s apparel, as well as home furniture, furnishings and accessories. Because I’m the only attorney at the company, I pretty much do all the legal work and some business development as well.
I went to law school because of the economy, it was in a downturn. At that time, everyone was going into banking. I had an offer at one of the big banks, but they rescinded my offer and I had no other plans, so I applied to law school.
When I was in law school — this is a true story — a show called Alias was on TV. I wanted to be Sydney Bristow, and I knew the first component of that was to be in the same environment as her. It wasn’t even “I’m going to be a grad student and a CIA agent or black ops agent.” It was just, “I’m going to be a young professional in L.A.”
I’m doing okay. It was pretty easy in terms of finding jobs coming out of law school — at least at that time. And I had done my summer internships at Paul Weiss in New York. I did two summers there. But I decided I didn’t want to stay in New York and re-interviewed with California firms.
The attorneys were sharp, witty, a little sarcastic. Maybe becoming a New York lawyer makes you that way. They operate on an elevated level, and they’re hard to keep up with. I know a good joke when I hear it, but I am not one to tell it. Particularly in the litigation group, all the litigators had big personalities. I felt like it was an extra burden on top of the rigors of the job. I find New York to be a little bit that way; it’s very competitive and people one-up each other. And if you haven’t finished reading The New Yorker cover to cover, you’re slacking. But I just thought, “Do we all have to be on all the time?”
During the interview process, I felt a collegiality. There is a different attitude. It’s not only about working hard or being smart but also how you relate to people. It’s a little bit less antagonistic. It’s a little bit less caustic.
I felt that people were just nicer. Still great, interesting, funny. Their game is just different. It’s friendlier within the office. In New York, it felt like the law firm version of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I like to watch that. I think it’s absolutely hilarious and funny. But if you were to throw me on that set and ask me to keep up…that is not my personality. I really admire the people at Paul Weiss. I just didn’t feel at home there, and when you are asking someone to commit 10, 15, 20 hours a day, it’s a different level of energy that is required to always be on like that.
I slid in pretty easily and had a little group of friends. All the first-years at that time really banded together, we would order dinner together. Everybody was in the office late. I think my whole experience at the firm was special in that I always felt very comfortable and I had good, meaningful and real relationships with associates and partners. I don’t think everyone can say that about their workplace experience. I think very fondly of my time at Skadden.
I have people ask, “How did you do it?” And I say that the first thing you need to do is establish your reputation as being smart and a hard worker. Then identify one or two partners that you work really well with. Attach yourself to them and they will be your advocates. As you get to know more and more people, and work on more cases, your reputation will precede you, and the good energy will just keep coming back to you.
I was having a good time. I didn’t have a family. I still don’t have a family. I was 25 years old, that was what the experience was supposed to be. We were young lawyers in a big law firm. Our biggest gripe was not that we were eating in the office, it was that the only food option was California Pizza Kitchen.
In that office, it was easy to get good work if you demonstrated yourself as engaged and capable. I certainly did a good amount of document review. But I feel like document review is a way to make yourself indispensable to the case if you’re a litigator. I prefer the fact-finding, investigation and case strategy aspect of the work. Up to that point, I’m really loving it. But when you’re arguing motions, dispatching nastygrams to other attorneys, doing the theater of court, I get less interested. If you want me to review a thousand documents, put together a story, and find the smoking gun, sign me up. I think document review is a common complaint among young lawyers, but you’re the one who knows the whole record the case is built on, and that gives you a voice in the conversation.
I think it requires you to be pliable. The first partner I was assigned to work with had a reputation for not being the easiest person to work for. For the first year, he didn’t say my name right. For some people, that may have been a dead end, but my approach was to find some way I could relate to him. That was his kids. He liked talking about his kids; I like talking about people’s kids. He was a fantastic attorney, so I wanted to learn from him, and if I ever had to be deposed, there’s no one in the world I would rather defend me than this guy. Nobody does it better.
There’s always going to be one, or two, or three partners in the office that everybody says, “You want to work for that woman,” or “You want to work for that guy, because he’s easygoing.” “They take you into the game.” “They’re funny.” “They’ve got the best work.” You’re not always going to get assigned to that person. But when all the partners get together, they talk about the associates. If the person who’s known to be difficult and hard to bond with is saying positive things about you, then the other partners are going to want to find out about that associate who inspired this partner to have something positive to say.
No. And I think it’s a credit to the firm and particularly that office. If people were playing favorites, it was because they liked the associate’s work, not because the associate was a “mini-me.” To have a good reputation as an associate, you needed to accumulate senior associates and partners who would speak positively about you. You needed to expose more and more people to the quality of your work, instead of changing who you are in order to impress. My approach with the partner I worked with first was that, although we’re very different, he had a sense of humor, and so my angle was, he would often use expressions that people don’t use anymore — for instance, he called an ATM a “ready teller” — and I would call him out and he just thought that was the funniest thing. And that was the break.
Not even that old. He lives in his bubble but he didn’t mean to be difficult or insensitive. If you pushed at the bubble a little bit, the response was positive. He laughed. If I engaged him in a debate about policy and politics, he would have a conversation. It does require a little bit of confidence.
I was working on a motion, probably the first motion that I ever had to write. It was a simple five-page motion for a protective order, but I had no idea what I was doing. I prepared a draft. The partner gave me some preliminary comments, basically that it was garbage and how to fix it. Then he asked another partner (who later became my biggest advocate and mentor at the firm) to fill in and guide me through the completion of this little brief.
She read it and, since every partner has a different writing style, she had her own approach on how to fix it and I was confused. I didn’t know what to do. And so I type an email to what I thought was one of my close confidantes, another first-year, complaining about the process, not a personal complaint, but about the work and, “One person’s telling me this, one is telling me that.” The type of conversation that associates have between each other all day, every day. But I accidentally sent it to the partner who was working with me on the assignment!
I sat at my desk for a little bit. I really didn’t know the partner very well at that time. I knew she had a reputation for being one of the “cool” ones — you were lucky if you got to work with her. I was like, “Oh my gosh, this amazing partner. I don’t know her. And I look like I’m complaining rather than asking for help.” I was mortified. I may have gotten under my desk because most of us spent a good amount of time under our desks napping.
Yeah, if things were busy and I had to finish something. There were probably people who spent more time there than even I did. But certainly in the early days, when I needed to look at 5,000 documents in two days, I didn’t have time to go home and get in my own bed. It made more sense to take a little nap under the desk at 1 a.m. and wake up at 5 a.m. to finish — stay in the zone. There was a gym, so we could shower, change our clothes.
I don’t think that it is inherently a bad thing as an associate. I think differently about how time is being spent as a client, especially a client of my size. But if you have millions of dollars and a bet-the-company case on the line, then it makes sense to have people working around the clock. I didn’t think it was wrong, because I knew the partners weren’t sleeping in the office — you knew there was a path. And if that’s what you want to do, become a partner in seven and a half, now 10 or 12 years, you will get to go home. You’re paying your dues in order to get to that level.
I think that most of the women had children later on, if they had families at all. They were usually sixth- or seventh-year associates. It is a question worth asking, “What kind of culture is this? What kind of workplace is this where you have to delay having children in order to stay competitive and relevant?” But that was never a question for me. I don’t want to sound unsympathetic, but I burden myself with so many other things that I am grateful that I didn’t have to worry about that.
I may have gotten under my desk — or thought about getting under my desk — but I didn’t waste much time going to her office. I knew that this particular partner would not look well upon hiding in this situation. So I went down to her and said, “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to send that to you. I meant to send that to my friend, I’m just very frustrated. I don’t know what I’m doing.” She said, “Okay, let me help you. That’s what I’m here for.”
I had great cases, got to work with really great people, including our clients. What I didn’t enjoy — and why I didn’t see myself as becoming a partner — was the posturing, sending out long letters and veiled threats to opposing counsel. My partners really loved what they were doing. They loved the fight; they loved winning cases. I was more interested in the client and what they do.
I did something a lot of associates say you’re not supposed to do: I told the people I worked for that I didn’t think I wanted to be a partner. Associates fear that once you convey that to your partners they’re not going to want to work with you, they’ll think you’re not committed and are just looking for an exit. But I felt really comfortable with the partners I was working with at the time, and knew that they could give me real advice as to what it’s like to be a partner — as well as other opportunities. I had a meeting with two partners, they took me to dinner and we talked about it. They said “Look, why don’t you give it another six months to think about it. Being a partner is very different from being an associate; we think you would really like it. But if you still want to leave the firm, we’ll help you find something that would be great for you.” After six months, I still felt the exact same way.
At that time, one of the firm’s clients was thinking about bringing a lawyer in-house, so it worked out. I’d told them what I wanted to do, and there was a client who had a need, so they kind of matched us.
No. I like to say, “When you’re a litigator, you clean up the messes made by corporate people.” They do deals and don’t think about how a missing comma can turn into drama down the line. Also, in order to truly understand a case as a litigator, you have to get into the business, into the facts, into the documents. It’s not completely foreign.
Ultimately, I think being a litigator prepares you really well for in-house work because you’re spotting issues and you’re solving problems before they turn into litigation. And, knock on wood, there has been no new litigation since I’ve started at the company. I think that’s a measure of success.
Knowing what I know now, I should’ve felt more out of my depth. I was a little ignorant about how deep the waters really were. It took years to fully understand the business, what my role is in the business, and how I can best serve the company. It was a very accretive process. If I had any sense of how complex it actually is and how difficult it is when I started, I would have been wildly intimidated.
The one thing that law school does teach you is how to figure stuff out and how to research. One of the first things I did was sign up for Lexus or West Law. I got access to treatises. I did research. I read articles. Then, once I felt like I had at least a rudimentary understanding of an issue or area, I would call subject-matter experts at Skadden or identify subject-matter experts at smaller firms to manage costs.
Skadden was, and continues to be, a great resource to confirm whether or not I have to engage somebody to help. But there is no lawyer who can speak deeply about every single legal issue that a company encounters. You have to get help. Once I realized that, I never had any problems asking for help.
Well, when I go back and clean out my inbox, I look at how I was communicating with people and just laugh. I was talking to my business people the way I would talk to an associate or partner at a law firm. Just long paragraphs nobody had time to read. Since then, I’ve learned to distill communications down to the most important thoughts, like bullet points, and keep it really cogent.
The hours are better than law firm hours, but you’d be surprised. There are a good number of people there at 7, 8, or 8:30 p.m.
I can’t. I once went to the office on the weekend and set off the alarm! The office shuts down for most people after hours.
Very. We don’t have many focused initiatives surrounding diversity, but we are a diverse, inclusive, and tolerant group. At Skadden, I feel like everybody was part of the diversity conversation. That was such a big part of what they’re trying to do there. I can’t tell you exactly who organized the meetings but I showed up to them. I still show up when they invite me.
No. You know, you hear that if you’re a woman or a person of color, you have to work ten times harder. I feel like you have to work ten times harder if you want to be the best.
No, but I could see how other people might feel that way. It really is more systemic than just student groups and diversity initiatives at firms or in school. I think it goes back to one’s personal history. What makes you feel comfortable? What kind of community did you grow up in? I was raised in a town that has been nationally ranked for the best place to raise diverse and biracial children in the country.
Yes, in a town called Montclair. There’s a lot of diversity and there’s a really fair amount of integration — those two things are not the same. I was lucky in that I had friends of all different races growing up. My home was not built around my identity, in that sense.
In a way, that might be surprising: I felt most alienated from some of the black students. I had a similar experience in college. If you don’t actively participate in an affinity group, then people can look at you suspiciously. If signing up for a group is not the first thing you did on campus, it takes time to make people comfortable with you.
Also, I lived off-campus for law school with one of my best friends from college — she went to Columbia, and I went to NYU — and I had a ton of friends from undergrad who were in the city. So I had my community, and it didn’t even occur to me that I should officially align with black students. Eventually, I learned from some members of the group that some people had a negative opinion about my not participating. Otherwise, NYU is a very diverse and welcoming environment. I never felt my race in any other context.
Maybe, but I exorcised all that in college actually. By the time I got to law school my position on that was, “I don’t really don’t care what you think. I’m here and let’s get the job done.”
But I remember in high school, I was in all A.P. classes and every day we were all filled with angst about the application process. I remember I had a meeting with my parents and my guidance counselor, and he said to us, “Your daughter’s a shoo-in. She’ll get into whatever school she applies to,” and I didn’t understand what he meant. It was actually a devastating thing for him to say because I’m thinking I’m in this race with the rest of my peers and we’re all competing on our merits, and he just told me that I didn’t have to worry because of affirmative action. I had never heard of the term.
That made my freshman year of college really difficult for me. I was constantly questioning myself, “Do I belong here? Did they pick me because I’m black? Or am I just smart?” It is kind of self-destructive. So, I came out of that and then from that point on, I didn’t think about that. Like, if that’s how you think, then that’s your problem.
I don’t think it’s interfered, and the same is true for many of my close friends. We are so focused on our careers that we aren’t creating enough time or space for our personal lives. I could never blame my work for that, because this is my choice. I am choosing my career and pursuing the goals I have, and what I need to do a better job of is making the time to have a family, if I want one. As it is, I wonder how people have the kind of job that I have, or this position at even bigger companies, and also have a family or children. I cannot imagine going home at the end of the day and then having that second job. I’m exhausted. It’s incredible.
No. it’s just easier for men, whether by family constructs, or societal or biological forces. For me, it’s like, “Hey, I can work and not think about family as being a second job that starts at 7, 8, or 9 p.m.”
I don’t feel any pressure. We all make choices. And I have a good life. I don’t want to knock what I’m doing just because I don’t have things that other people have. I’m having a pretty wonderful life, it just doesn’t have all the components that other people have, and other people don’t necessarily have the same components that I have.
I think that more people are starting to feel the way I feel, and what remains to be seen as we continue to evolve in our thinking is whether there will be a later-in-life regret. I don’t like to regret things. So I’m making these choices now, and there is a tradeoff, and I like what I’m trading for. But will I feel differently in 20 years? I hope not.
If it happens, it happens, but it’s not a goal.
It’s going to sound simple, but I work out. I hang out with my friends. I travel. I stay connected with family. I have two Skype book clubs. It’s maximizing the moments of relaxation and laughter.
All of my friends, even the ones who have children, are really focused on their careers as well, so in my circle there isn’t anybody who would judge me. I do wonder what my dad thinks, but he’s just so proud of his children. He would never say, “Well what about this, or what about that?” It’s never been his style. I am very lucky. My family is very laissez-faire. Everybody does what they need and wants you to do the same as long as everybody is safe and healthy. Nobody is going to judge you.
I’m trying to think how old I was, but I remember being a kid and asking my parents for something I wanted and they were like, “No, you can’t have that” – standard parent stuff. But I thought, “When I grow up, I’m going to be able to have whatever it is that I want.” It’s really a security for me, and I think that my career is my security. I don’t want to ever be in a position where I am in want or in need of anything, and this is how I make sure that that’s taken care of.