When L.A. lawyer Harriet Posner talks about life in the trenches of Big Law, she tells it like it is ? the glory and the grind. You get audible gasps and eye-rolling groans but also lots of laughter. When she suggested to me that “mom groups? should meet in secret, I laughed out loud. But maybe I shouldn?t have ? do activities that might suggest to men you aren?t fully committed to your job do more to hurt you than help you?
Breakfasts of “coffee with a Diet Coke chaser.” Back at work two weeks after giving birth. Away for months at a time for trial. These stories ? a torturous ride for some ? were told with zeal and satisfaction, like a warrior running fingers over old battle scars. As she describes the relentless life of a young partner and divorced mother of two, her nostalgia is both palpable and surprising. But when you get to know what drives her, nothing about Harriet should surprise you. While she views the quest for work/life balance as highly overrated, it also seemed ever present throughout her career. Her children came first, and in that she has no regrets. Could she have had more? Perhaps. Does she want more? Definitely. In a town known for remakes, that’s what second acts are for, and Harriet is just getting started.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Harriet Posner: It’s exciting; it’s stressful; it’s irritating.
Working my ass off. What I mean by that is being ready to drop everything to solve a client’s problem. The first L.A. office leader (one of my mentors) set the tone, which was, when we’re busy, it’s all hands on deck. Those days were really fun. We had great work ? lots of it ? and would eat dinner in a conference room at midnight, then work until three in the morning. We were all young, and there was tremendous camaraderie. We worked as hard as necessary to get the job done for the client. When there was downtime, you took advantage of it and rested. At those times, I would go shopping, spend way too much money, and just take a breather. Then, when the next thing hit, I’d be there.
My first mentor, Bill Masterson, was critical in my development. He made sure I had really good work, was there for me personally and cared about my development as a lawyer. The other mentors I had in the years before I made partner ? Frank Rothman, Mike Diamond, Jim Lyons ? were all very interested in developing my legal talents and career. Mentorship is critical.
Be proactive with managing your career; work on as many different deals and cases as you can. Bill Masterson used to accuse me of having “case envy,” but I figured, if I’m on 10 cases, I’m more likely to go to court, take a deposition or do one of the million other things that I wanted to do. You can’t sit back and wait for things to happen. As law firms have become so big and institutionalized, there’s less of that cowboy spirit. There are more rules ? but you have to be able to navigate around the rules.
I had people who were pulling for me. You have to have a solid contingent of people on your side.
I think the issues with being a woman and being a mom are more apparent after making partner. The men who were my mentors were actually more progressive than the men my age and younger, which is a hard concept for people to wrap their minds around. Bill Masterson was gender blind. He had a daughter in law school who ended up being an assistant United States attorney. Frank Rothman was married to a brilliant and revered federal judge, who he said was the smartest person he’d ever met. Mike Diamond, Jim Lyons, same thing. I got great assignments and was treated the same as my male associate colleagues ? including with respect to having to stay up all night or work through a weekend. I started working at the tail end of the feminist movement out of the ?60s and ?70s. when working women were focused on going for the brass ring. Starting in the ?80s and into the ?90s, there was the phenomenon described by Susan Faludi in Backlash, where the rhetoric became popular that women couldn’t do it all or have it all. Women couldn’t have a fulfilling personal life and also be a kick-ass lawyer or doctor. So there were many more women of my generation who chose not to work.
When you’re responsible for going out and getting business, you really begin to notice that the clients are predominantly male, and unless you know them well, it can be awkward to ask them out for a drink. There were fewer female clients when I made partner in the early ’90s than there are now. And many of them had children and just didn’t have time to socialize. It became easier when I was a partner and could really manage my schedule. When you’re a partner and you call a team meeting, you can do it at your convenience. I won’t lie, the first year or two of my first son’s life, it was stressful just figuring out when I could get home and how I was going to do all of it.
I didn’t take up golf. I thought, “I’ll just have to do it a different way.” But that’s hard, because there’s no support system for that. Then I got divorced, and that added a different layer of complexity.
Client development and social activity are usually done in couples. Maybe I’m just not friendly, but I think people feel uncomfortable inviting a single person to dinner. Also, once those couple relationships are formed, I think the spouses take over much of the arranging. I didn’t really realize it was happening for years. I don’t have any bad feelings about it, it just sort of was what it was.
In my view, they aren’t working, because the numbers aren’t growing where it matters, which is in the equity partner numbers. Law firm initiatives generally don’t squarely address this issue. Instead, they focus on part-time work, mothers’ groups and some networking opportunities for women. And ? this will be unpopular ? I’ve never attended a single moms’ group. If it makes people happier to come to work, that’s fine. But my personal feeling is that those types of initiatives create another thing to point at for people who want to criticize women.
I despise the whole work-life balance discussion. In intense professional environments, whether it’s an investment bank or a movie studio or a Big-Law firm, if anything can be used to say you aren’t fully committed to your work, it will be said. So working part-time for a period of time, I think there’s a stigma attached to it. Talking about work-life balance, I think there’s a stigma attached to it. It can be used to blame women for not succeeding.
Also, I believe work-life balance is a fiction. And it’s overrated. If you want to be great at whatever you do, there isn’t really balance. At least not in the way that people think of it. Like getting home at a certain time every night. Maybe things balance out in the long run, but the constant discussion and focus on “work-life balance,” instead of discussing what really gets women into power positions, is a mistake.
You have to be willing to commit 100%. And that was one of the many good things about my experience at Skadden. If I was in trial, I was committed 100%. “Face time” wasn’t valued; rather, it was all about getting great work done for the client. I think you have to take the long view. I have two amazing kids, with whom I’m very close. I didn’t get to pick them up every day after school, but I don’t feel that I missed anything big. I learned how to be efficient and juggle my time.
I don’t have a problem with what goes on inside the mothers’ groups. Maybe they should just meet in secret so they obviate the opportunity for criticism by others.
Probably not well. But it’s my view, and I’m on the side of women succeeding. My concern is with it being so formalized and publicized, because I worry about the stigma and the negative commentary. And it allows law firms to avoid addressing the woefully inadequate number of female partners.
Different parents feel differently; I’m not sure it’s a biological thing. I do think when kids are little and they get hurt or need something, they usually cry for their moms, not their dads. That was certainly true of my children. But I don’t think that means a woman is going to be inherently more distracted. The question is whether you can put that aside while you’re working and make whatever peace you need to with yourself and your family. That’s not the firm’s or the team’s business. If someone is showing up ready for battle and does the work, then it’s no one’s business how he or she made peace with being away for six weeks.
Quite the contrary. I think you can have it all.
Having the career that you want, the family that you want and the personal life that you want. I do think that you can do all those things. I don’t think there’s going to be a perfect equilibrium of all those things at any given time. There were times when I was in trial for months. It was easier when my kids were in high school, rather than when they were 5 and 3 years old, but I’ve done it at both times. My breakfast was coffee with a Diet Coke chaser. I ran around a lot. I didn’t sleep a lot. But I don’t feel short-changed in any department.
Sometimes I look back and think, “Maybe I could have had a bigger career if I hadn’t made my children my top priority.” As I got more senior as a partner, I didn’t have any 2,500-hour years. But that wasn’t my vision of a professional life. Could I have been a famous lawyer or made more money? Maybe.
No, because I never did. My children always came first. It didn’t mean they came first every day. If my kids really needed me, I was there for them. Maybe I was just lucky ? they didn’t need me in a way that made having my career impossible. My kids were healthy and in wonderful schools, and they had great people around them who loved them. I always have felt comfortable that I did right by them. I was willing to run around. If, in the first grade, making gingerbread houses at 1:30 in the afternoon was really important to them ? and I was in town ? I’d figure out a way to do that.
It was exhausting, so you have to love all of the things you’re trying to do. If you don’t, don’t do it, because it will be impossible. Having good people help you take care of your kids and having friends whose shoulders you can cry on are imperative. I think women like me find it hard to ask for help ? 95% of the time I can manage it all, but 5% of the time I just want to sit in the bathtub and cry. Asking for help was hard for me to learn, but I learned over time.
I’m not going to say I spent quality time with them, because I don’t like clich?s. They went to exactly the right schools for them. And I spent a lot of time thinking about their futures, and encouraged them to think about it for themselves. I let them make their own mistakes. I’m not a tough-love kind of person, but I wasn’t a helicopter mom, always swooping in to make sure they weren’t crying. Sometimes bad things happen to your kids, and they learn a lot from adversity. They went to schools that made them love learning and taught them to be resilient and to speak up for themselves. Making sure your kids are in a good environment, where they thrive, is important. I certainly wasn’t an absent mother. I stayed up many, many nights worrying about various and sundry things that happened, or could happen, to my kids. But that is the most important thing in my life ? that, so far, they have turned out to be good people who know the importance of love and of loving what they’re doing.
It’s hard to say. They both like and respect smart women, which I’m happy about. They both understand hard work. And they understand that there’s sexism in the world.
I don’t believe I sacrificed remarrying, but on my list of priorities, the lowest has been being in a relationship. I don’t consider it a sacrifice. I don’t think my marriage was destined for long-term success, so I don’t really think that it was sacrificed. But admittedly, as I prioritized things, my marriage was not first, second or third.
Look at someone like Sheryl Sandberg; she has a good marriage. Maybe it’s just that I didn’t put stock in that. Maybe I would have had to take a little time away from, I don’t know, playing tennis, to devote to my marriage. Is it possible that by shifting something around it could have worked? Yes. But underneath it all, maybe I wasn’t that interested.
Very early in the morning.
I don’t think it diminishes the message. I had resources in that I was able to hire excellent people to help take care of my kids. I had help, never live-in, but I had help. I had a nanny who was with me for many years, and then another one for 10 years. And in my children’s elementary school there were a bunch of working moms, and that was nice, we all helped make it work. And as your kids get older, it gets easier. I don’t know how exactly I would have done it if I had been making less, but if you want to figure out a way to make something work, you can. I would think most lawyers make enough to be able to get good childcare.
I had cancer five years ago, which changed my perspective on life. I started thinking, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have another, second career?” And I didn’t want do it when I’d be in my sixties. That confluence of events just made me want to jump off the cliff into this new, uncharted territory.
Not really. I still serve on many non-profit boards as the head of legal committees, so I still deal with legal problems, and the litigator in me still comes out on occasions. I like that part of my personality. I’m comfortable with it. The skills don’t leave you ? the skills to be able to think through a problem and be analytical about things and organize things and get shit done. I’m still doing that every day. But do I miss writing briefs and reviewing documents? Not really. I miss the people that I was close to, but I keep in touch with them.
I started two different clothing companies. One is a cancer clothing and gifting line. It’s clothing designed for people going through treatment ? it’s beautiful, it’s port-accessible, soft and great to wear in those cold chemotherapy rooms. The second is an equestrian line. It’s been wild. I learn a million new things every day. It’s both energizing and terrifying. I represented a lot of apparel companies, including American Apparel, James Perse and BCBG, but starting my own company was not something that was ever on my mind.
I became accustomed to working with people who are like me. If somebody needed something, you got it done. You would never dream of disappointing somebody on delivery of what you promised them. Virtually everyone at Skadden has that kind of work ethic. But not everybody in the world works like that ? it’s just maddening, and there’s not that much you can do about it; it’s out of your control. So, it requires a lot of staying on top of people. I never really had to micromanage anybody before, and that’s frustrating.
I think there’s some creative part of me that has been awakened. I like the idea that I can draw a figure with clothes on it, come up with a palette for a fall and winter collection, and that I have a vision of the girl who will wear it. Maybe I just didn’t have the space in my mind to do that before.
I’d like to be sitting at the helm of the next great American luxury brand. That’s my fantasy. And for our cancer clothing, I’d like that to get to the body that it’s intended to reach. I’d like to help cancer patients feel better while they’re going through treatment.
Life is much simpler now. I’m not being pulled in eight different directions. There’s so much more freedom. I don’t have a million clients I’m worried about. I was good at being off the grid, but I never really stopped worrying about the clients. I always got very personally involved in a way. I lost sleep over clients’ matters, almost the same way as I did over my kids. Now I don’t have that. I just have this fear of ending up with boxes of garments!
I hope that I provide some hope or some sort of light at the end of the tunnel for people who are lawyers. It sounds like a lot of work ? and it is ? but I really think it’s worth it, and I really think it’s doable. And I’m always available to women. I had nobody to talk to. I went back to work three or four weeks after having my first kid, and I was a little panicked, because you never know until you have your first kid how incredible it is and how attached you feel. And I thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to go back to work, and my kids will love the nanny more than they love me,” and I didn’t know who to talk to. I had only one female friend who had a big job. I called her and left a message, and she never called me back. I don’t have any hard feelings; she was probably in eight different cities, or her secretary transcribed the message wrong. But I’m always there. It is doable. It really is doable.
Yes. It was a little better the second time. The first time, I had a meeting with these studio folks who wouldn’t reschedule, nor would they hold the meeting in my office. This was two weeks after I had given birth. I said, “I’m breastfeeding my kid, let’s just do it in my office, my mom’s in town, it will be more comfortable.” But they insisted on holding the meeting at the studio. So my mom, the baby and I went to this meeting, and every hour and a half I would have to duck out and sit in somebody’s office to breastfeed. I thought after that things would quiet down and I could take another couple of weeks off, but I had a case that was going to trial, so I started working. When I had my second child I stayed home longer. I worked at home starting a few weeks after having my child, but I tried not to come to the office for five weeks.
I was a partner, and I was the only woman partner around. I didn’t want to screw it up for anyone else. I had clients. When you’re a partner and the client wants to reach you, the client wants to reach you. It was the same when I had cancer ? I told very few people because I didn’t want my clients to be nervous that I wasn’t there for them when they needed me. I was at the office full-time when I was going through chemo. Towards the end of my treatment, I worked from home on Mondays after treatment. I just didn’t want people saying, “Oh, she is sick.”
No, very few. That is why it helps to have an assistant with you for almost 30 years ? she was good at covering. A few associates who worked with me had to have known, but only a few of the partners knew. I didn’t want the clients to worry that I wasn’t going to be available.
I worry that it’s a trap. I’m not against whatever people need to do to feel comfortable in their lives or workplace, but I just don’t want them to be sucker punched.
Top Photo: Katharine Hauschka
Editor’s Note: Ms. Sammi’s jewelry line has done business with Elizabeth’s Canvas, one of Ms. Posner’s charities. No consideration was given for this interview.