One day a real estate lawyer named Harold Brown called me up. Harold was chairing the BBA’s “Senior Lawyers Division” and wanted some entertainment for its December lunch meeting. Harold was then eighty-five (as I found out later), and his idea of “entertainment” was a panel of five aging lawyers talking about “Enjoying Older Age.” He needed a woman on his panel. Gender discrimination was already on everyone’s screen.
Back then it wasn’t easy to find a woman lawyer who qualified as “senior.” Enrollment in law school these days is at least 50% young women. But to be a “senior” woman in 1997, you would have to have gone to law school in the late fifties or very early sixties. Fat chance. There was one such woman, a very distinguished one — Rya Zobel — but she was already on the federal bench and probably had no time for “Enjoying Older Age.”
On the other hand, I had gone to law school in my early fifties. (Another story, in some other blog.) Which made me old enough for Harold’s panel in 1997. And I was a woman! Was he lucky, or what? Was I really “enjoying” my older age? My boss was ecstatic that I’d been invited. How could I say no?
The Big Day arrived and the room where “Enjoying Older Age” was to take place filled up. By then Harold had assembled a panel of five — four senior male lawyers and me. No more than five minutes each, he instructed us. That was twenty-five minutes of talk! Under the circumstances, I chose to speak last. Maybe everyone would wake up when they saw a skirt walk across the stage to the podium. They did. Stayed awake, too. Right to the end.
Enjoying Older Age
(Five minute talk presented [by me] at a luncheon of the Senior Lawyers’ Division of the Boston Bar Association, November 12, 1997.)
I ought to tell you at the outset that I’m sixty-six. I will also admit that when I see a description of someone in print that reads, quote, “a sixty-six year old woman,” unquote, I react stereotypically. “Old,” I think. ”Finished.”
But then I forgive myself. After all, we were socialized to think that way. In fact, as a “sixty-six year old woman” I’m probably happier than I’ve ever been in my life, except maybe during the time when I was having babies. [I loved that.]
When I think of myself, though, I don’t think numbers. I don’t think “older” — or “old.” I am me, I’m alive, I live my life, and I pretty much do whatever I want to do, within the financial constraints of needing to support myself for a few more years, and the very few biological limitations that come with having been around for more than six decades.
And I find that the more kinds of things I do, the more kinds of things I want to do. I’ve shed almost all preconceptions about what is possible for me, and I’m working on getting rid of the rest. I can’t tell you how liberating it is not to think about what other people will think. You get to talk to just about everyone. You get to do just about everything. So maybe it would be interesting to you if I tell you a little bit about how I reached this place.
In 1980, I was forty-nine years old, and living in a dilapidated house in Duxbury with a husband, kids still in middle school, and a dog. I would have described myself as a pleasant-looking middle-aged woman who was entering menopause and biological uselessness. Oh, I had a couple of degrees in liberal arts subjects of high cultural and very low commercial value, and had worked, in L.A. and New York City, first as a college instructor of English, then as a copywriter for products bought by women –”Second Nature: the bra to feel you’re not wearing a bra in” — and, when the children were small, as a free-lance book editor. But none of these occupations were satisfying for very long. And they certainly didn’t produce major money.
Anyway, in 1980, my husband had lost his job (for the third time) and seemed unlikely to locate another in the foreseeable future. I was reading in what used to be the “Women’s Page” (now called “Style”) of The New York Times about women younger than I who were beginning to embark on real professions, and all I could think was: “If only I had been born ten years later!”
In some circumstances, I’ve been described as having a mind like a steel trap. But about other things, even some perfectly obvious things, I’m very slow. Here, it took a couple of years for the light to dawn. But then it finally hit me, like a flashbulb exploding: I was NEVER going to be born ten years later! All I had was now. Now until the end, whenever that came. So if there was anything I really wanted or needed to do, I had better get to it. Compared with that perception, what did it matter what was deemed “age-appropriate?” Or “gender-appropriate?”
That was the beginning.Thirty years out of college, I took the LSATs. I applied to law schools. I applied for loans. I got into the schools. I got the loans. And much to my own surprise, I did extremely well. To my even greater surprise (and I truly mean that), I was offered a 2L summer clerkship at Goodwin, Procter & Hoar, which turned into a job offer.
And so, in 1985, at the age of fifty-four, I became a first-year associate at a firm where, in the trial department anyway, only two partners were a little bit older than me. Everyone else — the other partners, all the associates and support staff — was younger.
Was it hard? Sure it was hard. Was it worth doing? You betcha. Because my life began to change, in more ways than I can possibly list in the five minutes allowed each of us. Not because I had become a lawyer. But because now there were new possibilities.
As my life changed, I changed too. I’m no longer the middle-aged woman of 1980. I’m no longer the somewhat apprehensive woman of 1985. I’m probably not even the woman I was earlier this year, when I voluntarily left Goodwin, Procter to join a small litigation boutique, where I was offered the opportunity to begin to wind down in the law, gradually, by working only four days a week, thereby freeing up some time for something I’ve wanted to do all my life but never had the guts to try before.
[No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. ] <g>
I’m just getting younger all the time!
But if, like most of you, I had been practicing law for thirty, or forty, or even fifty years, perhaps I’d be wondering if there were any other possibilities for me. In that case, I guess I’d think back to all the other things I wanted to do when I was very young. What did you dream of when you were a very young man, before the law closed in on you and your life? That young man is still alive in you somewhere. Talk to him. Listen to what he wants to do. And see where that takes you.
I have a thirty-eight year old lawyer friend who recently went through a dark night of the soul. Now he’s thinking of leaving the law to teach young children. The other day he sent me an e-mail containing a haiku — one of those little three-line Japanese poems — that he had written. Fortuitously, it illustrates very well what I’ve been talking about here.
So let me conclude by reciting this tiny, but pregnant, poem:
Like leaves on the forest floor.
Each twig has a bud.
End of poem. End of speech. Each twig has a bud.
[Haiku credit: David Barlow, Esq., Boston, MA]