Register Thursday | September 20 | 2018

Legal Minority

On being Hispanic, a woman and alive

When I was twenty-four, I graduated from law school at the top of my class. As my white classmates liked to indiscreetly point out, I was a two-for-one: both Hispanic and a woman, and therefore a catch for any company concerned with gender and ethnic diversity. As seemed logical to my classmates but not necessarily to me, I was soon offered a high-paying job at a prestigious Chicago firm.

The salary had an unexpected effect on me. I forgot, suddenly and without regret, the idealistic notions that had driven me to study law. I had wanted to be a human-rights lawyer, a civil-rights activist. I had loudly proclaimed that I would never work for the agents of capitalist oppression. But for us$75,000, I was willing to overlook that-or at least to postpone moral gratification. Seventy-five thousand dollars! It was more money than I had a concept of. What could I buy with it? Did I even need so much? I didn't know and it didn't matter.

My classmates treated me with reverence. They all agreed: I could be a human-rights lawyer later, when I was good and loaded. For now, I had a duty to get rich, a duty to all other law students who had received $28,000 offers, or worse, hadn't found jobs at all. I had a duty to underprivileged Hispanic kids. I even owed it to my parents. They had given me the immigrant dream of plenty, worried insufferably, paid for my law studies and taken every interest in my education.

At that time, Chicago was a plane ride away from home and farther than I had ever been. I come from an overbearing and charmingly dysfunctional East Coast family, foreign on all sides, half-Cuban and, of course, utterly unwilling to adopt such basic American concepts as "moving away from home." But I told myself everything would be all right. I would somehow manage to live in a city where people occasionally froze to death at night, and I would submit myself to the stress and long hours of a large law firm.

I'm not going to glamorize this: I was immediately flooded with work. I embraced it. I was at the beginning of my law career, and I needed to be told that I was on my way somewhere. I don't know if it had anything to do with being a two-for-one, or whether it was simply the need for validation, but I would be at the office by 8:15 am in order to get a jump on the other associates. We were all being weeded out for the partnership prize like anorexic pigs at a county fair. I would never come home before 10 pm and found myself, with alarming regularity, watching the sunrise through my office window. I worked through most weekends, and I once went six weeks without even an afternoon off.

I spent my hours in rooms filled with dark wood trim, solid brass nameplates and reverent secretaries. I remember the sacredly kept silence and the trouble I had telling the men apart. They moved in small, hushed groups through the firm, like synchronized swimmers. They held all the doors open for me, stepped out of the elevator and swept their arms across the sensor so I could pass without assault from the sliding doors. Without exception, they wore starched white shirts, dark suits and ties so conservative I never noticed them. And black shoes, always black shoes. I once overheard a group of male associates disparage another associate for wearing brown shoes.

"What's wrong with brown shoes?" the newest of them asked.

"Why would you want to stand out like that?" another one replied.

After three months, evaluations came down through a process I never fully understood. All the attorneys at the firm, all three hundred and some, moved offices on the same day. The firm planned it that way: one night, Maintenance transferred all of the furniture, all the law-school diplomas and all the pictures of the nieces and nephews-the kids no one had seen since accepting the big-firm offer-from one office to another.

I got an office with a window. The next day, a senior associate I had been working for came into my new office and closed the door.

"You got a good office," he said.

"It's not bad for a first-year," I said.

"You got a better office than the other first-years," he said. I had seen the other first-years' offices. They all looked exactly the same, positioned in the exact same areas of every floor throughout the firm.

"They're all the same," I said. "I've seen them."

"They're not the same," he said with an air of shock at my naïveté. I didn't reply, and he leaned forward conspiratorially. "First of all, you're on the second-highest floor of the building, which is a great sign. Second, you have a view of the lake. Third, yours is bigger."

"It's notbigger," I said.

"The bigger ones have seven-and-a-half ceiling tiles," he said. "The smaller ones have seven." He gestured toward the ceiling and then made a motion with his hand as if pointing a gun at me. He made a clicking noise with his mouth. "Congratulations," he said, "That means you're on the A-list."

After he left, I tried not to honour the bizarre intrusion with any mental energy. But I kept thinking, "Ceiling tiles? Could they really count the ceiling tiles?" I looked up. I counted them. Then I walked down the hall and into another first-year's office. I made up a story about needing a document, and while he searched his hard drive, I counted his ceiling tiles. It was true, my office was half a tile bigger.

My new status made me feel both victorious and nervous. The new possibility of half a tile: I could still be demoted. But soon I was too busy to question what I was doing, let alone what I was feeling. "Busy" became a refereeing word. "Are you busy?"was the first question out of anyone's mouth. If a lawyer wasn't busy, he was immediately suspect. Either he had dumped his work onto somebody else, or worse, the partners had determined he was an idiot and wouldn't give him any. To appear busy was also important. I knew associates who took long dinner and workout breaks so that the partners would find them in their offices at midnight. None of this seemed strange to me. Sleep-deprived and frazzled, none of it seemed abnormal in the least.

Six months into this career, I had disability insurance, rigged taxes and real property. I also had a non-existent marriage-my husband and I barely crossed paths anymore-and no friends. Actually one: the Mexican cleaning lady who came to my office between 1 am and 2 am. Her name was Lidia. She would speak to me in Spanish, looking at me from the doorway with huge, bottomless eyes of pity.

"Leslie," she would say in soft, mommy-knows-best tones, "Go home."

"I can't, Lidia."

She would cluck her tongue. "What does your husband think of you staying so late at work?"

I'd pick up my pen and ignore her by marking up a document. Clucking her tongue again, she'd grab her cart and push it violently down the hall. I could hear her slamming things in the next office and banging wastebaskets against her cart's trash can. But I stayed. I stayed in my office and I stayed at the firm.

I thought a lot about being Hispanic. It bothered me that I only spoke Spanish to those who served me breakfast or cleaned my office. When I was feeling especially homesick, I would drop into the bodega down the street just for the sound of the language. And yet, for all that, when my parents came to visit me for the first time, I had them meet me in the firm's reception area on the forty-ninth floor. It was a room with a breathtaking view of the lake, a room large enough for a gala ball. It was important to me, I'm now embarrassed to admit, that my parents be aware of the vast distance between me and the Mexicans who worked in the lobby.

Being a two-for-one, however, had very little impact on the way I was treated. So politically correct was the firm that no one acknowledged a difference between me and anyone else. This was, of course, a matter of legal policy; and more than that, the law firm was a meritocracy, an efficient machine with no time to fuss over anyone's ethnicity. The lawyers who worked there were overachievers, and the sacrifices required to succeed were required of both two-for-ones and white men alike.

During my last months at the firm, I worked mostly for a partner named Brian Malloy. One Wednesday at 7:30 am, Brian called me into his office.

"The GE people want to close Friday. You got anything Friday?" he asked.

"I can change it."

"We need to get the documents out to opposing counsel tonight. We'll negotiate them tomorrow, then turn them around tomorrow night for Friday."

Brian had a corner office with a view of the skyline. He swivelled toward the window, and the grey mess of his hair was visible above the high back of his leather office chair. He grabbed a file from the floor and came around the desk to sit next to me. As he handed me the credit agreement, I noticed his shirt pocket was ripped. It flapped away obscenely from his chest.

"Brian-" I said. He looked down and sighed.

"My wife's out of town. I can't find the goddamned dry-cleaning slip."

I worked all day in a conference room, had lunch and dinner brought in. I missed the FedEx deadline, so I sent the packages out on chartered planes at 2 am. To send each package of documents-and I sent fifteen-cost us$300. I worked on a post-closing agreement for another hour and a half. While I made internal copies of the documents I'd sent out, Brian's crusty voice came over the paging system.

"Hello? Shit. Hello?" His voice turned smooth. "Leslie Blanco Ram"rez Ch·vez Echeverr"a del Campo Cunningham," Brian chuckled into the speaker. He got a kick out of long lists of Hispanic names and liked to make some extra up for me. "Uh. Come to my office, please."

When I got to Brian's office, his door was closed and I heard a muffled thumping. I looked at his secretary's cubicle. Her computer was off and no paperwork remained on her desk. I knocked.

"Brian?" I opened the door to find him banging his head against the wall. I stood there a full ten seconds before he stopped. He looked at me, nodded his head and sighed.

"I don't know why I do this," he said. "They want to change all the documents." It was 4 am.

"They still want to close Friday?" I asked. He nodded.

"I told them I'm not doing it tonight." He looked around, picked up his suit coat and put it on. "You want a ride home?"

It was 4:45 am when he dropped me off at the corner of North and Damen. As I gathered my things, Brian looked intently up the street.

"We used to live in a neighbourhood like this," he said, "when we first got married." He got quiet and had such a grey, dusty look to his face that I waited with the passenger door open. I had the sudden feeling that he was going to tell me his wife was leaving him or that he was dying of cancer, and the thought panicked me. In another life, in another job, the admission might have been appropriate, but at the firm there was no room for that kind of familiarity.

"It's not worth it," he said. "This life is not worth it, Leslie." All I could manage was a weak nod.

"See you tomorrow," I said. I hesitated a moment, but I didn't say anything more. I got out of the car, closed the passenger door. I walked down the block toward my loft, and when I looked over my shoulder, he was still parked in the street, watching me.

The following month, Brian left the firm for a larger, better-paying New York firm that would work him even harder. Soon after, I quit and got divorced. I don't blame the practice, only the lack of self-worth that led me to hand my life over to so unrelenting and unfulfilling a pursuit. In the end, an environment that ignored cultural and racial differences-especially as they co-existed in the same building-proved too sterile a place for me. Much of what went on at the firm had to do with earnest desire-a group of people wanting to do good work and be the best at it. But the job was also about sacrificing all personal fulfillment for the sake of profit-profit obscenely higher than what any one person might need to survive. A lot of people make that mistake. A lot of people make it for a lot less money than I did.

There are things I miss. I miss the professional demeanour, the sense of being at the top of the pack, and the efficiency. I miss the annual evaluations that assured me I was one year closer to an attainable goal. My life is messy now. I've been a freelance writer for five years with no one to vet my work. Yet the pressure, all self-imposed, is just as great. My parents have still not grasped that I'm not going back to law, and I have had to overcome my fear of what my classmates will think of me at our law-school reunion. I no longer make $75,000 a year.

Now, I have dogs and experience a secret joy when I accidentally step on their squeaky toys in the night. I allow myself long hikes and month-long stints at writing colonies. And I am-pathetically and without remorse-in love. For me, the choice was clear: less money for more fulfillment. For this two-for-one, that choice has made all the difference.