The M Dash

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“I Got Sucked Into What I Wanted to Be Instead of What I Wanted to Do”

June 07, 2019 | Filed in: Woman of the Week

After Lisa Rubin graduated from Yale Law School, she took a high-paying job in corporate law to pay off her student loans. She told herself she’d leave after two years—but then that turned into five years, and then more than a decade. As she approached 40, her life looked ideal from the outside. She had two daughters and a board seat at Planned Parenthood of New York City, and she was bringing home a bigger paycheck than anyone in her family ever had. But she’d lost the plot about why she wanted to become a lawyer in the first place: to advocate for women and girls. In January 2018, she walked out of her white-shoe law firm for the last time and threw herself into figuring out her next steps. Here’s what made her realize it was time to quit—and why she’s never looked back.

Lisa wears the Devlin dress.

I GOT INTERESTED IN POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT because I figured that God give me a big mouth and I should harness it for something bigger. That was very much the ethos of my family—figure out ways to take your advantages and use them for public service, even if you do it in an unconventional way.

BOTH MY PARENTS WERE PUBLIC SCHOOL EDUCATORS in suburban Los Angeles. A story about my dad informed my upbringing and still informs the impact I want to have: When he was a middle-school counselor, a student of his was skipping school. My dad asked him, “What’s the deal?” The kid finally told my dad that he was embarrassed to wear the same outfit every day because he didn’t have a change of clothes. “I’ll bring you clothes every day,” my dad said to him, “and put them in a paper bag outside my office so you can change when you get to school. No one ever has to know.” That was their arrangement. My parents saw the transformative power of education, and so did I.

NO ONE WAS SURPRISED WHEN I DISCOVERED FEMINISM in the early ‘90s; I always had a strong sense of social justice. But the triggering episode was not what you would expect. My high school wouldn’t give my cheerleading squad access to the weight room, even though we were competing and needed weight training. I was so frustrated that we couldn’t do anything about it. Then I went to college and learned about Title IX. At the time, my university owned all of the fraternity housing and banned sorority housing. I understood that this wasn’t fair—but also, that there was something I could do about it. I threatened the university with a Title IX lawsuit and then led an improbable women’s movement. It worked! From then on, I wanted to be the sort of lawyer for women who had been counted out, even if, like high-school cheerleaders, they seemed to be at the top of the pyramid.

Lisa wears the Noel dress, the Ponza earrings, and the Vivara necklace.

I WAS INTERESTED IN HOW GOVERNMENT and other institutions function and, more importantly, how people function within them. I majored in political science at Stanford and got a Master’s degree in organizational behavior. Then I went to work on Capitol Hill, first as an aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and later for Rep. Nita Lowey, a congresswoman from Westchester County. At the time, Rep. Lowey led the House Pro-Choice Caucus; she’s now the chair of the House Appropriations Committee. I wanted to work for both of them because I felt then, as I do now, that women’s health and autonomy were the cornerstones of our equality. At that time, the anti-choice movement was inventing new ways of chipping away at Roe v. Wade. I wanted to be at the center of that fight.

I THOUGHT I MIGHT BECOME A LAWYER FOR VICTIMS OF GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE when I went to law school. I had just worked on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and helped enact a section of that law that authorized funding for legal services to domestic violence and sexual assault victims. I thought, Who are the lawyers who are going to represent these women? Maybe I want to be one. So I went to Yale Law School with that goal in mind. I also thought that one day, I might want to run for Congress. I had seen firsthand how hard the women members fought for laws that reflected our life experiences—and the importance of having those experiences represented stuck with me.

AFTER GRADUATION, I went to work for a big law firm to repay my student loans. I owed almost the entirety of my law school tuition. But when you’re good at something and you’re making your own money for the first time in your life, it’s easy to get seduced. I was making more money than anyone in my family had ever made. That was empowering, and I felt like I was living my own feminist narrative in a way. I thought that if I became a partner at a major New York law firm, I would be a role model for other women and I would use that position to catapult myself into greater service.

Lisa wears the Gayle dress and the Ponza earrings.

SLOWLY BUT SURELY, I GOT SEPARATED from my goal of pursuing a path back to public interest law or politics. I was sucked into what I wanted to be instead of what I wanted to do. I thought that being a law firm partner would give me the platform to make other, more meaningful contributions, whether through politics or non-profit work. But that plan was too removed from the work itself—and eventually, it started to catch up with me. I was deeply dissatisfied and even depressed, but I didn’t know how to articulate it.

THE SIGN I NEEDED TO LEAVE MY LAW FIRM was constant stress without equivalent highs. When I worked on the Hill, I worked similar hours, but I was buoyed by the mission. There was stress, but there was also excitement and joy. At a law firm, I often had a sense of dread and none of the underlying fire that animated my time in politics. I usually felt my happiest when I was doing pro bono work.

THE SECOND SIGN WAS MY MENTAL AND PHYSICAL HEALTH. Shortly after I returned from my first maternity leave, I suffered a spinal cord injury because I had a herniated disk that ultimately slipped into my spinal canal. I was so hellbent on doing my job well that I told myself I couldn’t miss a meeting or go to the doctor. I thought, I’m just going to push through this. And instead, I ended up in emergency surgery followed by a long medical leave. Years later, it was my mental health that suffered. One of my kids has special needs, and the anxiety around understanding and meeting those needs only exacerbated my work stress.

Lisa wears the Gayle dress and the Ponza earrings.

I REMEMBER THINKING I WAS WEAK, that a stronger woman would push through it again. In reality, I had more on my plate than was feasible—and I was unfulfilled on top of it. When your body is giving you signals, it’s time to reevaluate.

THE 2016 ELECTION WAS THE BEGINNING OF MY END as a white-shoe litigator. The day after the election was the last day of a grueling trial that had consumed me for months, so much so that I had hardly experienced the campaign on TV, much less as a volunteer. That’s when I decided that the world had enough smart, strategic litigators for hire, but that I wasn’t living the values I claimed as my own.

I LEFT WITHOUT AN EXIT PLAN, AND IT WAS EARTH-SHATTERING in some ways. I remember looking out my office for the last time and thinking, I will never enjoy a view like this at work again. I had an office on the 47th floor that looked out over both rivers. It was magnificent. But I finally thought, If I find the right job, I can be in a tiny cubicle and I’ll still be happy there.

WHEN YOU LEAVE A JOB, YOU SLOWLY REALIZE how much of your world and identity is constructed around your work. Everything from what I wore to where I got my coffee—it was all based around my life as a big law litigator. Suddenly, I didn’t have a business card anymore. I didn’t have a title. I didn’t have an institution to attach myself to. I had to be my own person and figure out what I stood for and who I would fall for. I really needed to just strip it all away, relearn myself, figure out what I was good at and then come up with a plan for how I was going to engage in the world and execute on that.

Lisa wears the Gayle dress and the Ponza earrings (left) and the Devlin dress and the Ponza earrings (right).

I HAVE A LOT OF SKILLS that I realized I never used as a lawyer. It was almost like working with one hand tied behind my back. One of those skills is that I am a voracious consumer of pop culture; I used to see that as a personality quirk. Another is that I am a good convener and connector of people. I genuinely love putting people together, particularly when I can connect people with creative capital—designers, chefs, filmmakers, storytellers—with people who are doing social justice work. But when you’re trying cases, what matters most is disruption, not connection.

JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE GOOD AT SOMETHING doesn’t mean that’s what you should do. My advice to other people who get the sense that there’s something deeper, better, and more meaningful for them, even if it’s far less lucrative, is to listen to that voice. Also, when something feels like it’s just too hard, take a pause and ask yourself why. I’m stubborn, and I don’t hear “no,” so I always thought of a challenge as something to overcome. I didn’t understand that maybe it was hard because I wasn’t climbing the right mountain.

I’VE ENJOYED SPENDING TIME WITH MY FAMILY on weekends this past year. I used to work almost every Sunday, and sometimes, I’d work both days. I enjoy helping my older daughter with her homework and seeing my girls play baseball and hockey and dance and sing. I love being more present in their lives. At the same time, it has also reaffirmed for me that I need to work again. I want to be a professional advocate for women and girls, and a strategic leader within the new women’s movement. I’ve spent a lot of the past year engaging deeply with women, advising first-time political candidates, non-profit founders, and entrepreneurs and pursuing strategic partnerships for Planned Parenthood of New York City, where I sit on the board. I’m looking forward to making women’s progress my daily mission, and not just a side hustle or volunteer gig, in my next full-time job.

IF YOU’RE LOOKING TO START A NEW CHAPTER, failing is continuing to do the same thing without learning or changing. I’ve also found that being a social media stalker can be hugely advantageous in a transition. I have sent direct messages to a plethora of strangers who inspire and excite me. Sometimes they lead to really amazing conversations and collaborations. Not everybody is a creative visionary—I certainly do not see myself that way. But I am good at appraising other people’s cultural and creative assets and how they can be used for change.

Photographs by Matthew Priestley. Styling by Sam Michel.


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Charlotte Cowles is a New York-based writer​ ​and editor.​ ​Her work has been published in New York Magazine,​ Harper's Bazaar,​ and Art in America. She'd always rather be at book club. Read more of Charlotte's posts.


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