Perspective: Why I Quit Big Law For a Toy Company

April 28, 2016, 7:35 PM

Editor’s Note: The author of this post is a former associate of Squire Patton Boggs, which has issued a statement in response to her account.

By Kristen Jarvis Johnson, Co-Founder of Boy Story

I have no idea where my life’s path will ultimately lead. No one can have such insight.

For the past 12 years, though, my path took me from law school into a practice of international law, from Washington, D.C. to Doha.

By most standards, my career has been a big success. But the more it became successful, the more my life — my health, my children, my family, my interests — gave way for my work. Two and a half years ago, my family relocated to Qatar for my work. This change, coupled with the merger of my smaller law firm into a massive one, threw my life out of balance. This month I resigned, putting a hard stop to everything to start my own company, regain my health, spend real time with my family, and right this imbalance.

Qatar was tough.

Touted as a land of luxury, the more I spent my time there, the more empty it felt. I gained nothing from fancy dinners or five-star hotels. I missed nature, family, quiet Sunday morning walks outside, and simple fresh produce. And I was disturbed as I observed a system where rank and wealth seemed to define human worth. Poor workers are kept miserably poor — making a few hundred dollars per month to work six long days per week, often paying back loans and fees they incurred to come to Qatar in the first place, living in squalid housing, and unable to leave without their employers’ blessing.

Driving was harrowing when a three-digit license plate Land Cruiser would weave recklessly around my car carrying my precious children just to stop first at a red light, or run it.

The childcare system was complex and not designed for working families. In June last year, our good friend’s two-year-old girl died from a burn accident, sufficient medical care being a leading question in the cause of death. My 10-month-old baby’s right palm as burned severely from an overheated ground light at the airport, and we had to fly to Dubai for medical care. I could go on, but even a 10-hour Reddit session could not capture all my experiences.

[caption id="attachment_13899" align="alignnone” width="552"][Image “A picture of a park in Doha, Qatar. Courtesy of Kristen Johnson.” (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Doha1-e1461867635773.jpg)]A picture of a park in Doha, Qatar. Courtesy of Kristen Johnson.[/caption]

The firm was tough. Although I loved the work, the clients, my colleagues, and my income, there was constant pressure to always give more no matter how high my hours were or how large my caseload was. Until Doha, and the firm merger, the rewards had been worth the sacrifices. I was loyal to the core and believed the time, effort, and loyalty would result in a fulfilling career. The rewards carried me through the long hours, fire drill deadlines, over-stressed partners, and, yes, sexual propositions. For my career, I thought I could move past a senior partner trying to grab my leg or asking for a hotel rendezvous during lunch.

Then I hit my breaking point. The working environment spiraled downward after the firm merger. I saw women in leadership positions leaveen masse within the first few months of the merger. My workload was constant and unrelenting. I had my second child, and balanced my maternity leave with my continuing work obligations.

Then I was turned down for a bonus for the first time while on maternity leave. I came back to work and hit the ground running in March of last year. Never took a real break, even on vacation, and gave it my all. My new baby was demanding, but I juggled his (and my older son’s) demands with everything else, even taking him and our nanny overseas to continue nursing during a long hearing. My grandmother — after whom my own son is named — died right before a hearing, and her funeral was during another. I was too busy even to mourn, let alone attend the funeral.

[caption id="attachment_13904" align="alignnone” width="497"][Image “Courtesy of Kristen Johnson.” (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Doha3-e1461867763200.jpg)]Courtesy of Kristen Jarvis Johnson.[/caption]

The management at the new firm was non-diverse — almost entirely white men. The women leaders and colleagues who remained seemed increasingly dismayed with the staggering gender imbalance. Partner-associate communication changed dramatically. I felt increasingly excluded from business development and participation in firm growth.

I took a hard look at the diversity figures in my own practice group. Not good. I looked at the path ahead of me, as best I could, and felt empty at the prospect of joining this partnership. I was turned down again for a bonus and told to just “work harder.” Meaning just bill more time. I had moved my entire family around the world for the firm, had countless days in which I did not even see my own children, and I needed to put in even more time. The “value” the firm had placed on me during some of the toughest years of my young motherhood showed the extent of my worth there.

The time came to make a change.

During my time in Qatar, I had lived modestly and saved a lot of my earnings. My sister had taken an idea I had while pregnant with my second son and developed it into a company, Boy Story, which makes boy Action Dolls to balance out the gender imbalanced toy market. I funded my sister to pursue the idea, and she ran with everything.

She brought Boy Story to a place where it was ready to launch. I saw an opportunity to join her. My skills and knowledge built around international deals and contract disputes would transfer well into running my own business. And something in my life had to give.

So I handed in my resignation in March to join forces with my sister and build a company that contributes to real social change and offers something fun and playful for kids in the process. This is an opportunity to regain the things I value in life, continue to pursue a successful career — but on my own terms, and to stop supporting a broken and biased firm system. I decided not to fight to break a glass ceiling, only to find myself in a hostile, overly-competitive, and unhealthy environment.

I want to focus my energy on doing something great that contributes to breaking down gender barriers and glass ceilings. Boy Story is one way to do that. The community coalescence around our Kickstarter campaign has been humbling.

I don’t know where this path will lead. I never will. But I can take the lessons learned — good, bad, hard, and easy — as a guide for the future.

[caption id="attachment_13909" align="alignnone” width="640"][Image “A sunset in Doha, Qatar. Courtesy of Johnson.” (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Doha4-e1461867845277.jpg)]A sunset in Doha, Qatar. Courtesy of Johnson.[/caption]

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