Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Please welcome Julia Gieseking to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
My path to law has been anything but traditional. I began law school in my early thirties, finished 3L year in Hawaii, and got married to an enlisted service member, and I have been moving around the country ever since. I have worked remotely practicing in Veterans Law since graduation, which has been perfect since I have been able to work from home, set my hours (more or less), and I never had to worry about where we moved because my job was portable!
Though working in yoga pants all day and hanging out with my dogs was great, the structure, or lack thereof, never afforded me the opportunity to ever “feel like an actual lawyer” (whatever that means). I loved the work I did and that kept me going and gaining experience. I always found reasons not to try anything different in my career, usually having to do with my husband’s career, such as a possible deployment, a months-long training in another state, another move, difficulties with obtaining childcare, etc.
After a few years of practice, I was still having difficulty feeling like I had control over my career and was worried the choices I made in life (starting late, marrying into the Army, working from home, etc.) had kept me from being a “real lawyer.” Like many fellow lawyer-moms, I suffer from imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome can be defined as “the experience of feeling like a phony—you feel as though at any moment you are going to be found out as a fraud—like you don’t belong where you are, and you only got there through dumb luck.” It is this horrible, nagging thought that robs me of the pride I should feel in the accomplishment inherent in becoming a lawyer, and the satisfaction and fulfillment I should feel in the amazing work that I do for my clients.
When COVID-19 hit a year ago, I figured it would not make much of a difference for me because I would just keep doing what I have always done, work from home and maybe not have daycare. Like most everyone else, the scope of COVID-19’s impact was not apparent to me in the beginning (“flatten the curve!”). COVID-19 did not change my schedule, but it has changed my perspective. As the pandemic stretched on, I watched the wall between professional and personal begin to crack. The news now featured the homes of reporters, pundits, and politicians as opposed to professionally lit studios. Articles about how to adjust to working from home, how to wrangle your kids while trying to stay employed, and advertisements for comfortable “work” clothes suitable for the newly minted work-from-home crowd started popping up everywhere.
I no longer felt like I had to make excuses for my barking dogs or loud toddler when I was on the phone with clients. It became normal to return an email at 10 p.m. because, obviously, I just got my teething toddler to bed because — no childcare! Finally, everyone understood the struggle. As horrible as the pandemic has been, I have been blessed with the realization that much of the “actual lawyer” part that I thought I was lacking was not real and only existed in my head as an ideal.
Imposter syndrome is not uncommon among women lawyers and attorneys of color. The path I chose in life only added to the problem because the isolation and lack of support inherent in constant moves and remote work only added to feeling I did not belong. I would never make different choices in life because I would not have my wonderful husband, my perfect child, and be incredibly lucky that I was able to spend most of the first two years of my son’s life at home with him and still work (albeit mostly part-time). As a result of COVID-19, many women are being pushed out of the workforce and many have lost productivity as a result of also trying to care for children at home due to distance learning. If I have learned anything in the last year, it is that there is no one way to be a lawyer, or a mom, or a lawyer-mom. After a year of seeing how remote work (with children!) has impacted other attorneys I know, I have realized that we all face the same difficulties. This would seem self-evident, but it was not always an easy concept for me to grasp when I worked from home in sweats while my son got some tummy time on the floor and others were in their office, wearing “actual clothes” and doing “actual lawyering.” This newfound perspective has afforded me more confidence in my work and allowed me to see the value in the choices that I have made. In fact, I had a few lawyer-mom friends call for work-from-home tips! Though some might say my choices have limited my career, I guess that all depends on what kind of career you want to have. I am learning that the career that I have does not make me any less of a lawyer and that I can be successful working the way that works best for myself and my family.
Julia Gieseking graduated from University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in Detroit, Michigan, and has been representing Veterans and their eligible dependents exclusively since being barred in 2014. Julia represents clients as they pursue VA benefits claims before the Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims and the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. She is married to an active-duty Army Staff Sergeant, and they have a two-year-old son. They currently reside “wherever the Army tells them” along with their two dogs and four cats. Julia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.