After a miscarriage and a job loss, one lawyer fires back and, amid the brouhaha, finds her way.
ISSUE: Fall 2009
DEPT: My Story
STORY: Shinyung Oh
On Wednesday, April 24, 2008, I woke up at 3 a.m. When I went to the restroom, I felt a bucket of water gush out of me, as if from a popped water balloon. Sitting on the toilet, I was too stunned to cry. When I returned to bed, I told my husband, “I think we lost our baby.” Even as I said it, I prayed that wasn’t the case. We had been clinging to the hope that the baby was OK since 3 p.m. the day before when I started bleeding. It was the last week of my first trimester, and all I had been thinking until then was, “Just one more week until we’re in the clear.” Jeff held me for the rest of the night, between my trips to the bathroom to drain myself.
In the morning, we went to the hospital. As we had feared, the ultrasound showed a nearly empty uterus. We waited a few hours to undergo the procedure to remove the remaining tissue. Before the procedure, I emailed three partners at my law firm to explain why I wasn’t at work. Only one of them — the one whose wife had delivered a baby a month earlier — responded. The others ignored my message.
After the procedure, the doctor advised me to stay home for the rest of the day. On our way home, I called my parents. I didn’t know how to say “miscarriage” in Korean, so I said, “Mom, the baby died. The baby is dead.” The sound of my parents’ grief and befuddlement pained me.
When I went home, I threw my pile of baby books into a big shopping bag and shoved them into my closet. Next, I removed all of the pregnancy related entries in my calendar and inserted “miscarriage” for the day. Then I made myself a big pot of seaweed soup that my mom had made me promise to eat, and I sobbed as I shoved spoonfuls into my mouth.
After again informing my bosses, I stayed home the following Friday. I returned to work on Monday.
That Wednesday, a little after lunch, two partners walked into my office and told me that I was fired. Maybe I should have expected it, but I didn’t think it would happen six days after my miscarriage.
Work had been slow in the office. The firm had laid off a slew of secretaries and had been eliminating one or two associates at a time. Even as people were getting fired, we pretended we didn’t know because the terminated employees were bound by non-disclosure agreements. They couldn’t talk about it, and we didn’t want to put them in the uncomfortable position of asking.
Two months earlier, I had received an unexpectedly poor performance review. Although most of my ratings the prior year had been “outstanding” and “above expectations” and I had received positive feedback throughout the year, I had suddenly been downgraded in all categories without explanation. When I submitted a memo requesting specifics on where I had failed to perform and how I should improve my performance, the firm did not respond.
Just a week before my review, I had a one-on-one talk with the head of my department. Given the slow down, I wanted to know if I should do anything differently. He assured me that my work was “great” and that others in the department “love[d]” working with me.
I thanked him for the reassurance. “We all have our moments of insecurity, you know,” I said.
“I know, Shinyung,” he said. “And that is why I want to get it through your head. You are a great attorney. It’s not because of your work.”
When I asked him why work was so slow, he explained that the firm had priced itself out of its usual market with its rising billable rates and had not gained a foothold in the elite tier.
A week later, the same partner avoided my eyes as he gave me my poor review. Now, six days after my miscarriage, he asked me to sign a non-disclosure/non-disparagement agreement in return for a three-month severance. I refused.
Instead, I went home. After some moping, I started drafting an email to the partners of my department. It seemed important to point out that there are ethical ways of terminating employees. Blaming an employee’s performance, when the decision was clearly economic, was not one of them. And making difficult business decisions did not require throwing basic human decency out the window. After thinking about it over the weekend, I sent my email on Monday to the partners of my department and the firm management. I clicked “All Associates” on the cc button, a recipient list nearing 1,000, and attached a copy of the non-disclosure agreement the firm had asked me to sign.
Within an hour after I clicked “send,” I received a notice that my email was posted on a legal blog called Above the Law. Within a day, the post generated close to 1,000 comments. In the following days, I received hundreds of messages from people I didn’t know and others I hadn’t heard from in years. In the following weeks, the story appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. 60 Minutes called. Almost a year later, the story re-surfaced in the Los Angeles Times, and I appeared briefly on the Today Show with two “etiquette experts” who advised how to send farewell emails.
People have asked me if I regret sending my email. I think they assume that I sent the email in a spurt of emotion. But to me, it wasn’t about venting, although it felt pretty good to get it off my chest. It was about calling out those who were abusing power, as I thought my bosses did when they mocked up my performance review to cover up their economic layoffs. And it was about speaking up for myself when wronged by a corporate bully, even if it meant getting bruised in the process.
But in some strange way, instead of a bruise, I got an unexpected boost. I have always been torn about my career. I am one of these people who went to law school because I didn’t know what to do. I timidly wanted to pursue a career in writing but couldn’t justify it to my practical side. Then there was the issue of parental expectations — and the guilt of an immigrants’ child. I went to law school the way I took medicine, gritting my teeth.
After law school, I spent an inordinate amount of time justifying my career to myself. It can be intellectually stimulating. People treat you professionally. It pays incredibly well.
When I sat there across from my bosses — as they lied to me in the process of firing me — I realized more clearly than ever that I did not want to become one of them. No matter how much they paid me.
After I sent my mass email, as I resigned myself to the thought that I had thrown away my 10-year career, I found myself in a space I had not allowed myself to be in before. The space to think of a different direction. To free myself from this career path I had set for myself at age 24. And oddly, the act of sending that email gave me a strange confidence. I had never been the kind or person to bring attention to myself, but here I had screamed my head off in the conservative and cautious world of lawyers. And the ceiling didn’t fall on me.
These days, I am working on my writing — through freelance work and my blog — while handling some legal work part-time. I also finally made it to my second trimester of pregnancy. We are expecting a little boy in October.
And at least once a day, I thank my lucky stars that I was fired.