When enough is enough — why one working parent left “big law”
Megan Elizabeth Gray worked for one of the largest law firms in the world. She was intensely driven to become a Partner, the major law firm promotion that signals you’ve made it. But along the way her ambition changed — and Megan left her firm. We discuss how ambition evolves throughout your career, the resources Megan relied on to get clarity, and how you reconcile the values of a working immigrant family with the choice to change one’s path in life.
When you started your law career, what was your ambition?
When I first thought about being a lawyer, I was seven and my ambition was to make an impact on the world. I always felt that law would enable me to do that, I think because of the way I saw lawyers portrayed in movies. I thought I would be in a courtroom fighting for justice. I recently posted a photo of myself on LinkedIn for International Day of the Girl where I was dressed up as a lawyer when I was little. I remember being in that moment, role playing as if I was a prosecutor.
From the start I always was ambitious to take my career all the way, which at a law firm means making Partner. I remember so distinctly, maybe four or five years into my career, I was out for a run — I was on the River Thames in London by the London Eye, it was a gorgeous day and I was really in the moment — and I remember thinking so loudly in my head: “I will make partner at my firm or die trying.” And that is really how I saw it. I knew I was going to do it. I knew that’s what I wanted. I knew I was going to make it happen. I knew I was capable of it.
But at some point, that ambition changed.
“Make Partner or die trying.” What drove your strong commitment?
I think it was driven by a few things. One, I was in an environment where not many women had done it. I wanted to do it not only for myself, but also for all women as a way to lift everyone up and make the path that much easier for the women who come after me.
I also had a feeling within myself that I was capable of doing it and I’ve always hated the idea of wasted potential. I felt like I would have let myself down if I didn’t fulfill my full potential to make Partner.
How did your ambition change over time?
My ambition changed as my life changed. It was a consequence of both the circumstances of law and my choices.
The first thing that happened is I started to see a world outside of work, which until then I had never really experienced. I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was little and I grew up in a very hard working immigrant family on my mom’s side. I was always pushed to work hard, rather than pursue other interests. I am grateful for these values instilled in me. Perhaps eight or nine years into my career, I started to experience more of life outside of work. That was a function of meeting my now-husband and traveling together. We lived in Hong Kong for a year when I worked for the firm’s Hong Kong office. Somehow, in the midst of the very intense work there, we were able to travel to many countries in Asia and with every country we went to, I felt so hungry to learn about people’s lives and cultures that were different from mine. It really opened my eyes and mind to the fact that the way I had lived life for so long, it didn’t actually have to be that way. I started to believe that there is more to life than only working at one’s job.
The second shift that was crucial was becoming a mom and realizing that the working life I had was not what I wanted as a mom, because in addition to working I wanted to be a present mom. I remember having a call with a coach about how I could reconcile my career ambition, which was absolutely still there, with my new life existence as a mom. She gave me what I think was incredible wisdom, which is that we ourselves define what “ambition” is. What I deemed to be ambitious could change. Ambition no longer had to mean making Partner. Ambition could actually mean whatever I defined it to mean.
I love the idea of redefining ambition. What work did you do to redefine your definition of ambition?
I absolutely feel like I did the work, and I love that expression because I do think it is work. It is work but it’s what we have to do when we are in situations of feeling uncertain or unaligned to ourselves.
So yes, over my maternity leave, as I came to see that I wouldn’t stay at the firm, I really threw myself into doing the work to figure out what came next. I worked with a life coach. I worked with two different career coaches. I read a lot. I started writing pieces that I posted on LinkedIn about how being a mom made me a better lawyer. I started writing a book of wisdom and insights for my daughter, and all daughters, which captured my feelings and thoughts about life and why we are here as humans. I did more holistic work like talk therapy, tapping, energy healing. I also did things that were totally new for me, like I took a class on mediumship at the College of Psychic Studies in London. I explored a ton of different things in the space I had away from the firm and alongside growing into my new existence as a mom. Ultimately it was a discovery about who I really am and what is in alignment with myself and who I want to be in this world. What am I here for? What is worth spending time away from my child for?
How do you define ambition today?
My new definition of ambition is about creating a positive impact on the world. I want to advocate and advance opportunities for women so one day women will be able to design their lives based solely on their own choices. That is now what guides me as my ambition.
What that looks like now is an in-house lawyer position for a company that really inspires me because I think it’s a force for good in the world. It’s a publisher that I believe is guided by championing the exceptional and sharing voices, and as a consequence creating change in the world.
I also redefined success. In the past, when I had the ambition to make Partner, I defined success as being in a high powered job making lots of money. Now, the way I define success is being in love with your life.
“Being in love with your life.” I think all women deserve that. But for many, there’s a feeling of privilege or guilt that comes with letting go of traditional ambition. Women feel an obligation to keep their head down and keep climbing. Did you feel that? If so, how did you overcome it?
Yes, 100% I did. Everything you just said resonated with me. First on the privilege point, I’m mindful to acknowledge my privilege. I always want to do that because I know it is a privilege to have choices and many women do not have that privilege. I absolutely want to acknowledge that.
The second thing is, when I was making these changes every so often I did feel like I had let myself down. If I see on LinkedIn a woman who was in my class at my firm make Partner — sometimes I have that gut reaction of “that could that have been me.” I think that comes from comparison to someone else rather than what I feel is right or in alignment with myself. The other thing you mentioned was pressure from family culture. I felt I really experienced that with my parents and grandparents. My grandparents came to America from Yugoslavia and my grandfather worked three jobs. He would always tell me how lucky I was to have my job. Every so often I still wonder and hope that he would be proud of the change that I’ve made.
The other guilt was related to me wanting to make Partner not only for myself but to further gender equality. I had the guilt of feeling “am I jumping ship here, rather than staying in this type of environment and organization, to try to continue pushing for progress from within?” But I had very wise advice from a dear friend who said that reclaiming my own agency and autonomy and ability to choose what I feel is right for me also does a tremendous amount of good for women. That this was also a way to lift others up with me.
Looking back on your decision to leave your law firm, how difficult was the decision?
It felt like a tremendous decision and change. For anyone not familiar with the legal world, going from an Associate at a big law firm to a legal role in-house at a company is almost like a completely different profession. It was extremely difficult because of how much my identity was tied up in my existence as a lawyer at that firm. It was my first job out of law school. It was the one constant I had in my adult life. So much of my identity was the trajectory I was on.
On top of that, it was upsetting how it came about. While I was on maternity leave, thinking about how I could reconcile my desire to stay at the firm while also being a present mom, I made a particular flexible working request to the firm. I requested to work fixed hours, rather than working or being available 24/7, which was the norm. And the firm rejected the request. That was so heart wrenching on so many levels. I was co-chair of the Women’s Network and working so hard on initiatives to advance progress for women at the firm — to see it hit me right in my face was a horrible feeling. It feels like something that was done to me, though I also try not to have a “victim” mentality and think of it as something that was done for me, to put me on this new path which I feel is much more aligned with me and my purpose and aim of creating meaningful impact in the world.
When I was told no, that’s when all the work that I described earlier came in and I also started writing a lot, including the book I mentioned and on topics like moms as leaders. Another very wise friend suggested maybe I look for an in-house legal career at a publisher. The thought had never previously occurred to me; she opened up a new world of possibility for me. As a gift from the universe, a few days later I saw a job posting for my current position, in-house legal at a publisher.
You wrote publicly in the ABA Journal about your difficult departure from your firm. One of the frustrating lines: “The firm would keep the status quo, and the status quo was male.” How can we expect women to succeed in a corporate environment when it’s designed for men?
I would say, burn it down and build a new model and structure of working that takes into account 50% of the working population, being women. In the absence of that, what I really hate is the culture around trying to “fix” women with training around leadership skills and the like. On a certain level of course it is important for women, as with men, to develop. But what actually needs fixing is not women but the organizations. The shining of the light should not be on how women can do better, because women are already doing amazing. It has to be on fixing organizations that were designed decades ago when our lives and working and family cultures were so incredibly different. There are other ways. And I believe pushing to change the status quo is the only way to do that. I heard a quote that will stick with me forever, which is that as humans we are addicted to the status quo, even if it’s killing us. And I believe that.
What’s the one thing you hope organizations will work on to create change?
Stop unnecessary overworking. Value people as human beings first.
*Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Reclaim Your Career shares the stories of women who have made brave career pivots. They inspire and unlock what women always had the capacity to do: Break free from the traditional narrative of success to write your own story.