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  • Jim Ferraro

On Not Negotiating Work-Life Balance

At the beginning of these blog posts, I introduced you to the Castillo family. The Castillos had come to me to ask me to defend them on behalf of their son, who was born blind as a result of his mother’s being exposed to a toxic fungicide made and marketed by DuPont. Before returning to this remarkable case, I’ve been sharing with you my background, to give you a sense of the kind of person I had become (warts and all) as I considered taking on the case.

Here, I continue to recount my career path – and the ups and downs of being overcommitted. In fact, as a result of my excessive schedule and commitments, I was completely stressed out.

The first three years of my marriage were consumed by work. I’d become very absorbed in my career and in my determination to get ahead. I was making difficult sacrifices at home in order to provide a good life for Diane and me. The downside was that I often felt as though I was living in a coma because I was studying and working so much.

Although my academic and professional accomplishments were growing, I wasn’t developing at all on a personal level. I didn’t even have time to think about my relationship with Diane, let alone make time to realize what a toll my perpetual absence was taking on both of us. Having grown up in a frugal household, I understood the value of money and the incredible amount of hard work, commitment, and perseverance it takes to earn it. No one in my family had ever pursued a professional career, let alone graduated from law school. I created the path on which I was walking to honor my family.

My hard work really paid off, because I earned straight As in my final semester of undergraduate schooling and throughout graduate school as well. When I finally got my law degree in 1983, my top-tier grades, combined with my experience as a CPA, put me in a prime position to seek work in the biggest markets—and to me, there was no bigger market than New York. I was a total novice at the application process, however.

I applied to several top firms in Manhattan and was rejected by all of them. They were only looking at Ivy League graduates. If you didn’t go to Yale or Harvard, you couldn’t even get in the door for an interview.

I had no clue how stiff the competition would be for those jobs. I wasn’t from a pedigreed family with connections, nor did I really know where I should apply.

From my point of view, I was just as good as any Ivy Leaguer. I learned everything I knew about the law from the exact same textbooks those guys studied. I didn’t think their professors taught the subject any better than mine, yet I was still sent packing without ever being given the chance to prove myself.

It seemed like an unfair barometer of who was good and who was not. I would eventually go up against these lawyers in the courtroom on a day-to-day basis anyway, which is where the true test takes place. Even though I knew I could compete with these players, I wasn’t allowed to get in the game. It felt a lot like making a team and being forced to sit on the bench when you know you’re just as good as—if not better than—anyone else on the field. I had no choice except to get out there and prove myself.

By the time I realized it would be better to stay in Miami, it was spring, and too late to be taken seriously by any of the big firms there. Their new hires had been brought on six months earlier, sometime in the fall. In the end, there were no solid job opportunities for me, which meant that I was flat-out unemployed, with zero prospects on the horizon. I was studying for the bar exam with no job in sight.

I began to feel very depressed by my plight. I had worked my ass off day and night to conquer the world, and the world wasn’t responding. All those years of dedication suddenly felt incredibly useless.

Thankfully, my wife, who had graduated from law school a year before me, was working and bringing home enough money to cover our bills while I studied for the bar exam and continued to look for a job. We were living in a humble condominium in West Kendall, Fla. We had very little overhead, so neither of us worried much about how we would make ends meet.

Although it wasn’t an easy time, we both knew that someday I’d land a job. I started to really think about my whole “conquer the world” philosophy. Who am I? What is my purpose? Why am I here?

Then came what I consider to be one of the seminal moments in my life. I explore this more in my next post.

I’d love to hear from you – have you ever considered yourself an outsider? Have you succeeded as a result or despite that? Thank you for sharing.


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