Making It Work

Erin Johnston

Photo of Erin Johnston courtesy of Kirkland & Ellis

I am a quintessential working mother, devoted to both my career and my children. A litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis, I have three beautiful children—ages 8, 6 and 4—who are the center of my world. 

How do I do it?

As soon as I became a mother, it became apparent that my children’s health issues were going to be acutely stressful and time-consuming, and my husband was just as committed to his career as I was to mine. I distinctly remember early in my career asking for yet another leave of absence just after returning from maternity leave, and my mind was flooded with thoughts about how my circumstances just didn’t fit with a career in BigLaw. 

My success has not been the result of a perfectly executed master plan. But I can say that I have unapologetically asked for what I needed and was pleasantly surprised by the responses I received. No one above me assumed they knew what I wanted, or that what I wanted would always be the same. At times I turned down opportunities to avoid travel or to focus on my family; other times I chose to take that trip or work long hours. I’m grateful that it was my choice. I would not have my career today if others had presupposed what I could “handle” or if I had failed to speak up when I really did need something. 

Here are a few thoughts on “making it work.”

Focus on Better

Today’s great lawyers were not great lawyers the day they graduated from law school. 

But instead of focusing on getting better over time, working mothers waste enormous amounts of energy assessing whether they objectively qualify as “good” in comparison to others. And the typical amount of self-doubt they endure as they try to tackle both work and family obligations is at best unproductive and at worst suffocating. I learned that lesson the hard way as I struggled through several years after my children were first born.

We all know that a legal career can be exhausting at times. Motherhood is even more exhausting. Consistent focus on the affirmative steps you can take to improve your legal skills requires a lot of energy that as a working mom I often found to be in particularly short supply. Focusing your energy on improvement will ultimately maximize your skill set and do the most to advance your legal career. The less energy spent on unproductive self-assessments, the more energy you’ll have for what will really make a difference in your career. 

One. Step. At. A. Time.

Every mom quickly scraps whatever plan she had for motherhood once confronted with the unique joys and challenges that each child brings.  Legal careers are no different; it is incredibly difficult to plan out your legal career from the start. For me, I had no idea at the start of my career that I could become a law firm partner while still being the mother I wanted to be.

A successful career requires continually moving forward, one step at a time. Your legal career should work for you and your family at least in the short term, and attaining this near-term goal alone can be plenty on a working mother’s plate. I’ve learned that pressure to decide on or strive toward long-term career goals as well can be an unnecessary additional demand, particularly when those goals are likely to change over time. When you’re struggling with the challenges of work and family, be kind to yourself by letting it be enough to focus on one step at a time.

Relationships Matter

Having a successful legal career as a working mother is not something that can be achieved alone. A working mom needs sponsors, mentors and peers—all in the plural tense. I am humbled by and grateful for just how many supporters I have had over the years, each of whom supported me in different but equally important ways by exposing me to training opportunities, sharing their connections and offering a listening ear. I will also note that nearly all of them were men, and the failure to look to men as a resource in your journey is undoubtedly a mistake.

Working moms should focus on building their network of supporters. No amount of excellence can overcome a lack of connections. Do not set yourself up for failure by isolating yourself in your work. 

Likewise, your colleagues need you, too. Legal careers present challenges for everybody, and you shouldn’t underestimate how much you can offer others even early in your career.  For me, the most effective way to get what I needed from others was to be willing to give them what they need, too. It also happens to be the most rewarding path to success. 

Put the work down and interact with your colleagues for a minute; you’ll be glad you did.


Erin Johnston is a litigation partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Kirkland & Ellis. Johnston is chair of the D.C. office’s Women’s Leadership Initiative. She has received Kirkland’s Pro Bono Service Award multiple times.

Making It Work is a column in partnership with the Working Mother Best Law Firms for Women initiative in which lawyers share how they manage both life’s challenges and work’s demands. Visit workingmother.com for more.