Private Professional

  • June 01, 2021

Dear Advy,

I am in my late 30s, practicing mainly tax law at a large firm. Although single, I am pursuing fertility treatments - no one in my professional life is aware of this. The trouble is that the process is incredibly stressful. I have bloodwork and medical appointments all the time. Frankly, the hormones I am taking are causing me to be unusually emotional and erratic. I am not concerned about my ability to give sound legal service, but I am not myself, and it shows. My assistant seems worried about me, and I am getting the sense that one of the senior partners I work closely with is frustrated by my short but frequent absences. I value my privacy, but I don’t need the additional stress of keeping this secret. What should I do?

Private Professional

Dear Private Professional, 

There are a few things I am not going to do with this answer:

  • Give you advice about dealing with the stress and emotional ups and downs you describe.  I am reading your letter as indicating that you are satisfied with how you are managing those items. My understanding is you are concerned about how others will respond.
  • Give you legal advice about your rights as an employee or partner. You say you are at a large firm, and I assume you have access either within or outside of the firm to information about your right to privacy and proper treatment by your employer.
  • Ignore the fact that your firm has a responsibility to manage this appropriately. You, not the firm, have asked for my advice, so I am only giving you advice, but this is not all on your shoulders.

Also, I am aware here of the limitations of giving you advice in a column. There is a lot I don’t know about you and can’t ask you. That is one of many good reasons why you should get in touch with your local Lawyer Assistance Program and set up a relationship with a counsellor who can help you with this. You may have stormy waters ahead, and you probably want all hands on deck if you need the help.  

Whew! That’s a lot of disclaimers. It’s almost like we’re all lawyers around here or something.  

The people you work with deserve to know something about what is happening with you. You say you are not yourself, and it shows. They deserve to know that you have a medical issue/treatment, the likely duration of this situation, and the chances of a permanent versus a temporary state of affairs. They need to know what reasonable people would need to know to manage the firm’s business and do their jobs.  That’s it. They don’t need to know why you are getting the treatment or what is going on at those medical appointments.

In public relations, they often say that it is better to get out ahead of a story rather than wait for others to come to you for an explanation. Getting out ahead of something is important because the first explanation someone hears or reads about something is very likely to set the narrative in one’s mind about what has happened.  . Don’t leave the explanation for this change in how you react to things and why you are missing work up to the imagination of those you work with. It may help you ask your treating doctor to give you a letter confirming you are receiving medical treatment which may have an impact on your mood and stress levels, that you have a good prognosis, and that it is short-term. If the doctor can be even more specific on that last point, so much the better since the big question your co-workers are likely to ask is, “How long will this last?”

There are two people (or categories of people) that you should have a conversation with:

  1. Your assistant. S/he is essential to your practice and will be  an important ally for you in dealing with this. If you want to have an ongoing working relationship with your assistant, you need to give that limited explanation to him/her. Again, you don’t have to make your assistant your confidante. All you need to share is the information you would want if the roles were reversed.
  2. Someone with authority at the firm. This will be a person who can understand at least the essentials of what’s going on, and  can head off any unwanted consequences. Depending on how your firm is structured that may be one person, or it may be a senior partner and human resources personnel. You may never need allies in your firm management, but then again, maybe you will. Give those people now what they would need to be able to help you later.  

If you are tempted to procrastinate about having those conversations, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What is the worst that could happen if I do?
  2. What is the cost of inaction?

Be sure to ask yourself those things in a setting and at a time when you are feeling secure and as relaxed as possible. The worst that could happen is that your firm somehow limits your career. If you don’t act, others are likely to speculate about what explains the changes they observe in you and – guess what – that speculation is probably more damaging and limiting to your career than revealing the truth ever would. You have almost nothing to lose and much to gain by giving the people you work with a true, if limited, explanation of what is going on.