Paul L. Caron

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Kirkland & Ellis Litigation Partner And Father Of 11 Mike Williams' Parenting Secret: Boundaries, Not Balance


David Lat, A Top Trial Lawyer And Father Of 11: Michael Williams:

A longtime Kirkland partner and parent to children ages 24 to 7, Mike Williams talks about how he and his wife Julin make it all work.

I’ve been honored to have some of the nation’s leading litigators on this podcast. But I have not had a guest who’s both a renowned courtroom advocate and parent of 11 children—until today.

Meet Michael Williams. After graduating from Georgetown Law, summa cum laude and first in his class, he clerked for then-Chief Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the D.C. Circuit and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy of the Supreme Court. Mike then joined the D.C. office of Kirkland & Ellis, where he is a share aka equity partner. He has won numerous honors and accolades over the years, recognized by Chambers and Partners, the Legal 500, and The American Lawyer, among others.

Despite his dazzling legal career, Mike is most proud of being a dad. He had his first child while still in law school, two children during his clerkships, and eight children during his time at K&E. In our conversation, we talked about his contrasting clerkship experiences; what it’s like being a litigator at Kirkland, including how the firm has evolved over the years; why at heart he’s more of a trial rather than an appellate lawyer; and most importantly, how he balances his busy practice with the demands of parenthood (although note that he’s not a fan of the term “work-life balance”). ...

I thought he’d be the perfect guest to join me for an episode scheduled to air shortly before Father’s Day—and he didn’t disappoint. If you’re looking for advice and insight on how to juggle work and family—a ton of work, and a ton of family—this episode is for you. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Mike Williams. ...

DL: Let me ask you maybe a slightly controversial or spicy question. So Kirkland, of course, back in the day had these legendary litigators. You mentioned a number of them, like Ken Starr and Brett Kavanaugh.

The firm is now known as this transactional powerhouse with an amazing private equity and M&A practice. Do you feel the firm has shifted during your time there, and as a litigator, have you had any issues with that?

MW: Some things have shifted. It’s been really fortunate that the management of the firm had the foresight on not just private-equity and transactional work—and to really not only catch the wave, but to create the wave there—but also restructuring. We have the best debtor-side practice in the universe. What an amazing hedge that is when it seems like the economy is crashing down. ...

DL: [D]espite your amazing legal career, I’m guessing you’re even more proud of being a dad, which is a big part of why I wanted to have you on the show ahead of Father’s Day. I’ve had some amazing litigators on here as guests, but I have not yet had a guest who has 11 kids.

I guess the obvious question is, how the heck do you do it?

MW: Gosh, David, this is going to sound like an unfair answer, but I feel like just barely. I go back and forth sometimes thinking like I’m some super dad who’s doing everything right and then immediately thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’m going to ruin these poor creatures who I’m responsible for.”

When you’ve got a family that’s the size of our family, there’s just so much going on—and I’ll just give you an example. In the past two weeks, our number two, Isabella, graduated from Georgetown—very proud of her. Number five, Mikey Junior, graduated from Gonzaga High School. Number one, Rosemary, took the foreign service exam. Number 11 turned seven. That was just a couple of days ago. Number three, Saleilona, left for Taiwan to study Chinese. Number four, Helena, left for France for a month to study French.

And that’s on top of all of the basketball tournaments and volleyball games and end-of-year play dates and pool parties. There’s just always something going on. I feel like we just barely keep it together. ...

DL: [Y]ou mentioned expectations. I wonder if you have thoughts on so-called “work-life balance.” Is it achievable, or is it this unrealistic concept that ends up burdening people? What are your thoughts on that term?

MW: David, I despise that term. I think it’s so misleading. I think it’s structurally false. It conjures up this picture of scales, and maybe you could put a birthday party or a confirmation party on one end of the scale, and then a PI hearing on the other end of the scale, and it balances up. And that’s just not how life works.

You understand: practicing law is an all-consuming profession. You can’t really multitask and be a lawyer at a high level. And parenting is also all-consuming. You can’t really multitask when you need to sit down with your child and talk about something that’s going on on a fifth-grade exam. So I hate the term “work-life balance.” And for me, I’ve always tried to talk about it with other lawyers at the firm or people who come to me with questions and say that it’s really just a matter of expectations and boundaries, not balance.

DL: Say more about that. What do you mean about boundaries, for instance?

MW: Boundaries—this is key. There are certain aspects of my time, of my life, that I just keep off-limits to work. And I’ve been at Kirkland for 20 years. I’m not somebody who shies away from work. I’ve been in the crucible, whether it’s the Supreme Court clerkship or trial law under really great trial partners at Kirkland who demand a lot from us, and I demand a lot from my team today.

But just to give you one example: I told you I’m Italian-American from New Jersey, and Sunday dinner in my family is just about sacrosanct. Most of my clients understand that on Sunday, I’m having meatballs with my family, and it’s just four or five hours, plus the two hours it takes on Saturday night to make those meatballs. But that’s family time. And so I expect the kids to come back. I’m not going to do any calls then, I’m not going to be doing any work then, clients tend not to ask me to do it, and that’s my time.

And I’ve also found myself trying to encourage associates to figure out what their time is, too. Set those boundaries. It doesn’t have to be Sunday dinner; you’re not me, you don’t share my upbringing. But figure out whether it’s Saturdays, you take your kids to the museum, or you just make sure that you take your partner out for a nice dinner on a Wednesday night and just say, “This is my time.” And I think that’s really important, setting those boundaries.

DL: I like that because it’s very practical, actionable advice. So let me follow up and ask, do you have any additional tips on time management? Because I think for busy, overwhelmed working parents, time management is this great burden.

MW: Right. I think there, especially when it comes to parenting, it’s recognizing that sometimes it’s those little things that you do with the children. And it seems almost incidental—it’s not a big grand romantic gesture, where you’re buying them a pony or you’re taking them to the circus. But in my family, during the school year, we have mandatory breakfast at 6:30 in the morning. That sounds terrible, I know. For teenage girls who were going to high school and who were staying up late at night worried about exams, I know it was hard for them, for example, when it was their time. But I know, as a partner at a law firm, that it’s unlikely I’m going to be home for dinner at night. And breakfast at least gave us one meal together as a family, where we could talk about what we were going to do that day.

So it’s setting those little practices. And it doesn’t have to be 6:30 breakfast. It could just be, when you get report cards—it starts out as an accident—let’s go get froyo. And then the next time around, it’s just laziness: well, it’s report card day, let’s go get froyo and talk about report cards. And all of a sudden, in the kids’ minds, it becomes their tradition: “It’s report card day, I’m going to talk about grades with dad and get froyo.” And I think there’s just something beneficial to that, that when you’re a lawyer and a parent you don’t realize, but that the kids remember years and years going forward.

DL: So it is, in a way, about carving out these times, whether it’s that 6:30 breakfast or the Sunday dinner. But it’s interesting you mentioned having meals and maybe not making it home in time for dinner. In March 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, Vivia Chen wrote this great profile of you and your family where you talked about working from home, both the challenges and the advantages, and you mentioned being able to have three meals together.

Now that the pandemic is thankfully in the rearview mirror, how would you describe your family situation today? Have you gone back to the way things were pre-pandemic, or are there any things that you started doing during that period that have stayed with your family?

MW: The memories have stayed with the family. And I should say first that I adore Vivia—I think that article was the nicest thing that she ever wrote about anybody associated with Kirkland & Ellis, and I think she would probably agree with me on that, too. And I appreciate her having written it. But as I mentioned, I’ve got a daughter in Taipei right now, and a daughter in Paris right now, and as a dad of children older and younger, I don’t miss the pandemic.

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