Joanna Horsnail Joanna Horsnail

Growing up in suburban Denver, Joanna Horsnail lived what she called a charmed life in America’s solid middle class.

Then she joined Mayer Brown, and life started punching back. Hard.

First, her mother succumbed to Parkinson’s disease. Shortly thereafter, her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was his caregiver through hospice. And 13 years ago her second child, William, was born with a rare genetic disease. He was diagnosed only last year as the 50th patient with a developmental disorder called Pura syndrome.

The stress of a child with special needs crashed what was already a rocky marriage, Horsnail said. Today, William still does not walk or talk. Horsnail would be within her rights to carry a rigid message to associates itching to become partner. If I did it, she could tell them, then I don’t want to hear you complain.

 

But that message—perhaps too often the feeling of Big Law partners—would betray her own experience at Mayer Brown in Chicago, where she has held various leadership roles. And it would be opposite of the more patient path that Horsnail is advocating for large firms to open up their partnership tracks.

Horsnail became an income partner at Mayer Brown while on maternity leave—after telling the firm that when she returned to work she wanted to work 70 percent of her typical hours. She did that for five years, taking advantage of an alternative work schedule policy at the firm.

Now an equity partner specializing in construction and government relations work, Horsnail advises associates about career choices as a member of Mayer Brown’s career advancement committee, somewhat akin to a compensation committee for associates. Horsnail said her firm is creating a more flexible partner path, in part by viewing the role of counsel, historically a destination title of its own, as a waypoint to partnership.

“I benefited from people trying to take a personal view of someone’s situation and I’m really encouraging us to do that,” Horsnail said. “To really look at people as individuals and to look at typical policies in a Big Law firm and think about how those may be disadvantageous or holding us back in terms of diversity.”

Horsnail’s personal story, which she recently began telling in more detail, including at a TedX Talk in suburban Chicago, gives her a rare level of authenticity in her career conversations with young lawyers. She wants to be open about the challenges she faced in hopes that other associates will feel more comfortable taking an alternative route.

“What always helped me when I was coming through the ranks was when men and women I admired would sort of open up and talk about what was hard about it, or maybe where they had personal challenges,” Horsnail said. “That always made it so much more accessible to me.”

There were certainly moments when Horsnail had to open up. Like when she was crying at her desk after her father’s cancer diagnosis. A senior partner, wearing a crisp white dress shirt, offered her a hug. He walked away with her mascara streaked across it.

Then came William’s birth and the realization that he had severe neurological problems. Horsnail spent years flying to doctors and specialists across the country. She spent a week at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, looking for answers as to why her son wasn’t crawling, talking or feeding himself. She was distraught. On stage earlier this year at her TedX Talk, Horsnail told the crowd that she didn’t even want to celebrate his first birthday.

“All I could think about was all the things he wasn’t doing that a typical one-year-old child should be doing,” she said in an emotional presentation.

Her son’s health problems precipitated the end of a six-year marriage. The divorce was among the most difficult events to share with her colleagues. She had a picture-perfect life planned: getting married, having children and making partner. Now it was all falling away. Horsnail felt lost for years, she said.

“I felt some shame. Some guilt. Did I do things wrong? This isn’t how it’s supposed to go,” she added. “And that was dark.”

But Horsnail’s love for her children, and the fulfilment she received from her work at Mayer Brown, kept her motivated to carry on and find answers about William. She realized at some point, she said in her speech late last year, that William was not going to change to accommodate her plans. So she had to change her expectations. Horsnail focused on William’s daily needs, rather than dreading longer-term questions like whether he would ever live an independent life.

And she learned to savor the small breakthroughs. Like when she set a seven-year-old William down in his room to take a shower. He cried. That was expected. Then the crying stopped, and she found William outside of the shower. He had crawled for the first time. That was not expected. She bawled.

Then, last year, a bigger breakthrough came. A DNA test revealed William’s diagnosis of Pura syndrome. It is a devastating disease. Most patients never talk. Few walk. An independent life is not in the cards. For most parents today, hearing the diagnosis is heartbreaking. But for Horsnail, the diagnosis was like “a rainbow coming out of the sky,” she said.

After 11 years she at least had an answer. The diagnosis let Horsnail look back on how much had changed in her, and her actual life, over that time.

“The last 11 years have changed me profoundly,” she said near the end of her TedX Talk. “What I learned from grief, resilience, slowing down, the warmth of a community, the joy in small miracles. … I had come so far merely by the passage of time.”

That speech led to a new series of conversations with her colleagues. Not all of her partners or clients knew about William or her divorce. But Horsnail shared her discussion on LinkedIn and then with partners at Mayer Brown, including managing partner Kenneth Geller. She said the positive responses from Geller and others have reinforced her gratitude to the firm for being flexible with her schedule.

“Part of me thinks, like, I want him, I want everybody to understand that as a single woman you can be successful here, you can be pegged for leadership positions here, and you can have all this stuff going on at home,” Horsnail said. “I think it helps reinforce that message that we can all do this no matter what else you have going on.”