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Charlene Barshefsky shows up for lunch in a downtown Indian restaurant in a jean jacket and slim black pants. When you’ve been U.S. trade representative during the Clinton administration and you’re now a senior international partner at WilmerHale, you can go casual every once in a while, and nobody at one of the city’s biggest law firms is going to bat an eye. She’s gracious, apologetic about showing up 20 minutes late, and relaxed as she orders a mixed tandoori plate. The topic of the day is work-life balance, which, in some ways, is a ridiculous subject to discuss with a lawyer notorious for her unending hours and impressive work ethic. A New Yorker magazine article 10 years ago marveled at her tirelessness, and friends still talk about the anecdote in the article that illustrated Barshefsky’s ability to multitask: helping one daughter practice her Torah portion for the girl’s upcoming bat mitzvah while she was halfway around the world negotiating a trade deal for the United States with China. In fact, it was her role as USTR that made Barshefsky’s name�she’s best known for brokering the deal that opened the Chinese market to U.S. trade and investment in 1999. If anyone called her a pioneer in the law, she’d probably roll her eyes and change the subject. She cringes when she’s addressed as “ambassador,” although that title came automatically with the job of USTR. She’s almost too no-nonsense to address the ongoing chatter about the ways that women choose to live their lives. But the fact is, Barshefsky, 55, is one of a generation of women professionals who began their careers very much in the minority. When Barshefsky started as an associate at Steptoe & Johnson, in 1975, she was one of just six female lawyers in the office. Two more senior women�Janet Lang, the firm’s first female partner and, later, general counsel at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Shirley Peterson, the first woman to head the Internal Revenue Service�were her role models. Back in those days “none of the women dropped out for personal reasons,” she says. “The entire class [of new associates] was interested in seeing if they could make it to partner.” They were driven more by ambition than by revolution, she recalls. Barshefsky and her husband, Edward Cohen, vice president of government and industry relations for Honda North America, have two daughters�a recent college graduate and a brand-new college freshman. But “it never occurred to me when I had children that I wouldn’t be working,” she says. She’s just too restless to take time off: “I’m just interested in the world.” CAREERS OR CUPCAKES Although Barshefsky probably didn’t intend to frame it this way, the implication is now on the table, along with the naan, that women who take time off or cut back when they have children are less interested in shaping the world at large or find more satisfaction in making cupcakes for the class Halloween party. The truth is that life is always messy, and, for most women with children, it’s fraught with a stomach-churning mixture of angst and hard work. For one thing, many women don’t have the luxury of making a choice about working; they need the income�and they need good child care, a backup system when their primary child care isn’t available, and the courage to admit that dinner is all too often macaroni and cheese from a box. For women who do have a choice of whether to work full time, part time, or not at all, the endless variety of options doesn’t always make the decision any easier. Barshefsky and her husband worked out one ironclad rule that at least one of them would be home with the girls every night. In the Barshefsky-Cohen household, the absent parent was usually Barshefsky. But not always; she served as a homeroom parent and took her turn in the car pool as much as she could. Was that the right decision for her? And does she have any regrets about her eight years in the Clinton administration, when she probably spent more time in Asia than in her Northwest Washington home? Not regrets, more a feeling of wistfulness, she answers. The occasional school play missed, the substitution of “quality time” for “quantity time.” “Anyone in a high-level government job who has kids will tell you it’s hard,” she acknowledges. But even so, today Barshefsky smiles as she talks about the daughter whose ambition is to become an ambassador or secretary of state, and who presumably shares the same work-driven gene. With her own children mostly grown, Barshefsky quietly observes the seemingly unsolvable issue today’s young women face: how to succeed in a career without ruining everything else. “Younger women have a bit of an illusion that it shouldn’t be so hard to choose,” she says, “but it is.” She watches as many young women get hit with a dose of reality. All the law firm spiel about “work-life balance” and “flexible hours” can’t give them a simple solution when they want to spend more time with their kids and still rack up the billable hours. “I think that they think the balance has been effectuated,” Barshefsky says dryly. “There is no such thing as balance.” And what seems to surprise younger women is that somehow they’re still faced with a tough and very personal choice. BELL CURVE Perhaps part of the problem has to do with the types of young people who end up as associates at law firms. They’re high achievers who have always done well. “These kids are all used to being on the right side of the bell curve,” says Barshefsky. “They’ve gone to the best schools in the country, and now they’re somewhat mystified that they have to make these decisions that would put them on the left-hand side of the bell curve.” For those with this kind of mentality, a pared-down schedule or a move to a different career altogether feels like failure. Barshefsky herself has almost always opted to stay well along the right side of the curve. After Bill Clinton left office and she was weighing a number of job options, she says she “took off” 10 months. What that really means is that she lined up a six-month public policy fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and joined a few corporate boards. A little Est�e Lauder, a bit of American Express. Yet she was also knocking around the house enough that finally her daughters came to her and said: “We really think you need to settle on a permanent job. You’re making us all totally crazy.” Barshefsky laughs. She knows her daughters were right. And since she left government work and joined the international team at WilmerHale, she’s probably spent as much time on the road as ever, now helping companies in the private sector set up trade deals throughout Asia. The irony is, she had told friends she hoped to cut back. So what’s going on? “If I could figure out that answer, I’d be a shrink,” she says with another laugh. But then she grows serious. She developed a fascination with Asia while serving as USTR. “I find it interesting and energizing. And I looked at the question: Could I take my Asia learning to the next step?” It doesn’t take a shrink to recognize that it’s the thrill of the next challenge that propels her on. In fact, Charlene Barshefsky illustrates a perspective often missing in the trenches of the mommy wars: What happens when a woman realizes she has a clear talent for something�whether it’s negotiating with the Chinese or teaching Shakespearean drama to 12-year-olds�and decides she wants to run with it? She has to run with it. There’s a joy in this, the sense of a person following her passion. And balance is for gymnasts.
Balancing Act, a new column exploring the lives of women in the law, will appear in Legal Times each month. Debra Bruno can be contacted at [email protected].

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