This was it. Surely it must be.
The instant Libby Morgan heard her paralegal tell her “Hershel would like to see you in his office,” she knew. Oh, there’d been rumblings around the office about layoffs and early retirements. Such gossip simply verified what she felt in her heart Hershel was sure to tell her. She’d waited for this moment for six very long years.
Libby had always wondered how she’d feel when she finally got the news. She longed to hold on to this sense of happy expectation for as long as possible. In retrospect, she must have intuitively known something was up because she’d worn her best pin-striped suit today, choosing the pencil skirt over her normal tailored slacks. And thankfully she’d had a salon appointment just the day before. Getting her hair cut was long overdue, but seeing how good it looked now, she felt it was worth every penny of the hundred dollars Jacques had charged her. A good cut did wonders for her appearance. She wore her dark brown hair parted in the middle in an inverted bob so that it framed her face, curling around her jawline. Jacques had mentioned more than once how fortunate she was to have such thick hair. She hadn’t felt that way when he’d insisted she have her eyebrows plucked. But he’d been right; she looked good. Polished. Professional. She promised herself not to go so long between appointments again.
Libby didn’t see herself as any great beauty. She was far too realistic and sensible, was well aware of her physical shortcomings. At best she was pretty, or at least Joe, her ex-husband, had told her she was. She knew she was probably no better than average. Average height, average weight; brown hair, brown eyes, with no outstanding features, but on the inside she was a dynamo. Dedicated, hardworking, goal-oriented. Perfect partner material.
Reaching for her yellow legal pad, Libby headed toward the managing partner’s opulent office. Outwardly she remained calm and composed, but inwardly her heart raced and her head spun.
Finally. Finally, she was about to be rewarded for the hard choices and sacrifices she’d made.
Libby was in her sixth year of an eight-year partnership track. Hopefully she was about to achieve the goal that she had set her heart on the minute she’d been accepted as an associate in the Trusts and Estates Department at Burkhart, Smith & Crandall, a high-end Seattle-based law firm. She was about to be made partner even earlier than anticipated.
While she didn’t want to appear overly confident, it went without saying that no one deserved it more than she did. Libby had worked harder, longer, and more effectively than any other attorney employed by the firm. Her legal expertise on the complex estate-planning project for Martha Reed hadn’t gone unnoticed either. Libby had provided a large number of billable hours and the older woman had taken a liking to her. Over the past month two partners had stopped by her office to compliment her work.
Libby could almost feel her mother looking down on her from heaven, smiling and proud. Molly Jo Morgan had died of breast cancer when Libby was thirteen. Before dying, Libby’s mother had taken her daughter’s hand and told her to work hard, and to never be afraid to go after her goals. She’d advised Libby to dream big and warned her there would be hard choices and sacrifices along the way.
That last summer her mother was alive had set Libby’s life course for her. Although her mother wouldn’t be around to see her achievements, Libby longed to make her mother proud. Today was sure to be one of those Hey, Mom, look at me moments.
Early on in high school Libby had set her sights on becoming an attorney. She was the president of the Debate Club and was well known for her way of taking either side of an issue and making a good argument. Reaching her goal hadn’t been easy. Academic scholarships helped, but there were still plenty of expenses along the way. Funds were always tight. In order to support herself through college she’d worked as a waitress and made some good friends. Later on in law school she’d found employment as a paralegal in the Seattle area.
Her career path had taken a short detour when she married Joe Wilson. Joe worked as a short-order cook. They’d met at the diner where she waited tables while in college. When she moved from Spokane he willingly followed her to the Seattle area and quickly found another job, cooking in a diner. He was the nicest guy in the world, but their marriage was doomed from the beginning. Joe was content to stay exactly where he was for the rest of his life while Libby was filled with ambition to be so much more. The crux came when he wanted her to take time out of her career so they could start a family. Joe wanted children and so did Libby, but she couldn’t risk being shunted off to the “Mommy Track” at the firm. She’d asked him to be patient for a couple more years. Really, that wasn’t so long. Once she was established at the firm it wouldn’t matter so much. But Joe was impatient. He feared that once those two years were up she’d want another year and then another. Nothing she said would convince him otherwise.
Hershel glanced up when she entered his office. He wasn’t smiling, but that wasn’t unusual.
“Sit down, Libby,” he said, gesturing toward the chair on the other side of his desk.
One day her office would look like this, Libby mused, with old- world charm, comfortable leather chairs, polished wood bookcases, and a freestanding globe. Pictures of Hershel’s wife and children stared back at her from the credenza behind his desk. The one of him sailing never failed to stir her. Hershel had his face to the camera, his hair wind-tossed as the sailboat sliced through the Pacific Ocean on a crystal-clear day, with a sky as blue as Caribbean waters. The sailboat keeled over so close to the water’s edge she wanted to hold her breath for fear the vessel would completely overturn.
The photograph inspired Libby because it proved to her that one day, as partner, she, too, would have time to vacation and enjoy life away from the office. But in order to do that her work, her commitment to the law firm and her clients, had to be her sole focus.
Libby sat in the chair Hershel indicated and relaxed, crossing her legs. She knew the managing partner’s agenda. What she hadn’t expected was the deeply etched look of concern on his face. Oh, it would be just like Hershel to lead into this announcement circuitously.
“I’ve taken a personal interest in you from the day the firm decided to hire you,” he said, setting his pen down on his desk. He took a moment to be certain it was perfectly straight.
“I know and I’m grateful.” Libby rested her back against the comfortable padding. “It’s been a wonderful six years. I’ve worked hard and feel that I’m an asset to the firm.”
“You have done an excellent job.”
Libby resisted the impulse to remind him of all the billable hours she’d piled up on a number of accounts.
“You’re a hard worker and an excellent attorney.”
Libby took a moment to savor his words. Hershel wasn’t known to hand out praise freely. “Thank you.” She sat up straighter now, anticipating what would come next. First he would smile, and then he would announce that after discussing the matter with the other partners they would like to . . .
Her projection was interrupted when Hershel went on to say, “I’m sure you’re aware that the last six months have been a challenge for the firm.” He met her gaze head-on, and in his eyes she read regret and concern as his thick brows came together. “We’ve experienced a significant decline in profitability due to the recession.”
A tingling sensation started at the base of Libby’s neck. This conversation wasn’t taking the route she’d anticipated.
“I’ve certainly carried my load,” she felt obliged to remind him. More than any other attorney on staff, especially Ben Holmes, she thought but didn’t say. At six o’clock, like a precision timepiece, Ben was out the door.
Hershel picked up the same pen he’d so carefully positioned only a few moments before and held it between his palms. “You’ve carried a substantial load, which is one reason why this decision has been especially difficult.”
“Decision?” she repeated as a sense of dread quickly overtook any elation she’d experienced earlier.
“The problem is your lack of ‘making rain,’ ” he said. “You haven’t brought any major clients into the firm.”
Meeting potential clients was next to impossible with the hours she worked. Libby had tried attending social functions but she wasn’t good at “power schmoozing” the way others were. She felt awkward inserting herself into conversations or initiating them herself. With little to talk about besides work, she often felt inept and awkward. She hadn’t always been this shy, this hesitant.
“Hershel,” she said, voicing her suspicion, her greatest fear, “what are you trying to say? You aren’t laying me off, are you?” She finished with a short disbelieving laugh.
The senior partner exhaled slowly and then nodded. “I can’t tell you how much I regret having to do this. You aren’t the only one. We’re letting five go in all. As you can imagine this hasn’t been an easy decision.”
Libby’s first concern was for her paralegal. “Sarah?”
“She’s fine. She’ll be reassigned.”
Libby’s heart slowed to a dull thud.
“We’re offering you a generous severance package.” Hershel outlined the details but Libby sat frozen, stunned, unable to believe this was actually happening. People she worked with, people she knew, were losing their jobs. She was losing her job. Why hadn’t she sensed that? She didn’t like to think she was so out of touch with reality that she hadn’t picked up on it.
“I’d also like to offer you a bit of advice, Libby, if I may?”
The shock had yet to dissipate, and because her throat had gone dry she didn’t respond. All she could manage was to stare at him aghast, disbelieving, shaken to the very core of her being.
“I don’t want you to think of this as the end. This is a new beginning for you. One of the reasons I’ve taken a personal interest in you is because you’re very much the way I was years ago. I felt the need to prove myself, too. I set my sights on making partner to the exclusion of everything else, the same way I’ve seen you do. I completely missed my children’s childhoods. By the time they were in high school they were strangers to me. Thankfully, I’ve been able to make up for lost time. The point is I sacrificed far too much, and I see you making the same mistakes I did.”
Libby tried to focus but couldn’t get past the fact that she was suddenly unemployed. She blinked a couple of times in an effort to absorb what was happening. It didn’t help. The sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach intensified.
“I hope,” Hershel continued, “that you will take this time to find some balance in life. Starting now.”
“Pardon?” she asked, looking up and blinking. Some of the numbness had begun to wear off. All Libby could think about was the fact that she had given her life, her marriage, her everything to this firm, and they were about to shove her out the door.
“I want you to enjoy life,” Hershel repeated. “A real life, with friends and interests outside of the office. There’s a whole world out there ready for you to explore.”
Libby continued to stare at him. Didn’t Hershel understand? She had a life, and that life was right here in this office. She was passionate about her work and now it was being ripped away from her.
“Who will take over working with Martha Reed?” she asked. Surely this was all a big mistake. Martha Reed was one of their most important clients and she enjoyed working with Libby.