The first time Mae Tai O'Malley was disrupted, she was 27 years old. Until then it had been one win after another: She'd sprinted through high school in San Francisco with straight A's, followed by Stanford and Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. She'd joined a prestigious firm, then left it for a dotcom that went public, tripling in value, three days after she arrived. Then the bubble burst.
In the fall of 2000, O'Malley stood in front of her company's head of human resources, begging not to be fired. "I refuse to be laid off!" she shouted. "I need to resign." His reply: "It doesn't matter to me." Besides, there was still plenty of work, and he hoped she'd do it as a contract employee. O'Malley went home, had a long cry, and soon realized that he was handing her an opportunity, one that would help her create a new approach to legal work.
Always the success story, O'Malley had to shed a sense of failure to discover that she liked her new role as lawyer-for-hire. "As soon as I had my first child [she now has three boys, ages 8, 7, and 5], it all clicked." Suddenly she was one of the few female lawyers she knew with a good work/family balance. She didn't have to worry about office gossip or politics, and she soon started getting business from companies like Google.
O'Malley loved Google, where she worked on the acquisition of its "street views" technology. At the same time, she slowly grew her practice by taking on other lawyers seeking project-based work. In 2007, Google offered her a full-time position. It was the kind of job she would have ached for earlier in her career; now, she realized, she had more to gain with her own firm than she did with the world's hottest company. "Do I take a bet on Google stock, or do I take a bet on my own stock? I just said, 'Eff it, I've got to give this thing a chance.'"
O'Malley's next move was to reinvent her job -- and her industry. She focused on two trends: first, the need to keep headcount down; second, the large number of top-flight female lawyers who were quitting because they couldn't balance work and family life. Though the percentage of women in law school has hovered close to 50% since the mid-1980s, only 15% of equity partners in firms are women. So O'Malley refocused her company, Paragon Legal, on placing former in-house counsels -- usually women -- inside companies on a project basis. "In reinventing myself," O'Malley, now 38, says, "I am also reinventing a very broken industry."
Today Paragon has more than 60 lawyers, 85% of whom are women with school-age kids. Yes, they have given up partnership and stock options. But they're still billing at close to $200 an hour, getting health insurance, and working for the likes of LinkedIn, Yahoo, and Salesforce.com. Billings will hit $8 million this year.
"When someone asks what I do," she says, "I say I started Paragon because I wanted to spend time with my kids. The conversation ends in tears, because their kid is at daycare. I tell people to have a goal for how they're going to change their life; be creative, because the business world does not prioritize building strong families."
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