Profile with Mary Murphy
Mary Murphy (New York & St Catherine’s 1981) is the Partner-in-Charge of the San Francisco office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. She holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School, a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from the University of Oxford, and a B.A. in American Studies from Yale University.
Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do in San Francisco?
Mary Murphy: I guess I’d say walk around the city. It’s a very beautiful city, and the thing I like the best is just being outdoors and enjoying the waterfront down by Crissy Field. I often walk through the Presidio and down to Crissy Field, which is the national park near my house. That’s probably my favorite thing to do—to be outdoors in the Bay Area.
Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?
Mary Murphy: I was a nurse’s aide in a nursing home out on Long Island, where I cared for geriatric patients.
Rhodes Project: What piece of technology could you not live without?
Mary Murphy: Probably my smart phone or my computer.
Rhodes Project: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you have been?
Mary Murphy: An English professor.
Rhodes Project: Were you an English major in college?
Mary Murphy: No, curiously not. I started off on the wrong foot for being an English professor! I was an American Studies major. I went to Yale as an undergraduate, which was a fantastic place for English, but I liked American Studies because it was a little bit more free form and I was very interested in Religious Studies and History as well, so I was able to take a variety of courses in those three areas and combine them. Anyway, it worked out well for me!
Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?
Mary Murphy: I think the best part of my job is seeing positive change in the community in which I live. I do a lot of development projects; an example is the Ferry Building project that I worked on, which is really one of the mainstays in San Francisco in terms of the life of the city. Everybody goes there—people who live here, tourists, etc. It’s a national historical landmark, and working on the rehabilitation of that project is an example of what I do that really makes me feel positively about what I do for a living. The projects I work on, I do think, create community and places and make the city or the area better. That’s probably the thing I get the most satisfaction out of in my job.
Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part?
Mary Murphy: It’s a very contentious area. People feel very strongly about change. They don’t like change generally, and I’m always the agent of change. And even though the change is for the better, people just fear it. In this particular part of the world, people feel very invested in the community, which is good, but they also feel very empowered to fight for the status quo. And that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. But what I think is hard is that people personalize things often, and it’s not always the most pleasant situation as a consequence of that. People just don’t have the ability to keep a distance—not everybody, but there are people who are just overwrought, and it can make it difficult.
Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman just starting her legal career?
Mary Murphy: My perspective is strongly influenced by being a working mother. And although I meet a lot of women who don’t want to have kids and I don’t mean to specifically focus on the challenges of being a mom and being a lawyer exclusively, I do think that I would urge young women, especially if having a family is on their agenda, to try to take the long view. To understand that when their children are young, they’ll be under a lot of time pressures that will eventually start to improve as their kids get older. Your kids aren’t always very little, and you should take the long view of your career and your relationship to work and your family, and try to cut yourself a little slack. Try to maintain a measure of flexibility and open-mindedness, and not give up. I sound a little bit like the Sheryl Sandberg commentary, but I think she actually makes a very good point that even though things are much better today than they’ve ever been—in terms of affording people flexibility and options and the ability to work from home and remotely—there are still a lot of structural impediments to long term success. One of the things you need to do is not contribute to that by giving up too early. You have to try to hang in there and know that things change over time, and things get better. So I’d say: try to stay engaged and not give up hope of being able to have a meaningful career and the other things that you want to have in your life, like a family.
Rhodes Project: Is there anything that consistently frustrates you in life?
Mary Murphy: The one thing that I find frustrating, both on an individual and a societal level, is an unwillingness to engage in debate. I think you see this in the breakdown in our political processes. I see it in the job that I do: the unwillingness to engage honestly and not devolve into hyperbole and vitriol. I think that that’s one of the major problems we have in the United States today in terms of the breakdown in political goodwill. It’s just not a good thing for society. I know it’s not necessarily a new thing, but it strikes me that it’s getting worse. And I find very frustrating the level of bias that people bring to a whole host of things. And that’s not to say that there aren’t people who are honest brokers of issues, but I just feel like the airways are dominated by the extremists on all sides of issues. And I think the press contributes to that. It’s easy to go to the person who is going to give you the extreme quotation, even though what they say may be completely idiotic. There’s a certain perseverance and effort that attends truth-seeking that most people are not prepared to invest.
Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?
Mary Murphy: I like to spend time with my family—with my husband and my kids. One of the things I do is I walk to work and back, and I find that to be incredibly helpful in decompressing at the end of my workday. For a while I was bicycling, and I found that to be the absolute inverse! It just escalated my stress level because bicycling is so harrowing. People practically hit you because they’re texting while they’re driving, and it’s really quite disturbing. So one thing I do to relax generally is just get exercise, and I specifically walk home from work as a way of shedding my day. But I also really like having down time. I like having quiet time to read and spend time with my family and really have nothing on my agenda. My ideal world is to be in a city that you like, either in your own home or someplace else, and to have no agenda—to just be able to go to a museum or go out to lunch, or sit around in your house and read. And I try as best I can, because I’m so busy at work, to really manage my time so I’m not overscheduled outside of work. I’m so overscheduled at work that I really try to strip down social engagements and things like that too. I really limit myself, because I need the time to reinvest in my psyche.
Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in your life?
Mary Murphy: That’s really easy. I bet that’s easy for everyone. It’s my family! My family, and the people I love. That’s what brings you joy in life. My kids, my husband, my siblings, I have a big extended family. I think most people would say that. And I feel very fortunate. I’m a person who not only has a fantastic family—great kids, great husband, great step-kids, fantastic brothers and sisters and cousins—but I’m really a fortunate person because I have incredible friends. There are friends of mine who are Rhodes Scholars who are still amongst my very closest friends after all these years. And that gives your life a lot of meaning. That’s what life is about, right? At the end of the day, everything else is sort of transient. The love in your life is the thing that sustains you.
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