When the lifestyle of BigLaw didn’t fit her new life as a mother, Wendy Heilbut left behind a demanding career for what she thought would be bigger, brighter pastures. But after two short-lived stints in the startup space and non-profit world, Wendy found herself settling in to being a full-time stay-at-home mom. After several years at home with the kids, her inner Type-A was bursting at the seams. But what came next, and how? Here’s Wendy’s story of getting her career groove back, in her own words.
Guest post for The Upside by Wendy Heilbut
When it comes to our careers and our value, especially as working mothers, the biggest naysayers are usually ourselves. Society tells us that “mom-ing” is somehow less-than working and “taking time off” makes someone irrelevant.
However, in actuality, I’m seeing exactly the opposite to be true, and my personal story is proof that there are many unique and unexpected paths to career success during and post-motherhood.
Looking back on the very beginning of my career in BigLaw (loosely defined as the top 100 or so large international law firms), I knew almost from the start that it wasn’t for me. Yet I stuck it out for over five years.
Maybe I stayed for the prestige, or the training I thought I needed in order to feel valuable, or the resume building to ensure I had pedigree, or maybe it was the proverbial “golden-handcuffs” that so many of us lawyers and bankers are constantly at odds with.
Then there’s this sneaky roadblock that so many of us are too busy to even recognize: the fact that we work so many hours/days/holidays/summers that we simply don’t have the time or headspace to leave.
Leaving takes thought. It takes time. It takes strategy. And who has the energy for that?
Oddly enough, the long days weren’t even the worst part of my law career. Worse than those endless billable hours was knowing that no time is ever really your own.
Your treasured vacations can be cancelled.
Your elderly grandmother’s birthday celebration can be missed.
Your Thanksgiving dinner can be eaten in ten minutes so you can rush back to the computer to flip documents for a big client (this was me in 2006 except my grandma’s house didn’t have WiFi so I actually had to go sit alone in my dad’s empty company offices on Thanksgiving day).
When I was pregnant with my first child, the timing finally felt right to leave BigLaw. It was time to breathe, to refocus, to rediscover work as I knew it.
First stop: Working for a friend’s mom-centric start-up (GroupOn for moms). It lasted less than two years.
Second stop: I started and ran a non-profit for moms to help volunteer and give-back with their kids in my neighborhood. After all my fellow board-members and I birthed our second children, the non-profit also went belly-up.
Third stop: I put all my focus on my family as a stay-at-home mom and ran every event, fundraiser and committee at my kids’ preschool. I took a hard look at myself: staring back at me was a type-A go-getter trying to make a career out of motherhood. Clearly, something still wasn’t right.
Finally, when my oldest started kindergarten, I realized that being a stay-at-home mom wasn’t going to work for me any longer. Like so many of us in similar circumstances, debating similar choices, feeling similar emotions, the question then became: what now?
At this point, I had been out of work for half a decade and I was no longer willing to have a career that meant missing everything important. Yet, law was what I was qualified to do.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on the self-bullying thoughts of “Who’s going to hire you after taking several years off? What company wants a former-lawyer-turned-mom? Who would dare give you a chance?”
I admit that I had done a terrible job of maintaining my network over the years. But what I lacked in upkeep I made up for in dedicated hustle, reaching out to everyone I could think of, day after day, week after week. After (several) dozen coffees, calls, emails and meetings, my humble persistence finally paid off.
In 2016, after what most would say were way too many years off, I found myself about to open the New York office of a boutique law firm that had launched in Chicago about six-years prior.
Vivek Jayaram (hence, Jayaram Law where I now work) had worked at another BigLaw firm at the same time as me and we had friends in common. He knew me well enough to take a chance, starting me out as a consultant to test the waters and see what I was made of.
That first day at a desk with my laptop felt so good. Vivek gave me a few projects and, to my delight, brought me to a client meeting within the first couple of months. I didn’t know that being a lawyer could feel so entrepreneurial, flexible and rewarding.
That first year was as much about me gaining my confidence back as it was about practicing law. And frankly it was also as much about getting my home in order – literally! We needed help, and it took several months to figure out the right balance of childcare, school and home maintenance that worked for our family.
But by year two, I started to get my groove. I joined networking groups, I began to build a small coterie of female founders to represent and I landed a few large corporate clients. At the very end of year two, Vivek asked me to become a partner in the firm. I immediately jumped, both feet in.
Today, I am more focused and have a level of maturity and purpose I never had in any other stage of my career. Even better, I don’t regret any of the decisions I made along the way.
In fact, there are pieces of me that developed during my time off that make me a better advocate for my clients and more capable of understanding and representing them. I wish more companies would recognize and reward this strength in their working mother employees. As a society, we need to greatly improve on that.
If you are considering time away from your professional work or are considering re-joining the professional world after time away, know that the transition is not always pretty.
There will be self-doubt (lots of it);
There will be shifts at home (inevitable);
There will be major changes in your ability to organize the kids’ artwork and cook the meals and do all the mom-ing that you feel your family deserves (and that they are accustomed to).
But there will also be a positive shift in you that is immeasurable. And for that, the journey is well worth it.
I feel so differently about myself now. There’s obviously the confidence of having a paycheck every month with my name on it and being able to tell my kids I also work and contribute. But it goes much deeper. Quite simply, I feel like myself.
And if you’re on the other side, wondering if you can come back after a bit of time off, I wholeheartedly encourage you to take the leap of faith. I promise that you will find supporters in unexpected places--including me!--cheering you on from their soapboxes and championing your success.
Wendy Brasunas Heilbut is a partner at Jayaram Law where she advises clients on how to protect what is most important. From intellectual property to corporate structure, she helps her clients identify their goals and execute them in the simplest way possible. When not practicing law, Wendy is gardening, cooking or getting outside, usually with her family.