Wendy Heilbut was working as an intellectual property lawyer at a large New York firm, then in the start-up space before deciding to take time off as the mama of young children. Her passion for her career never left, and after a few years she began working as a lawyer again. Wendy spoke with us about how to navigate the return to work after taking time to focus solely on being mom.
Tell us about your professional background, pre-mama life.
After I graduated from Indiana University, with a major in Comparative Literature and Fine Arts, I moved to San Francisco with one duffel bag (which the airline lost) to seek my fortune! I worked as an executive recruiter in the post-internet-bubble city. My colleagues would tell me stories of inflated salaries, celebration parties and the applicants’ market that served them so well. In 2000 it was a different story. I quickly decided I wanted to head back to school to become a lawyer. I moved to Washington, DC in a U-haul and attended law school there until 2005. I’d fallen in love with intellectual property during law school (I know that sounds funny, but it’s true) and I took a job with a big New York firm to practice in that area. My work was all-consuming, and I knew it wasn’t sustainable after having kids. I left the big firm in 2009, about a year before my son was born, so that I could have a bit more space in my life and joined a mom-centric start-up: Gaggle of Chicks. (FYI, it was a GroupOn for moms; it went belly up two years later.)
What changes did you make in your career after becoming a mama?
For the first handful of years I really focused on my family. The vast majority of my work was inside the home. Outside the home, I started and ran a small non-profit (MamaLove: bringing moms together to support one another), volunteered at my kids’ school and took care of the family. As my son entered kindergarten I decided I really wanted to practice law again…but who would hire me!? I was able to reconnect with a former colleague who had started his own firm in Chicago. After a few conversations, I came on board to open the New York office of Jayaram Law. As a founder and a partner, I can dictate my own hours more than I was able to in my previous position as a lawyer. I wouldn’t say work comes first or my kids come first; I try to always focus on who needs me at that moment.
What were the deciding factors in your choice to stop working?
There were so many. The two biggest were my desire to be with my son and my fear of an all-consuming job. Every mama has a different experience in those early days. I loved just about everything about the infant months and relished the ability to stay home. Additionally, my frame of reference was misguided — I hadn’t experienced a job that let me leave at the same time every day or take weekends off, so I didn’t have the confidence that I could be a present mama and a lawyer.
When did you start getting the itch to go back to working as a lawyer?
As my eldest son headed to kindergarten, I started to see what the next chapter would look like if I continued to stay home. I saw the mamas who had made that choice and I realized that it wasn’t for me. I wanted something that was my own. My daughter was two at the time and I wanted to show her my success as well. I think the kicker was when my son, who was four at the time, overheard me tell someone I was a lawyer but not currently practicing, and he asked me, “Mom, what does being a lawyer mean? Does it mean you stay at home?”
How did you make the jump from wanting to go back to work to landing the right role?
It was that age-old phrase of ‘luck meeting preparation.’ I’d been thinking about it for months and, if I may, I believe I manifested it. My legal network had shrunk over the year, but I reached out to everyone I could think of. In my conversations with Vivek Jayaram (the founder of Jayaram Law), I was really able to be clear about what I wanted and the balance I needed.
What did you find most challenging about returning to the legal profession?
My own self-doubt. It took a good year to believe that anyone actually wanted my legal advice.
What was your first big win after starting your new role?
I remember getting a client’s trademark through registration by drafting a killer brief. I spent so long on it. When it won and we overcame the opposition, Vivek said to me, “You’re back!”
What did your path to making partner look like?
My first year back was as much about my own confidence, family management (getting the right childcare, engaging my husband in more of the family admin, learning to let things go more) and integration, as it was about my legal work. The second year was when my legal practice really started to take off. I brought in a few big clients and a number of smaller matters — I hustled hard and the founder saw that. At the end of 2018 when he asked me if I wanted to become a partner it was obviously exciting, but it was also something I felt I’d really earned.
We talk a lot about finding balance here. In a field like law where you’re beholden to clients, how do you manage the juggle?
It’s a work in progress! I try to see it as life integration, but also with dedicated times for everyone. I’m the first one up in the morning and I meditate for about fifteen minutes each day, get dressed, and then the rest of the morning is for my kids until they leave for school. The evenings (when I’m not at a professional event) are for them as well. I try to be attentive to my clients, but I also practice some ‘client management’ and try not to set them up to expect a reply immediately. I do aim to reply within 24 hours, and that usually provides me enough bandwidth to still give the other aspects of my life some focus. I think my husband is the one suffering right now, so I’m trying to find a few nights to not work after the kids go to bed in order to spend more time with him.
How could mamas in professional fields like law be better supported?
I think we are so hard on ourselves to not miss a field-trip or a class presentation or a bedtime. I am there when I can be, but I do believe that my kids are more resilient now that I’m working. I am also asking for help more — maybe it’s an admin or my husband, maybe it’s even my kids. My daughter and I cook together on Sundays. We’re getting time together, I’m getting to enjoy a creative outlet, and we’re getting cooking done on a Sunday — win!
3 pearls of wisdom
If you like cooking, batch cook on Sunday for the week. Nothing makes you feel like a success more than a home cooked meal in 5 minutes on a Wednesday!
Celebrate yourself whenever you can; you ARE a superwoman. Every time we pause to reflect on our own successes, even just in our own mind, we are moving the needle for all women. I firmly believe that.
Be patient with yourself. As a professional mama, you are doing SO MUCH. Just that alone is enough — add all the rest we put on ourselves, and it is going to take time. Play the long-game.