From Stay-at-Home Mom to Lawyer – After 21 Years

Working MothersIt’s no secret: women attorneys leave the legal industry at a much higher rate than men do. Despite making up nearly half of law school classes, as of 2014, women comprise only 34 percent of the attorney population. Reasons for that differential abound but the primary one remains the clash between full-time professional work and full-time family work. According to Pew Research, working mothers spend an additional 26 hours per week on childcare and housework. For the average American working mother, that works out to a 66 hour work week. For the average American lawyer mother, that number can be much, much higher.

Two years ago, in her departure memo, a Clifford Chance associate laid out in exhausting detail what it was like to work full-time while taking care of a toddler and newborn. Tired of waking up daily at 4:00am and falling asleep at 1:30am, she described her final decision: “I have not been able to simultaneously meet the demands of career and family, so have chosen to leave private practice, and the practice of law (at least for now).”

“At least for now,” she predicted. But what happens when “at least for now” becomes 5 years, then 10 years, then 20 years? For one Chicago attorney, that’s exactly what happened.

As someone who graduated from law school in 1984, one might expect Pamela Zdunek to be a partner or general counsel by now. Instead, she sits in her high-rise office at Sidley Austin proud to be admit that, for all intents and purposes, she is a junior associate.

Pam started her career in Chicago with McDermott, Will & Emery in their Corporate and Securities Department. She worked there for three years but after marrying an attorney in her department, transitioned to a smaller boutique firm. “It was a different era back then. There was no anti-nepotism policy but it wasn’t looked kindly upon by certain partners.”

It was while she was at the boutique firm that she had her first child. The boutique firm’s hours were better, however it was still difficult being an associate and a new mother. “I had one experience,” she recalls, “where my son was under a year old and I was working on a deal and I didn’t get to see him all week.” Even with the reduced hours her firm offered her, she often still ended up at the office until midnight. Once she had her second child, she realized she needed something different. She transitioned to an in-house position eight minutes from her house. Regular hours certainly made raising her children easier, but still not sustainable. “I felt like I wasn’t doing the job I wanted to either at work or at home … I remember one time getting home from work and it was two hours before I could even take my coat and boots off – nursing a baby, making dinner, taking dogs out, changing a diaper, it was nuts.”

She worked up until her third child was born. After that she left the law and became a full-time stay-at-home mom.

Looking back, Pam admits that leaving her job seemed like a relief. “I knew that I wouldn’t be juggling [my home and work lives] and sleeping three hours a night and doing all this crazy stuff anymore.” That said, “I never thought it would turn into the 20 year break it turned out to be.”

After the youngest of her four children began school, Pam decided it was time to return to the workplace. She planned to enroll in school – possibly to get am LLM or possibly to switch career paths altogether. But life intervened again. Her husband took a job in Florida for three years, followed shortly after his return by their divorce. Then her mother fell ill. Finally, when Pam felt she could re-enter the workforce, the Recession hit. “I remember I met with a career counsellor and it was so depressing. She basically said, ‘I’ve got Harvard Law grads who can’t even get jobs as paralegals.’”

Pam spent the next several years meeting with career counselors, sending her resume around, and networking as much as she could while being the full-time parent to four children. As the legal market continued to contract, it seemed that nothing would work. Until she met a woman who mentioned to her, in passing, a program called OnRamp.  “She said, ‘I heard about this and I think it might be right up your alley.”

In January 2014, law firm professional development and diversity consultant Caren Ulrich Stacy launched a one-year law firm fellowship designed to help the large number of women lawyers seeking to return to practice. It was a successful idea that investment firms and consulting companies had used, but one that had never found traction in the legal market. Caren Stacey worked with several AmLaw100 firms, including Sidley Austin, to create what became known as the OnRamp Fellowship.

Pam started researching and reading about OnRamp. Her first thought was, “This is perfect.” Her second? “I don’t think they’re thinking about someone as old as me!” Still, she decided to start the long and difficult process. She had to submit her resume, complete a multi-page questionnaire, take a series of online assessments, then participate in a one-hour behavioral interview with Caren Stacey, all followed by interviews with the law firm. She still remembers the odds. “For the pilot group, 170 women applied. There were 30 of us … who got presented to the firms, about 20 who interviewed and 9 who got jobs. I’m the only one in Chicago.”

That’s how this past summer, Pamela Zdunek, SMU Law Class of 1984, with ten years of law firm and in-house experience, joined Sidley Austin as a brand new junior associate. Pam says the transition has been “a lot easier” than she expected it to be. Except for one thing. “The technology has been a nightmare.” She tells a story about her first afternoon back on the job: “I was in someone’s office to help out on a deal that was to close in a couple weeks. And she said I should find a precedent. I didn’t know where the file room was so I asked, “Where do I get that?” And she goes, ‘Oh, you go on iManage.” And I ask, “What’s iManage?” She said, “Well, Desksite.” “And I asked, “What’s Desksite?”

She does admit that the technology has significant advantages, particularly making the ever-elusive work-life balance easier to achieve. Moreover as more women have worked at law firms over the past two decades, law firms have begun to accommodate them in ways they didn’t, and couldn’t, when she started practicing: “When I started at McDermott, there were no female partners doing corporate; I believe there was only one in the entire firm. There weren’t a whole lot of female associates. Here, there are a large number of female partners and associates, in this department in particular. They offer reduced hours which most of the women here with children are doing. They’re still working what at any other job, is a full-time job, but they’re  not always staying till midnight. It just makes it doable for them so they don’t have to step away to the extent that women had to when there weren’t that many accommodations for working moms in the legal profession.”

As for other women making the difficult decision whether to stay or go, Pam has one piece of advice for them: lean in. “When Cheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In came out, I realized that what I always did was ‘lean out.’ I would think to myself, “Ah well, I’m getting married, and they’re not really happy that we’re going to be working together, and a couple years down the road, I’ll probably have kids, so I’ll just move to a smaller firm. And looking back, I wish I had stayed, gotten more experience and then seen how things played out. I felt like I leaned out more than I leaned in. So to the extent you like what you’re doing, stay with it and try to make it work.” Finally, for women like her looking to re-enter, she smiled and said: “Keep moving forward, even if you don’t know where you’re heading, no matter how difficult or awkward it is. Everything good that happened in the past few years was because I pushed out of my comfort zone. And it worked.”

This post was previously published in the March issue of the Chicago Lawyer magazine in Michelle’s “Professionalism on Point” column. 

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

2 thoughts on “From Stay-at-Home Mom to Lawyer – After 21 Years

  1. What a great article! I graduated law school in 1990 and took 14 years off to raise 4 beautiful children. I do not regret the time off at all, and am fortunate to be a woman who had the choice. I met your colleague Kathy Erwin when I was just getting back into the workforce. Ms. Zdunek is right! When you are ready to get back in, go full throttle! We have a lot to offer and there are great people like Kathy who are there to mentor you.

  2. Carol – Thank you for those kind words. Kathy is a mentor to so many and I’m lucky to have her mentor me as a colleague as well! As a new mother myself, I’m happy to see the new ways for women to return to the workforce and that companies are (slowly) trying to assist that return. One of the things I didn’t mention in the article was Pam’s mention of Caren Stacey’s hope that programs like hers will one day no longer be needed because companies will have learned to do it on their own. Here’s to that future!

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