Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Getting a Second Shot at a Legal Career
By Sheri Porath Rockwell
Sheri Porath Rockwell is a Senior Managing Associate at Sidley Austin LLP in the Privacy and Cybersecurity Practice Group and Chair of CLA’s Privacy Law Section.
On an early summer day about six years ago, I walked out of the elevator to the 40th floor of Sidley Austin’s stunning downtown L.A. offices like most new junior associates: New suit. New shoes. New haircut.
Yet, I wasn’t like most junior associates—or any junior associate I had met. I had already been a senior associate. I knew my way around a courtroom, had been to trial, arbitrated and mediated several cases, and argued numerous motions in courts up and down the state. But I had not practiced in a firm for over 15 years, most of which was spent as an at-home parent to my three kids. Thanks to the OnRamp Fellowship program and Sidley Austin’s willingness to be open to this new type of diversity, I was given a second shot at having a legal career.
II. AN EXPECTED AND THEN UNEXPECTED HIATUS
When I originally took leave to have my first child, I thought I would be back in six months and resume my work as a litigator and hopefully make partner in a year or two (it was easier then) at the Century City firm where I had worked for six years. I liked my job, liked being a lawyer and was excited to continue building my career.
But, soon after Jacob was born, life quickly moved to a new place. My husband’s startup was taking flight and he was working all the time and traveling a ton, and my mother was diagnosed with advanced cancer and needed my support. I made the difficult decision to temporarily pause my legal career to focus on the home and family fronts.
In what felt like a blink of an eye, the temporary pause effectively became permanent. Lots of life happened and the years zoomed by. I was blessed to have two more children; I continued to take care of aging parents, immersed myself in volunteer work, and eventually worked in a family affordable housing business for a few years. Managing a litigation matter for that business is what sparked my desire to be back in a firm. As I attended mediations, prepared to be deposed, and proofed motions and interrogatories drafted by outside counsel, I realized how much I really missed practicing law at a higher level.
III. "BETWEEN YOU AND ME, YOU'RE JUST TOO OLD"
When I made the decision to return, I understood that I would likely be starting over in many ways. I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was the push back I initially received and how difficult it would be to get back in the door.
My journey back began with a series of “informational interviews.” People were polite but doors were definitely closed. One contact, who ran a firm that specialized in affordable housing deals (work I had been doing at the time) put it to me bluntly as our otherwise lovely lunch concluded: “Between you and me, you are just too old.” He was concerned that I would not be able to keep up with the pace of work (even though we were the same age). Although I was younger than candidates for president, vice president, and many Supreme Court nominees, somehow, I was still too old. I heard the same refrain—although not quite as directly—again and again as people earnestly hoped to save me time by giving it to me straight.
IV. FINDING ONRAMP AND STARTING OVER AT SIDLEY
I had the good fortune to find the OnRamp program while browsing the internet one Sunday morning. The program, started by well-known legal recruiter and DiversityLab founder Caren Ulrich Stacy, was designed to help “returners” like me re-enter law firms or in-house legal departments. I was equally fortunate to eventually be matched with Sidley Austin. Sidley partner Jennifer Hagle was an early supporter of the OnRamp program and Sidley was one of four pilot firms adopting the program; before my return, the firm had already hired several OnRamp Fellows and developed a strong network and support system for them.
V. RETURNING TO PRACTICE — A FEW TIPS
Even with the support of OnRamp and Sidley, returning was a challenge at times. Here are a few things I learned along the way that may be helpful to those embarking on this journey:
a. Prepare to Work Differently
Once you’ve stepped out of practice for a few years, it’s easy to misremember the level of precision and focus required to do the job well. If you’ve been primarily raising children where multi-tasking is often an absolute necessity, this may come as a bit of a surprise and will require time to adjust. It helped to remind myself I was re-learning skills and give myself the space and time to do so.
b. Share Your Work Stories With Your Family
My kids were used to having me around and, when I wasn’t with them, I was often volunteering at their school or in our community or doing other work they could easily relate to. With the move to the law firm, that all changed and it seemed to add to the sense of distance they felt with me being gone so much more. I found it really helped when I began sharing with them specific details about my work life (all within the bounds of confidentiality, of course), from funny moments in court during a jury trial I second chaired to discovering my new secretary’s very serious obsession with the Dodgers.
c. Try to Let Go of Perfectionism at Home
Many lawyers who decide to “stay at home” take their Type A personalities along with them into managing a home, knowing every teacher, attending virtually all school and sports events (and likely organizing snacks), and coming home to cook a N.Y. Times app-inspired meal. Guilt about “leaving” your kids by going back to work makes it feel like you have to continue to do all of this and manage your new job. You can’t. And, it turns out, the kids will understand. They would rather have you present and won’t mind a few nights of take-out and missed Boy Scout meetings.
d. Leverage Your Life Experience
Unlike most everyone you will be working with, if you’ve taken time out of the legal world, you’ve likely worked with and gotten to know people who are not lawyers. That’s a bonus. It means you likely understand how the world really works, not how lawyers think it should work or how it works when you are surrounded by other highly-educated, generally risk-averse professionals. I found my experiences outside of law to be incredibly useful when interviewing witnesses, talking to clients and drafting reader-friendly client-facing documents.
e. Create and Nurture New Types of Friendships
You may have fond memories of the friendships you made with other associates as you together navigated single life, wedding planning and being pregnant for the first time. All of that still goes on, it’s just that you are probably done having kids and may not have attended a friend’s wedding in more than a decade. You may find that you have more in common with the more senior attorneys who, like you, may be sending kids off to college or emotionally recovering from the drive to school with their 15-year old who just received his learner’s permit. Don’t be intimidated about reaching out to grab coffee or lunch with these higher-ups even though they might be your supervisors. At the same time, outside of the office, your old friendships will necessarily look different because you just won’t have the same time or flexibility. Be prepared for that change and make an effort to schedule weekend time to connect.
I have no doubt that more women (and probably men) are going to be moving in and out of the legal workplace in the years to come, including those who had to stop working to care for and school children during the pandemic. It is heartening to see more firms welcoming back returners and seeing the unique value that we can bring. Those of us returning will do well to continue to share our stories about our challenges and growth.