Life Audit

Preparing for Re-entry

Lawyer who traded practicing for full-time parenting looks to polish a return strategy

Posted Jul 1, 2007 7:07 PM CDT
By Jill Schachner Chanen

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Photograph by Susan Werner

Tammy Von Buck is in a position some people would envy. Four years ago, she was able to leave the practice of law to focus full time on motherhood.

But Von Buck’s decision doesn’t mean she’s abandoning her J.D.—in fact, she has every intention of returning to the legal world and even has a time­table for that return. Her only question is how to plot that comeback.

It’s been about four years since Von Buck’s first child was born; she now has a second child and sees another two- to three-year window before she can go back to work. All told, it will be an absence of seven years—a period of time she worries will make her unmarketable.

“I don’t want to wake up ready to start working again with no ability to do so since I have been out of work so long,” she says. “I need to do something to stay in touch with the legal profession.”

In addition to taking whatever steps are necessary to remain a viable job candidate, Von Buck wants to use this time to figure out what type of law she wants to practice when she is ready to go back to work.

Von Buck spent seven years as a consultant in the highly specialized field of special education, helping to implement and administer a consent decree with the Los Angeles Unified School District. Though she loved the job, Von Buck says she’s yearning for something different, perhaps even a more traditional legal job. The question for her, however, is what that job is.

So far, she’s gotten a taste of the practice of zoning and land-use law as she and her husband wrangled for four years with a local municipality over a conditional use permit for a house they are hoping to build.

She’s also learned a bit about corporate law and regulatory practices by helping her husband set up and expand his business providing care for developmentally disabled adults. Friends have also suggested she look into different legal fields, like estate planning, that have reputations for being more family-friendly. It has all whet her appetite to return to work but, at the same time, left her overwhelmed.

TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE TIME

“My big issue is that I ’m dedicated to staying home and raising my children, but I would like to return to work part time when they start school. I think this time being at home with them can either be dead time for my career or can be an opportunity to learn something new,” she says. “I know that my decision to stay home with my kids means I will never be a partner in a law firm and I won’t make the money that I would have had I stayed working, but I believe that I can still be productive and be a valuable asset if I plan accordingly and maximize the time I do have.”

Life Audit work-life balance expert M. Diane Vogt likens Von Buck’s situation to starting off with a clean slate: “Tammy has a very positive problem because she has lots of options and lots of time, and her only real requirement is to be doing something next that she loves,” Vogt says. “It’s a place where not a lot of people find themselves.”

Choices are good, but sometimes too many choices can present problems, Vogt says. But with a three-step plan to help her focus her options, Von Buck can help ensure that her comeback is a successful one.

First, Vogt wants Von Buck to consider what is important to her personally and professionally. Don’t lose sight of that when you look for a job, either, Vogt adds. “We sometimes make choices and those choices change aspects of our life that we don’t want to change.”

Vogt next suggests Von Buck turn those priorities into lists. The first should have two columns: one listing what is good in her life that she does not want to change; the other, what she would like to change. A third list could cover what she liked and did not like at her last job. “Tammy mentioned a lot about how she liked her boss. But was it that she liked working for just one person? Would she like to be the master of her own ship? Would she like to work for more than one person? She needs to think about those questions to help guide her,” Vogt says.

With these lists completed, Von Buck then needs to create a time line mapping out her short-term, intermediate and long-term goals. “Figure out what you want to do in each of those segments—because when you have unstructured time, then the time gets away from you,” says Vogt. “And that is the situation Tammy is in.”

For example, Von Buck says she wants to return to work on a part-time basis in another two years. Vogt wants Von Buck to use this two-year block of time to home in on her employment goals.

MATCHING TIMETABLES WITH JOB OPPORTUNITIES

The final, and perhaps hardest, step in the plan is finding that desired job within her time frame.

Vogt suggests that Von Buck tap into her wide network of resources and start asking lawyers what they do. For any practices or jobs that pique Von Buck’s interest, Vogt wants her to meet with lawyers in those areas. And she wants Von Buck to meet with them in person to get a better feel for their personal and professional lives.

For example, since several of Von Buck’s friends have suggested that estate planning would be a perfect practice for her, Vogt wants her to find some estate planning attorneys and ask them about their jobs. “Talk to them about what they like, what they don’t like and what drives them crazy about their job,” Vogt says. “Start by asking them three things they love and three things they’d change.”

If Von Buck aggressively and consistently pursues this path, it will help her zero in on a job that will be rewarding personally as well as professionally.

That research will also inform her about what she needs to do to secure a job in that area, Vogt says. “Then you will have the rest of those two years to get that first job.”

To help land the job after she’s targeted the position, Vogt wants Von Buck to take some classes and seminars in her desired field or practice area.

Don’t overlook CLE offerings, either, Vogt says.

Von Buck also needs to build a larger network of contacts to help with her initial research and eventually help her return to work. Volunteering is a good way for her to do this, says Vogt, so long as it helps further her professional goals. “Volunteer work can be great, but it also can get you off track, so you have to be careful what you choose,” she says. Ultimately, “these are people who will help you when you are ready, who might be potential referral sources in the future and who are, frankly, just colleagues whom you can mingle with and help make you feel that you are part of the working world.”

Sidebar

VITAL STATISTICS

Tammy Von Buck

POSITION Lawyer/stay-at-home mother, Agoura Hills, Calif.

GOAL To devise a plan to return to work in the legal field

OUR EXPERT

M. Diane Vogt

Tampa, Fla.-based lawyer M. Diane Vogt is a principal in PeopleWealth, a consulting firm devoted to improving job satisfaction for lawyers. She is the co-author of the ABA-published Keeping Good Lawyers: Best Practices to Create Career Satisfaction.

Staging a Comeback

1. Honestly evaluate your personal and professional goals. Think about what you want to change and what you will not change.

2. Create a time line for implementing your goals and follow it.

3. Leverage your existing contacts.

4. Network with others to learn about different jobs. Ask the hard questions.

5. Volunteer, but give of your time only if it will benefit your professional goals.

Life Audit HOT TIP: You are not alone

Von Buck is not the only woman to take time away from her career for her children—nor is she the only woman who wants to come back. More law firms and businesses are beginning to recognize this important source of talent that has long been overlooked. The ABA’s Business Law Section has a pilot project called Back to Business Law to provide seminars and informal networking opportunities for women who have left the active practice temporarily but plan to return. Visit backtobusinesslaw.org for more information on the group and its activities.

WE NEED YOU! Got some room to improve? Get free advice from the experts on health and fitness, finance, work-life balance, entertaining, travel and wardrobe—plus your mug in this mag—with Life Audit, the Journal’s monthly lifestyle feature. It’s fun, fast and free. If you would like to participate in a future Life Audit, please e-mail Jill Schachner Chanen at chanenj@staff.abanet.org.

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