By Dan Lear • July 13, 2014
Shannon Forchheimer is the Lead Attorney in the Washington D.C. office of Montage Legal Group, the force behind the brilliant But I Do Have a Law Degree blog, a self-described “BigLaw Exile,” and mother of three rambunctious boys. Shannon attended law school at the University of Pennsylvania, worked at large law firms in New York and Washington D.C. and then, after almost six years of practice, left the practice to focus on being a mom to her, then, two boys. Since leaving she’s added a third son, started But I Do Have a Law Degree, a well-read blog, began a flexible law practice, and developed a compelling voice for woman lawyers who want to balance desires to be an attorney and to be a mom.
I first saw Shannon when she appeared on a Huffington Post Live panel, with other thought leaders in the legal industry like Casey Berman and Will Meyerhofer, about unhappiness in the legal profession. She was substantive and thoughtful on that program and you’ll find more of the same below.
DL: Walk me through your career progression.
Shannon Forchheimer: I went to Penn State undergrad. After that, I lived in England for a two years. I got a master's at London School of Economics but I did it so that I could live in England. I loved it there.
My goal was to go to law school and then return to England to practice. But I met my husband in law school at the University of Pennsylvania and here I am talking to you in Bethesda, Maryland.
DL: It's all his fault.
SF: Exactly. He was from New York. He introduced me to this whole notion of big law and big firms. I figured I’d try big law, so, I worked at Skadden Arps in New York my second summer.
It was one of those typical summer big law associate summers: they wined and dined me to a ridiculous degree. They gave me an offer to come back and I accepted.
I was there for about a year and a half. I was miserable. It wasn't just the firm. Being in Manhattan suffocated me. I wanted to have kids and I didn't want to have them in Manhattan. I was ready for my life to start.
We decided we wanted to move to Washington D.C. because it was still East Coast and had a good legal market. I did my research and it seemed to have a lot of family-friendly firms.
I landed a job at Dickstein Shapiro. It was a “family-friendly” firm in that while lots of firms don't even have policies for part-time work, Dickstein did.
After my first son was born I went back to work at Dickstein part-time. It was a 60% schedule, three days a week, two days at home. It all sounded wonderful on paper. Of course, it didn't end up like that.
It wasn't anyone's fault. There was no evil partner knocking on my door or anything like that. It's just the nature of the work. It comes in at different times and I wanted to be a team player.
My husband is also in a big law firm and our situation got to be really tough. On the weekends, we were practically fighting over who would get the chance to work. There was one weekend that was particularly bad and we said "This is crazy. Something has to give."
Right around that time, I got pregnant again. I ended up not going back after my second baby. I was one of those awful people who takes a maternity leave and then doesn't return. Though, I have no guilt about that.
DL: So, you were at Skadden Arps for a year and a half. How long in D.C.?
SF: I was at Dickstein from about 2007 to 2011.
DL: So, total, five, six years of practice?
DL: Tell me about how and why you started your blog. And how the last few years have gone.
SF: When I left the big law firm I had such an identity crisis that I wanted to talk about it all the time: women's issues, work/life balance issues, what was going to become of me, etc. I started my blog about three weeks after I officially left the law firm. It was a plea to connect with somebody . . . anybody. I was in such shell-shock. If you would've asked my college or high school friends "Who's the most likely to stay at home?" I would have been at the bottom of the list. I was always very career-motivated, always looking for things to fill my resume. People are surprised I have three kids.
I've been home for the past three years now. I have my blog. I've dabbled with some freelance work. I'm part of Montage Legal Group a network of women who have left law firms and who want to do part-time freelance work. I've done some other kind of random things that have come my way. But, for the most part, I'm home with the kids.
DL: Could you talk more about your time away? It sounds like it was really hard when you left but now you seem more at peace with it.
SF: The legal industry is filled with egos. There are a lot of overachieving types. And, it doesn't stop with being an overachiever. People in big law brag about how many hours they billed the weeks before. Even when I was working 60%, I felt "Well, I need to do at least 80% to prove that I'm committed."
I got really caught up in it. I wanted to do well wherever I was. I learned the ropes of how to be successful in a law firm. And, I was very successful there. I got good reviews and people liked me.
As a result when I quit, I felt a strong sense of embarrassment. I thought "Wow, I really failed. I failed myself. I failed these people I worked with. They thought I had such promise. Now, I’m quitting with my tail between my legs. I couldn't hack it. Now, I'm going to go home and be at stay-at-home mom.”
I worried "What am I going to talk about at cocktail parties? When people ask me what I do, what am I going to say?"
But that has all changed. Over the course of the last few years, I realized that's all a facade and it's a joke. If you're at a cocktail party, people don't want to talk about the law!
Being in the legal world can buoy your confidence but it's a false sense of confidence. Being interesting doesn't have anything to do with what your profession is. Now, I take more pride in the things I've accomplished because they've come from me and my own initiative and my own drive. I have a lot to talk about and I have a lot of viewpoints.
Now I laugh at myself and at how weak I thought I was because I was giving up. When really the structure didn't suit me. There was, and is, no shame in that. In fact I take pride in what I'm doing.
DL: What goes through your mind about next steps? Do you think about it, do you intentionally not think about it?
SF: I do think about it. The first question is “when?” The answer is probably once my kids are all in some kind of school. Now, I'm spoiled. Yes, staying at home is hard. It is way harder for me than being at a law firm: it never ends, husband works late, and I've got three boys that are crazy and rambunctious. But I can't imagine not being with my boys every day. And I want to keep doing that. As painful as it is at times.
I also can't imagine ever going back to a law firm or someplace with crazy hours. I want something more flexible.
I'm in D.C., and there are many interesting opportunities with nonprofits. For me, it's not so much about "What will my career be?" It's "How will I spend my time?" And I don't want to spend my time at home when my kids aren't home. So, I ask "What’s the best way I can find to be productive in this society of ours?"
Since leaving the practice of law I've learned to be a little more entrepreneurial. I have a new confidence about if and when I want to get back in the workforce. And I know that I'll find my own way. Most lawyers are not at all like that. They are very risk-averse.
Will I ever make the same amount of money I made? Probably not. But, at the same time, I don't want to go back to doing what I was doing.
DL: Walk me through a day in the life. What's happening for you, mentally? Does that lawyer brain turn off?
SF: A typical day for me is completely non-luxurious. I breastfeed my baby, I do preschool pickups, I attempt to make dinner, I struggle to find time to shower. I wouldn't call it "fun."
I do get annoyed when people – and this isn't specific to me– think of me having this cushy life. One of my husband's coworkers called me at home to plan a surprise for my husband. When I answered the phone, she said "Oh, I hope I didn't wake you."
I thought "Is that really what you think I do? That I'm home napping?" But I thought the same way. Before I had kids, I thought maternity leave was a vacation. I couldn’t wait!
About the legal part of your brain turning off: it does. But it comes back in little things. I do some freelance work here and there. I was working on this motion to dismiss a couple weeks ago. I got very excited about one of the arguments. It was like one of those nerdy things that only a lawyer would care about. I thought: “This is so cool!"
I do miss that sense of argument and debate that you have in law school and as a litigator. A friend of mine just emailed me today asking if I was still practicing because she had a contractor that skipped out. I’m not practicing in her state but I get fired up about doing the work. I told her: "I'll totally help you write a letter."
I miss the intellectual stimulation but that intellectual stimulation was always so covered in stress for me. I never really enjoyed it because I had so much stress worrying: "Would I find the right pace? Would I make it home in time?" The stress eclipsed everything else and it was exacerbated by having the kids at home.
DL: Have you found connections with similarly-situated women?
SF: In run into a remarkable number of very highly-educated, intelligent women in the parks of D.C. There are many women that have done what I did. It's a relief. At first, when you're working, you’re working all the time so you only know people that are working. You don't realize there's this whole contingent of people who have left.
As I mentioned, I'm affiliated with this freelance network, Montage Legal Group. It's only women like me; big law exiles. That's been a comfort.
The desire to connect with other similarly situated women is partly why I started my blog. I wondered "Is anyone else out there?" And there are many.
It's actually sad that big law is such an all-or-nothing system because there’s a rich untapped pool of talent for whom the system just doesn’t work.
DL: Thoughts for a woman who is contemplating doing or about to do what you have done.
SF: I would say "Go for it." Obviously, you need to make sure that you've got your financial situation in order, because losing that income can be a big adjustment. But I think people stay in their jobs out of fear. I would say: “Let go of that fear. It will be okay.”
Fear of not being able to get back into the workforce is not a legitimate enough reason to continue doing something that you don't want to do. If your heart is with the kids and you want to be with your kids, then take the leap and it'll all work out in the end.
Obviously, it won't work out if something tragic happens, God forbid. My husband and I could get divorced, he could drop dead. But I guess I feel that it is worth the risk. These are times that I will never get back.
I truly love being a mom, I want to be a mom. I don't need to be home to be a good mom, that's certainly not the case. But it's just something I want to do. Fear or shame is not a reason not to do it. I almost fell victim to that.
I think I would have been really sad if I would have stayed at work.
DL: If a young woman, say someone like you, came to you and said "I'm thinking about law school." Or, maybe "I'm thinking about trying to go the big law route." What would you recommend?
SF: It's sad to say, but I would not recommend it. Not to necessarily avoid law school. But I would not recommend a woman to go into big law if she eventually wants to have a family. You can see it in the numbers. Gender distribution is close to 50/50 at the beginning associate levels but so few women make partner at large law firms. It's a real problem. And nothing will change until firms recognize that they are losing talent.
Ironically, the firms that formally offer the part-time programs are often the most unfriendly firms to work for because it's all lip service. They offer a sabbatical and then, upon return, implicitly expect 80-hour weeks immediately. There needs to be a cultural change of true acceptance of a revolving door an “in and out” model. Firms must recognize the benefits and advantages to retaining talent that would otherwise be lost.
DL: Do you think that’s a structural thing? That is, do you think that large law firms are, or really any law firm is, structurally unable to accommodate that kind of arrangement?
SF: I do. Law firms are still kind of an old boys' club. The old partners, they're all men. I worked for someone who didn't understand working from home. He asked "How do you work from home?"
If you ask a firm for part-time or, really, any kind of accommodation, it's a big pain for them. For example, some law firms are now are offering six weeks paternity leave to men. I'd be interested to know if any single person has ever taken it. Until more people start asking for accommodations and actually taking advantage of them, the culture will not change. Culture is as big a problem as structure.
DL: Parting thoughts on this experience, on your experience in general. To the audience of Ms. JD? Anything you want to share?
SF: I hope I haven't discouraged law students or women in law firms. You can make it work. Lots of women do. You can leave and get back in.
There is hope. But do think about where you want to be. My biggest mistake – one of many mistakes – was that I never thought about the fact that I wanted to have a family. I didn't plan my career accordingly. I would have done things differently had I thought about that.
The last thing I would say is this: Be an advocate for yourself. One of my other mistakes was feeling badly about myself because I didn't conform to what they wanted me to be. What I should have done is become a self-advocate and spoken up. They might not have liked what I had to say, but maybe they needed to hear it.
I have no regrets. I'm glad I'm a lawyer. And I think that someday, I will be one that works more than I work right now.
DL: To be clear, Shannon, you work a lot right now.
SF: I should rephrase that. My friends would kill me for saying that. I do work. If I didn't do this job, I would be paying someone else to do it. So, yes. I do have a real job. And, at least for me, it’s a really important one.