chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.


Succeeding as a Mom in the Big Law Environment

Selena Kim

Succeeding as a Mom in the Big Law Environment
MoMo Productions via Getty Images

I am a long-time ABA member, Canadian intellectual property litigator, and patent attorney in my twentieth year of practice, and have worked in big law for my entire legal career. I am also a busy mom with two kids, seven and nine years old.

A few months ago, as part of my pandemic restlessness, I started a newsletter on LinkedIn with two work colleagues, also moms in big law, called Taking Up Space. The three of us wanted to share our perspectives and insights into our journeys toward building fulfilling practices and lives. The newsletter was an immediate hit. One of my more popular posts was on my experiences and advice for being a working mom in law. I was asked to expand on this theme for this article, focusing on what support systems are necessary to get you through the challenging time of parenting while working very full work days. Here are the top strategies and supports that worked for me:

Appreciate the Importance of Family Backup

In a big law firm, you are in a service business. Particularly when you are a junior lawyer, you have two levels of service you need to provide: to the partners and to the clients. When you return to work, if you have a supportive spouse or partner or family nearby, it can make a difference. Client and firm needs will surge at times, and your kids’ needs will also surge at the most unwelcome times. From what I have seen in my career, it is difficult to make family life work with big law unless you have a spouse or partner who has a more flexible schedule. You will also need additional backup sometimes, such as paid help and grandparents, if they are available to help. I’d recommend having in place as many layers of backup as possible.

Have a Work Family Too

Having friends at work to provide moral support, to complain to in confidence when irritating or stressful things happen, and to generally provide sanity checks is, in my opinion, essential to work happiness. Having a good social network in general is one of the predictors of life happiness, and working in a large firm has the benefit of providing a large number of coworkers to get to know. You can likely connect with a number of them on a friendship level, not just in your department but outside of it. Due to understandable time constraints, many working moms try to get in and out of work mode without stopping to chat or maintain relationships, but that is a recipe for burnout. Think of maintaining your work friends as part of your self-care and plan for sanity.

Be Flexible in Your Practice

Both times when I came back to work from maternity leave, it was demoralizing because my work had dried up, and I was sitting in the office with little to do while my child was, I imagined, hitting development milestones without me. Most big firms are notoriously bad at managing work flow and making sure that somebody has thought about you while you were away. Transitioning back to work from maternity leave is sad and guilt-inducing enough without having to also scrounge for work, which contributes to many women leaving the practice around this time. I survived these periods by taking opportunities to do additional work with other teams around the firm that needed more bodies in the short term, such as bankruptcy litigation and environmental litigation. People always think of intellectual property as being highly specialized, but many of your skills, like cross-examining experts or persuasive technical legal writing, are transferrable to other areas. Seize those opportunities while you are transitioning back to your core areas.

Ask for the Things You Need

I breastfed both my kids until they were a year old. I returned to work after four to five months of leave, so this meant many hours spent pumping milk at the office, during court days, in hotel rooms, etc. When I traveled, I arranged for hotel rooms that have a mini-fridge so that I could store the milk. At the office, I had a lock installed on my office door so that I could pump while I worked. I knew I would never continue pumping if I had to go to the depressing office pumping room or to a bathroom stall. Having a lock on my office door reduced the stress of pumping, encouraged me to continue for longer, and saved my coworkers from the trauma of accidentally entering my office while I was pumping. (Further tip: Never, ever, ever look in the mirror while you are pumping.)

Tell Everyone You’re Back and Want to Work

Many women returning to work after maternity leave don’t realize that they are being shut out of opportunities for business development, travel, and plum cases, all because their colleagues assume that as new parents, women returning from maternity leave want to ease back into working. Colleagues are usually well-meaning, but as a result of trying to not load new mothers up with too much, many women are never given a chance at opportunities or work that would require travel. Little do they know that, as a new parent, all you want is to sleep in a clean hotel bed for a full glorious night. When you return to work, be sure to communicate that you are back, open to travel, and open to work.

If Possible, Consider Waiting a Few Years into Your Practice to Start Your Family

This is a controversial piece of advice, but it is something that worked for me. I was 39 years old and a partner before I became pregnant with my first child. This was advantageous as I had juniors I could delegate to during maternity leave, and I had also established great relationships with my colleagues over several years, which resulted in greater loyalty to me as a lawyer and member of the firm. However, this is a deeply personal decision, and I don’t suggest waiting if you are anticipating any fertility issues, as there are many women who hit their mid-thirties and have difficulty conceiving. All I can say is that it worked for me and I saw the advantages of waiting.  

I hope the above tips and strategies are helpful to those who are starting the parenthood journey while practicing intellectual property law.