How one leader is helping new moms successfully return to work
Lori Mihalich-Levin, a self-professed risk-averse lawyer, built a successful, traditional legal career as a big law attorney and policy analyst. Then she had two kids within two years and experienced firsthand the challenges of returning to work after having children. Her life as an entrepreneur began. She dove into building Mindful Return, an employer program for parents returning to work, while flexing her legal career along the way. Lori and I talk about balancing a company, day job, and family — as well as what employers are finally getting right when it comes to supporting parents, and what still needs to change.
Tell me about your early career as an Attorney.
Originally I was attracted to the law because I loved public policy. I was a public policy major in college and discovered that regulations were where the practical applications of laws live. When I graduated from law school, I knew I wanted to work in a regulatory practice. I clerked for a judge for a year and then went to work at a big law firm in their health care practice group. I really fell in love with the healthcare practice, probably because growing up I always thought I would become a doctor one day. Healthcare law seemed the perfect place to be.
I did what you would call “big law” for three years. Then when Obama got elected, I left big law to do more policy-focused work. I figured that if there was a time to be doing healthcare policy, that was the moment. I transitioned to an in-house role at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). I was there for about six years, and during that time I had both of my babies who are now 8 and 10.
It was while I was working full-time at AAMC that I founded my company, Mindful Return. It started as a passion project but over time I realized that I wanted to have some daylight hours to work on it. Perhaps ironically, I went back into the law firm world, but as a Partner working a 60% schedule.
I’m still a lawyer today, though I practice on a more limited basis than I used to.
How did a reduced-hours schedule work? For some women it is fantastic, for others it’s a trap — working the same amount and earning less.
My motivation was to spend part of my professional work week growing my company, Mindful Return. Mindful Return was a program that I developed to help new parents transition back to work after their parental leave. It was something that I was getting super excited about and more employers were starting to sign on as clients. I knew I wanted more time to work on it, and the 60% schedule allowed me to do that. But I often had people say to me, “well 60% at a law firm is just a nine-to-five somewhere else.”
One thing that helped me manage it was being a Partner, quite frankly. If I had been an Associate beholden to a lot of people more senior than me, I don’t know if I could have set boundaries as clearly as I did. But being in a senior role as a Partner allowed me to grow my own book of business, have my own clients, and therefore have more autonomy over the work that I was doing.
I’ve definitely come to learn that you are the only person who can enforce your own boundaries. Nobody else is going to do it for you. Firms and companies are going to take and take and take. You have to grow the muscle of knowing how to set the boundary, because otherwise, there’s no incentive. Why would someone demand or ask less of you?
The reality of part-time work comes down to a combination of the culture of the place, the willingness of the team to work with you, and your own dedication to the boundary setting.
You describe yourself as a risk-averse lawyer. What motivated you to become an entrepreneur?
The origin story, in a nutshell, is that I was completely desperate. With Mindful Return, I created what I wish had existed for myself when I went back to work full time after having my first baby. I found it so challenging. My son wouldn’t take a bottle and I was thinking, is my baby going to starve if I go back to work? All I could do was muddle through. Two years later I had my second baby. My husband and I like to joke that one plus one felt like eighty-five. The wheels were coming off in our household, and I was a mess.
I looked around for resources that could support me as a new working mom. But all I could find were snarky articles about how I might leak breast milk on my shirt, or how I shouldn’t put a picture of my kids up on my desk because people wouldn’t take me seriously. Simultaneously, mom after mom in my office would come in, shut the door, and burst into tears saying, “this is so hard and no one’s talking about it.”
All of that motivated me to create a working parent group organization at my office. Since then I’ve become a serial founder of working parent groups, and I now convene a group of 200 leaders of working parent groups called the Working Parent Group Network (WPGN). So that’s where I started. After starting this working parent group, I thought, this is a much bigger problem than just at my office. That’s when I sat down and thought about how I could really help people navigate this personal and professional identity transition into working parenthood, and Mindful Return started.
During a global pandemic, we see parents and particularly mothers crushed by the burdens of work and parenting. Do you think employers are genuinely trying to get it right for parents?
When I first started the Mindful Return program seven years ago, there was a lot more education needed to convince employers that they needed to care about this issue. I think what the pandemic has done for the better is eliminate the question around, is there a problem? Yes, there’s a problem, and everyone sees it very clearly now.
What motivates employers to do something like offering Mindful Return is retention. Companies are seeing people disappear, left, right and center. Even pre-pandemic, the national average for the number of women who returned to work after parental leave was about 64%. That meant about a third of women were not going back to work. In the beginning of 2020 we ran data on 1,000 people who had participated in the Mindful Return program, and we found that 85% of them are still with their same employer and 93% were still in the workforce.
Tools like this really do motivate employees to stay, because they hear the message, “my employer cares, my employer wants me to stay, they value me here.” And they also have practical tools to support them. So I think the conversation has gotten easier in terms of convincing employers that this matters. Though there are still plenty of employers out there who couldn’t care less.
And I want to be clear, I never want to imply that Mindful Return puts the onus on parents to fix systemic problems that are in the workplace — motherhood bias, the problems with billable hours, the culture of workplaces that are run and led by exclusively white men. Rather, I view Mindful Return as a community building and coping mechanism within a system that is very flawed.
You continue to run Mindful Return part-time while also working as an Attorney. How has part-time entrepreneurship benefited you?
If I had one dollar for every time somebody asked me, “when are you going to quit your law job to do Mindful Return full-time?” I would be a bazillionaire. But I thrive on the different types of skill sets and interests that are required for each job. My law work satisfies the analytical, reasoning side of my brain. And as an entrepreneur, I get to build community and help women thrive in their careers, which is something I can’t get from practicing law. For me both components fit together and nurture each other.
Then, to be honest and transparent about it, there is a stability factor to having one foot in a job that pays a regular salary. While I was growing Mindful Return, it was helpful to have different legs of the stool supporting our financial well-being as a family. My husband works for himself, and I was terrified of the idea of not having one stable income between us. But I was able to grow Mindful Return steadily over time and had a good foundation of clients when I transitioned to 60% employment.
Then, this past summer, I founded my own law firm and left Big Law. I got senior enough and confident enough in my own practice to know that I can branch out and do it myself and be fine. But it took a long time to get there.
It’s great that you enjoy both types of your work! A lot of women feel unhappy in their day job. What advice do you have for women who are eager to move on?
Research shows that people with side gigs or passion projects are, on average, happier in their day jobs, because they have another outlet. So if you’re in a position of saying, “I don’t know if I should start up this side thing, because I can’t leave my job and I’m going to be miserable trying to do both at once,” I would question that thought. Because when you have another outlet for the joy and the passion, sometimes the tedium of the day job becomes less awful.
And if you can, look for pieces of the day job that you find more palatable. I have known people who have internally shifted to other roles within their same organization. For example, I have a friend who is an accountant and got her coaching degree and is really excited about coaching. She doesn’t want to go out on her own full time just yet, but she has been able to find roles within her same company where she can use those coaching skills while still being employed. So you might be able to take the skill sets that you’re enjoying and pivot them to another role within a “stable” job within the organization.
Last, it took me until now to get my head around the idea of going out on my own. But if I had decided earlier, I know I would have found a way to make it work. I think we have to trust our own resilience and ability to just get scrappy and figure things out. We find a way.
In addition to becoming an entrepreneur, you are also an author. Tell us more about your book. What positive impact has it had on your career?
The book is called Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave. It’s about how to navigate a mindful return from maternity leave. I always had a dream of writing and publishing a book. Professionally it’s been fantastic for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s a lower price point than taking the full Mindful Return course. I love the idea that the principles are accessible to more people. And second, in terms of my business, it’s been a great opportunity to land paid speaking gigs and drive more brand awareness.
What was it like to bring a different side of you into the professional world? Not just the lawyer, but now someone writing about personal topics and promoting your business.
Putting myself out there to launch the Mindful Return course, which of course I needed people to sign up to take, was one of my big holdups. Initially, I struggled to get comfortable with the idea of selling. I credit my husband for helping me change my mindset, as he guided me to realize that I cannot help someone unless they know who I am. I needed to be out there and visible.
But there is an ongoing dance and tension between wanting to be very authentic, open, and honest while having some information that is private and only for my family. When you’re in a business talking about how to be a working mom, people want concrete examples. But I also want to protect the privacy of my family. For example, people are always asking, “can I have a photo of you and your kids to put with this article?” Well, we don’t put photos of our children online.
And of course, some things I write are very personal. On the one hand, I share very personal details because I believe it is helpful. On the other hand, it’s so personal, I sometimes have a sense of needing to close my eyes super tight, press “publish”, hope everything will be okay. (So far, it always has been!)
What helped you get over the personal or public nature of your work?
Anger — anger at a system that sets us up to feel like we are failures when we become parents while also being professionals. I don’t like to sit around and watch things happen and complain about them, I need to go fix them and make positive changes. I wanted to fix this. Bias against working parents is a situation that I consider ridiculous and untenable.
And I wanted a different narrative out there. I was watching people, right at the point when they were having children, become part of the leaky leadership pipeline. Now I get on my soapbox about the fact that parenthood makes us better leaders and we gain career-critical skills through parenting. That’s the message I want to get out there.
It was that fire in my belly that pushed me to do this.
Looking back on your career journey, is there anything that you would do differently?
I would worry less about how it’s going to shake out. I spent a lot of time ruminating about whether I should leave my firm, or stay, or reduce hours, or ramp up. Today I would look back and tell myself, “Just do your thing. It will all play out.”
I would also tell myself to not be afraid to get out there in a big and broad way and share the message sooner. I had thoughts like “Oh, I have to grow more first” or “I don’t know if I’m ready for that size of an audience.” I think those limiting beliefs meant that it took longer to grow.
Where do you hope employers will be in 10 years when it comes to parents returning to work?
My dream is that an employer looks at a working parent and says, “that’s the person I want because they have these amazing skills, and I know they’re going to be passionate, and I really don’t care when or how they get their work done.” I want employers to honor and respect the skills that parents bring to the table, and have flexibility on how the work gets done.
Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Reclaim Your Career shares the stories of women who have made brave career pivots. They inspire and unlock what women always had the capacity to do: Break free from the traditional narrative of success to write your own story.