Q & A with Nicole Engler: Re-Entering the Workforce 4 Kids and 15 Years Later

Attorney Overcomes Obstacles and Now Seeks to Inspire Mothers to Return to the Workforce

It is the year 2005 and like many young working mothers, Nicole Engler has a tough decision to make- continue to pursue her passion working as an HR consultant or stay home to raise her children. Employed in a position requiring significant travel, Engler ultimately decided to step away from the corporate world to focus on her family, not knowing when, how, or if she would return.

A 2020 survey of 3,000 working parents conducted by LinkedIn and Censuswide found that 49 percent of women, like Engler, take an extended maternity leave, with the average break being two years. 61 percent of working mothers who are back to work following a career break say it was challenging to re-enter the workforce, proving the longer you’re out of it, the harder it is to get back in. Though such career breaks are common, many like Engler find there are significant obstacles impeding career return and progress. In fact, 63 percent of working professionals and hiring managers agree that there are unnecessary obstacles in place that make it challenging for mothers to advance their careers (Fairchild, 2020).

Re-entering the workforce after one year maternity leave is daunting. Returning after 15 years? Practically unheard of. Yet Nicole Engler did just that when she joined Murphy, Pearson, Bradley & Feeney as an associate attorney in the Spring of 2020. The firm had been the one to reach out to Engler, eager to tap into the resource of highly credentialed female lawyers who have been out of the profession for a while but seek a return. Recently, I sat down with Engler to discuss overcoming the challenges of re-entering the workforce, how Covid has impacted work life balance, and her advice to other mothers seeking a return to the working world after an extended career break.

Q: What was your work experience prior to taking a break to raise your children?

Engler: My first job post college was as an English teacher in the Bay Area. After a few years, I transitioned to the corporate world, working as an HR consultant for Wells Fargo. I worked closely with the legal team there which sparked my interest and ultimate pursuit of employment law. The position required me to fly all over the country constantly, and once I started having kids, that became increasingly difficult. Though I loved working and wanted to have a job meaningful to me, I knew I needed to step away in order to raise my family. It was a constant internal battle of “how can I do both”? Little did I know, this would be a 15- year break from the corporate world.

Q: Did you continue to work in some capacity during your career break while you were raising your children?

Engler: I did, yes. I had my own clothing business for a bit, while my kids were in middle school, and eventually started teaching technology classes to seniors at the community center. This role ended up becoming very handy for my re-entry into the workforce. Technology moves at such a quick pace that even missing out on a few years can be detrimental to one’s ability to keep up in the working world. Luckily, my teaching position forced me to be on top of emerging computer tools and systems and be up to date with new technologies.

Q: Tell me about your role now and how exactly you jumped into the legal profession.

Engler: I decided to go to law school to obtain a higher degree I could hopefully use one day when I wanted to return to the workforce. I received my J.D. from the University of California, Hastings College of Law. Though I couldn’t continue working at the corporate pace, classes a few days a week I could manage. Luckily, my mother was able to help watch my kids when I went to class. I interned at the U.S Attorney’s office for the Northern District of California, which is where I met my current mentor at MPBF. We kept in touch over the years, and when Covid caused my senior teaching business to slow down, I felt it was the perfect time to jump into the legal field, particularly as work remote became commonplace. I was able to set up a home office, train virtually, and have an extremely flexible schedule which could accommodate my busy family duties. I am now a part of some amazing teams and get to work in areas of malpractice, real estate and construction, and trust and estates.

Q: What skills have you gained during your years away from the office that now translate directly to your current role?

Engler: I gained so many skills through parenting that I would not have mastered nearly as well had I remained solely in the corporate world. The biggest is time management. As a mother of four, I don’t have time to waste- efficiency is a must and this translates well for managing tasks, meetings and projects in my current position. I also learned diplomacy skills and how to deal effectively with conflict. If you’ve been to a PTA meeting or two, you’ll know what I mean.

Q: How do you think time away and these skills you have gained give you an advantage compared to other associates?

Engler: I think I bring a new perspective to the job. If you aren’t forced to look at something with fresh eyes, many people stay on auto pilot mode and continue to do things just as they have done over the years. It’s challenging to stay on the cusp of one’s field. My time away has forced me to meticulously re-learn everything I studied years ago in law school and ultimately puts me ahead of the curve. I’m also not afraid to ask questions which I often think many young employees are.

Q: What can employers like MPBF do to support working mothers and ease their return to the working world?

Engler: That’s easy- being supportive, compassionate and flexible. The pandemic has highlighted how important these characteristics are in an employer. Likewise, patience and understanding really do go a long way. MPBF has allowed me to work from home as they know that being away from my kids is the biggest barrier I face. They are also, as a company, extremely family oriented so understand my position as a working mom. They know that I am coming from a different place than average associates, and they support me every step of the way. I’m so grateful they reached out to me about returning to the legal profession. They recognized that my career break doesn’t impact my ability to be a successful attorney, and may in fact have helped my professional development. I know I am capable, and thanks to the patience and flexibility of the team at MPBF, I can serve in my role to the best of my abilities.

Q: What advice do you have for other mothers who seek to return to the workforce?

Engler: Build up your arsenal in every way you can- take a class at a community college, keep updated on emerging technologies and advancements in your particular field of work, reach out to old contacts and start to build back your previous work connections. Believing you can do it is sometimes half the battle, so I really encourage other mothers out there to not let fear hold them back. There is an important place for us in the labor force and we, as mothers, bring a unique and unrivaled set of skills that fortunately many companies are starting to recognize.

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