Debi Yadegari is a former lawyer who worked in biglaw and in-house law. These days, she runs Villyge, a company that helps organizations support working parents. This company came out of her own experience of observing the workplace culture and lack of support for working parents in biglaw and in-house law firms.
She saw how working parents, or any human being who wanted to have interests and a life outside of work, were not being supported by their employers. Like many of us, this story started with a passion to make a change in the world. While Debi was able to do that, she eventually realized that it was all too much.
After leaving the law because of the workplace culture, she launched Villyge, becoming a working mother of five. Keep reading to learn about Debi’s journey in law and her journey to creating Villyge.
Pursuing Law To Make Change and Help Others
Before getting into why Debi decided upon leaving the law and what she’s doing now, let’s talk about why she went to law school in the first place. Like many people, Debi started out wanting to create real change in the world by helping others out of bad situations. So, when the opportunity for law school came, she went for it.
Giving back and helping others is one of Debi’s genuine passions in the world. So, she chose the path of biglaw, where she was able to help others get out of bad situations while pursuing some client work that was very much for profit.
When reflecting on her experience with biglaw, Debi said, “I’m incredibly thankful I had that experience. I’m also very happy I’m not there anymore. There were times where I was crying at my desk literally because the weight of the world was coming down on me. Other times, I found it to be exhilarating.”
After a while, she moved in-house, working in investment banking. Her hours were steady, but things were still difficult. biglaw may be chaotic, but in-house requires extreme efficiency with time and money.
Leaving The Law
Things became even more difficult for Debi when she announced her first pregnancy. She had great bosses, and a great team, but there was a stigma surrounding the idea of becoming a working parent within investment banking, especially as a lawyer.
When she had her first child, Debi took paid leave. After a while, she went back and talked to her boss about coming back with some flexibility. It should have been easy, but it wasn’t a part of workplace culture. So, she took another few months and ultimately decided to leave.
After leaving the law, Debi realized that a lot of other people were feeling and experiencing what she was. That stress of wanting to be a working parent, but not having the support or workplace culture that allowed it. She knew that it was a gap that she had to fill. That is where the idea of Villyge came to be.
Why Culture Change Needs To Happen In The Workplace
There’s an unfortunate assumption about working parents, in that they don’t want to work that hard. However, this couldn’t be further from reality. In most cases, they’re working incredibly hard and often want to make it work.
The underlying problem is this inability to recognize people as whole people and to see that supporting your employees in all the aspects of their life is actually a benefit. For working parents, the challenge in a biglaw environment is that they expected you to be fully dedicated to the firm.
While Debi’s struggle happened years ago, workplace culture in law hasn’t changed that much. Working parents today are struggling, not just mothers, but fathers too. The whole business model burns lawyers out and is the reason so many lawyers are leaving the law.
How Villyge Is Changing Workplace Culture In Law
One of the challenges in law, particularly in biglaw, is that there’s a lack of imagination for what could be possible. For any individual to advocate for some of these changes requires a pretty high personal cost, whether it’s financially, physically, or emotionally.
Villyge is reimagining working parenthood and creating a new corporate landscape that allows working parents to achieve both their personal family goals, as well as professional success. They connect employees with career coaches, parenting experts, and wellness specialists in pursuit to change the idea of working parenthood, especially in law.
They focus on supporting the employee and changing the workplace culture by interacting with the managers. They help employers create policies to develop a workplace where culture meets some of the policies that they’re trying to enforce.
Leaving The Law? Here’s Some Advice:
If you’re looking to leave the law because of the workplace culture, Debi’s advice to you is to have that conversation with your boss. See what’s available to you. And, if there’s nothing available, talk to your employer about receiving the help of Villyge.
For those leaving the law for different reasons, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps To Leaving The Law, where you can learn how to make that jump to a better career match for yourself and your life.
You can also join the Former Lawyer Collaborative, which is a network created for former lawyers in the pursuit of a lifestyle and career change. And, coming very soon to Former Lawyer is a new feature called the Former Lawyer Collaborative Framework, which is the backbone curriculum to the original Collaborative. Join us today for support in your new career path.
Connect With Debi
Villyge Website: https://villyge.com/our-team/debi-yadegari/
Mentioned in This Article
Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. On this show, I interview former lawyers to hear their inspiring stories about how they left law behind to find careers and lives that they love. Let's get right to the show.
Hello everyone. Today, I'm sharing with you my conversation with Debi Yadegari. She is a former lawyer who worked in Biglaw and in-house. Now, she runs a company that helps organizations support working parents. A lot of this came out of her own experience of observing in Biglaw and in her job in-house, the ways in which working parents and really any human being who wanted to have interests, and a life outside of work were not supported by their employers. I'm really excited to share this conversation with you. As you know, this is a topic that we talk about a lot around here. Here is my conversation with Debi. Hey, Debi, welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Debi Yadegari: Hi, Sarah. Happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
Sarah Cottrell: I am excited to hear your story. Let's start with introducing yourself to the listeners.
Debi Yadegari: Sure. My name is Debi Yadegari. I am the founder and CEO of Villyge. Villyge is a platform that supports working parenthood. I am also a working mother of five and former lawyer.
Sarah Cottrell: I love that so much. There are already so many things that I'm like, “Oh we can talk about this.” But let's start where we usually start on this podcast, then we'll get there. Where we usually start is why did you decide to go to law school?
Debi Yadegari: If I could do it all over again, would I really make that choice? I grew up in Maryland. Silver Spring is my hometown. Growing up, I was a great student. Growing up in a very, very, very middle class neighborhood, it was like if you were a good student, you would go on to become a doctor or lawyer, accountant, investment banker, entrepreneur. Those were not words that were part of my vocabulary when it came to a future profession. I wasn't a science person. It seemed like law. But much more than that, I didn't have the happiest upbringing. I definitely struggled a lot growing up with family relationships. I always saw law as a way to help others.
Early on, when I was in high school, I had this image of going on to law school and helping children, helping struggling teenagers, helping teenagers who are looking to emancipate themselves, and really helping others to use the law to make their situation better. Fast forward, I went off to law school, took on a bunch of student debt—remember that middle class upbringing doesn't necessarily pay for the fancy schools and those tuitions that seem to abound these days—when I took on a bunch of debt, fast forward, I found myself really going in the direction of corporate law. It's also what I liked. I really liked business. As I matured a little bit, I realized that you can start a business that can do both, that can help others and be for-profit. That's what I've been able to achieve today with Villyge.
But while I was still practicing law, I initially went into Biglaw. I was working in the securities department, capital markets doing a lot of corporate transactional work. I was still able to dedicate a certain number of hours to doing pro bono work within the family law sphere. I was able to help others get out of bad situations while I was pursuing some client work that was very much for profit. Why did I go to law school? Like a lot of people, I was a good student. I had the opportunity. I started out wanting to change the world. Then reality hit. You have to pay bills. You have to be able to provide for yourself, so detour to business but absolutely still using the law to provide a helping hand. That's also something that we strive for today in my business is to help others. Giving back is something that is incredibly important to me personally.
Sarah Cottrell: It's so interesting because I mean over and over, and over again on the podcast, we just crossed 100 episodes and it's so common that there are these themes of people choosing to go to law school either because they want to help people or because they're wanting to serve some greater good, then the reality of like, “Oh, I have tons of student loan debt.” We sometimes talk about it as a conveyor belt in law school where you get on a path and end up at a firm. Like you said, there definitely can be opportunities to do some pro bono work, which is great. But it's very common that people end up in a very different place than they necessarily anticipated on the front end. Tell me a little bit more about your experience in Biglaw because you said you were interested in the business side of things but were you like, “Yes, this is clearly it for me” or were you like “Oh, maybe not so much”? What was your experience with that?
Debi Yadegari: Gosh, Biglaw, it's packed with so much emotion. Anyone who's been there understands. There were times where I was crying at my desk literally because the weight of the world was coming down on me. People sometimes just were not nice to work with. Literally not nice. Other times, I found it to be absolutely exhilarating. I learned so much. When I look back, I'm very thankful for the experience. It taught me so much. My team hates it but I can notice whether there's one space or two spaces from a mile away on a computer. There are little things that you only get from practicing law. My creative writing skills are not any better than pre-law but definitely, my writing skills, the ability to scan a page and pick up grammatical errors are forever ingrained in me. Just being detail-oriented has been so helpful in business, in life, in organizing the schedules for five children. There are so many tools that have come out of that experience.
But just taking a step back to something that you said earlier when you were talking about how so many people go on to law school wanting to save the world, then they get on this conveyor belt. In case there are any law students listening or people who are thinking about going to law school or found their way to your podcast, something that I always counsel young students on is for them to really think about what they want to do with that law degree. If, for instance, they truly want to change the world and go do non-profit work, don't go into student debt. Try to get into any law school, the one that will pay you or maybe even give you some money, then you'll have more opportunities because there's absolutely a correlation between needing to pay back those student loans and where you end up.
Many of us do go to Biglaw because of the big salaries but if that's not your cup of tea from the get-go, then definitely recognize that and draw some thick boundaries around what your priorities are. But once you're in there, my experience with Biglaw was you spend a lot of hours there. Unlike other first jobs, there were my college friends, my graduate school friends, then there's my law firm friends. You bond. It's like war stories going through it together. Thinking back, I'm incredibly thankful I had that experience. I'm also very happy I'm not there anymore.
Sarah Cottrell: I share that sentiment. Let's talk a little bit about the timeline because I believe you moved in-house after you were in Biglaw. Let's talk about that, then let's also talk about how that is related, you're the mom of five, did you have kids while you were in Biglaw? Talk to me a little bit about that whole timeline.
Debi Yadegari: No, I did not have kids when I was in Biglaw but I did get married. That's a funny story and just shows you how much being at a law firm, like what I was at, really can take over your life and makes it even more difficult to even have children unless a spouse. I was working on a deal. My boyfriend at the time, now my husband, had this whole grand scheme to propose. Long story short, I told him that I was working and couldn't join him. He actually had to call the partner that I was working with to get me out of work. He was like, “Hi, I'm Debi Vaughn’s boyfriend,” and shared the plan. Long story short, the partner called me and said, “Pencils down. Clients said wait, don't bill anything. Do not dare bill another minute. You're off in the evening. You've been working hard.” I later found out that the reason the partner was so amenable to my boyfriend's (now husband's) request was because he himself had proposed to his wife in the conference room of a law firm over vending machine snacks. That was how I got to at least start the partnership. But no, I never had children there.
But while I was there, I did witness partners tucking their kids to sleep over speakerphone and kids crying because they wanted their mom to come home, and be there. I also witnessed dads leaving the office at 4:00 PM and getting high fives because they were going to coach like Johnny's soccer game. I remember seeing the double standard. Of course, this was many years ago. My oldest child is 16. Like I said, I did not have kids there. We're talking 20 years ago but it was brutal to be a working parent in that atmosphere. I moved in-house. It was about a year later that I was pregnant with my first. It was pretty brutal there too. I was in-house counsel at a large global investment bank. Another phenomenal growth experience. I had the great bosses, the greatest managers. I had a great team but even before I announced my pregnancy, there was definitely a cloud surrounding the idea of becoming a working parent within investment banking, especially as a lawyer. So much so that somebody actually even said to me flat out that if I was to have a child there, my career would be ruined. But at the time, that person didn’t know that I was pregnant.
Sarah Cottrell: Oh my goodness.
Debi Yadegari: Yeah. A week later, I announced. She, a lawyer herself, came into my office with her tail between her legs, completely apologizing. The joke was that our boss had been trying to have a baby, struggling with fertility and using the communal printer to print things in relation to what was going on in his personal life. Because I was the young newly married person on the team, it was just assumed that it was my own fertility struggle. When he finally announced, that's when she came into my office laughing, “Hahaha, I have something so funny to tell you. I thought it was you but it's not because you wouldn't be that stupid.” I'm just like, “Oh my gosh.”
Sarah Cottrell: Oh, goodness.
Debi Yadegari: Yes. Fast forward, there was something definitely going on with the water in that department that season because it ended up being a few of us pregnant all together. Then fast forward, I didn't have the support that I needed as a working parent and ended up walking away to start what I've started now, which is a company that is reimagining working parenthood and creating a new corporate landscape that allows working parents to achieve both their personal family goals, as well as professional success because I don't think it should be just dad who gets a high fives when they walk out to be able to participate in their children's lives. These days, it's not necessarily dad who's getting the high five. Either we're seeing that dads too are struggling because today's father is participating in child care at a much higher participation rate than a generation back. There's a little bit of friction between today's employee and today's manager because there are different generations, and don't necessarily understand each other.
Working parents today are struggling both on the mom front, both on the dad front. I'm super proud that my career has been able to take the detour to get to where it is today. But I'm incredibly thankful for the experience. It was great working in-house and in Biglaw, it taught me a lot. I worked with some of the brightest minds. Some of whom I'm still close with today. It was great. It was definitely a mountain to climb.
Sarah Cottrell: To return to something that you were talking about when you're talking about the Biglaw experience, then you mentioned it again just now, I think one of the things that is so problematic about the way that parenting, in particular mothering, is treated, especially in Biglaw and in most corporate environments is, and this is something we talk about a lot on the podcast, it doesn't just impact working mothers, although obviously, it impacts working mothers. The underlying problem is this inability to recognize people as whole people and to see that supporting your employees in all of the aspects of their life actually is to your benefit as an employer.
Like you said, whether you are a working mom, whether you're a working dad, whether you don't have children but you have other family or life obligations or things that you are wanting to pursue, I think the challenge, especially in a Biglaw environment is that you are expected to be fully dedicated to the firm essentially. In fact, I know I've shared this before but I know of a story where someone was essentially admonished. It really seems like you care more about your family than you do about the firm, which to me, encapsulates the entire problem very succinctly. I think to your point, it doesn't have to be that way. It is that way but we could easily imagine a different way. We just have to be willing to do it.
Debi Yadegari: Completely. I think it comes down to the fact that there's just a lot of inefficiencies in the old system, meaning the way law works. The business model is based upon billable hours. You see your employees as robots essentially. The more they can work, the more they can bill. Lawyers, their ability is engaged necessarily on how great their work is or the quality of the work.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes.
Debi Yadegari: I don't think ever, whether it was me or somebody I work with, anyone says, “Oh, this is amazing. You are so efficient. You're so good. You can do this contract one, two, three.” I never heard that, at the same time, I never saw anybody get scolded for taking too long doing something either. I'm sure we knew that those conversations happen in the background between clients and partners like, “Oh, you billed too many hours. You have to give me a haircut on the bill.” Those conversations happen but it's a perverse system. You take that experience where you're in Biglaw and you're so concentrated on the hours, then you go in-house, which was my experience and you really have to be efficient. You have to be able to deliver for your clients, which for me, were the internal investment bankers. Those were the people that I was serving at that time. There were no bills. We were just in-house counsel. We were able to think in a more business-like way and really partner to create a more efficient system of thinking through some of the legalities of the contracts or deals or whatever we're working on. That's not always possible in a law firm situation. I think to change culture, we're going to have to change the business model of Biglaw.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, I could not agree with you more. Let's talk briefly about your in-house experience because I know, one of the things that lots of lawyers think, especially if they're at a firm, especially in Biglaw, there's this idea of like, “But if I could get in-house, then all of my problems would be solved.” That is not necessarily the case. It's often not the case. Of course, you shared you had your first child, then you didn't feel that you could continue and you ultimately left. Can you talk a little bit about that for people who have this sense that if they could just get in-house, then all of their like work-life balance issues would be resolved?
Debi Yadegari: There’s this idea that that's the holy grail going in-house. It seemed that way on both sides, I mean there was a great going away party for me when I left my law firm because they knew that I was going to a client, then ideally, they would be able to woo me and I would send business their way. Over the years into the future, there was this continuing symbiotic relationship. My lifestyle absolutely did get better. I went from working literally crazy hours. I was a deal lawyer in the law firm, so sometimes, I was going home to sleep for maybe three or four hours, take a shower, and turn right back around. I mean 16, 18 hour days were not uncommon, then sometimes, I'd be in between deals and there'd be nothing going on until another deal picked up.
When I moved in-house, my days were more like 11 hour days pretty steady. A little bit of email work, maybe a little bit of phone calls on the weekend but not like when it was at the law firm. There was definitely an uptick in lifestyle for me personally but it's still a lot of work. It depends on your profession and who you need to be accountable to. Even though I was in-house, I was still needing to deliver to investment bankers who are working on deals who need to satisfy their clients. It's a circle. I needed to be there. It definitely was an upgrade in lifestyle but it still wasn't perfect. As we move forward to the new hybrid way of work, it'll be interesting to see how lifestyle cards all fall out for people still working within law.
Hey, it's Sarah. I wanted to let you know that this fall, I'm going to be running a guided track through The Former Lawyer Framework inside the Former Lawyer Collaborative. What does that mean? Basically, that means that we'll be going through the curriculum that forms the backbone of the Collaborative called The Former Lawyer Framework. It's a five-step process that moves you from “I have no idea what I want to do” to “I know what I want to do. I know what direction I need to go in. I'm figuring out how to get there.” The guided track is essentially going to be a 10-week process where I walk you through the framework, step by step. The goal is to create some additional accountability and structure for those people who like having deadlines essentially. The way it's going to work is we will have homework or a set of the exercises or the framework that you're going to be getting through each week before that next week's call, then we'll get on the call, ask any questions that you have pertaining to that work, get any help that you need around whatever issues are coming up, then the next week, we'll do it again and we'll do it again, all the way through till right before Thanksgiving when we will have moved through the whole framework. If that sounds like something that would be helpful for you, this is going to be the only time this year I'll be running the guided track. I don't know when I'll be running it again, possibly in 2022, but I don't have any specific plans. If having this experience of having a guided track sounds like something that would help you stay on track and get you to where you want to go, then I highly recommend you jump in now. Especially for those of you who are really wanting to either make a move by the end of this year or who are anticipating wanting to make a move early next year, this is a perfect timeline for people who are in those positions. Go to formerlawyer.com/collab. The orientation call for the guided track will be on Thursday, September 9th. If you're interested in being involved in the guided track, the date that you want to join us is by Thursday, September 9th. If you have any questions, as always, you can email [email protected] The address, once more, the URL is formerlawyer.com/collab. I hope to see you there.
Sarah Cottrell: So you had your first child, you made the decision to leave, can you talk a little bit about that in terms of like, did you have this sense at the time like, “I'm leaving and I'm going to start this thing that you're doing now.” What was your thought process? Then how did you ultimately get to the point where you started the company that you're running?
Debi Yadegari: I took paid leave, then I went back and talked to my boss about coming back with some flexibility. Being able to work, I mean now, it's comical. I just wanted a day or two days, if possible, I would have taken one day, just being able to work from home because while the lifestyle absolutely was better, I was still in the office, like eight to eight. Anyone who has a child knows that babies are usually awake seven to seven. So throw in a commute and there'd be less of an hour a day that I would see my child. If the timing worked out, I was able to quickly see them for 15 minutes in the morning and I wouldn't be there in the evening to put them to sleep. I would completely miss seeing my child during the week. I wanted some flexibility to work from home a little bit. It was all contract work. I was not traveling at that point. It should have been easy but it wasn't the culture. That wasn't available.
I took another three months, then I became one of the 41% of working parents who did not return to their employer post baby. When I looked over my shoulder, I realized that I really wanted to but it was a roadblock. It was a roadblock because I didn't have the support and understanding of my employer. They might have had the understanding but it wasn't culturally feasible for the manager to give the okay. I felt like I didn't have the support as a breastfeeding mother. Also, that I needed to return and to be able to keep up with my personal breastfeeding goals, which were to continue the breastfeeding relationship and to be able to pump milk. I didn't foresee how I could have handled all of that.
Looking back, my manager who was a fabulous manager lacked the guidance on how to guide me during this process. I was a first-time mom. I don't know but maybe it was the first time that he had ever managed a working parent. That's part of the gap that I'm trying to close is empowering managers to know what to say, what to do when, because had I been given the cues that they would make it work for me if I was to stick around, I would have made it work. I did not want to walk away from my career. Remember, that middle class upbringing, fast forward, student loans, when I walked away, I still had a lot of student loans and a kid at that point. There was still pressure.
Fast forward, I walked away. In the mommy circles, I started to realize that a lot of people were feeling and experiencing what I had. I knew that it was a gap that I had to fill. Being the type A person who found their way to Biglaw, I went on to have four kids in five years. Crazy. As soon as I shoved that little fourth kiddo off to preschool, that is when I launched. It was an idea that had been percolating for years. I finally seized upon it when the little guy went off to preschool. Fast forward, I ended up having another kid after launching but the impetus was finally getting a little bit of a break.
Sarah Cottrell: It's so interesting because I mean in my friend group, which includes a lot of lawyers and just through this podcast, I hear so many stories, both from mothers and fathers about just getting to the point where in some cases, yes, they're also like, “I don't like this job.” But in other cases, they would like to make it work but it just gets to the point where it's not feasible and something has to give. To your point, I think there's often this mistaken assumption or opinion on the part of certain people about working parents and in particular, working mothers, that they just don't want to work that hard, which in my experience, literally could not be more opposite from the reality. In most cases, they're working incredibly hard and often want to make it work. Like you said, it wasn't that you couldn't have worked from home. It just was not part of the culture.
Here, we sit now in mid-2021 and obviously, some things have shifted with respect to remote work. But in a lot of ways, things haven't shifted that much because I think there still is a sense on the part of a lot of employers that if they can't see you, then how do they know that you're producing the work even though obviously, if the work's getting done, you're doing the work. I think there are so many important questions there. First, I'd love to know your thoughts on that and also specifically how the company you're running is trying to fill some of those gaps.
Debi Yadegari: I think you touched upon a lot of great points. I think the biggest point to make here is there's oftentimes lost opportunities between managers and employees. I think that's true, whether we're talking about law or other fields, other professions as well. Looking back at my personal situation or those of others, had my managers come back instead of saying, “No, you can't work from home one day a week,” but had said, “What are your priorities?” And if I had said, “I really want to be able to put my child to sleep,” maybe he would have been able to say, “Why don't you just kick off at 5:00 PM three nights a week? Would that work for you?” If we need you--” I think back then, I sold a Blackberry, not even an iPhone, “--then we'll get in touch with you in the evening. We know how to get in touch with you. Would you be okay working after you put your little one to sleep who goes to bed at 7:00 PM?” There'd still be time. But we didn't have that conversation.
In order to change culture, we really have to upscale our managers on how to talk with our employees. As you said earlier, it's not just family, I mean this is important to the marathon runner or to someone who maybe, they have a budding cooking hobby where they want to go to culinary school in the evenings because that'll be fulfilling to them, whatever it is. As you touched upon before, we are full rounded human beings who are much more than just work. I think that one of the biggest takeaways coming out of the pandemic is that we are fully rounded human beings. If we're not, we should absolutely strive to be so. It's a problem that we haven't been able to achieve up until now. That's why we're seeing so many people question whether they should remain in their place of employment today. That's why we're seeing the great resignation and so many people walk away.
But whenever I'm talking about the great resignation and what's happening right now, I always pause to say the best thing to do is to first, before walking away, have that conversation between you and your manager. Oftentimes, as employees—and this is very hard to do—sometimes, we have to manage up. We have to recognize that our manager may have never had this uncomfortable conversation before. But if it's important to us, maybe we can engage our manager in the conversation in a productive way that can create a win-win situation. Whether you're a lawyer or not, I think it's upon each of us to outline our priorities and to really think about how we can get there. Sometimes, it's just a conversation.
Sarah Cottrell: I think one of the challenges in law, particularly on the corporate side or in Biglaw is that there's a lot of like, “Well, we've always done it this way, so we're just going to keep doing it this way,” and a lack of imagination for what could be possible. It can be hard to even consider having some of those conversations if you have never seen them happening or if it feels like you are going so totally against the cultural grain. I do think that's shifting somewhat but it still definitely exists in your point earlier about that it’s structural. Tell me a little bit more about your company now, what it does, and all of that.
Debi Yadegari: I love what I'm doing now. Now, I'm trying to really make a difference in the lives of working parents. What we do is we work with large employers or not so large. It's a B2B service. We partner with employers to build out parent-friendly workspaces. How we do this is on the employee side, we connect employees one-on-one with career coaches, parenting experts, and wellness specialists. The idea being that working parents can keep their career on an upper trajectory while achieving all of their personal parenting and family goals, whether that's making sure that you're co-parenting successfully. That can sometimes create a lot of tension between partners, making sure that your tweens and teens aren't experiencing the angst. I don't know if there's any way to prevent that but at least we support the working parent as they're going through their tweens and teens experiencing the angst. Helping employees and working parents deal with sleep issues, lactation issues, pre and postnatal issues. Anything that the working parent needs, Villyge is there to support them.
On the employer side, we work with employers to improve policies. A lot of what we do is we do dive deep into the legal and compliance side of things for law firms, that's not so necessary per se, but we would love to work with some of the law firms out there on creating a place where culture meets some of the policies that they're trying to enact because it's hard to get that to drip down through the ranks to really create a place that employees want to be long-term. The attrition rate at law firms is higher than in any other profession I know. Us personally, we've managed to take the retention rate. Our average retention rate throughout our clients is 96% versus the national average of only 59%. That's amazing.
Most companies, it’s 59% post baby. All of our clients, it's 96% post baby. But the client that really brings it down or the few clients that bring it down is a couple of law firms. Look at the law firms, people are jumping ship. My team doesn't understand it internally, the ones who are not from Biglaw, but I see the numbers and I have to chuckle to myself because it's a thing. People jump ship. We're burning lawyers out. We need to do a better job. Villyge can come in and work with law firms on creating a culture of support. At the forefront of what we really do is a lot of manager training. Helping managers know what to say, what to do when.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that's so helpful. I think one of the things that I see as being particularly helpful is that for any individual to advocate for some of these changes, it requires a pretty high personal cost. One, just in terms of energy and pushing back against the norms but then depending on the place, it could also potentially be something that, for that person, might be like career inhibiting. Having an outside voice that can speak to those things and push for those kinds of changes without putting it all on those people who are coming back, like when I went back to work after my first kid was born, I was like pumping three times a day. It was like, “Oh, I have two full-time jobs.” My workplace at the time was very supportive. I was very fortunate in that regard. I think it’s just not placing all of the burden to shift the culture on the people who are most heavily impacted by the negative results in that culture is super important.
Debi Yadegari: That's the differentiator between us and our competitors. I feel like our competitors really focus on the employee, fixing the employee full stop. We focus on supporting the employee and changing the culture by interacting with the managers. As the old saying goes, “People don't quit jobs, they quit managers.” Even when I think back to when I walked away from the law firm, as I said, it was a great experience. Overall, I felt like I was part of the team. It was great but I had a few bad managers who I was not so unhappy to leave behind. I can still cringe at some of the things that they did and said. Like you said, it was accepted. It was just part of the culture. There is definitely a way to act and speak, that's part of the culture.
I don't know if you've had this but when I did walk away from the law firm, then I had my kids before I started Villyge, sometimes, people would say, “Oh well, you'll probably go back to law. You could go back to a law firm.” I cringe. I feel like whenever I overhear other people making that comment, the person receiving the comment cringes. Once you step out, you receive clarity. It's like, “I’ll never go back. That's not for me.” It changed. You could not put yourself back in that atmosphere. Or if you did come, you probably would be the squeaky wheel. I've always wondered how a squeaky wheel would do in that atmosphere. As long as you're respectful and you're able to point out things that clearly don't make sense, for instance, I remember somebody, one of the managers that I had at the time—I cringe in memory—I was sitting on one floor. I was on the 21st floor. He was on the 22nd floor. There was an internal staircase. We each had secretaries. We each had assistants who would turn in our documents, print out documents. Him and I were going back and forth on a document, and he said, “Give it to me. Do this and give it to me.” I did what he requested. I emailed it to him and he called me up, yelled at me, on speakerphone like, “I said give it to me, which means you need to march up the stairs, print it out, and give it to me.” I'm thinking like, “Oh my God, that’s not efficient. I have an assistant. You have an assistant.”
In retrospect, that's what I'm thinking. That's clearly not efficient. This is not how I should be spending my billable hours working on this client's project but at the time, I cringed. I was embarrassed that I didn't do what was asked of me. I could never go back to that environment. Not everybody at the law firm was like that. But the fact that there was somebody like that who was allowed to remain and exist is the problem. I think within law firms, most people are nice but at every law firm, there's a story of somebody like that person. It's tolerated because they're great rainmakers or they bill incredible numbers every year or whatever it is or maybe it's just they're an icon. But it's not right. I could never go back to that atmosphere. I think I would just laugh and be like, “Are you serious?”
Sarah Cottrell: There are so many stories like that, like you said. I think one of the things that is really important, when we're talking about training managers to be able to handle situations in a more appropriate and better way, one of the big challenges when we're talking about law firms is people are getting promoted into managerial positions, so partners, not really based on, “Are you a good manager?” It's like, “Are you a rainmaker? Are you bringing in business?” Lots of external facing criteria, which is fine as far as it goes but then no surprise, if you promote people with no real consideration for whether or not they are capable of managing people well, you end up with a system where you have lots of people who are not particularly gifted at managing, then you have the additional problem in a law firm where managerial authority is so diffuse. Everyone is your boss, every partner is your boss but not. No one necessarily has a great sense of how any individual associate is doing. I think those things together just make it even more essential that there be more, or really any, attention paid to how to develop a system of managing lawyers that is actually, in some way, geared towards their health and growth.
Debi Yadegari: Absolutely, I agree with that wholeheartedly. I always talk about the problem of how we promote people without the tools to do the new job. As you said, they're great rainmakers. They're great billers. Whatever it is doesn't necessarily mean that they're good managers. I think all organizations, not just law firms, experience this problem. We have to do a much better job of upskilling our managers. Statistics show that managers want this too. In law firms though, I don't know if people necessarily see themselves as managers because of what was there, all the pecking order. It's like a fourth year associate can tell a second year associate what to do but what’s a fourth year associate? Someone who's four years out of grad school, they're still a pipsqueak themselves.
There also becomes this culture of big brother beating up on little brother and it's accepted. You just pass the crap down the line and make the younger associate be the one who's staying later in the office or doing what others don't want to be doing. Whether it's practically paralegal work, the more you push it down, nothing wrong with paralegal work but you're the person at 4:00 AM who's still bait stamping documents, it's not efficient. Throughout our organizations within law firms, we don't do a good job of cultivating that talent as people are coming up through the ranks in order to teach them how to work with others. It's a lost opportunity. That's the problem because of the attrition that we spoke about. If we did a better job of teaching senior associates and junior partners how to best manage their teams, we're going to see better work. We're going to see more clients coming on board. We should be developing those skills. We should be developing rainmaking skills early on if that's what we're valuing people upon as well. There's this culture where some people are just natural leaders, natural rainmakers but it's not, so we can develop all of those skills as well.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. It's a little bit like a self-fulfilling cycle as well.
Debi Yadegari: Absolutely.
Sarah Cottrell: Debi, is there anything else that you would like to share as we're getting to the end of our conversation that we just haven't touched on yet?
Debi Yadegari: No. If you're out there and thinking about going into law, I hope we haven't dissuaded you. You can be the change maker. You can do it. If you're thinking about jumping ship, then you can do that too. At all points along your personal journey, really stop to take stock of what's important to you. Before you make a big 180 degree turn, think about whether you can improve your current situation before looking for that exit. That would be my advice to everybody out there.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that is really helpful advice. Debi, if people want to connect with you, learn more about you or about Villyge, where can they find you online?
Debi Yadegari: I am @Villyge on all social media platforms. You can find us @Villyge and the same with our website, villyge.com.
Sarah Cottrell: Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Debi, today. I really appreciate it. I love the work that Villyge is doing. I'm excited for more people to hear about it.
Debi Yadegari: Thanks, Sarah. I appreciate your time here as well.
Sarah Cottrell: Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.
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