Skip to main content
LawHub

From Pause to Purpose: Rebuilding a Legal Career with Grit and Intention

Feb 12, 2024
Listen to this episode

Geeta Tholan got a second chance within her legal career after a 10-year break to take care of her children. Her journey highlights the challenges and triumphs of transitioning back into the workforce after an extended hiatus. Initially drawn to international law and diplomacy, Geeta found herself navigating a diverse array of roles, from giving voice to the pharmaceutical industry during biological weapons prevention treaty negotiations to energy law and consulting. Both before and during her hiatus, she grappled with feelings of uncertainty and guilt, torn between societal expectations and personal fulfillment. When it was time to return to work, however, she struggled to find an employer to take her on. Eventually she found the OnRamp Fellowship from Diversity Lab, designed to support individuals reentering the workforce after career breaks. Her transition back to work, amidst the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, saw her leveraging her newfound perspective and honed skills to support Pfizer's efforts in global vaccine distribution and legal compliance. Geeta's story serves as an inspiring testament to the resilience and potential of individuals seeking to reignite their professional journeys, offering hope and encouragement to those navigating similar paths of career reinvention. Geeta is a 1995 graduate of the University of Richmond School of Law.

Transcript

Kyle McEntee:

We're joined today by Geetha Tholan, corporate counsel at Pfizer. She started at Pfizer in 2022 after taking a legal career break to take care of her kids and herself. You describe your role at Pfizer as global product counsel. I'm seeing more and more of the term “product” being applied to words like lawyer or counsel. And to be honest, I don't know if it's a trend or if I'm just more aware of it.

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

In my case, I am you could say, a general counsel for two products within our company. One is a women's health product and one is an oncology or cancer product. And I manage from a legal perspective those two products, hence the name global product counsel.

Kyle McEntee:

It's kind of like the equivalent of general counsel for a much smaller company. But it's just that your smaller company is actually defined as a product and situated in a much larger company.

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

That's very, very accurate. Yes. I think the reason why we have general product counsels is because larger pharmaceutical companies, especially, have hundreds of products. And so there are so many issues that can come up with respect to a product that it would be very difficult, I think, to spread one product across many different types of lawyers. I can determine when I need to bring in my IP colleagues or my litigation colleagues. My day-to-day role involves a lot of advertising and promotion and FDA related issues and compliance with regulatory guidelines. But the smaller, more nuanced and more technical issues I can delegate or involve other legal colleagues.

Kyle McEntee:

So those other legal colleagues mentioned, for example, your IP colleagues, are they also product specialists or they're also generalists within Pfizer that are kind of like, on tap for all the product lawyers?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

They're more generalists, but yet specialized in their field. So a specialty lawyer might support not just a portfolio of products, but a specialized disease area. we might have a patent counsel that specializes in oncology support or women's health support. There could be a variety of disease state areas that they support.

Kyle McEntee:

How did you, when you started at Pfizer, come to understand the ins and outs of all of the resources around you?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

I have been there almost two years now and I feel like I'm still learning the ins and outs. It's a very large place, but it's small at the same time. I find that the legal division is a very cohesive and very helpful bunch. So you can ask any variety of questions. People have had a lot more experience than me. There are people who have had less experience than me who I find that I'm guiding now.

Kyle McEntee::

To be a product lawyer, you really need to know your product in and out. How did you develop that expertise for your current product portfolio?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

When I was assigned my products, I had to learn the clinical trial data. It's usually published. So I started with that. It was obviously highly technical. So I had a lot of support from my medical colleagues to take me through the data, to take me through the trial, to explain what things meant, what p-values are. You know, there, there's a lot of technicality that you really need to be an expert in statistics and, related specialties to understand. And so as a lawyer, you do need to know your product and you do need to know the data and you do need to be sure that it's accurately portrayed in materials and advertising. It was a really, technical study, but I had a lot of support from my colleagues.

Kyle McEntee:

What's the balance between people coming to you with questions or issues related to those two products that you work on versus you proactively identifying potential legal issues or threats with those product teams?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

I very much try and be a part of the collective team, but the way the process works typically is that advertising and promotion originates with the marketing side. And I may or may not be involved from the beginning. Mostly I will be involved a little later when the concept has become more concrete. Maybe there are materials to review for advertising, whether they're videos, whether they're TV ads, whether they're print advertising. If the teams are doing something novel and innovative and they have questions about whether they can or can't do something, I may be brought in earlier. But for the most part, lawyers are not involved in the creative. So I will wait until it comes to me for legal review.

Some of the other issues that they might bring to me would be related to whether or not they can use certain emojis in advertising, believe it or not. So emojis might be something that we don't think about when we're typing on our phones, but they're not able to be used without permissions. And so something as simple as an emoji if we want to use it in our advertising, we've got to take it over to the IP lawyers, have them run a check, make sure that it's okay, make sure that it's been created by the agency, that it hasn't been created by somebody's iPhone, for example.

Kyle McEntee:

Are you also involved in the initial education so that way the people on the marketing team can come to know what those guardrails are?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

Yes, and that's been very much an organic process. Lawyers before me, I'm sure lawyers after me. If something comes up with a specific product, we may take that opportunity to educate some of the other brand teams about an experience that we've come across so that they can learn going forward.

Kyle McEntee:

What are the other kind of legal issues besides marketing that you're working with the product teams on?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

I work with my product teams on concept development as well. And when I say that the team is bringing me a concept, it can mean a variety of things. But one example could be a concept for sharing new information that maybe the government has released and they want to be able to share that with doctors, with patients. We want to make sure that they're sharing it compliantly. And by compliantly, I mean that they're sharing it because there's a need to know. It's not being shared at all to induce any prescribing behavior, but it's being shared purely for educational reasons, and it's relevant to the product.

So if they want to bring a new concept to the team, we will look at it. We will determine if there are legal risks, if it's kind of jumping off the company policy guardrails, we will talk about it. We will determine the level of risk. We may escalate it to my manager on the legal side, the commercial managers on, and leadership on, the commercial side and see if they're willing to take a risk. Ultimately, that's the decision that the commercial side needs to make. We have to just advise them of the risks that we see.

Kyle McEntee:

As you describe your role, it very much is service oriented. The product teams have this product, this drug therapy that they're trying to get out into the world. They're trying to do it in accordance with the laws and you're there to help them figure out how to do it and then stop them from doing something that might get the company in trouble.

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

I want to make sure that the things that my teams are doing, working hard at to bring the creative side out to bring it to consumers, that it's compliant, it's within our Pfizer policies, that we're truthful and we're accurate and we're not misleading. And I love sort of our bottom-line goal, which is to help patients. That really just keeps me going, knowing that ultimately we are benefiting and touching so many people's lives.

Kyle McEntee:

So my understanding is that, after you graduated law school, your dream was to work for the United Nations, that didn't work out, but you had a backup plan.

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

I started out at a small firm in New York City, which was wonderful, it turns out. It was great experience. It got me into the courtroom very early. But then, pretty soon thereafter, a few years later, I moved down to Washington, D.C. I had applied for a job at the U.S. Department of Commerce. In the, it used to be called the Bureau of Export Administration. It is no longer called that. It has been renamed like almost everything does get renamed in Washington DC. It's now the Bureau of Industry and Security. So basically, I worked there for a few years. I was on a delegation for treaty negotiations for a biological weapons treaty to prevent the use of biological weapons. That was really, really interesting work.

For somebody who was so junior, as I was, I was on a delegation with people far senior. I learned a lot. I was traveling very often to Geneva, which was the seat of the United Nations. So I ended up in the United Nations going a different path. So that dream did come true somewhat. And at the same time, I was exposed to the pharmaceutical industry because my role on the delegation was to understand and to protect the intellectual property interests of the U.S. biotech and pharmaceutical industry.

Just to give a very short summary, one of the proposed angles of this biological weapons treaty was to allow international inspections of global pharmaceutical sites and biotech sites just to make sure that these companies were not engaged in any kind of nefarious activity. And as you know, and most of the world knows, the United States spends billions of dollars on R&D and has a lot to protect.

So the pharmaceutical and biotech industries were naturally quite alarmed and very involved with input as to why they had interests to protect. And so I worked very closely with them to understand their perspective, to visit their facilities. So my role on the Biological Weapons Convention delegation was extremely interesting, extremely rewarding. I learned so much about the industry, but I knew that with the new administration, there were rumblings that this treaty would no longer be a priority and that negotiations were going to probably come to a slowdown, if not to a complete halt. And at the time, energy was becoming deregulated. It was becoming a hot commodity. It was traded. There was an energy crisis in California. And I decided that would be a good time to switch over to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, another government agency. And there I began my career as an energy lawyer. So I did that for some time, both in the government and in big law, as I call it. And I went in-house. And then I ended with my own consulting practice, DNG Energy Advisors, where I consulted for a public utility in Southern California.

Kyle McEntee:

So your career was really humming along, but sometimes when that's happening, work -life balance gets more difficult to manage. What strategies did you use until you couldn't anymore?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

It was tough. I realized I couldn't keep traveling to California with three young boys and I ended up working here back at a law firm in Washington DC. It was very challenging to be a mom with young kids and meet the demands of a large law firm. I had a nanny to help out. I had my mom to help support and my dad to help support. And I was fortunate, but not everybody has that family support or a nanny support. So I was able to make it work, but still had great difficulty doing that.

Kyle McEntee:

As you approach your tipping point, what was on your mind?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

I was very much torn between what is the right thing to do. I grew up with very traditional role modeling where my mom was a stay at home mom and my father worked and I was a first generation born in India but raised here but with very traditional role modeling. So I was always torn between whether I was being a good mom by being out working, or whether I was not being a good parent and being judged for not being home with my kids. So I always had that going on at the back of my mind. That was coupled with not having an environment like we have now where flexible working is, acceptable, it's more than acceptable, it's very popular now. Back then it might have been frowned upon, it might have been an exceptional circumstance, but it wasn't really the norm. There were lots of things that I had to juggle.

And at home, I felt like I wasn't being a good lawyer because I should be working. And when I was at work, I felt like I wasn't being a good mom because I wasn't at home. So at work, I was thinking of my family and the kids. And at home, I was thinking about work. We all have some level of guilt that we bring with us wherever we go. And it's hard to be 100 % guilt free in what you're doing. But oftentimes you're able to strike a really good balance. But in my case, I felt that I wasn't able to strike that balance and ultimately, my wanting to be home with my children won out.

When I thought about my decision, I thought when I look back in my life, what am I going to be most proud of? I'm going to be proud of the fact that I raised really good kids. And I'm going to be proud of the fact that I stayed up till two in the morning, not writing that brief, but baking those cupcakes for my kids second grade Valentine's party. And so that's the decision I made. And of course, there were days when I resented myself and my decision and my circumstances, but 100 % I would do it the same way. And so one Saturday I was going into work and my very, very little boy at that time held my leg because I think he couldn't go any higher than my leg. And he said, Mommy, don't go. And that week I walked in and I... I quit my job.

Kyle McEntee:

That's a big decision. But it sounded like it had kind of been a long time coming.

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

Yes…well… yes, it was a big decision. It was a huge decision. It had been percolating for a long time and it wasn't an easy decision. And then my career break ended up being a lot longer than I thought it was going to be.

Kyle McEntee:

So let's talk about that tipping point in the other direction. So after your 10 year career break, What made you feel ready to start your legal career up again?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

I started to think about going back to work in, I would say, 2017, 2018, something like that. I always knew I wanted to go back. I am surrounded by professionals. I had the desire to go back and use my education. I had the desire to go back and be in an adult friendly environment. I was really ready, I think about seven or eight years after I started my career gap, all four of my kids were in school full time and I thought I was ready to go.

I took the Maryland bar exam. I wanted to make myself more marketable in the Maryland DC area. and armed with that confidence, I was sending out my resumes to small and medium sized firms, to in -house corporations around here, but I wasn't really getting any bites. I was getting either silence or rejection. I did get one interview just through the friend of a friend. I was excited about that opportunity, but nobody wants to give you a chance when you haven't been working for so long.,

And you know, I did move around a lot. A lot of it was within the same industry and some of it was with the same partner who was moving to different places. So I was following my partner. And as a parent, as a caregiver, as someone who stops working and spends more time in the real world, you do gain a lot of life experience.

I can't pretend to know why, but I wasn't being given even a chance to come in and interview. So I was very frustrated and I thought, well, “Let me take some time off.” We were moving and then my father ended up getting very sick. He ended up going into the hospital for three weeks and we were there every day and then he moved into hospice care for about two weeks. But over the course of that five weeks when I was in the hospital, every single day between January and March of 2020, just before things closed down for the pandemic. And I saw the level of care and the medicines and the nurses and everybody working so hard for every single patient. That really moved me.

And I decided, then and there that I didn't want to go back to energy. I don't want to go back and do just any law. I want to go back to pharmaceuticals. I want to go back to serving patients the way my father was helped tremendously when he was in the hospital. And so that was always at the back of my mind. And I did apply to Pfizer. I didn't get a response. And then when I met up with the OnRamp Fellowship and I saw that Pfizer was on their website as a potential employer partnering with OnRamp, I said, that's the one. That's the one for me, that's where I want to be. I wanted to be there before, I want to be there now.

Kyle McEntee:

It sounds like you really had a moment of clarity around what you wanted your next steps to be. Can you take me through that process of realizing that you didn't want things to go back to how they were?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

That's exactly the clarity that I had. As I was re -emerging from my career break back into my career, I realized I wasn't happy before. And I don't want to go back to that. So I wanted to be passionate. I wanted to be happy. I wanted my job to have a purpose. And I wanted to be excited about going back to work. And so, before where it might have been on my employer's terms, I wanted to have a little more say into what I was going to do. And so I was very intentional about where I applied. And I was very intentional about choosing something that would make me happy. So for example, a couple of the other companies were on the OnRamp website, they encouraged me to apply to more than one. So I did, but I knew in my heart that I wouldn't want to be there. And so halfway through some of the interview rounds, I kind of just stopped because I wanted to be somewhere, like I said, where I felt I belonged and where I had purpose.

Kyle McEntee:

So talk to me a little bit about what OnRamp is.

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

So onRamp is…I wouldn't call them a headhunter, I wouldn't call them a recruiter. They're so much more than that. They're established to help people who have taken the time off of work, and it's mostly women, to relaunch their careers. It gives them the tools, it gives them a foot in the door, it has established relationships with law firms, corporations. They have the data and the metrics to show that there is value to people who have taken a career break. And employers do value that experience, that perspective, and the background that brings. And it's a very rigorous testing process, even to be considered to be an on-ramp fellow. I give them so much credit for helping me relaunch my career.

Kyle McEntee:

So how did you hear about OnRamp?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

During the pandemic, I went for a walk with a girlfriend of mine who was a very successful lawyer, a partner at a law firm. We used to be peers at one time. She never gave up working and her career really took off. And we were out walking and I was telling her how I was feeling and very frustrated and kind of, you know, unsure of where to turn and, asking her if she knew any leads and she raised OnRamp. She mentioned that someone that she knew told her about this organization that is specifically helpful to people in my position, qualified lawyers who have had successful careers but have had to take a career break.

And so, you know, I sat on it for a while. I looked them up, but I really didn't do anything. I thought I could find something on my own. And then I finally decided to just call them. I just picked up the phone and I called. And the person who happened to answer the phone was wonderful. She started talking to me right then and there and asked for my resume and set up some time for testing. And she made me feel so good from day one.

Kyle McEntee:

So the way it works is they will bring in one cohort per year. And then there's a job placement on the other side of it, right?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

Yes. They will test you and then once you have passed and they've decided to include you in their annual cohort, they have a list of open opportunities on their website. you have to identify the opportunities that you would like to interview for. they open the door to the opportunity, but ultimately you have to go through all the traditional interviews that you would had you gotten in the more traditional route

As soon as I saw Pfizer, they were my first choice, but they said, don't just count on one. You should put in your resume for a couple of places. So I did and I interviewed, but I really held out for Pfizer. I made it through a couple of rounds of interviews and I hadn't heard anything. So, I was just very hopeful. And then I heard maybe two months later that I had gotten the job and I was so excited. I couldn't wait to apply.

Kyle McEntee:

What was it that had you so excited?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

Ever since the time I worked in pharmaceuticals with the biological weapons treaty at the commerce department, I worked closely with a trade organization named Pharma and I worked closely with some pharmaceutical reps, not sales reps, but industry representatives. I just had a strong draw to Pfizer. I mean, they've done incredible things. They're 175 years old this year. They've saved thousands and thousands of lives. And I always said they were my superhero. During COVID, again, they saved the world. You know, they have just really driven innovative therapies. And I've had a strong admiration for Pfizer.

So between the time that my dad passed in March 2020, just before everything shut down for the pandemic, between that time and probably the end of the year when a vaccine was developed, I was one of the Pfizer cheerleaders on the sidelines like many of us were. And a year later is when I actually applied for OnRamp. And so I feel like in some way the universe made it happen.

Kyle McEntee:

So you did start during COVID. Were you working on COVID related products for Pfizer?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

I was hired into the COVID team. So I was working on the COVID contracting legal team. it was a small team, so we had a lot of responsibility right away. The person who was managing the global donations of the vaccines and the antiviral had rolled off to a different position. So I became the lawyer to facilitate worldwide donations from one country to another country. We had to amend contracts, we had to sell the vaccines and the antivirals. I was mostly in charge of emerging markets and Asia with some international developed markets as well. It was a really exciting time, but also a very satisfying time, just knowing that you're facilitating either the donation or the sale of so many important valuable medicines. And it was really surreal for me to be watching it on the news one day and living it the next day.

Kyle McEntee:

So can you give us some examples of some of the skills that you developed during your career break that really strengthened during that time that had an impact on this first year of you being back in practice?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

When I first started speaking with OnRamp, I had very, very low confidence. You know, maybe I did forget everything. Maybe I won't be an effective lawyer anymore. But they made me understand that my life experiences were actually really valuable in ways that I may not have realized.

For example, I think I became a much more calm person. I was able to deal with conflict with all these little kids at home, parents at school, you know, school issues, school bus issues. There are just a whole host of issues in the community that you can be involved in and advocate. And you can continue to build those people skills and advocacy skills and arbitration skills and problem solving. It's really every day and I did a lot of social service in the community. I always enjoyed doing pro bono as a lawyer, so I just turned it into something else. I developed really healthy skills to deal with stress.

Kyle McEntee:

Well, it's interesting because one of the things that we here at LSAC do is try to help prelaw and law students see the value of what they did before law school in terms of how it will help them be a better student and better lawyer. And it seems it's right on theme here with you as well, that you took these experiences that were not obviously legal experiences, but have real implications for how you do your job as a lawyer.

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

Yes, I think that these experiences, whether they're in your home community, or whether you're traveling, or whether you're with different kinds of people, you really can apply those skills to the different types of personalities you're working with, whether it's your teams, whether it's your peers. I think it sets you up to be a much more empathetic person. A lot of lawyers, we just like to hear ourselves and there is value to being silent and listening to other perspectives and other voices in the room. I fully appreciate having the opportunity to sort of step back and see also what are the things that are worth arguing about really important. And having that always in the back of your mind really helps even in dealing with different issues on a day-to-day basis.

Kyle McEntee:

Is there something that you wish you'd known before you took your career break?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

I wish I had known that I would get the second chance because it was very difficult in the beginning. I did harbor some resentment, especially when I saw my husband getting ready to go to work every day. And I felt like, why did I go to school? Why am I cooking? I'm this educated person and I'm folding laundry. And there's nothing wrong with that because you have to do that. You know, that's life. But I think had I known that I would get a second chance in my career, I might have spent a little less time being resentful and don't get me wrong, I really, really enjoyed being home with my family. I really did. And once I decided that that's what I was gonna do, I think I did a pretty darn good job at it. But that initial resentment and that initial feeling sort of less than 100% when you see people around you with their careers and it does make you feel bad.

I wouldn't have changed it. I wouldn't have changed the way I did it. but you can't tell your young self that unless you go through it. Now though, when I have younger lawyers talking to me, I tell them that all the time. There is no shame in stepping back or maybe taking time off. There's no shame in raising your children or you raising your family. And you will get a second chance. You just have to keep trying.

Kyle McEntee:

Would you describe your story as a comeback story?

Geeta Oberoi Tholan:

I would, I would describe it as a comeback story only because I know how difficult it is for a lot of lawyers and perhaps other professionals to come back and have a second chance at their careers. It's not something that's done every day. Oftentimes when one parent chooses to stay home, it's sort of a forever thing.

And so, yes, I truly believe that this is a comeback story. I think there are so many factors at play that helped me come back between my supportive family, my strong desire to go back to work, the company that decided to take a chance on me after not having worked for a while. I have so much gratitude for the people that made that decision. So I'm one of the lucky ones and I just hope that employers do give others a chance because there are a lot of us out there that are talented and that have experience and that have life experience now with a very different added perspective that would be a benefit to employers. So don't look at us and our career gaps as a negative, look at it as a positive.

Previous episode Next episode

Related episodes