Fighting for herself, asking the right questions, finding the best solutions, and working hard to reach her goals – all these describe Magdalena.
After our first meeting, I once again knew that motivation is infectious – we can pass it on to one another.
I hope that reading this interview will inspire you and make you see the world as Magdalena does: nothing is impossible!
It has been some time since Magdalena moved to Seattle and for the first few years, she could not work due to the H‑4 visa employment restriction.
Nevertheless, she decided to fight for herself and thousands of women in a similar situation.
People look for their professional calling for years.
I wonder how it was for you. What was your path to becoming a lawyer and establishing your law firm in the U.S.?
There was this one incident years ago when I still lived in Poland. I was about 18 years old, and with my first-earned money, I bought myself a pair of shoes, which turned out to be faulty. I tried to return them, but back in the 90’s, it was incredibly difficult to enforce claims in Poland.
I still remember the feeling of helplessness and the urgent need to have the exact knowledge of the applicable legal protections.
Shortly after that, I took an introduction to law class. I instantly fell in love.
I was mesmerized with the transparency and predictability of the code‑based civil law system. A year later, I was studying law at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (concurrently studying European Studies).
Everything changed when my husband got a job at Microsoft. We decided to leave Poland and move to Seattle.
By that time, I had already completed my European Studies and held a Bachelor of Science degree, but I had to quit my law studies in Poland to avoid separating from my husband.
After coming to the U.S., many of my expectations and assumptions were proved wrong. Nothing was clear or transparent anymore, and getting a job offer based on my European Studies’ degree was not an option in Seattle since all European Union‑related jobs were located on the East Coast.
My knowledge of the Polish law was of no use in the U.S. and the American common law system seemed utterly convoluted to me at the time. But despite all that, I knew I had to make my mark somehow. I was 22 and ready to take on the world.
I started with some basic questions:
What can I do with the skills I had already acquired in Poland? What could I do if I gained new skills? How do I get new skills and how many years will it take?
How many thousands of dollars will it cost?
Looking back, I realize that the answers only come to you when you actively pursue them. I had to go and do things – volunteer, take classes, meet people from various walks of life – to figure out what my next big step should be. And sure enough, the answers started coming as I engaged in several projects.
First, I located the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), a legal non‑profit organization helping immigrants in Seattle, and I started volunteering there four days a week, eight hours a day. It was like an unpaid full‑time job.
Volunteering and not getting paid for the job isn’t exactly common in Poland. How did your loved ones react to that?
My family in Poland could not believe that I was working for free. They were even more surprised that I didn’t mind spending money on gas and parking while getting nothing tangible in return. A true story: NWIRP did not have a big enough parking lot to accommodate volunteers, so I ended up doing street‑parking and moving my car from one curb to another every two hours. Can you imagine leaving your desk every two hours to re‑park your car or feed the meter? It was a bit crazy, but this gives you an idea how badly I wanted to get this experience.
NWIRP taught me how to build cases on behalf of women who had experienced domestic violence.I learned how to argue and gather proper documentation for such legal cases.
It was also a place where I met an inspiring Columbia‑born attorney practicing law in the U.S.
She was the living proof that if you have a lot of motivation and you want something, you can certainly get it. Sometimes knowing that what you want to do is feasible – that it was accomplished by someone else before – gives you a boost of confidence and makes you believe in your dreams.
About the same time, I decided to sign up for a two‑month long online creative writing course and started my preparations for the law school admissions test ( the LSAT exam). I was studying and taking practice tests daily for a year. At that point, I knew I could get a high enough test score to have a chance of being admitted to law school. That was a time of enormous discipline and motivation for me.
Does that mean that your relocation to Seattle did not hinder your career?
Coming to Seattle did not hinder my eagerness to study law, but it did cause more difficulties than I initially expected. At the time, international students did not qualify for any student loans, and the total cost of enrollment in law school was close to $100,000. We were on a very tight budget for about four years to save up for my studies.
But you made it and started studying law just as you planned!
Yes, I made it. Studying law in Seattle was a beginning of a new chapter in my life.
By that time, I had already overcome quite a few obstacles, and I genuinely started believing that I could accomplish anything I wanted. I was studying with such passion that sleep became secondary; I slept for only three and a half hours a day over the entire first year of law school. My husband took over all the house chores: cleaning, cooking, shopping, doing laundry – you name it, he did it.
Since I did not have a kid at the time I spent 100% of my time studying.
I fell in love with the flexibility of the American legal system. I wasn’t even thinking about the grades.
One day, after the very first round of exams, my classmate congratulated me on getting the most awards for best‑written exams in various subjects. I almost fell off my chair – I wasn’t aware such awards even existed!
As it turned out, each professor was choosing the best‑written final exam/essay not knowing the name of a student who wrote it. There may be a lot of A’s in each class, but only one person is recognized as best. The moment I found out it was me in more than one class, I realized that being a non‑native English speaker and having a Polish accent would not affect my future anymore.
Right after I finished the first year of studies, I received two job offers, and I graduated with the highest distinction, Summa Cum Laude.
Going to work every day after graduating was pure joy. Even though I was working twelve hours a day, I woke up and went to sleep with a huge smile on my face. I truly got to know what independence and fulfillment meant. I was working with remarkably smart, interesting people with a lot of knowledge and expertise.
I learned something new every day and felt that my hard work had paid off.
I can’t help but smile when I think of those years.
But then something changed…
As the years were passing by, I was becoming more aware that there was still one thing I always wanted but never had the time to enjoy – motherhood.
After I got pregnant, my world shifted, and I knew it was time for new achievements. I could no longer dedicate twelve hours a day to work. My son, Alex, was born, and although I went back to work and tried blending litigation schedule with my new obligations as a mother, I realized at some point that I had to make a bigger adjustment.
I left Lane Powell, the law firm I was working for and spent an entire year home with my son. After a while, my former clients started turning to me for legal advice and representation.That’s how my law firm, Summac Law PLLC, came into existence.
Where did that name come from and what kind of services do you provide?
The name I chose for my law firm is a crossover between the Latin word “summa” (for the honorable distinction I received upon graduating) and the English word “sumac,” which is a name of a tree shaped like an umbrella (for the protection it offers).
My law firm allows me to work from home and maximize the time I spend with my son.
For almost a year now, my law firm has been working exclusively with a well‑known, award‑winning law firm, Rimon PC, that provides a full range of business law services and specializes in serving international clients in the U.S. and abroad.
Over the years, I have helped Polish and U.S. clients with various legal matters. Clients most frequently ask me for assistance with contract preparation and review, will preparation, representation in negotiations, and preference litigation. I’ve also been helping Polish companies that want to start doing business in the U.S.
“I have the right to be who I want to be.”
This statement probably describes you best, right?
Yes, I strongly believe that I do have the right to be who I want to be.
I do not allow the world to tell me how to do things and what to think.
When I first arrived in Seattle, establishing a legal career in the U.S. seemed much too complicated and time‑consuming. Difficulties were piling up, and it would have been easy to give up and say it wasn’t worth it.
But deep down I knew that if I wanted to become a lawyer, I would make it.
I felt I had the right to pursue my dreams.
Many new mothers, especially immigrants, spend some time at home, either due to the visa processes or by choice, like you. In Poland, we are used to a long‑term paid maternity leave, but there is no such thing in the U.S. How do you remember the time you spent with your newborn son?
I felt it was a gift and I loved every moment of it. That period of my life gave me more than joy though; It was transformational for me. I started seeing the world from an entirely different perspective then.
Only when I became a mom did I fully understand what it takes to stay home and raise children. It takes patience, determination, and lots of skills. I gained tons of respect for stay‑home moms during that time.
The sad thing is that many stay‑home moms get easily judged by those who continue their professional careers. But dedicating some time to raising kids at home is not the same as having no ambition or aspirations.
I believe that there is a right time for everything. We don’t have to have everything all at once. Spreading out major life projects in time has a lot of advantages.
Sandra Day O’Connor, a former Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, is one of the most inspiring women lawyers and was the first female on the Supreme Court.
I read once that Justice O’Connor believed that the secret of her success was in dedicating her early years as a lawyer to her kids and family and only later devoting herself completely to her work. Justice O’Connor had a twelve‑year gap in her resume, and yet, she was nominated to the Supreme Court and greatly influenced the law in the U.S. What we do at the moment does not predetermine what we will do over the next 30 or 40 years.
However, a lot of women are afraid they will have nothing to go back to once they decide to take an extended break in their careers.
That’s true – many of us are genuinely worried about it. I was concerned about that too. Today, however, I try to be conscious of my fears and not let them steer me. I try to listen to my inner voice and follow the road it tells me to take, no matter the obstacles.
That said, the no‑fear attitude is not enough – it’s just the first step.
The next step is staying in touch with as many people as possible throughout a long career break because genuine human connections are key to finding work.
Volunteering is another significant opportunity to stay involved to some extent.
I remember volunteering as a judge at numerous advocacy competitions at the University of Washington over the years. I was also helping veterans with their estate planning through a program at the Washington State Bar Association. Some companies offer fellowships for moms returning to the workforce after a career hiatus (for instance OnRamp Fellowship); those may turn into permanent employment after a year or so.
Is there anything you do to keep your energy and motivation level high?
If I don’t take good care of myself, my health suffers. So each day, I find the time to meditate, practice Tai Chi, and read one chapter from Deepak Chopra’s book, “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.” I also try to eat healthily, walk, take lots of vitamin D and turmeric, and go see a music or dance performance once every three months.
All of this keeps me balanced. When I look after myself and my own needs, I have the energy to look after others – my son, my husband, and our family in Poland.
It’s just like with the air mask on the plane: you need to look after yourself first to be able to help others successfully.
After reading your publication on immigration law and before our first meeting, I was a bit afraid you may be intimidating. But, here you are: a beautiful, authentic girl many other women in Seattle can relate to! What can I wish for you?
A little bit of luck… but not for me. I am hoping for some good luck for the recipients of the work permits issued in the last three years to some of the H‑4 visa holders. Until 2015, none of the H‑4 visa holders have been able to work in the U.S. I was in that same position for the first six years after moving to the U.S. and in my third year of law school, I published a law review article dealing with that issue (“The Golden Cage: How Immigration Law Turns Foreign Women Into Involuntary Housewives”).
In my law review article, I argued that the H‑4 visa holders should be allowed to work. Soon after my publication came out, a lot of people took interest in this problem. Microsoft was the first to reach out to me – I received an informal inquiry whether Microsoft’s immigration department could use my legal arguments in their lobbying efforts to change the regulation prohibiting all H‑4 visa holders from working in the U.S.
Later, I received a call from a person working with the Senate’s immigration committee, asking whether I had any objections to my article being used by the committee in their documentation supporting a proposed revision to the law.
Then, BBC got interested and did a telephone interview with me. Things started to look up for H‑4 visa holders.
Finally, in the spring of 2015, President Obama signed a new law allowing H‑4 visa holders to apply for a work permit within a prescribed time prior to receiving a green card.
It’s not a full victory because applying for the employment authorization is only possible after some time
in the H‑4 status. However, for people from certain regions, such as India or China, the waiting period is now a few years shorter than before.
Even though there is no exact data, it is estimated that 180,000 H‑4 visa holders apply for their work permits each year under the new law. The Seattle Times published a front‑page article about it back in April 2015.
I hope that the current political situation will not affect the H‑4 visa holders’ ability to work.
That’s my wish for all H‑4 visa holders out there.