Episode 202: Relaunching in Pro-Bono Legal Services After a 15 Year Career Break, with Jenny Brody
Jenny Brody is a partner at a law firm she co-founded, Brody Kling PLCC, which specializes in providing high quality, affordable legal representation in family law matters in the DC area. Jenny found her passion for this work while she was out on a 15-year career break. Jenny joined forces with two other attorneys on career break, Karen Marcou and Marla Spindel, to form the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project (DCVLP) which provides free legal help for domestic violence victims and at-risk children. Jenny talks about the origins, unique challenges, and growth of DCVLP, including their use of a job share arrangement that was critical for learning and contingency planning. She also discusses her work at Brody Kling and how it was created to fulfill an unmet need identified while she was at DCVLP.
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Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, and your host. Today we welcome Jenny Brody. Jenny is a partner at a law firm she co-founded, Brody Kling, which specializes in providing high-quality, affordable legal representation in family law matters in the DC area.
Jenny found her passion for this work when she was out on a fifteen year career break to care for her children. When her youngest child started school in 2007, Jenny began volunteering to represent victims of domestic violence pro bono. Faced with the enormous unmet need for legal services in this area, in 2008, Jenny joined forces with two other attorneys on career break to form the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project, which provides free legal help for domestic violence victims and at-risk children.
The organization is now one of the largest providers of legal services to domestic violence victims in the district.
In 2015, Jenny was named a Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian Magazine. Jenny, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.
Jenny Brody: Thank you, Carol. I'm very happy to be here.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, we've known each other for a long time and it's great to be talking to you all these years later after your relaunch and after doing something in your relaunch that is so meaningful and has had an impact on so many people. So, I want to start, though, at the beginning, and I wanted to know if you can tell us what you did before your career break, and how you got interested in starting the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project once you were well into your career break.
Jenny Brody: Before my career break, I followed what is really a very typical path for someone graduating from law school. I clerked for a judge, I worked at the US Department of Justice, and I then worked for a law firm doing civil litigation, primarily representing large companies. So that was my career path, and I worked part time after my first child was born. After my second child was born, I decided I would stay home with my kids for a while because I was struggling to work part-time and care for the kids. And that was originally envisioned as a short, off ramping experience. I then had a third child and my career break stretched ultimately to fifteen years.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I just want to comment, we hear this so frequently that people think, "I'm only going to take a couple of years off," and then the next thing you know, they wake up and ten years have gone by.
Jenny Brody: That's exactly what happened.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. I'm sorry, I interrupted you. And you were about to talk about how you first got interested in the forming what became the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project.
Jenny Brody: So after I'd been out not working as a lawyer for a very long time, I was not feeling highly motivated to go back to law firm practice, because at that point, my husband's a lawyer and we were pretty used to living on one income.
So I wasn't really primarily motivated to increase our family finances, which you know, was a very privileged position to be in. But I really felt motivated to use my law degree in some way. And so that's what led me to start volunteering, to take cases, to represent domestic violence victims. And what led me to start the Volunteer Lawyers Project is that I saw that most legal services organizations in DC were not set up to use the talents of lawyers who were not affiliated with law firms. And the most striking example of this was that I needed to buy my own malpractice insurance policy in order to take pro bono cases.
So while I wasn't motivated to make money, I didn't want to have to actually pay out of pocket to provide volunteer services. And so I met two other lawyers, again, home on career breaks with their kids, who were in a similar position. We thought that if we formed a nonprofit, we could get a group policy to cover all of us at a lower rate than we were paying individually. We also thought that there were probably many more lawyers at home with kids in our position, who might do volunteer work if they had the resources to do it, including again, malpractice coverage. So one of those three co-founders happened to be a lawyer who had worked with nonprofits when she worked at a law firm. So we sat down one morning and drafted out a 501c3 application and corporate documents to incorporate our organization.
We held a very small informal fundraiser to gather funds, to raise some money. And that was how the organization started in 2008.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. That's an amazing story. I'm wondering, and maybe because it's the Washington DC metro area, is there a higher concentration of lawyers, or lawyers who might be on career break than maybe in some other cities?
Jenny Brody: I'm sure that's true. And in fact, our first organizational meeting to recruit other lawyers, or to see if there was interest in other lawyers, we recruited people via a moms' list, a Northwest DC mom's listserv. And the other place we recruited lawyers was actually on our school listservs.
We just put out a thing saying, "Do you have a law degree you're not using?" We had an informal meeting at my house, and we were really surprised by the number of lawyers at home who showed up for that meeting and were really interested in doing this work.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. That's a great headline and a really great origin story. Can you tell us how you pinpointed domestic violence or family legal matters as the focus for the group, as opposed to some other area of pro bono legal work?
Jenny Brody: Yeah, that was really not thought, for me, it was just a personal process. I looked at pro bono opportunities. I thought, "domestic violence survivors with children," that really speaks to me. Or, I didn't actually know if it would speak to me or not, but I thought let me make an effort to do this. And the first case I took was a young woman who actually did have two young children, toddlers, and had been very severely abused by her partner. And I just immediately connected to first, her plight, but second of all, her courage and her determination to get out of the terrible situation she was in. And thirdly, the fact that I had legal skills that I could use to help her in a very tangible way to get a protection order, to get custody of her children, to get child support, that I could put my legal skills to work in a way that really provided immediate, tangible benefits to this woman's life.
And it was really a rewarding feeling.
Carol Fishman Cohen: That leads me into the next two questions that I wanted to ask you. And it sounds just unbelievably rewarding and such high impact work. But I was trying to picture the founders sitting around the table and you register to be a 501c3 and then you're set up. And then what happened? How did you find the first case? What happened after that? Can you just take us through maybe the first few weeks or months or even the first year, and just talk about what actually happened day to day?
Jenny Brody: That's a good question. I'm casting my mind back to 2008. Actually after our first meeting where we recruited other lawyers, we had a group, a core group at that point of maybe six to eight lawyers who were really committed to this project. And the first thing we did was get a group policy that covered all of us, which was a big step because at that point we did have a viable 501c3 organization.
At that point we started initially taking cases from other legal services organizations, but we took them via our nonprofit. And the first thing we did is that we decided to always take cases in pairs of two, because all of us had been out of the legal practice for some time. So we all felt to varying degrees, really unsure about going back to legal practice at all, number one, and number two, practicing in an area where none of us had prior experience. And it was somewhat daunting. So what we did is we took training programs together, or eventually we were able to get lawyers who had more experience in this area, who worked at legal services organizations, to come and do group training programs for us.
And that was a really important step because we needed the expertise and experience of people who had worked in this area. And then secondly, we took all cases in pairs, both because we discovered it was a better experience in terms of collegiality, but also really to co-mentor each other and to provide a boost of confidence.
And then the third thing was a practical thing, since we all had kids at home, we did it for backup. So, on the inevitable day that there was a court hearing where one lawyer had a sick child at home, the other lawyer could step in. So it was also our backup childcare arrangement in effect.
And that proved to be a really pretty successful model to the point that, as far as I know, the Volunteer Lawyers Project continues to follow that model, where they assign cases to lawyers in pairs, because it really addresses a lot of needs. So really what happened was we just started taking cases. We just said, "Okay, we're going to practice as lawyers in this area, let's start taking cases."
And we met regularly to talk about our cases and what kinds of issues we were experiencing and how it was going. And at the same time we started, we continued to recruit more lawyers. We also, at that point, I think started exploring other funding opportunities through, I think initially, private foundations to see if there was a way we could get additional funding to fund our activities. Because another thing we discovered early on is that there were other court costs we needed to worry about, particularly, this is a sort of obscure legal point, but we had to get service of process on the opposing party. And so we had to hire private process servers and it cost money, and so that became what we called our litigation fund. Again, with the idea that people were willing to volunteer, but they weren't willing to pay out of pocket to provide pro bono. So the litigation fund covered things like copying costs for court documents and service of process, filing fees, the other types of costs associated with the case.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Got it. And wow, this sounds like you're learning all of this on the job as things are progressing.
Jenny Brody: A hundred percent on the job. And actually one sort of turning point for us was when a friend of a friend had, it was someone who had an MBA, a business degree. She was home with her kids, and she volunteered to come in and do a planning session with us and also created something that as lawyers we were unfamiliar with, which is an organizational chart.
We had not thought about the need for such a thing. Her name is Thea, and Thea helped us to understand that that would help us, and worked with us to create some sort of basic channels of accountability and reporting, and division of labor, primarily who was going to do what. And that was very useful to our organization.
So, gradually we were able to assign tasks, divide and conquer, and have structured processes for accomplishing tasks.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm really intrigued by a couple of things. First of all, essentially, you're talking about a job share. So you had a job share model with lawyers in pairs working on each case.
Jenny Brody: Correct.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And, having talked to a lot of people who have been in job share relationships, that have worked and have not worked, the comment that I usually hear is both people need to be A players and have the equal commitment to the work that you're doing. So it's not taking on an uneven amount of workflow, and it sounds like you had that and you figured out this model right from the beginning. And it turned out to be the right model.
Jenny Brody: It did turn out to be the right model. To be a hundred percent honest, another factor was, one of the first cases that we took, we had to go meet with the client in her home, because she was caring for a very young child, and as it happened she lived in a housing project in Washington, DC called Sursum Corda, which was notorious for being a fairly high crime area. And so we also went together. I don't know what we thought we would do if there was any dangerous situation that arose, but it felt better to be with another person.
And again, that proved to be a valuable learning experience for future cases. But in terms of both people bringing their A game to the job share situation, I think that took care of itself because this was volunteer work. So you're either motivated to do it or you're not.
And if you're motivated to do it, you're going to do it. But I think the other thing we all discovered is that one of the skills we did not lose as lawyers from our being at home, is that what's ingrained in legal practice is meeting your client's needs, achieving your client's goals.
And that was something that stayed with all of us, so that when we turned that basic voyeurs’ orientation to pro bono work, we were very committed to achieving our clients' goals. The fact that our clients' goals were so meaningful made it really, in some respects, there was more motivation than probably any of us had experienced previously, even in law firm jobs.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. I mean, you're working so closely with someone who is vulnerable and you're helping them move out of that situation. It's very emotional.
Jenny Brody: It was and especially, we all had kids and we were meeting clients and we were meeting their kids. And, once you see a toddler who needs help, or a mom who needs help to protect her toddler and keep a child safe, it becomes highly motivating.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. So actually my next questions have to do with, how did people, your potential clients hear about you? And how did you actually get connected with these cases that you took? And then how did other members of the legal profession understand what you were doing and start referring cases?
Jenny Brody: So initially we took cases from existing legal services organizations, as I said. So that's how the cases came to us. And then, as it happened, one of the organizations we work closely with, which was a domestic violence organization, actually lost funding a couple of years after we started our organization, lost funding and actually disbanded, so they didn't exist anymore.
And because that left such a void in the legal services area in Washington, DC, and we had a structure to take those cases. At that point, we worked directly with an organization affiliated with the court and started getting referrals directly, essentially directly from the court for domestic violence cases. Then judges referred cases to us. Judges got to know us because we were in court and they started referring cases to us as well.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Then, as the organization has grown, can you give us a sense of, you started, it sounds like with about six people. How big is it now? And what was that growth trajectory over time? And are there still significant numbers of relaunchers, like lawyers who are on career break, who work in the organization?
Jenny Brody: Well, that's interesting that you say, because I just spoke to a lawyer who contacted me through some other means, and she was wanting to relaunch. And so I suggested, I think she contacted me because she was interested in our law firm, and she was interested in family law, and I said, "Well, my best advice would be to contact the Volunteer Lawyers Project and start taking cases with them." And a few months later, she emailed me to say, "I'm taking cases. This is a phenomenal experience. This is really helpful." So yes, there are still relaunchers. Our organization grew really rapidly because looking back in time in 2008, it was in the middle of the recession, which actually perversely benefited our organization because a lot of lawyers were laid off from law firms or they had offers from law firms that were rescinded. And so it wasn't just relaunchers who were home with their kids. There also started to be other lawyers who weren't affiliated with law firms.
And so they started seeking out the Volunteer Lawyers Project. Because of the name of our organization, when you did a Google search for volunteer and lawyer on Google, pretty rapidly our organization was the first thing that popped up, but we didn't pay for that. It just worked out that way. So we started getting many inquiries. And then the third thing we did fairly early on, we made a connection with a person who is a lawyer in the DC government.
As you can imagine, there are many federal government lawyers. And interestingly, federal government lawyers are allowed to do pro bono work in their free time. The government encourages them, but the government doesn't provide malpractice insurance for them. So once again, it was back to that. Since we were offering to provide malpractice insurance for anyone who volunteered with us, we started getting many inquiries from federal government lawyers who wanted to take cases with us.
And we set up a whole system, it's an official system with the federal government, the coordinator for pro bono activities for federal government lawyers. And another thing we discovered, sometimes it's really small, practical things, federal government lawyers couldn't get time off during the workday to attend training programs.
So we did training programs for them in the evenings, in federal government buildings, which they made available, so that they could come directly from work to a training program and we provided dinner.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow.
Jenny Brody: Sometimes the smallest things make a huge difference. So it became feasible for people, because we were doing the training programs at a place that was close to their work site, starting after work, and they didn't have to pick up dinner before they came. And we pared down our training programs so we could do them relatively quickly. That's how it worked.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. A lot of ingenuity there. And, interesting to see how it evolved to include these different groups of lawyers. You mentioned your law firm, Brody Kling, and I wanted to know if you could tell our listeners when Brody Kling got formed? Why? And at what point after your involvement with the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project?
Jenny Brody: Sure. So one of the things, among other things, one of the things we did at Volunteer Lawyers Project, was we set up and we got grant funding actually for a walk-in domestic violence clinic, which was that people could just come and they didn't need an appointment. We had translators for multiple different languages through an online service, and they could meet privately with a lawyer for whatever amount of time it took. Initially I staffed the clinic, it just worked out that way because I was interested in doing it. And so what I started to see at the clinic was multiple people coming in who were victims of domestic violence and desperately needed services, but were not eligible for free civil legal services through the Volunteer Lawyers Project because they were over income.
So part of our 501c3 constraint was we were serving a low income population, and low income is defined under the tax code or generally is within 2% to 400% of federal poverty guidelines, and that is a really low number, particularly for an area like Washington, DC. So it meant that even someone who was working in retail, for example, making minimum wage or slightly above minimum wage was not eligible for free legal services. And certainly someone who was a teacher, a bus driver, a police officer, a whole range of people who were employed just weren't eligible. It was just heartbreaking to tell them that, because these were also people who could not afford the going rate for family lawyers, which tends to start at $300 and goes up to $600 an hour. There was just simply no way they could afford that, and we had nowhere to refer them to. We asked around, we tried to find names of lawyers who might take these cases on a reduced fee basis, but it was really difficult to find any names of folks who would do it. So it was just a constant source of frustration to me. I was just seeing a very large unmet need in that area. Eventually, so there was some talk for a long time within DC VLP, could we start a for-fee service within the structure of our nonprofit? But that's actually pretty complicated to do for various legal reasons. So, what happened in 2016, actually one of the first things that happened was I took a leave of absence from DC VLP to work on the Hillary Clinton campaign.
So unfortunately, we know how that turned out really to everyone's shock and surprise, including mine. So I was then recouping from that shock when another lawyer from Volunteer Lawyers Project and I, we had been talking about this idea for a while, thought, "Why don't we experiment with starting,” what we call at that time, “a low bono law firm?" Which would be a law firm that would handle domestic violence cases on a reduced fee base.
It's like charging a sliding scale based on a client's income. And so we didn't know if that would be a viable economic model because we were in a nonprofit, we didn't have grant funding, so we had to cover our costs, and at least not lose money. In fact, our initial goal was to at least make as much as we had been making as salary, or salaries of at Volunteer Lawyers Project.
And so that's how we started Brody Kling. And again, Brody Kling, the law firm, just exploded as soon as we opened the firm. There were people referred to us, primarily legal services organizations who again were turning away clients because they were over income, for free civil legal services started referring clients to us, and they were glad to have a place to refer clients.
And then, word of mouth spread, and again, the firm grew very rapidly. We hired an associate who's now a partner. We hired another associate. We have a paralegal. So again, the firm grew quite quickly.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And how long has the firm been around at this point?
Jenny Brody: Let's see, we got organized and started January, 2017. So, yeah, four point something years.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. did you ever envision this, that this is where you would end up, post career break when you first began your time home with your children?
Jenny Brody: Not in a million years. I can say that there were many things I didn't envision. When I think of myself graduating law school, first of all, if anyone had told me that I would end up leaving legal practice to stay home with my kids, I would have said, "No, that's not for me. Yeah. Maybe I want kids, but certainly I'll continue working after I have children." So the impulse to stop working and stay home with my kids came as a complete shock to me. Not in the least what I had ever envisioned. And then in addition, my interests in law school were in civil litigation and the way it's traditionally practiced in law firms, which is, you're working for big companies and you're handling large cases and you're doing litigation, in that format.
And so the idea of doing legal services for low income people just really had never crossed my mind. And I had not taken any classes in family law in law school. So it was not an area I really knew anything about.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, actually that was one of my questions that I realized I didn't ask you earlier. So when a new lawyer comes on board now or in recent years, and the family law area is completely new to them, how long does it typically take them to get up to speed, to be able to be representing?
Jenny Brody: So again, our original model was we took cases in pairs, and then we expanded that model to say, okay, so once two lawyers have taken a case together and gotten some experience, each of them will then take cases with a new lawyer who doesn't have experience and mentor that lawyer.
And then that lawyer will take a case with someone who doesn't have experience, so you sort of have a cascading effect, a ripple effect of people who had experience. And then once the organization got grant funding, what we did is we hired lawyers, actually, who had been volunteers with us who did a good job, and they became official paid supervisors on all cases.
And so that became the way we had, first of all, we had official training programs for lawyers, so they could get content knowledge in the areas in which we practice. And then we had a paid supervisor assigned to every case, supervise at a higher level. And then we did a couple of other things.
One was, we created what we called a pleadings library, because lawyers often when they have to file documents, they need templates. So we created an online pleadings library, and at that point we had some technical help to do it, and we had folks volunteering to organize it. And that made it so that a lawyer who took a new case could just download a pleading as a word document, and file the documents they needed to, to handle the case in court, but without having to reinvent the wheel every time.
So that was a really useful process. We created training materials, we created a domestic violence handbook, which law firms donated copying costs to us. Of course now everything's online, but we created our own training materials. And then we also pioneered something which almost all legal services do now, in fact, everyone does now, which was to record our training programs and have them available online. And so initially it was pretty primitive. We literally hired someone with a video camera, like a film student, to record the training program and splice it together with PowerPoint.
And then at that point, the organization had a website and we put the training programs on the website. That was a way that people could do the training program online, access all the training materials online, and also access, again, our pleadings library of court documents. So it became, even for someone who didn't have prior family law experience, it became feasible to handle a case at a high level, to provide high quality services at a high level using the organization's resources.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Can you just clarify for our non-legal audience, the pleadings library, is that documentation for when you have to file to have a case heard in court?
Jenny Brody: Correct. So pleadings are just lawyer-speak for documents filed in court. So, just at the simplest level, a client comes in and she needs custody of her kids. So you need to file a complaint for custody. You would go to the pleadings library, there's a Word document "complaint for custody in a domestic violence case," it gives you a template of the kinds of things. Of course, the lawyer assigned to the case has to fill in the individual facts after meeting with the client, and modify the document to meet the needs of the particular case. But the pleadings library would give you a template that you would use as a starting point.
Carol Fishman Cohen: That's helpful. We're going to have to wrap up now, but there's one question I want to ask you before I ask you our final question that we ask all of our podcast guests.
And I'm just curious, where do you get the funding for the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project? You said grant funding, who responds to the grant?
Jenny Brody: So originally, we got funding through foundations. In fact, someone had a connection to Verizon, and Verizon is a company that happens to be very forward thinking in terms of providing private grant funding for domestic violence organizations, a whole range from domestic violence shelters to other types of resources. And we were able to make a case that providing legal services to domestic violence victims was a really important service. So I believe that was our first grant. And then eventually we became eligible to apply for government grants, both federal and DC, local government grants.
And so that was the second step where we began getting government grants. So eventually we had to hire a development director who was responsible for writing. The original grants were all drafted by the original volunteers. And again, we did not have any grant writing experience, but, really grant writing turned out to be very similar to legal work in the sense that you're trying to make a persuasive case for why someone should give you money.
So really our legal skills in terms of writing and persuasive writing, and arguing for a result, were very applicable to grant writing. And so it was the original grant volunteers for the organization, it was a joint effort, wrote the original grants and just figured out how to write grants and then figured out how to do budgets.
Again, our MBA volunteer was very helpful for helping us create budgets, because grant applications required budgets. So she was integral to that process. Then, what we'd also discovered is that having a grant leads to getting other grants. Because once you have some grant funding, it shows other funders that you are a legitimate organization, you have budgets, you have a process. Eventually we had audited financials, once we could afford an audit, we had audited financials and that enabled us to apply for more grants. So everything built on itself step by step.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. It's a nonprofit, but you're really telling an entrepreneurial story. This is very entrepreneurial, what you were building, and the way you're describing grants is almost the same way that you would describe venture capital funding, that once someone is in, it legitimizes you, and then other organizations come in to do that kind of funding.
So a lot of parallels there are really interesting. Quite an unbelievable accomplishment. So I want to acknowledge that, and we at iRelaunch have been following your relaunch story for many years now. And just to see what you've done and how many lives you've impacted, it's just so meaningful. I just want to thank you for the work that you do. It's incredible. So I want to wrap up now, Jenny, with the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is, what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about today?
Jenny Brody: That's a really good question. And again, I'm going down memory lane and thinking about myself in 2007, when I first started thinking about reentering the legal profession by taking pro bono cases. What I recall is thinking to myself, "I've been spending a lot of the last few years scraping Cheerios off the floor. And do I really have any professional skills, or are they gone?" What I discovered is that I did and that my professional skills, yes, I was rusty and I really needed to learn a lot.
But, I would say to anyone who's thinking of relaunching, who's been home with their kids and feels as a result of that experience that perhaps they've lost their professional skills, that they're available to you. They are still there and they will come back.
Or, I'm thinking of it as something outside of yourself, your professional persona is part of you and it is still in you and you are still that person. And so it may take awhile and you may need to retrain, and you may need to take baby steps back into your professional life, but the skills and the professional orientation are still with you.
Carol Fishman Cohen: That's great messaging to leave everyone with, that it's in you, you have to access it again. So, thank you so much. Jenny, can you tell our audience, how can people find out more about the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project, and also about Brody Kling?
Jenny Brody: Sure, DC Volunteer Lawyers Project, just type it in as a Google search and it will pop up immediately. And I know they're really busy right now. The pandemic, probably many people have heard, has actually increased the need for domestic violence services. Unfortunately, that has been true, both of the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project and of our law firm.
So I really encourage, if there are lawyers out there seeking to relaunch in the DC Metro area, it's really a terrific way to do it. So, dcvolunteerlawyersproject.org, and my firm is, Brody B R O D Y. Kling, K as in kite, L I N G.com Brody Kling Family Law.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Great. Thank you for sharing that, Jenny. Thanks so much for joining us.
Jenny Brody: You're very welcome. It was my pleasure.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch, and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources, go to iRelaunch.com.
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