This is Why Returnships Work

No-one told me just how tough recruitment could be. You’re in the middle of two parties, each of whom can say the right thing, do the right thing and then at the last minute pull out. That a hiring manager might suddenly decide a vacancy isn’t a vacancy after all wasn’t so much of a surprise. To have a candidate pull out at the last minute? That was new to me.

Bad start to the week

My Monday started with two candidates pulling out of second interview opportunities. Not because they’d received better offers elsewhere, but because they got cold feet.

“Not sure the time is right. I still have lots of other responsibilities. I don’t want to let anyone down.”

“I remember how pressurised it was. And the hours …. Perhaps I should be looking for something a bit easier.”

Neither response is uncommon in women who are thinking of reigniting their careers. In fact, I’d go so far as to say such responses are very normal and to be expected.

And the same goes for firms.

“I’m not sure it makes commercial sense for us …”

“We really couldn’t bring her back at such a senior level after she’s been out for ten years …”

Both responses based on looking at CVs, without meeting the individuals concerned or having any sort of conversation about expectations, confidence levels or what the candidates have been doing to keep themselves commercially sharp.

It’s all about risk

In both cases, what people are articulating is all about risk. For the women, the risk is putting themselves out there and then failing in some way. Failing to hold down the job, failing to be up to scratch, failing the family, failing themselves.

For organisations, the risk is that they take a chance on a candidate who doesn’t measure up. The risk that they fill a vacancy with someone who isn’t good enough and end up having to go through the whole process again a few months down the line.

Reframe: It’s an opportunity

Returnships take this risk, kick it to one side where it belongs and deliver opportunity. By creating a fixed term contract, usually six months, with plenty of support before and during the programme, women and the firms that are wise enough to take the leap are able to find a solution that benefits both sides.

For the women involved, it’s six months to make a smooth transition, to rebuild confidence, rediscover hidden talents, polish up rusty skills and reconnect with professional networks. The message we deliver:

  • It’s six months, not for life
  • This is your next step, not the end point
  • We will help you prepare well in advance to make sure you have a plan to succeed
  • We will provide you with coaching and support through the programme, using everything we know about the challenges you may face

For the organisations, the message is just as clear. You say you want more women, you say you’re committed to diversity, here’s an opportunity to do something about it.

  • We have screened these candidates and we know they have the grit, determination and ambition to succeed
  • We know how to support women returning from a career break and we will be there
  • Interviewing candidates on the basis of their last twelve months’ work experience obviously isn’t going to work, we will provide an alternative approach
  • The line partners have an important role to play and we will provide the training & briefing required

What’s not to love about that?

The joy of success

It doesn’t always work. That firm that sees us as uncommercial? They are unmoved. The woman who feels now just isn’t the right time? After a lot of should searching, she’d be much more comfortable knowing that home schooling really is at an end. The woman I sympathise with. The firm? Less so.

What I can tell you is that my second woman is now sitting on a job offer and is overjoyed, thrilled, excited and … yes a little daunted .. at the prospect of reigniting her career. We’ve assured her she isn’t on her own (literally and metaphorically) and we, too are utterly delighted.

And the other firm? Well, put it this way, I’m currently scheduling an interview for next week.

Now, more than ever …

I suspect that embarking on a “Returnship Programme” might have been the type of initiative companies would have done during the good times. Part of their diversity action plan. Nice to have, not essential, not affordable when times are hard. Such as in the middle of a pandemic.

My response? Reframe. There has never been a better opportunity to use a flexible, agile, experimental approach to provide opportunities to people with a huge amount of talent to add to the quality of your talent base.

As someone once said.

Build it and they will come.

Improving Diversity: What works … spoiler alert it’s not having targets and a plan

You’ve set some targets, you’ve published your plan, be that around race, gender or other aspects of “diversity”. You have probably published both on your website and you’ve briefed recruiters.  Now all you need to do is sit back and wait for the results to roll in.

After all, everyone knows that there’s a McKinsey study out there that proves that organisations with a more diverse make up are more successful, so leadership must be bought in. What could possibly go wrong?

Why good intentions fail

Let’s cut to the hiring manager.  There’s a vacancy to fill and the budget is signed off.  He (or she) has a choice of candidates.  One is moving from a similar position at a competitor, the other has had a career break.  Or perhaps there’s another whose academics are a bit suspect, whose most recent work was with an organisation he considers a bit “second rate”.

This hiring manager has short term targets to achieve, against which he will be judged and rewarded, or not.  His team is under pressure, there are never enough people, they are already working long hours, the last thing they need is someone who can’t “hit the ground running.”

“We are a meritocracy.  At the end of the day, it has to be the best person for the job.”

How many times have we heard that?

“Diversity” does not (automatically) improve performance

Simply adding people of colour or more women to a team that is predominantly made up of white men will not, in and of itself, improve performance.  In fact, there’s a good argument to say things will get worse.  If the majority don’t really believe the new joiners have a valuable contribution to make, they’re unlikely to create the environment to ensure they do just that. If the new joiners believe they’ve been hired simply to fill a quota, they are hardly going to start with a confident spring in their step.

So what’s the answer?  We know intuitively that having a team with diverse points of view, experiences and contributions should lead to better outcomes.  We also know that throughout society some groups are severely disadvantaged and deserve better opportunities: simply because it’s the right thing to do.

The question is, what does it take to get from her to there?  How do we change the choices made by the hiring manager and the experience of those joining from a “diverse” background.

What we’ve learnt at the Reignite Academy

After two years of working with various law firms in the UK, here is what our experience has taught us.

1. It comes from the heart not the head

Someone has to truly believe that people with a different background and experience have something to offer that will enhance the team.

This was never more clear than at one member firm, when the senior partner realised that the women we are helping to resume their careers are the very same women that he trained with.  He could reel off the names of women he respected and admired who had stepped back from their legal careers, largely because of the long hours culture and lack of flexibility, which only became a problem once they had children.   It helped that one of them was his wife.

No McKinsey study on earth will ever replace a real person saying “this is a waste, look what talent we’ve lost, we have to try to provide opportunities for them to return.”

2.  Create the pipeline before you make a hole

Immediate vacancies usually need filling with some urgency.  We have sympathy for the hiring manger who has a hole to fill.  However, in our experience is “whack a mole” (to purloin a phrase) approach to filling vacancies with the best available candidate is counter-productive if you are serious about creating a more diverse team.

At the Reignite Academy, for example, we often begin speaking to candidates months – sometimes more than a year – before they are finally ready to return.  Women often have concerns about how they will manage their other responsibilities along with reigniting a career, not to mention worries about how to get back up to speed.  This has been exacerbated by the home-schooling situation.

In the same way that we are nurturing a pipeline of talent, it helps when our member firms look ahead and think strategically about the practice areas that are likely to grow and where they could create opportunities for our candidates.  That way we can engage in a proper conversation and make appropriate introductions that, in time, will lead to people into jobs.

3.  You have to allow the seeds to grow, the flowers to bloom

There is little point hiring someone who is bringing something valuable and different to the team if you do not then allow them to contribute that something.  Put more bluntly, if you squash them into a box like all the other members of the team, you are likely to be disappointed when they fail to thrive.

A great example of this was when one of our candidates, who had spent over 6 years as a General Counsel, was given the opportunity to share that experience with younger members of the team.  After her first nine months being frustrated at this knowledge being disregarded, she was asked to give a talk on “how to approach” GCs.  This talk was so valuable that it turned into a regular training session.

4. Teach them and they will learn

Shortly after the black lives matter movement erupted last summer, I spoke to a couple of black women – one a banker, the other a lawyer – about their experience of joining big City institutions as the first person in their family to join this profession.

Both told me that, looking back, the one thing that no-one explained to them, was the importance of networking from day one.  Not going to “networking events” per se, but getting to know people at all levels throughout the firm and slowly but surely making sure they knew you.

To other people who joined at the same time, many of whom were following family members into the profession and who had been to the same private schools, making connections and building a network came so naturally.  For Yvonne and Janine, it was an anathema.  They assumed doing a lot of good quality work would be enough.

At times, leaders are “unconsciously competent” about what it takes to succeed.  With a little more dissection of the attitudes, skills and behaviours required to succeed and some targeted training, this could easily be addressed.

5. Leaders, be prepared to learn

It’s easy, if you’re at the head of successful organisation or team, to assume that you have leadership nailed.  The results, surely, speak for themselves.

And yet, it’s not so if you are going to lead a different type of team – one that is made up of people with different backgrounds, motivations, cultures, attitudes.  Social events centred around alcohol, client networking that always takes place after work, for example, can exclude some member.  Although who is doing any of that during lockdown?

More subtly, now, it’s about watching out for and recognising ways in which some people may behave differently to others.

One partner we worked with, for instance, told us about how, in the run up to the appraisal season at the back end of lat year, it was very noticeable to her that most men on the team were confidently claiming their contribution to certain projects and activity whilst many women were, on the face of it, under-performing. Until, that is, you looked at which members of the team were simultaneously trying to home school two children whilst also delivering their billable hours target.

It wasn’t just that she noticed, it was that she was looking in the first place and then took the initiative to talk to other members of the leadership team about how to adjust evaluations to reflect people’s different circumstances.

6.  Acknowledge and remove discrimination and unfairness from the system

One of the reasons that organisations end up being less diverse than when they started (for example, beginning with a 50/50 gender split at graduate intake and ending up with something more like 80/20 at partner level) is that there is discrimination in the system.

It varies by organisation but in our experience one common, though unintended, source of bias is found in the system for work allocation.  Especially when there is no system for work allocation. Partner comes out of office, finds associates they’ve worked with before and enjoy working with, gets them involved in the pitch.  Pitch is won, the same team does the work.  All get on very well, go for drinks at the end of the job.  Pause and repeat.

Unless you are prepared to root out, acknowledge and change areas like this, where unfairness has a huge impact on people’s experience and progression prospects, you are unlikely to make a dint in your targets.   The flipside is that if you can change this, the benefits will be immense.

7.  Remember – Everyone loves a story

The good news is that everyone loves a success story.  Get it right and you create a virtual circle.  Tell someone the story of the woman who came back to work as a newly divorced single mum and who was able to get her career back on track, who adds perspective and humour to the team and who is now helping open up a new practice area.  Or the story of the young black lawyer who was the first in his family to go to university and who was given the opportunity to join an inclusive team with a leader who actively sponsored his progression.

The McKinsey study is memorable but will never touch anyone’s heart.  As someone cleverer than me once said

Facts tell, stories sell.

Celebrating Success

Along with setting targets and creating action plans, the other thing we’ve noticed is that firms love to produce an annual “Diversity and Inclusion” report.  The good news is that if you follow these steps, you’ll have plenty to put in it.   You might even hit some of those targets.

Meet Krista, who resumed her career after a five year break

Krista is a qualified insurance/reinsurance litigator with 9 years PQE experience. After a successful career in private practice, she took a career break to raise her family. Five years on, she was ready to resume her legal career but unsure about where to begin.

An introduction to the Reignite Academy and to member firm RPC made all the difference.

We spoke to her about her experience.

What made you decide to return to private practice?

After taking many years out to raise my daughters, I was keen to get my legal career back on track.  I had missed the work, the people, the intellectual challenges and being busy on interesting things.

How have you found the experience so far?

I have been at RPC for 5 months and it’s fantastic.  The training and encouragement from both RPC and Reignite have been excellent.  Probably the biggest challenge for me at the beginning  was my lack of confidence, but thanks to my incredibly supportive supervisor and team,  I am now taking on more responsibility and a more diverse caseload and the imposter syndrome is lifting.  Everyone at RPC has been very welcoming and friendly too, which has been wonderful.

I have just accepted a permanent role with the firm and couldn’t be more excited about the future.

What advice would you give to others contemplating a return?

Contact the Reignite team.   I could not and would not have done this without them.

Pull on your boots

What to do in this next Lockdown

The best laid plans didn’t fare so well last time

Back in March, everyone I spoke to was fairly stoic about the looming lockdown. Many had grand plans. They would seize the opportunity to use isolation to do a good clear out of the house, learn a new language, finally get round to reading The Mirror and the Light, watch a box set or two. Succession? Chernobyl? The choice was endless. Problem solved.

By week three, barring essential workers, everyone who could do so was working from home. In an instant the mantra “this job has to be done in the office” had been turned on its head. Suddenly, even the most dyed in the wool, traditional business leader was embracing the possibility of avoiding a lengthy, unpleasant commute and working in a quiet space with a nice view of the garden and the possibility of a dog walk at lunchtime.

The beginning of a flexible revolution?

In some quarters, there was a giddy expectation that here was the flexible revolution we’d all been waiting for. The end of presenteeism; of the office based 9 – 5 (or, more likely, 9 – 10); a new acceptance that professionals could be trusted to work from home, completing their tasks as and when it suited them. The biggest barrier to women’s careers was finally coming down.

Or perhaps not.

Women with children soon found out that the fight for equality was back in the home. And it was a fight they were losing. Research began to show that the burdens of lockdown were much greater for women, particularly those with children. Suddenly, mothers found themselves back at home, doing the bulk of the extra childcare, cooking and cleaning.

Women were also taking on the brunt of caring for elderly relatives or family members who needed to shield. Forget learning a language or reading a book, with all this extra work to do, women had enough on trying to hold down a job, even if that job was four days a week. It’s one thing to have permission to do the work at home, it’s quite another to have the space – mentally and physically – to actually apply yourself to that job.

Little wonder, then, that The Lawyer recently ran an article “Female partners with children need more understanding from their male peers.” So there we are. That’s what we need. More understanding.

Now is not the time to be complacent

My advice to women? Don’t wait around for the empathy and understanding to come flooding your way. Your situation is more perilous than ever.

Whilst you’ve been putting your head down, struggling to keep on top of work, supervising home schooling, planning, cancelling and replanning foreign holidays and staycations, waiting online for that precious Ocado slot, monitoring your children’s screen time, exhorting your elderly parents and in-laws to stick to the rules, your male peers have, by and large, been having a different lockdown experience.

Not only have they been able to work from home much more successfully than they ever thought possible, your male peers haven’t lost touch with the people who can impact their careers. I’m not talking here about their children, elderly parents and in-laws. I’m talking about their clients and the partners who lead their practice groups, who bring in work, who maintain client relationships, who are keeping the business afloat.

Talking to some senior leaders over the last few weeks, it’s clear that men have been much smarter at pushing themselves forward to not only get what juicy work is around but also to let people know how well they’ve performed in executing that work. How that deal would never have happened without their intervention, how their contribution to that negotiation was so critical. Yes, in part, it may be that they’ve had the luxury of a partner at home who is carrying the burden, but also they get it. They know how to manage their careers.

So what did you do during the lockdown  …

If you don’t believe me, think about this. Another piece in The Lawyer examined what lawyers had been up to during lockdown. Cooking, exercising, DIY were all up there (no-one, it seems, got round to learning a new language) and so was social media use. But here’s the thing. Across Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, women were more likely to have increased their usage. LinkedIn was the only social media platform where “men were more likely to have upped their presence.”

Where do you go if you want to read what experts in your sector are saying? Which platform is there to help you expand your professional network? Where do employers go to look for talent? Where are all the jobs? Which platform is best if you’re looking to build your personal brand? For business development? To extend your professional reach? Not Facebook, that’s for sure.

Now make it count

My advice to women during this next lockdown? Don’t wait for more understanding. Take control. Work out where you want to be by April, have a plan and create yourself a routine that sets you on the right path. Here are five things that I guarantee will make a difference:

  • Share the burden at home. Be it childcare, housework, home schooling, elderly care, house admin, whatever. Don’t become the “default parent”. And even better, ask your male peers if they’re doing the same. If not, encourage them to do their bit for equality, where it really matters.
  • Sharpen your difference. What’s your personal brand? What is unique about you? What do you know about, where is your expertise and who knows about it. Hint: LinkedIn is a useful platform for building both reputation and reach.
  • Pick up the phone. Talk to people. Your clients, colleagues, partners, peers, other people in your sector. No-one’s on a plane, everyone’s at home, we’re all available. Lockdown has taken down barriers and we’re all living a shared experience. It’s amazing how much easier this makes it to chat to people, whatever their position.
  • Keep learning. Forget Spanish, it’s never going to happen (unless there is a business reason) but do carve out time to read technical updates, recent cases and the like. As well as law firms and the usual subscription services, many universities offer reasonably priced individual modules. Away from law, there are plenty of online offerings that are often either free or very low cost.
  • Be at the net. Be alive and open to opportunities to make connections, bring in work, extend your network. This isn’t just about external clients. Which other teams in your firm will bring in work that will draw on the work of your team? Whose advice would be even better with your particular slant on it. We’re all business developers now.

Take your future into your own hands. Make a plan. Strap on your backpack and pull on your walking boots on. Be upfront and be bold. The bad news is that you won’t have time to read The Mirror and the Light; but assuming you get number one right, you still might have time for the odd box set. Mrs America is fabulous.

How to use this crisis to get your career back on track

I know, I know. Only a few days ago I was writing about how WFH isn’t necessarily good for women’s careers. And I stand by what I wrote; there are risks. At the same time, the seismic changes that are affecting the whole world, do present opportunities.

Any crisis brings with it opportunities

The thing about any massive change (and I think we can all agree we are seeing massive change all around us) is that all the “old ways” are unlocked. No one is sure what “normal” looks like any more. Whilst the uncertainty that this creates can be paralysing, for those prepared to take some risks and be creative, it also presents tremendous opportunity.

Here’s why:

  1. Working from home is suddenly not only permissible, it’s now the “done thing” and anyone who says its impossible clearly has not been paying attention.
  2. People are revealing their human sides. Everyone’s joining Zoom or Teams from their living room, kitchen or home office. Those of us who are parents share a little moan about home schooling. Whatever our title or level of seniority we’re all in the same boat. And more likely to be sympathetic.
  3. It’s never been easier to contact people. No-one’s on a plane. Few people are in endless meetings. They pick up the phone.
  4. Fuddy duddy, stick in the mud organisations are suddenly getting flexible. It’s not just “this job can’t be done remotely” that’s being ditched “it has to be a full time” is also in jeopardy. And as they change their business models they need
  5. Budgets are tight. This can be a good thing. Firms are willing to use contractors, to take people onto temporary contracts, to use alternative suppliers, all of which present opportunities for those people who are not in the “full time, permanent job, traditional career labour market”.
  6. Diversity matters. It really does. The Black Lives Matter movement and events of the summer have made many organisations wake up to the need to stop with the rhetoric and get serious about making a difference to diversity, on all fronts.
  7. It’s worth the risk. What have you got to lose?

Be ready to seize the moment

All of this means, there are opportunities for those who are agile, brave and intrepid enough to seize them. My advice:

  • Remember, your next role need not be your final destination. It’s just a step in the right direction. Treat it as such.
  • Don’t over think it. As Richard Branson once said “Leap before you look”. How will you know if you don’t try.
  • Your technical skills will come back. If you’ve had some time out, it’s easy to sit at home worrying that they won’t. They will: by doing the work.
  • Pick up the phone. Phones were originally designed to talk to people. Talking to people is underrated. Talk to the people you know who can open doors or make connections. Tell them what you’re looking for. Ask for advice.
  • Be creative. “Work” doesn’t necessarily mean “a job”. There are all sorts of models for finding ways to get paid employment. Most sectors have new entrants using technology and alternative business models to disrupt the incumbents.
  • Whether it’s “I’ve been out too long”, “They’ll have me working all hours” or your views on what the “job” will look like, be prepared to ditch your assumptions. So much has changed. Don’t let your assumptions hold you back. Be intrepid, take a leap, what have you got to lose?

Join us for some practical hints and tips

If you’re a lawyer and are looking to reignite your career, join us at our free bootcamp on 20th January for more hints and tips.

So tell me …. What’s a middle aged woman got to offer …

Are you asking yourself this very question?

“What does a middle aged woman have to offer that a 20-something doesn’t?” It’s a question many of the women I meet ask. Sometimes, it’s a question going on in their own heads, holding them back from pursuing new opportunities.   I’m too old, surely? Who would want me? What do I have to offer.

The short answer: plenty. Get a grip, have some guts and get on the front foot. You have plenty, believe me.

You have perspective and wisdom

As a new grad, I soaked up the message that women could have it all. Motherhood was not going to get in my way. And for a while I was right, I made partner in Arthur Andersen in my early thirties and thought that was success.

Ha. Little did I know. The Enron debacle, a divorce, a new marriage, two kids, relocation… the usually messy stuff of life  …meant that, like many women, my career didn’t follow a nice straight line. I quit my job when I didn’t get a promotion I was expecting and my childcare arrangements fell apart. I spent time outside the City, volunteered in a school in a deprived area of London, became a magistrate, spent time with lots of people in other walks of life. And yes, I did the school run.

I realised that there’s more to life than false deadlines and annual performance appraisals, office gossip and billing targets. I also realised that no powerpoint presentation ever changed the world and nothing is really that important as a loved one with a life threatening illness.

Little wonder, then, that more “mature” women going back into the workplace are less likely to phased by having to say “No” to some “urgent” and impossible request.

Your social network is deep and wide

OK, you didn’t invent Facebook, but you do know an awful lot of people. And many of them will be in serious positions, influential and well connected themselves.

When Deb Khan and I first decided to set up She’s Back I was venturing into the world of work after six years “on the outside.” One of the reasons I’d left in the first place was a frustration that my peers were being promoted ahead of me (they didn’t have the responsibilities of “pesky kids” weighing them down, or if they did, they’d worked out how to off load some of those responsibilities to others).

This, obviously, turned out to be a bonus when I needed to reach out to people in influential positions for support with my fledgling business idea. Funny how I was able to put that frustration to one side very quickly indeed and reconnect with my one time peers. One of them even connected me with Arianna Huffington, who very kindly endorsed our book.

She’s Back book, endorsed by Arianna Huffington

You have energy

Anyone who’s had to live with a young child or two will know all about sleep deprivation. And the challenge of trying to carve out any time for your own hobbies, ambitions and interests.

There is absolutely no way I could have set up a business in my late thirties or even early forties. And look at me now. I’ve set up two. After She’s Back, I moved onto the Reignite Academy , helping open doors to enable lawyers to return to the City after a career hiatus.

And of course, after years of working out that it’s easier to navigate live with the support of other women, I was able to make this new business happen because it’s a collaboration with two other fabulous “older’ women, Melinda Wallman and Stephanie Dillon (who I have to admit is not quite as old as me).

You’re not easily scared

Back to my “life or death” point, having a bit of perspective and life experience also gives you some chutzpah. So what if you fail, who cares if someone rejects your idea, what do you have to lose by having a go.

I’d never pitched to a senior law firm partner in my life before we set up the Reignite Academy. In fact, in all my time with Arthur Andersen, I honestly don’t think I was successful in selling anything. (Even without Enron, I probably wouldn’t have gone very far). And now? I care about the business, I believe in what we’re offering and that senior partner on the other side of the table is about my age, so he doesn’t scare me one little bit.

You have a laser sharp focus and it’s your turn

The women I’ve met who are picking up their careers after a hiatus or a total break — whether it’s through the Reignite Academy or another channel — have thought long and hard about their decision.

They are returning because they want to: they are ambitious for the next phase of their lives. They are motivated by a need to fulfil their potential and have moved mountains to position themselves to be able to commit. They are focused and determined. And they don’t have time to waste.

Those new graduates? They’d better start worrying about the competition.


Fearless Girl Statue, City of London

So what are you waiting for?   Get ready to get yourself in shape for a comeback.  Follow the Reignite Academy on LinkedIn for more tips, tools and inspirational stories.  Join us for a “Reignite Your Legal Career” bootcamp on 20th January for some guidance and watch this space for new opportunities with both Reignite for lawyers and Inclusivity for other professions.

How to get your career back on track in a pandemic. Thelma’s story.

Thelma Ainsworth was one of the participants in the third Reignite Academy Programme, which kicked off in January 2020.  Less than three months later, the pandemic struck and we went into lockdown.   Cue heavy hearts and lots of worries about what the future might hold.

Thelma is a mum of two young boys and has had to deal with home schooling and working from home without any childcare at the same time as trying to get her legal career back on track.

She has just secured a permanent position with RPC and we could not be more delighted for her.  Here’s her story.

1. You began your career in private practice but decided to retrain as a criminal lawyer. What drove that decision?

I had spent the first 10 years of my legal career in the City, immediately after graduating from Cambridge University and completing the Legal Practice Course (as it was called in those days!) – working as a paralegal and then training in a US City firm. I left the City because I felt that I needed to broaden my scope whilst  I still could so I could grow and become more rounded as a legal professional. So I joined the Ministry of Justice as a legal advisor and effectively retrained as a criminal practitioner.

2. How difficult was it to make the transition?

Not as difficult as one would think. I had always had a thirst for knowledge, even whilst working in the City. Obviously I had moved away from the fee-earning structure so I had to adapt to a new environment. But aside from that, I was stimulated by the mental challenge of learning a whole new legal discipline and found the experience rewarding as a result.

3. You clearly like a challenge because you later joined the RAF as a legal adviser. What motivated you to take that role?

After a few years at the Ministry of Justice I joined the RAF as a junior legal officer and did a variety of postings dealing with a broad range of legal areas such as criminal law when doing prosecutions at the Service Prosecuting Authority and advising on administrative and employment issues when I worked at HQ Air Command. Being able to advise on different areas of law in each posting meant that there was no opportunity to get bored or complacent due to the mental agility involved! I felt stretched as a lawyer and as an officer underwent  quite extensive leadership training – all of which lead to my feeling satisfied and challenged in my job.

4. The RAF insists on people moving every three years. How tricky was that? How did you approach each move?

At first, when I initially joined the RAF, it was not particularly tricky. It was part of the excitement of joining the armed forces! However, after I had my two children,  moving around could become challenging. In the latter stages before my departure from the RAF, good planning in advance of each posting was key, and ensuring that the infrastructure was already in place before my arrival and that of my family. The RAF was extremely supportive of personnel with young families and ensured that there were provisions in place (like childcare) to facilitate  a smooth transition.

5. With two children you eventually decided you needed more stability and that it was time to return to private practice. Did you think about alternative roles?

Not really. As I said earlier, I had spent the first decade of my legal career in the City.  Whenever I considered a return to private practice, it was always my natural inclination to return to the City where I had originally trained.

6. What challenges did you face when trying to return and what helped you overcome them?

There were two main challenges: firstly, I was now a parent with 2 young children so any job would need to be flexible to allow for that. The second challenge was obviously skill fade: I had not been in private practice or practiced the area I had qualified into (litigation) for over a decade. I overcame those challenges by finding Reignite! The 6 month training programme meant that I was able to have the opportunity to re-train in my area of law within a supportive environment, allowing me slowly to get up to speed. In addition, the Reignite team highlighted that many of the firms they dealt with had embraced flexible, part time working. This was clearly exactly what I needed.

7. You’re now at RPC. How easy or difficult was the transition? What have the firm done to help?

The transition has been surprisingly easy. RPC are fully agile and incredibly supportive of returners. They were already conversant with flexible working and working from home (well before the lockdown made it so fashionable) and have accommodated all my needs surrounding my family, for instance allowing me to work 4 days a week right from the beginning.   I have been really impressed by how adaptable they have been which is a far cry from the “presenteeism” culture that had prevailed when I worked in the City years ago.

8. What are you enjoying about the work you are doing now?

I am really enjoying the mix of work at the moment. I am working for a Legal Director who deals with a plethora of work in the Professional and Financial Risks team ranging from advising Solicitors/firms and their insurers on professional negligence issues, SRA investigations, and disciplinary proceedings. The scope of the work appeals to the part of me that likes the mental agility of dealing with different areas of law – so for me it has been a great fit.

9. You have been offered a permanent role. What’s next on the horizon?

To continue with what I am doing! Keep building on the training and experience that I am acquiring and to get more involved with much more of the firm. It is early days but I already feel like part of the team.

10. In light of the current debates around race and Black Lives Matter what do you think the legal profession could do to be more inclusive, particularly of black people? What barriers do you see and what would you like to see done differently? 

Like a lot of black people, recent events and the visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement has allowed me to reflect on my own experiences as a black person. In order for the legal profession to be more inclusive of black people it would need to be exposed to more black people at the right stage of their careers, enabling them to be taken on as a trainees. After that, the firms will then need to work hard at retention so that they keep the talent that they have initially harnessed. Mentoring schemes should be made more mainstream and given more “bite”, encouraging engagement with black students from an early stage. I know that RPC already has experience of mentoring schemes – more firms following suit could be all that is needed to start exacting real change. Incremental and consistent steps will be slow. But it would be a start.

How does the Reignite Academy attract diverse candidates?

In our first ever Annual Impact report, we were proud to report that 35% of our successful candidates were from black, Asian or other ethnic minority backgrounds.  We never set out with a target, we certainly had never signed a pledge.  Nevertheless, we were very please with this result.

How did you go about attracting diverse candidates?

This question is put to us quite often now.  The law firms we work with have set targets and many have signed pledges.  They are coming to us because they think we can help.  Understandably, as part of their due diligence (they are lawyers after all) they want to check we do what it says on the tin.

So how do we do it? And what advice do we have for others?

Set out, from the start, to be inclusive

People talk a lot about inclusion but rarely nail the nitty gritty of what that means.  For us, it means finding reasons to INCLUDE people rather than EXCLUDE them.  This is the opposite of what most recruitment processes do.

Generally speaking, when you advertise a job, the first thing that happens is that CVs are screened by an applicant tracking system.  This weeds out any that don’t have the right key words.  A human pair of eyes might then throw out those who didn’t go to the right university or achieve the right academics.  All reasons to whittle the long list down to a shortlist for interview.

We do the opposite.  We used a structured, research based format, to find reasons to include people.  We ask questions to unearth the characteristics that we know are key to future success.  We seek to understand the whole person and their story.  At all times we are focused on future potential.

We actively promote all our candidates – with authenticity

Over the years we have built a great following on social media and for our our newsletter.Rebecca Hayes Anne Todd

The people we feature are real and have given us permission to tell their stories.

Mehrnaz Ashfar

Rebecca, Anne, Mehrnaz and Thelma have all taken part in the last couple of years.  We helped them all return to careers in private practice.  Their stories inspire others because they see us helping people just like them.  People whose careers have not followed straight lines. Who have dealt with very sick children, relocations abroad, being made redundant, pivoting careers, setting up their own businesses.  The ups and downs of life.

We are genuinely interested in and talk about issues  regarding diversity in its wider context

Earlier this year we held a webinar entitled “How to improve the experience of black people at work” and invited Janine Esbrand and Yvonne Kuryanke to share their views.  The results can be seen on our YouTube channel.

During Black History Month, we shared the nine most powerful works of fiction that have informed and influenced our understanding of the injustices and inequalities experienced by people of colour.   We don’t claim to get it right, by any stretch of the imagination, but we do genuinely think about it.

We are building networks and connections with black and ethnic minority leaders, groups and individuals

Not for the sake of it but because together we think we can make more of an impact. Whether this is at an individual level, through LinkedIn, through our personal connections with people like Husnara Begum who is an entreperneur and disability rights campaigner or through new networks like Black Women in Asset Management, we are always looking to extend our understanding and reach.

Purposeful, active and genuine

Reading back, these three words ring out for me.

Purposeful:

Be clear and honest about why you are trying to be more diverse? Is it simply to comply with legislation?  Is it to look better to the world, for marketing purposes?  Or do you really believe that this is the route to being a better business.

The brilliant Stephen Frost calls these three phases Diversity 101, Diversity 2 and Diversity 3.

Active:

I have lost track of the number of charters, pledges and commitments that aim to tackle diversity on many levels. Sign them if you want to.  Shout about it on your websites if you must.  And then move on.  Tell us what you are actually going to do differently.  Because if you don’t do something different you will not achieve a different result.

Genuine

To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson

“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

If you don’t truly believe that being more diverse will improve your business, don’t both.  When times get tough and you have to make hard decisions, the choices you make will prove what it is you actually believe.  And those choices will be visible.

If you’d like to read more of our case studies, follow what we do and engage in the conversation you can follow us on LinkedIn and sign up to our newsletter here.

Meet Helen Martin, who reignited her legal career after a nine year break

Helen had over nine years of post-qualification experience in insolvency and restructuring at firms including Clifford Chance and Sidley Austin before taking a career break in 2012.

With three young children, Helen decided to move out of London to Surrey.  There, she took a course in social media and set up a business to support local businesses.  Helen recently joined the Restructuring and Insolvency team at Stevens & Bolton. We talked to her about her motivation to return to private practice and her experience so far.

What made you decide to return to private practice?

I had been out of private practice for 9 years, mostly taking care of my three young children. My eldest, Harry, has cerebral palsy, and dealing with his day to day additional care, medical appointments etc, on top of everyday childcare made a return to law seem impossible. The longer I spent out of the profession, the more insurmountable the obstacles to return seemed to become.  And I really did want to return to work, to pick up my career again.

I had never particularly planned to be a stay at home mum.  I had, for a number of years, wanted to regain the work life which I had given up. For the last few years I had been really missing having a professional life out of the home.  I missed doing something more intellectually challenging and satisfying than running around after my kids.  I was also keen to have some financial independence. However, I just couldn’t see how to make it work, let alone whether I would even be able to get a job after so long.

Earlier this year I stumbled across Reignite through LinkedIn.   I saw they had roles available near me, in Guildford. Suddenly the thought of working again seemed doable.  The long commute into London was always one of the practical issues which had put me off. I joined a Reignite webinar (this was just before lockdown, when the world first started to turn virtual!) which gave me the confidence to apply. The fact that Reignite had supported other women to successfully return – some with even longer career breaks than mine – was very motivating. I felt like it was now or never.  I didn’t feel ‘ready’ exactly but I knew I probably never would, and the longer I left it the harder it would get!

How have you found the experience so far?

The experience so far has been fantastic, despite the unusual circumstances.  I still haven’t had the chance to actually work in the office, and have only had one (socially distanced) in person meeting with the rest of my team! Everyone has been very welcoming. I have felt part of the team from the beginning. I have loved reading and writing about the law again, and rediscovering skills and knowledge which had obviously been buried deep in the back of my brain for many years.

Initially I was worried that I would essentially be a glorified trainee and not able to contribute meaningfully.  My concerns were misplaced.   I have been treated as an experienced lawyer and been given appropriate work and responsibility. The coaching and support I have had from Reignite has been fantastic and has really helped me to get clear on my goals and to build my confidence.

What advice would you give to anyone else contemplating a return?

Don’t allow the negative voice in your head to talk you out of it – just go for it. There will never be a ‘right’ time, where exactly everything is in place. It will always be possible to find excuses not to take the plunge, but if you really want it then it can be done, especially with the team at Reignite behind you. With flexible working hopefully becoming increasingly acceptable after this year, there has never been a better time.  There is really nothing to lose.

Toddlers off to senior school? Had it with Netflix? The telltale signs you’re ready to reclaim your career.

The realisation that you need your career back

It was woman’s hour that did it for me. Not so much that I was bored with it, more the pain of listening to the “Power list”, realising there was no way I’d ever be on it, and wondering why I’d sacrificed my degree and twenty years of professional training and experience to become a mother/dogwalker/administrator/fixer/wife. That, along with the startling realisation that my toddlers were actually turning into teenagers.

With families spending a lot more time together over the last several months, there has been plenty of time to contemplate your role.  What do you do for others?  And what’s left for yourself?

What does your future look like?

The pandemic will end.  We will move on to something different.  Most clients I speak to envisage a hybrid way of working for everyone: some remote working, some days in the office.  What does your personal future hold?

Back in 2014,  after a six year career break I realised I had a good 20 years ahead of me to work, learning something new, make an impact and – yes – actually earn some money.  The question was, what to do about it.

Beware the voices in your head

It’s so easy to find excuses – the house will fall apart without you, the kids still need you, the tech has passed you by, recruiters won’t want to know, You’re too old. We’ve heard them all.  Some may be true (ish); many will not.  There is usually a way round any obstacle, if you have the nous and the will to find it.  And who knows, those kids might benefit from you not being around so much.

The telltale signs you’re ready to reclaim your career

Ask yourself whether any or all of these tell tale signs might possibly mean that you, too, are ready to reclaim your career.

  1. The toddlers for whom you gave up your career are now perfectly capable of taking public transport to school and could probably rustle up a bowl of pesto and pasta if left to their own devices.
  2. The last time you learnt something new it was Spanish at night school (and even then you didn’t make it to the end of the course).
  3. Your brain is ready to tackle something more complex than the intricate daily diaries of three children, a dog, a house and a needy partner.
  4. Thinking about it, it’s high time they all took care of their own needs a bit more and stopped relying so much. Except maybe the dog.
  5. The prospect of another lockdown where you have to conjure up a menu for everyone twice a day, seven days a week as the potential to send you over the edge
  6. The people you trained with are all now “Head of ..” or “Director of …”, with careers that have gone from strength to strength. Note to self: now is not the time to be embarrassed, ashamed, envious or frustrated – being in positions of influence means they can help you. And they will.
  7. Hitting forty (or fifty) doesn’t feel at all daunting. In fact there’s an awful lot that’s liberating about it. No more soft play, no school runs, more time for yourself …
  8. Spending another twenty years operating below your potential, on the other hand, does feel very daunting. And not a pleasant prospect.
  9. Whereas the prospect of getting your career back on track and having more disposable income, well, that DOES feel exciting.
  10. You’ve even gone out and bought yourself a copy of “She’s Back: Your guide to returning to work.” It set you back £7.99 so you must be serious about this.

Don’t let the niggling doubts in your head stop you from achieving your full potential. At work as well as at home. (If you’re a lawyer, check out the Reignite Academy where we have opportunities now for anyone ready to return).