My Return to Law Journey: Five Years On


5 years on from her return to work, Kristin Shelley looks back, commenting on how this journey has delivered, in her words, “Confidence, cash and camaraderie!”

Kristin is a confident, bubbly, outgoing tax lawyer (yes, they do exist) best described as the “life and soul” of any party, including a tax team party.  

Kristin was promoted last year to senior associate at CMS where she is proud to be a valued client advisor and a capable technical tax lawyer.

Kristin is also a single parent to three teenagers and a keen organiser of tax team socials including the annual ski trip.  Kristin is proud to be a founder member of the CMS tax/share schemes prize-winning quiz team. 

It wasn’t always thus.  Kristin had been out of the law for 12 years when she first heard about the Reignite Academy returnship programme.  She had recently returned to the UK from Hong Kong, divorced and with three children of school age.  She was keen to find work.  Recruiters told her she had been out far too long to rekindle her legal career.  Little wonder she didn’t start out with a heap of confidence. 

Five years on, we interviewed Kristin about her journey and the joy of returning to work.  

Why speak now?

This week I hit my five year anniversary of being back to work in the tax group at CMS.  I love my job and my colleagues here, and I was promoted last year. I’m in such a good place that I’d like to encourage others to return.  

I’m also missing the spotlight. Think it’s time for a feature!

What do you enjoy the most?

There’s so much.  Earning my own salary again has been amazing. I am financially independent and I love not being beholden to anyone else.  I’ve been able to pay into my pension pot over the last five years and seen it grow to a meaningful amount.  It’s great having my own money and making my own choices about what to do with it. 

More importantly than that, though, it’s added so much to my life. I adore my colleagues here at CMS  – as well as being great to work with they have also become fabulous friends. 

As a bonus, working gave me the confidence and a central London location from which to explore online dating so I now have a lush new boyfriend after a few years of post-divorce singledom.

How do you balance work with being a parent?

First and foremost, I think work and having my own identity gave me the confidence and personal space I needed to be a good parent to my children.  My children are proud of what I do and what I have achieved.

This job does mean I make choices about where and how to spend my time.  Like any city lawyer I work long hours when my clients or my team need me to.  But these days I don’t work extra hours just for the sake of it, or because I want to be perceived in a particular way.  I am more confident of my value and thankfully presenteeism is less “present” than it used to be.  

Since Covid we have more flexibility about where and when we work.

There’s also nothing like being at home with three children to make you stress proof at work.  Yes, I was terrified in the beginning, but once I found my feet I was able to switch off my computer on the way home and leave work behind, whereas once upon a time I’d spend the whole journey home worrying that I’d left something unfinished.

You tried to pull out of the recruitment process three times!  Why?

Yes, I know.  The first time, I went along to the Reignite Academy launch at Macfarlanes, my old firm.  Just being in the room made me realise how long I’d been away and it all felt impossible. I’d put in an application but it felt foolish and I tried to pull out then.  Stephanie Dillon persuaded me to go with it and at least see if I could get an interview at one of the firms supporting the scheme. 

The second time, I had an offer on the table, which looked really great but I still wasn’t sure I was up to returning.  It was almost a relief when I found out that getting my practicing certificate back might take time.  I called the Reignite team to explain I needed to withdraw, only for them to intervene to help speed things up.

And the third time was during week one of the six month work placement.  Going home on the train I looked at my office pass and resolved to hand it in the next day and never go back.  It felt like such a ridiculous idea that I could actually do this.

What was behind that?

Confidence, or a lack of it.  Looking back, I was terrified that I couldn’t do it, that I’d let someone down, that I’d make mistakes.  The first month I just tried to blank out the fear – I used the Headspace app, remember that, to help me calm down on the train to and from work.

Considering a return? Nervous? Go for it. You might just surprise yourself

So where did the confidence come from?

Doing the work!  I originally thought it would take me a couple of years to get back to where I was (a seven year PQE lawyer) but in fact it took less time than I expected.  I’d say maybe a year but the tax partners I work with were kind enough to say that I was delivering quicker than that.  They’ve said I was useful immediately.

We had a conversation about what level to bring me back at and we all agreed “mid level” sounded about right, but after that it was just about whether I was doing a good job or not.  

How did you close the skills gap?

It’s really easy.  I did the work. There is no magic bullet. In the first year it took me maybe 20% or 30% longer to do each task because I had to look things up, check technical points and remind myself of the basics.  I asked lots and lots of questions.  Fortunately tax is a technical discipline so there is a culture of keeping up to date on the detail and new developments.  We have an extensive education programme and weekly knowledge meetings where we discuss difficult, contentious or interesting points.  We talk about tax a lot!

How do you close a 10 year skills gap?

In fact it turned out that the tax bit was the easy bit.

I found that I changed the way I worked.  In my twenties, it was all about chasing billable hours.  Now I am more likely to choose work because it interests me.  I definitely work more efficiently than I used to because I have to divide my time between my work and home responsibilities.

I am also more thoughtful than I used to be and I have a broader perspective.  That has made me a better lawyer.

What benefit do teams gain from having a “returner” join?

I was lucky that I joined at the same time as a share schemes tax lawyer who is a similar age: she’d retrained as a lawyer in her forties and was just starting out. The team is more diverse with us in it, as otherwise there would have been a gap where the wise women in their 40s/50s should have been. 

Of course there are plenty of female partners at CMS who never left, but they have a different story.  Us returners offer younger lawyers a different perspective.  Perhaps we have more freedom to be open about our childcare disasters and, obviously, the menopause.   I keep the tax team well up-to-date on my symptoms, whether they want to hear it or not!

I’ve met so many new friends here – men and women of all ages.  I learn so much from my younger colleagues and vice versa (I hope).

If you could share one favourite memory?

That’s easy. For the last few years I’ve been responsible for organising the tax ski trip. One year I accidentally booked us into a hotel with no road access.  We had to travel up and down with me and a tax partner on a skidoo and the rest of the department in a wheely crate attached to the back, screaming.

Someone else organises the ski trip now.

Returning to Work? A 7 point plan to relaunch your career

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