Flexibility at work. How to negotiate it, how to achieve balance in the long run

Training, flexibility and partners who want you to succeed

It’s the feeling that someone’s investing in my career.

That was the response when I spoke to one of our Reignite Academy candidates recently, when asking what motivated her to make the leap and return to private practice.

She’s absolutely right, our law firm partners are very much invested in making this programme work.  Why?  Because they see this as a great way of attracting back experienced, talented women.  Women they know they probably lost along the way.

And it’s not simply an attitude of mind.  Here are the practical ways in which firms are investing to help you get your career back on track:

Supporting your return to work

  1. Partners identify real roles in practice areas where there is work to be done, since this is the surest way to make sure people get the right level of experience.  Not only that, they pay candidates the market rate for that work.  This means that your value is recognised from day one.
  2. Practice group leaders and partners invest their own time to to help make sure you succeed.  Everyone wants this to be a success.
  3. You have four one to one sessions with an executive coach.  Our coaches are fully qualified and have years of experience working with people making a transition from one role to another.  Or from not working to be being back in the thick of it.  They know what sort of challenges you’re likely to meet and overcome.
  4. You start with a cohort of other Reignite Associates.  This means that even if you’re the only person going into your particular firm, you’re not alone.  One of the first things the cohort usually does is set up a Whats App group and they provide each other with practical and moral support during the six months and beyond.
  5. We deliver our own training, three times during the programme.  The law firms sort out the legal and technical training. Where we come in is on the “soft skills” side of things.  Setting boundaries, time management, creativity, networking, stakeholder management, that sort of thing.
  6. We help you break the six months down into manageable chunks of time.  The first period is about settling in and getting back up to speed, the second is time to focus more on the work and proving yourself and the third is when you can think about securing a permanent role.  As a result, you will maximise the benefits of it being a six month programme.
  7. Finally, since we will soon be on our third cohort, you will have access to the support, advice and stories of the people who have gone before you.  Trust us, they are an inspiration.

Reed Smith and Reignite have continued to provide me with the tools to upskill, retrain and gain the confidence and network to build my own practice area.  (Reignite Associate)

How to make sure that flexible working arrangement doesn’t leave you stuck in a rut

Just read a piece in HR News, saying that 80% of working mothers feel stuck in the job they’re in because they couldn’t achieve the level of flexibility they have elsewhere. The same research also showed that 57% say their career hasn’t progressed since having children.

Forgive me for not being surprised.

In my experience, women with children are so desperate to achieve any form of flexibility, they will focus on that, first and foremost, ahead of such trivial matters as development and promotion. It’s not uncommon, either, for women with children to define themselves as mothers first and foremost. Just head over to Instagram and see how many have “Mummy, Momma, Mother, Mum … ” in their bio.

I can’t tell you how many times I receive emails saying something along the lines of “I’m a mum of three … (insert names and ages) …. and I’m looking for part time work, can you help”. As intros go, it’s not very compelling. Being a mother doesn’t differentiate you in any way.

Add to this the typical female traits of failing to negotiate, expecting to be recognised for doing good work, saying “Yes” too often, needing to be 100% sure you can do 100% of a job before you take it on, imposter syndrome and the like and you have a perfect storm of attitudes and behaviours that leave women stuck.

Whilst I’m not letting organisations off the hook – and yes, changes to legislation would be handy too – I’m much more interested in what women can do to help themselves. And each other. Because we’re all in this together ladies.

So here are a few suggestions.

  1. Remember your career is LONG. Think like a chess master and play the long game.
  2. Think about what “winning” looks like. Where do you want to be in 5 years? In 10 years? What do you anticipate your working life being like when your children are teenagers? Or older? What sort of influence and impact do you want to have? What will work mean to you?
  3. Be more Emily. When doing research for my book, She’s Back, I spoke to Emily Khan, a consultant at PwC. She’d managed to arrange a very complicated flexible work arrangement which allowed her to remain in her job at a time when she thought childcare commitments would make it not possible. She made sure everyone knew what hours she was working, when and where. One day, her line partner gave her some wise counsel. She took her advice and her career began to move again.

“Stop talking about your hours and start talking about your ambition.”

4. Be RUTHLESS about your time. Make sure you’re spending your most creative, productive time on your most valuable tasks – the things that YOU are paid to deliver and up which YOU will be judged and rewarded. It’s not selfish, it’s sensible. That tendency to say, “Yes” and to help everyone else out – just be careful you’re not spending too much time helping others look good.

5. Channel Annabel. Annabel worked for me some years ago. When my second in command told me she was pregnant, Anna was the next person to see me, explaining how I needn’t worry about getting maternity cover as she was capable of stepping up into the role. She set out how she would approach it, how her role could be backfilled and also set out what she would expect in return. A salary increase and promise to be considered for promotion in the next round.

I left that particular role in part because a couple of years later I was told I would never be promoted to partner as I was in a non-fee earning role. Guess who stepped into my shoes and is now, of course, a partner.

There’s a Yorkshire saying “You get nowt bah’t asking”.

6. Be prepared to walk away. Without getting overly political, Boris might be wrong on many things but he’s right about one thing. If you’re going to negotiate you have to be prepared to walk away. There ARE other roles out there and many more organisations WILL offer flexibility. But only if you show them your value and talk about what value will add first and leave the “when, where and how” for the second conversation.

At the Reignite Academy, we’re working with lawyers who have found themselves stuck in a rut, working below their potential and 90% have managed to negotiate some form of part time and/or agile working arrangement, in a sector notorious for its long hours, “full-time” culture. If they can do it, so can you.

How to navigate a non-linear career

I chose this image because the model looks both comfortable and fretful. Much like many of the young women I come across who are looking up and thinking “Just how, exactly, is this supposed to work?” Meaning, “How on earth do I keep a career on track at the same time as being a mother, daughter, partner, friend ….Do I have to sacrifice one thing for another? If I go at a slower pace, will I ever be able to get my career back on track?”

Treat your career like a game of chess

At the Reignite Academy, we often talk about having to approach your career like a game of chess. Have some winning tactics for that messy middle phase, but that all sounds a little vague. So what do those tactics look like? What, exactly, do you need to do to navigate a non-linear career?”

Well, we’ve spent the last few months talking to women – and men – who have managed to step on and off career ladders, who have take breaks and returned, stepped back a level and stepped up again. How did they manage it? Here are some of the common themes arising out of those conversations:


Tactics to help you win

Choose your line managers wisely. Easier said than done, perhaps, but try to find a line manager who cares, who trusts you, who believes in you and who will leave the door open should you ever want a path back. Sally Boyle, Head of Human Capital at Goldman Sachs, talked to us about her first ever line partner at a law firm, who insisted that she’d be the first phone when (not if) Sally decided to return from her career break.

Maintain connectivity. Never under-estimate the value of your professional networks. Even if you don’t have an immediate need, they keep you connected and can play a pivotal role in helping you find a route back. Evidence shows you are five times more likely to find a role through your network than through a recruiter. Online platforms like LinkedIn and Eventbrite make it easier than ever to keep in touch with people and attend events that are relevant to you.

You don’t need to be alone. Go back to the chess analogy. The queen is not the only piece on the board. Don’t underestimate the importance of sponsors, mentors and coaches. Be strategic as you think about who those might be, how they can help you and when. Within the Reignite programme we always give candidates an independent coach as we know the path back can be wobbly. And we encourage member firms to allocate mentors who can provide advice and insight from within.

Be prepared to take a risk when the opportunity presents itself. Don’t dither. Imagine the clock is ticking by the side of the chess board. Accept that imposter syndrome is a reality for many women and find ways to challenge it. If someone’s giving you the opportunity they must think you’re capable. Amanda, a senior employment lawyer had approached us about a place on our pilot programme. Whilst that didn’t work out, going through the process gave the the confidence to apply for – and be offered – a large in-house role.

Grit, determination, self confidence, self belief and self criticism. It’s never going to be easy but you’re made of strong stuff. Have faith in yourself and what you can deliver. If you leave the office before many of your colleagues, do so with your head held high knowing that the quality of what you’re doing is absolutely as good as theirs and it should be about output not hours input.


Kristin, a Reignite member remarked a few weeks ago that she had only just realised her role was not simply to put in lots of billable hours. She could also contribute business development ideas, innovative solutions, ways to work smarter that were probably even more valuable. Looping back to the first point, you need to be working for line managers who see that and who aren’t obsessed and impressed with presenteeism.

Look for the signs you’re ready to “Reignite” It’s not always a question of returning. Sometimes, you might be in work but operating below your potential. For me, it was listening to the woman’s hour power list, thinking “What happened to me?” For Annie, another person on our Reignite programme, it was looking at the people she was teaching at law school thinking “They’re about to have the career I should be having.”

What one thing?

As well as those themes, we asked people “What one thing” they would say as a piece of advice to a younger woman, looking ahead and wondering how on earth to navigate their career. Here’s a sample of what they said.

  • Remember that careers are long. Play that long game.
  • Don’t judge yourself by the pace of your colleagues’ careers. Go at your own pace. You absolutely can catch up over the long term, if, indeed, catching up is your thing.
  • This too will pass. Sleepless nights, toddler tantrums, ageing parents … nothing lasts forever. (But by the way, something else comes in its place).
  • Do what’s right for you.
  • Women absolutely have to help each other. All of us can make it easier for others.