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.

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