A return to law I never thought possible

Michelle Carnegie had a successful ten year career as an M&A tax lawyer before taking a break to raise her children.  She had never envisaged returning to the legal profession.  That all changed in 2021 when she found that she could combine quality, challenging work at a prestigious law firm, with family life.  We spoke to her about her experience.

Tell us a little about your early career

I trained and then worked as a tax lawyer at Clifford Chance until I was about ten years qualified. It was exciting, fast-paced and very interesting work but the hours were very long. I had my first two children whilst at the firm and CC supported me to come back part-time.  I did this for a few years until I had my third child. At which point I decided  the long hours and the commute were no longer sustainable.

What did you do during your time away from the law? 

I took almost 9 years out to raise my family.  As you can probably imagine, bringing up three children was pretty full on.  During this time I worked on a pro bono basis as an advocate for families of children with SEN, as a school governor and for a local start-up company.  I was kept very busy and at the time had no particular plans to return to work.  I couldn’t imagine going back to private practice as the hours just weren’t compatible with family life. 

What made you consider returning?

As my children were growing up, I began to think about going back to work.  There seemed to be so many initiatives out there to try to attract returners to the city and a number of them referred to remote working, so I thought I’d give it a go.

I decided that I would update my CV which had been a stumbling block for years as I really struggled with the concept of selling myself. I immersed myself in the process for a couple of days and was surprised at how many examples of soft skills that I had from my career break as well as from my original career.

I applied for a returnship with the Bank of England and also sent my CV to Reignite.

How did you find your current role?

 Within a few days I had three interviews lined up.  The opportunity at Travers Smith looked perfect.   From the minute I first saw the role I was very interested. It allows me to continue to do the bits of the role I enjoyed at my previous firm, dealing with clients, working with junior lawyers, negotiating etc without the long hours.  The role is predominantly remote working although I have been into the office a few times to meet colleagues and socialise.

How did you find the transition?

The transition back was made very easy by the comprehensive inductions, all the friendly calls, the buddies and mentors. Working remotely also means that there is considerably less upheaval for my family.  Travers Smith is known as the friendly firm and I have certainly found that to be true.

What advice would you have for others thinking about a return?

Go for it.  Take the plunge.  A return to law doesn’t have to mean returning to exactly the role you had in the past, there are lots of options for qualified lawyers and different ways to use your skills.  You’d be surprised how much flexibility there is now.  And the support on offer from the Reignite Academy team and at their member firms means the transition back is really smooth.

 

What Am I Worth? How to negotiate your salary after a career break

“Please state your candidate’s salary expectations.”

That’s one of the inevitable questions facing us when we upload a candidate’s CV to a law firm’s recruitment portal.

It’s not always easy to answer, particularly when we ask the same question of candidates and receive a blank look in return.

Where do you start if, for example, you were a senior associate at a magic circle firm, billing 2000+ hours a year and are now applying for a more flexible role in a smaller firm, hoping to do quality work without sacrificing family life.

Headlines don’t help

Yes, newly qualified lawyers are commanding eye watering salaries, but let’s think about what is expected in return.  Are you willing to sign up to consistently working late nights, weekends and sacrificing your holidays? If so, crack on.  If not, look away now.

As an alternative, we propose a three step process:

1. What’s Your Line

In other words, what are you selling.  This is a market.  What expertise are you offering to provide, for how long and under what conditions?

For example, you might be a magic circle banking and finance lawyer, with ten years PQE returning after an eight year career break and looking to do similar work but going back in at a mid level so that you have capacity to get back up to speed technically.  You may be looking for a role where hybrid working is the norm and, happy to work full time but preferably in a firm where the hours are more manageable.   Your target firms are probably not magic circle.

Alternatively, you may be the same lawyer but looking for a four day a week role, where evenings and weekends are protected.  You could be exploring the potential to take on a non-fee earning position which is not linked to transactions but which draws on the wealth of your experience and provide future opportunities for learning and growth.

The key is to be clear:  what expertise are you bringing; what is the level of work that you’d be comfortable performing; what sort of hours are you looking for; how much flexibility do you need?  What are your priorities and in what order?

When thinking about the level of work you’d be comfortable doing, there is a balancing act.  Set it too high and you may put undue pressure on yourself in the first few months.  (In our experience, lawyers are very good at setting very high expectations and putting pressure on themselves).  At the same time, set it too low and you could find that the work you’re given isn’t stretching enough and your return doesn’t provide the opportunities you are looking for to learn and grow.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to agree a review point at, say, the six month mark.

2. What’s the Going Rate

If all job ads showed the salary on offer, this would be easy. Sadly, they don’t.  Never fear.  There are alternatives.

  • Most law firms have their own clear salary bands and so if you’re being offered a position at, say, 4 PQE they will be able to  tell you what the band is for that level.  Remember, think about the level of work you’re going to be doing, not the PQE you were when you left.
  • Different organisations do salary surveys of the legal market from time to time.  This one, by Noble Legal compares salaries for different PQE levels at US, City, West End, mid-market and in-house roles.  It was last updated September 2021 and we have found it to be reasonably accurate.
  • Ask around.  The likelihood is that you know plenty of people who work in the legal sector. Without asking them what they are personally taking home (it seems to be a British thing not to talk about this), it’s fair enough to ask for advice on their experience of salaries generally.

As a rule of thumb, expect lower salaries outside of London and lower salaries when you move into non-fee earning roles.  Though do note, this isn’t always the case – PSLs and Knowledge lawyers, for example, are relied on for their technical proficiency and in some firms are on the same salary bands as fee earners.

Do not, however, take a double hit for “going part time”.  If you are going to work four days a week, your salary should be 80% of the salary that would be paid to someone doing the same role, at the same level, on a full time basis.

3.  Evaluate the Package

When you receive an offer, it’s crucial to evaluate it in the round.  Consider all aspects, not simply the headline salary figure.  Think about:

  • What’s the hourly rate?  Someone earning £150,000 a year who is expected to be billing 2000 hours and to sacrifice weekends and holidays is probably on about the same £ per hour as someone on £80,000 who does a regular 37.5 hour week.  Get an honest and realistic view as to the hours you’ll be expected to work
  • What about bonuses?  Some firms pay a firm-wide and individual bonus. What’s the level, how does it work and what has been paid in the past?
  • Holidays, pension contributions, other benefits, include them in the equation.

Over and above the money, what about the people?  Could you imagine yourself working with them? What is the culture like?  For many of our candidates, this is the most important part of the equation.

Finally, how will this role help you to learn and grow.  What development is on offer, including formal training, provision of a coach and/or mentor and, most importantly, access to high quality work.

Be Prepared to Negotiate

This could be the subject of a whole new article so I’ll keep this brief.  Be clear on your priorities – what’s most important, the salary, the hours you want to work, the level of flexibility – and what is the bottom line for each?  Where are you prepared to give?

Understand where the firm is coming from.  Listen.  An employer with a vacancy is someone with a problem.  How can you make yourself the solution to the problem.

Make sure this feels like a win win.

Play your cards right and that awful question “Please state your candidate’s salary expectations” should just be the start of an interesting, productive and profitable conversation.

 

How to Pivot to Relaunch Your Legal Career

Why your legal career is a lot more flexible than you might imagine

“You’re wasting your time.”

That was the response of one recruiter when approached by a lawyer with 18 years’ City experience who was looking to find a more generalist role.  Her last role was as a commercial litigator, followed by a five year break.  As far as the recruiter was concerned, her only option was to go back into her box.

Lives are Long and Messy

Let’s put careers to one side for a moment and think about our lives.  As Lynda Gratton points out in her fabulous book, The 100 Year Life , very few of us will have a “job for life”.  The days of gaining an education, working in one job, followed by a comfy retirement are long gone. In truth, lives rarely looked like that for women anyway.

I know from my own experience how careers can be derailed.  I left a successful career when my children were young and I couldn’t juggle family and career.  Sadly, no one told me they wouldn’t be your forever.  Fast forward six years and I found myself scrabbling around wondering how to get my career back on track.  Like the aforementioned lawyer I couldn’t go back to my previous career as a globe trotting management consultant.  And like her I was facing twenty years’ ahead when I knew I could make a difference.  Somewhere.

Play the Long Game

The key, I have found, is to play the long game with your career.  This means really understanding what you have to offer, drawing on not just your experience but all of your intangible assets and being strategic about the choices you make.

Pivot before you Leap

Recently, I spoke to three women who found new roles through the Reignite Academy.  I wanted to understand their experience and draw out common themes about what works when you’re relaunching after some sort of career hiatus.  One of those themes was the way they had pivoted, using their past experience to move to a new but not totally unfamiliar role.

From Private Practice to In House to Freelance and Back Again

Anne Todd

Anne had a successful private practice career and had already had to pivot from one industry to another as the economy shifted.  Finding her options to progress limited after a recession, she moved to an in house role in Telecoms, a sector she knew well.  In order to succeed in a rapidly changing market, she had to quickly learn a whole new set of regulatory requirements.

When her employer was engulfed in the Enron crisis, her understanding of these regulations and knowledge of complex outsourcing contracts enabled her to find a new role as GC at a global outsourcing company.

 

Eventually, family commitments put a strain on her ability to put in the hours required in this role but the breadth of her experience and ability to adapt meant that it was relatively easy for her to take on a freelance role for a while.

Years later, and missing the quality of work and development opportunities provided in private practice, she returned to Macfarlanes as a Senior Associate in their Commercial team.   A full circle move.  Ten years away from private practice and whilst communication methods might have changed, much is the same.

A New Direction in a Familiar Field

Claire, on the other hand, took a complete break from her career as a dispute resolution lawyer.

She had been out for fourteen years when she began to think about options to return.   Unsure about what direction to take, Claire joined our “Future Proof Your Career” course.  Through this, she was able to identify that she still loved the law and would enjoy a career in that space, though not in a fee earning role.

Joining Travers Smith’s Dispute Resolution team as a knowledge lawyer enabled her to explore those options.  Whilst in many ways, she describes this as a “soft landing”, free from the pressures of billable hours, in many ways it wasn’t soft at all.  Knowledge lawyers, by definition, have to have the facts at their finger tips and it was a steep learning curve.

Inevitably, Claire had to work closely with the Learning and Development team and it was whilst on secondment here that she saw her next opportunity.  She seized the chance to “push at an open door” and now has a permanent role in that team.

Adding a New Skill Set, Taking on a New Challenge

Finally, Vanessa, had been a real estate lawyer for many years when she felt that she needed a new challenge.  She initially joined a legal tech company who needed someone who knew how law firms worked.   She was thrown in at the deep end and, not being from a tech background, had to quickly learn not only the jargon but how their processes worked.

Once that company was established, she returned to legal practice for a short while but felt unchallenged and in need of something new.  She trained in coaching and leadership development and set up her own company, Legal by Design, to offer leadership courses for lawyers.

Like Anne and Claire, Vanessa eventually found that something was missing.  She had plenty of flexibility and interesting work but wasn’t being stretched.  And she wasn’t using the legal expertise she had spent so long acquiring.

Vanessa began to explore alternative options until an opportunity arose to join a fast growing, specialist Real Estate Investment company, A.S.K. Partners.  They were and are a small, ambitious, and energetic company, led by founders for whom “having a sense of humour” is a pre-requisite for any person joining the team.  It’s an open plan office, and whilst Vanessa’s role is primarily focused on legal matters, everyone has to know a little bit about everything.  In her words:

It’s intense.  It’s pushing me out of all sorts of comfort zones …it has set alight something new.  I fell like I am discovering myself with A.S.K. at a really interesting time in my life.”

Take-Outs

Talking to Vanessa, Anne and Claire, and thinking about the experience of other candidates who have found ways to carve out new roles after a break, here’s what I’d draw out as some key messages:

  1. You are not your job title.  Your previous roles have provided you with a set of technical skills, knowledge, soft skills, experience and wisdom that can be deployed in several different contexts.  This includes your experience beyond that job role.
  2. Be aware of and nourish your intangible assets: your networks, your ability to learn, your social connections and your fitness and health.  All of these are invaluable when you are ready to relaunch.
  3. Be strategic and play the long game. Remember, your next step is just that:  your next step.  It doesn’t need to be the end point, it just needs to set you in the right direction.
  4. Be prepared to experiment.  Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Good enough is just that.  Moving is better than getting stuck.
  5. No one cares about your career more than you do.  Find advisors you trust, ignore voices that tell you you can’t, and be prepared to take this into your own hands.  You can do this.

How my return to law opened up a whole new world

It’s a first!  Following her promotion, one of our Reignite Academy alumni, Hannah Edwards, is looking for a replacement. Her return not only opened up a whole new world for Hannah, her promotion now creates opportunities for others.

A little background

Hannah first approached the Reignite Academy in the summer of 2019.  She had always worked in real estate law, having trained at at Slaughter and May and later spending time at Stevens & Bolton.  She had also worked as an in-house real estate lawyer at Marks and Spencer. 

Hannah took a career break when the family relocated to Scotland.  Returning to the South five years later, she approached the Reignite Academy to help her return to the law.  She was offered an in house risk and compliance role back at Stevens & Bolton and though this was a new area for her, she made the leap.

We spoke to Hannah about her experience.

What made you choose this particular role?

It was a combination of factors.  I did love being a lawyer and enjoyed my time working in real estate, but I was beginning to feel a bit pigeon-holed. 

Moving to a risk and compliance role was an opportunity to do something different, to challenge myself and to take everything I’d learnt so far and add to it.  It was the chance to build on what I’d done to date and take it in a new direction.

There was also the lifestyle factor.  Risk and compliance work is important but doesn’t usually come with the unpredictability and long hours that some fee earning roles entail.

How did you find the transition?

Well, it was a challenge at first.  I had a learning plan all mapped out but what I actually found was that most of what you learn comes from the issues being thrown at you on a day to day basis. 

Luckily, as lawyers, we are used to looking things up, seeking out precedents, understanding new legislation and rule changes.  I also had a very supportive boss and the partners at Stevens & Bolton were very accommodating.  Everyone wanted me to succeed.

What do you enjoy most about the work?

There is a tremendous variety to what we do.  Our team covers everything from conflicts, complex anti-money laundering issues and data protection through to supplier contracts, firm policies and regulatory compliance.  No one day is the same.

Moving into this role has really refreshed my interest in my career.  It doesn’t feel as though I have “gone back”, in reality I’ve “moved forwards.”

How do you find Stevens & Bolton as a firm

I love it here.  The firm really is exceptionally collaborative.  Everyone is friendly and supportive.  The culture is great and that makes it a really nice place to work.

What does the future look like?

I’m hiring my replacement!  I have just been promoted and we need to find another lawyer to join the team and work with me.  S&B has embraced an agile working model and our team will continue with a mixture of remote working and in person collaboration in the office.

As Hannah says, there is a new opportunity for a risk and compliance lawyer at Stevens & Bolton.  You needn’t have experience in this role previously, although some experience of commercial contracts and data privacy would be helpful, along with a general awareness of the regulations governing a law firm. 

If Hannah’s experience sounds of interest and you’d like to explore this opportunity please contact us or apply here.