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.


Back with a Bang: How to Relaunch your Legal Career

Ready to make a career comeback? Here are the six commandments to obey if you want to kick-start your career after taking time out – whether you want to dive back in or start afresh.

My own story

When I left my job as Director of Communication at a large City firm, I thought that was a decision for life. My kids were 4 and 6, the constant juggle had become too much and it seemed the right thing to do to put my family first.

The problem was, no-one told me they wouldn’t be 4 and 6 forever.

Fast forward six years, I began to look at the twenty years ahead and wonder what had become of my career. I wasn’t alone. Many of the women I met at the school gates were pondering the same question. Lawyers, bankers, accountants, marketeers, journalists, you name it, all had a sense of unfulfilled potential and were starting to think about what to do about it.

Is This You?

This was the title of a Sunday Times feature back in 2017 in which I tried to shine a light on the plight of thousands of women who had taken breaks from their careers, were ready to return, and who were being ignored by the recruitment industry.

Since then, I helped hundreds of women relaunch their careers after a break or career hiatus of any kind. Here’s what I’ve learnt.

It begins in your head

“I’m too old”, “The technology has moved on,” “I’ve left it too late”, “My technical skills are too rusty”, “The kids wouldn’t cope without me.”

It’s so easy to begin with the obstacles. And most of the negative stories we tell ourselves are just not true. Put them to one side to begin with and, instead, think about your future self. Where do you want to be in three to five years. What sort of work do you want to be doing, who do you want to work with, what will that add to your life?

Think about your life to date – your skills, knowledge and experience that you bring to the party. What do you have to offer that’s going to be interesting and valuable to en employer.

Jenni, who returned to a teaching role after ten years out, had worried that she wouldn’t be the teacher she once was – first in every morning and last to leave at night. She was right, she is now a different teacher, and a better one. She’s brought up two children with different educational needs and she is so much better placed to help both the pupils and their parents because of the wealth of experience she brings to the classroom.

A Brand called You

“Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room” Jeff Bezos.

How are you going to describe yourself? In one line, when you meet someone for the first time; in a short paragraph, at the top of your CV and in a bit more depth, when you take the opportunity to speak at that event?

Here’s a clue.

“I’m Catherine, I used to be a lawyer. I have two children and I’ve had a 6 year career break. I’m looking for part time work” isn’t particularly compelling.

“I’m Catherine, I have fifteen years’ experience working as a commercial lawyer for a large City firm and subsequently in-house at HSBC. I recently took a data privacy qualification and I’m looking for my next role” is much more likely to catch the eye.

Your brand isn’t your life story, it’s what you’re selling to an employer. Think Dove, Innocent, Charlotte Tilbury – all great brands with a “promise” that goes way beyond the simple product.

Use your Connections

Your network is so much stronger than you realise. Women often hate the word “networking”, associating it with glasses of warm white wine in stuffy hotel rooms.

What I’m talking about here is all the people you know – those you trained with, people you worked with, previous clients, people in your social circle, everyone you know at the school gates – those connections can be invaluable.  My research found that people were nine times more likely to find work after a career break through their network than they were through a recruiter.

Emma was 48 when I met her. Her boys were 16 and 18 and, as she put it “it’s my turn.” She wanted to get her career going again and had worked out that a law firm would be the perfect place for her change and project management skills. Trouble was she didn’t know anyone who worked in a law firm.

However, she knew people who did. So she set up coffees, walks in the part, telephone calls to ask for advice, which led to more introductions, more coffees, more walks etc. Nine months later she landed her dream job. She didn’t realise it at the time but what she was doing here was networking.

And of course, what really helped was that she had her brand nailed before she went into those coffee houses, so that the people she met were clear how to help.

Pivot before you Leap

Remember, your next job is exactly that: your next job. It isn’t necessarily the final destination.

Think carefully about where you want to be long term and make the right choices. Ayana always wanted to return to her career in supply chain logistics but wanted to move from car manufacturing to pharma. She took a job in the local school working in the admin office. No connections to either supply chain or Pharma and unlikely to help her long term ambitions.

More recently, she began work in a new role on the supply chain team of a firm supplying PPE equipment to the NHS and care homes. In this role she is also beginning to make contacts in the Pharma industry. That’s what we mean by pivoting.

Brush up your Skills

There are so many free resources available, there really is no excuse for feeling “out of touch”. Brush up your technical skills and industry knowledge: depending on your background, there will inevitably be a range of resources to draw on.

Follow the relevant thought leaders on LinkedIn, check out company websites and LinkedIn pages for the latest trends, join alumni organisations or industry-related networking groups. Use resources like Eventbrite, FutureLearn and the How To Academy to find courses or talks relevant to you.

Remember the Basics

Your CV and LinkedIn.

Your CV is your right to be considered for work.  It’s a marketing document, there to secure you an interview. It has to sing out “This woman is perfectly suited to this job and you have to see her.” This means it needs to be tailored for every job application and the summary at the top has to describe in a few sentences why you are a perfect fit.

The hiring manager is unlikely to be terribly interested in what you’ve been doing during your career break and the fact that you volunteer for the PTA. Explaining you have an engineering degree from Imperial and spent fifteen years working in the pharmaceutical industry is going to be much more eye-catching. (If, indeed, you’re planning a return to big pharma rather than a role working in the school office).

Again, you’re not on your own. There are lots of websites and resources that can help. My Perfect CV, for example, has lots of free advice and sample templates for professional job seekers.

And don’t ignore LinkedIn. You have to be on it. Potential employers will check you out there and it’s also where all the jobs are. Use the jobs listed there to research the right key words to use on your own CV, check out who’s hiring in your sector, work out where you have connections who could make an introduction.

If You Don’t Believe Me …

Join us on 4th May for more tips, advice and to hear some inspirational stories of women who have moved on to the next phase of their careers with our clients. Register here.

My Third Act: A New Career in Learning & Development and Knowledge Management

Having a solid legal background can open up all sorts of opportunities. Many of our candidates have used their experience and training in private practice to pivot into new areas.  Their knowledge of the law, understanding of how law firms work and insight into the needs of their clients means that they are able to carve out a new “third act”.

Claire Beirne, a commercial litigator, recently joined Travers Smith and has taken a hybrid learning and development/knowledge management role.  She talked to us about her experience.

Tell us about your early career. Why law – what did you enjoy?

I read law at university, qualified into a commercial litigation department at Hogan Lovells and stayed with the firm for ten years.  From there, I moved to Dechert into a new role as a knowledge lawyer within their general commercial litigation team.  In 2007, I took a career break to spend time with my children.

What made you decide it was time to reignite your legal career and what options did you pursue?

I had always hoped that I would be able return to law, but was not sure in exactly what capacity. I started to explore the possibility of returning in 2017 and attended a two-week returners course run by CMS. That experience encouraged me to keep the idea on my radar. I contacted the Reignite Academy in March 2020 and had an initial chat about my background and what I wanted to do.

You joined Travers Smith through the Reignite Academy. How did you find that experience?

Reignite’s approach was incredibly positive and confidence-boosting. The support from Lisa, Stephanie and the team was invaluable throughout.  It led to my starting at Travers Smith in November 2020 as a knowledge lawyer in the Dispute Resolution department. This enabled me to return to the workplace in a truly supportive and welcoming environment, since several people mentored me during my time in the department.

You are now in a new knowledge and learning role. How did that happen and what do you enjoy about it?

I was subsequently offered an internal secondment to the firm’s Learning & Development team. Interestingly, I had not previously considered this type of role and I was really keen to find out more. Again, a great effort was made to integrate me and I was involved in interesting projects from the start. I have now taken up a permanent position within the Learning & Development and Knowledge teams. The hybrid role combines all the aspects of the job which I really enjoy, involving analytical skills and working with a wide range of people across the firm.

What advice would you have for others contemplating their next career move?

If you are considering a return to legal practice, reconnect with your network.  Talk to as many people as possible about your options. I found that people are typically very willing to help a potential returner and are generous with their time and advice. Do not worry about (or apologise for) the length of any career break: if you have decided you want to return to practice, concentrate on the outcome you want to achieve.

Consider the working pattern you want and how that will fit with your other commitments. I found it helpful to return on a full-time basis as I wanted to immerse myself after a long time out of the workplace. Focus on the work you are doing rather than worrying too much about a longer-term plan. Finally, look out for any and all opportunities that may present themselves along the way. 

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.