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.

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. 

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

Louise is an experienced lawyer who recently returned to work after a career break of around 10 years.  She has been working with Bird & Bird, a City law firm, for almost two months.  We asked her about her experience and the advice she would have for other women thinking of relaunching their professional careers.

Tell us a little about your career break

I took a career break aged 42 when my sons were 5 and 2 (now they are 15 and 12) and I was fulfilled and happy for a few years. I don’t regret for one minute giving up work to be with my children – it was a privilege that not everyone has. What I do now look back on with regret is how long it took me to get back to work after my career break. Whilst it wasn’t entirely within my control (as it is never as easy for a returner to get a job as someone already in work), I now realise that a lot more was within my control than I realised.

When did you start to think about returning and what was your experience?

I started thinking about returning in 2015, took a qualification to update my legal knowledge and applied for some jobs – zero interest. Recruiters did not want to know or told me to go back as a paralegal despite being a 10-year qualified solicitor. Every now and again, I picked it all up again – made more applications but with no real momentum and always with the same result.

Confidence is so easily lost. I put a ‘proper job’ in the “too difficult” pile and told myself that I couldn’t possibly fit in a legal career with  my family commitments anyway (despite knowing many women who did!) and busied myself with my family (because let’s face it, with children and home to run, there is always something to do), my interests and some voluntary work.

I could have tried to do all sorts of things (taken an alternative job, retrained) but I didn’t – partly because my confidence was gone even for that and partly because secretly I didn’t want the alternatives –  I wanted back what I had given up.


How did you find your current role?

I found this role through the Reignite Academy, which runs programmes specifically for lawyers returning after a career break.  I found out about it by chance from another mum, a solicitor who had come across it in the course of her work.  The programme is a fixed term, six-month contract of work, training and coaching, all designed to help people like me get their careers back on track.

How have you found the first few weeks?

Yes, the first couple of weeks were quite tough and the learning curve was steep, yes, there have been a few (private) tears of frustration (mostly IT-related), yes the entire group I work in  is younger me and I am old enough to be the mother of at least half of them (but they don’t seem to care and I am starting not to), yes, I have returned as a junior solicitor, yes my sons now get the bus home instead of me picking them up from school and generally look after themselves a bit more and yes, my house is maybe not as clean and tidy as it once was but I am so enjoying working again.

I know I will last the 6 months of my returnship. And I went into it thinking that all I needed to do was survive it because it was just a stepping stone to a future career and a “fix” for my CV and it is certainly that but it is a lot more than that. I went into it thinking “it will be a bit much but you can move somewhere a lot less full-on straight after”. But now I want to be kept on. It is quite a lot to take on after a long break but it isn’t too full-on – it is what I want to do. And that is what a returnship does – upskills you and builds your confidence so you can do what you thought was unimaginable or impossible 3 months ago. 

What would you say to someone who is at the start of this journey?

I would say that it may take you longer than a non-returner to get a job so build that into your plans and do not give up.  I know from experience it won’t be any easier in a few years’ time, it will just be harder.

And if the time is not right for you now to return for whatever reason but you think you may want (or need) to return to work in the future, then do something now towards that goal – use a free website to improve your typing speed , attend a returner event through one of the many, many companies that now have made a commitment to take returners to keep your hand in. There are great free talks on how to improve your CV etc. and an opportunity to connect with many, many women in the same position as you and that is a great support. 

What would your advice be to a returner who is thinking about their options?

I would say be realistic and don’t be too fussy when considering your returning options. Don’t close any doors – because you can’t really afford to.

For example, I didn’t apply for a single private practice job until Reignite because my last experience working for a law firm in the City had been a blur of too many hours and cancelled social engagements, which is why I left in the first place and went in-house. I was adamant that I wanted to go back in-house. Well, so does everyone else, whereas law firms often have lots of vacancies.

You may be pleasantly surprised by private practice these days  – I have found that there is a great deal more flexibility now than there was 18 years ago: I did not raise the possibility of part-time work when I went to interview for my returnship with Bird & Bird, they raised it with me and I now work 4 days a week. Technology has made working flexibly so much easier even in law firms and, whilst the lockdown has been so tough on so many, I know remote working has made my transition back to the world of work so much easier than it would normally have been – no 2-hour commute each way and only the prospect of 2 days a week in the office in the future – it makes life so much easier especially for single parents and primary care-givers who work.

Definitely apply for a returnship if available to you and if not, don’t limit yourself to looking for a permanent contract straight away. Maybe look for a maternity leave cover or short-term contract in the first instance (a) because that is realistically what you are going to be able to get (or at least that is what many recruiters told me); and (b) it may be a less intimidating start and also it will help you to assess what works best for you with your home commitments on a longer-term basis.  For example, I did a couple of very short-term contracts in the year before I started my returnship – as a document review lawyer where the projects are just a couple of weeks or months long and the hours can be very flexible (e.g. I took time off to do the afternoon school run) – they really helped my confidence and, although you need to be a solicitor, the work doesn’t require you to have specific legal knowledge or be up-to-date on the law – ideal for a returner.

How should people deal with any concerns they might have about returning?

Don’t overthink it!  Don’t think of all the reasons why you shouldn’t return to work and talk yourself out of it! Think of all the reasons why you should – independence, fulfilment, a renewed sense of purpose, intellectual stimulation, a pay packet at the end of the month.  And, when you are successful at getting your first returnship or job or whatever (because it is a case of when, not if), the utter relief of not having to spend hours and days filling out any more  job applications.

In the meantime, be smart with your applications and apply for a returner program if available to you. It is not always easy to get your foot back in the door career-wise but know that once you do, it will be a lot better and a lot easier than you think and, if you are anything like me, you will wish you had done it years ago.

Any parting thoughts?

I would say again – don’t give up!

So tell me …. What’s a middle aged woman got to offer …

Are you asking yourself this very question?

“What does a middle aged woman have to offer that a 20-something doesn’t?” It’s a question many of the women I meet ask. Sometimes, it’s a question going on in their own heads, holding them back from pursuing new opportunities.   I’m too old, surely? Who would want me? What do I have to offer.

The short answer: plenty. Get a grip, have some guts and get on the front foot. You have plenty, believe me.

You have perspective and wisdom

As a new grad, I soaked up the message that women could have it all. Motherhood was not going to get in my way. And for a while I was right, I made partner in Arthur Andersen in my early thirties and thought that was success.

Ha. Little did I know. The Enron debacle, a divorce, a new marriage, two kids, relocation… the usually messy stuff of life  …meant that, like many women, my career didn’t follow a nice straight line. I quit my job when I didn’t get a promotion I was expecting and my childcare arrangements fell apart. I spent time outside the City, volunteered in a school in a deprived area of London, became a magistrate, spent time with lots of people in other walks of life. And yes, I did the school run.

I realised that there’s more to life than false deadlines and annual performance appraisals, office gossip and billing targets. I also realised that no powerpoint presentation ever changed the world and nothing is really that important as a loved one with a life threatening illness.

Little wonder, then, that more “mature” women going back into the workplace are less likely to phased by having to say “No” to some “urgent” and impossible request.

Your social network is deep and wide

OK, you didn’t invent Facebook, but you do know an awful lot of people. And many of them will be in serious positions, influential and well connected themselves.

When Deb Khan and I first decided to set up She’s Back I was venturing into the world of work after six years “on the outside.” One of the reasons I’d left in the first place was a frustration that my peers were being promoted ahead of me (they didn’t have the responsibilities of “pesky kids” weighing them down, or if they did, they’d worked out how to off load some of those responsibilities to others).

This, obviously, turned out to be a bonus when I needed to reach out to people in influential positions for support with my fledgling business idea. Funny how I was able to put that frustration to one side very quickly indeed and reconnect with my one time peers. One of them even connected me with Arianna Huffington, who very kindly endorsed our book.

She’s Back book, endorsed by Arianna Huffington

You have energy

Anyone who’s had to live with a young child or two will know all about sleep deprivation. And the challenge of trying to carve out any time for your own hobbies, ambitions and interests.

There is absolutely no way I could have set up a business in my late thirties or even early forties. And look at me now. I’ve set up two. After She’s Back, I moved onto the Reignite Academy , helping open doors to enable lawyers to return to the City after a career hiatus.

And of course, after years of working out that it’s easier to navigate live with the support of other women, I was able to make this new business happen because it’s a collaboration with two other fabulous “older’ women, Melinda Wallman and Stephanie Dillon (who I have to admit is not quite as old as me).

You’re not easily scared

Back to my “life or death” point, having a bit of perspective and life experience also gives you some chutzpah. So what if you fail, who cares if someone rejects your idea, what do you have to lose by having a go.

I’d never pitched to a senior law firm partner in my life before we set up the Reignite Academy. In fact, in all my time with Arthur Andersen, I honestly don’t think I was successful in selling anything. (Even without Enron, I probably wouldn’t have gone very far). And now? I care about the business, I believe in what we’re offering and that senior partner on the other side of the table is about my age, so he doesn’t scare me one little bit.

You have a laser sharp focus and it’s your turn

The women I’ve met who are picking up their careers after a hiatus or a total break — whether it’s through the Reignite Academy or another channel — have thought long and hard about their decision.

They are returning because they want to: they are ambitious for the next phase of their lives. They are motivated by a need to fulfil their potential and have moved mountains to position themselves to be able to commit. They are focused and determined. And they don’t have time to waste.

Those new graduates? They’d better start worrying about the competition.


Fearless Girl Statue, City of London

So what are you waiting for?   Get ready to get yourself in shape for a comeback.  Follow the Reignite Academy on LinkedIn for more tips, tools and inspirational stories.  Join us for a “Reignite Your Legal Career” bootcamp on 20th January for some guidance and watch this space for new opportunities with both Reignite for lawyers and Inclusivity for other professions.