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. 

Improving Diversity: What works … spoiler alert it’s not having targets and a plan

You’ve set some targets, you’ve published your plan, be that around race, gender or other aspects of “diversity”. You have probably published both on your website and you’ve briefed recruiters.  Now all you need to do is sit back and wait for the results to roll in.

After all, everyone knows that there’s a McKinsey study out there that proves that organisations with a more diverse make up are more successful, so leadership must be bought in. What could possibly go wrong?

Why good intentions fail

Let’s cut to the hiring manager.  There’s a vacancy to fill and the budget is signed off.  He (or she) has a choice of candidates.  One is moving from a similar position at a competitor, the other has had a career break.  Or perhaps there’s another whose academics are a bit suspect, whose most recent work was with an organisation he considers a bit “second rate”.

This hiring manager has short term targets to achieve, against which he will be judged and rewarded, or not.  His team is under pressure, there are never enough people, they are already working long hours, the last thing they need is someone who can’t “hit the ground running.”

“We are a meritocracy.  At the end of the day, it has to be the best person for the job.”

How many times have we heard that?

“Diversity” does not (automatically) improve performance

Simply adding people of colour or more women to a team that is predominantly made up of white men will not, in and of itself, improve performance.  In fact, there’s a good argument to say things will get worse.  If the majority don’t really believe the new joiners have a valuable contribution to make, they’re unlikely to create the environment to ensure they do just that. If the new joiners believe they’ve been hired simply to fill a quota, they are hardly going to start with a confident spring in their step.

So what’s the answer?  We know intuitively that having a team with diverse points of view, experiences and contributions should lead to better outcomes.  We also know that throughout society some groups are severely disadvantaged and deserve better opportunities: simply because it’s the right thing to do.

The question is, what does it take to get from her to there?  How do we change the choices made by the hiring manager and the experience of those joining from a “diverse” background.

What we’ve learnt at the Reignite Academy

After two years of working with various law firms in the UK, here is what our experience has taught us.

1. It comes from the heart not the head

Someone has to truly believe that people with a different background and experience have something to offer that will enhance the team.

This was never more clear than at one member firm, when the senior partner realised that the women we are helping to resume their careers are the very same women that he trained with.  He could reel off the names of women he respected and admired who had stepped back from their legal careers, largely because of the long hours culture and lack of flexibility, which only became a problem once they had children.   It helped that one of them was his wife.

No McKinsey study on earth will ever replace a real person saying “this is a waste, look what talent we’ve lost, we have to try to provide opportunities for them to return.”

2.  Create the pipeline before you make a hole

Immediate vacancies usually need filling with some urgency.  We have sympathy for the hiring manger who has a hole to fill.  However, in our experience is “whack a mole” (to purloin a phrase) approach to filling vacancies with the best available candidate is counter-productive if you are serious about creating a more diverse team.

At the Reignite Academy, for example, we often begin speaking to candidates months – sometimes more than a year – before they are finally ready to return.  Women often have concerns about how they will manage their other responsibilities along with reigniting a career, not to mention worries about how to get back up to speed.  This has been exacerbated by the home-schooling situation.

In the same way that we are nurturing a pipeline of talent, it helps when our member firms look ahead and think strategically about the practice areas that are likely to grow and where they could create opportunities for our candidates.  That way we can engage in a proper conversation and make appropriate introductions that, in time, will lead to people into jobs.

3.  You have to allow the seeds to grow, the flowers to bloom

There is little point hiring someone who is bringing something valuable and different to the team if you do not then allow them to contribute that something.  Put more bluntly, if you squash them into a box like all the other members of the team, you are likely to be disappointed when they fail to thrive.

A great example of this was when one of our candidates, who had spent over 6 years as a General Counsel, was given the opportunity to share that experience with younger members of the team.  After her first nine months being frustrated at this knowledge being disregarded, she was asked to give a talk on “how to approach” GCs.  This talk was so valuable that it turned into a regular training session.

4. Teach them and they will learn

Shortly after the black lives matter movement erupted last summer, I spoke to a couple of black women – one a banker, the other a lawyer – about their experience of joining big City institutions as the first person in their family to join this profession.

Both told me that, looking back, the one thing that no-one explained to them, was the importance of networking from day one.  Not going to “networking events” per se, but getting to know people at all levels throughout the firm and slowly but surely making sure they knew you.

To other people who joined at the same time, many of whom were following family members into the profession and who had been to the same private schools, making connections and building a network came so naturally.  For Yvonne and Janine, it was an anathema.  They assumed doing a lot of good quality work would be enough.

At times, leaders are “unconsciously competent” about what it takes to succeed.  With a little more dissection of the attitudes, skills and behaviours required to succeed and some targeted training, this could easily be addressed.

5. Leaders, be prepared to learn

It’s easy, if you’re at the head of successful organisation or team, to assume that you have leadership nailed.  The results, surely, speak for themselves.

And yet, it’s not so if you are going to lead a different type of team – one that is made up of people with different backgrounds, motivations, cultures, attitudes.  Social events centred around alcohol, client networking that always takes place after work, for example, can exclude some member.  Although who is doing any of that during lockdown?

More subtly, now, it’s about watching out for and recognising ways in which some people may behave differently to others.

One partner we worked with, for instance, told us about how, in the run up to the appraisal season at the back end of lat year, it was very noticeable to her that most men on the team were confidently claiming their contribution to certain projects and activity whilst many women were, on the face of it, under-performing. Until, that is, you looked at which members of the team were simultaneously trying to home school two children whilst also delivering their billable hours target.

It wasn’t just that she noticed, it was that she was looking in the first place and then took the initiative to talk to other members of the leadership team about how to adjust evaluations to reflect people’s different circumstances.

6.  Acknowledge and remove discrimination and unfairness from the system

One of the reasons that organisations end up being less diverse than when they started (for example, beginning with a 50/50 gender split at graduate intake and ending up with something more like 80/20 at partner level) is that there is discrimination in the system.

It varies by organisation but in our experience one common, though unintended, source of bias is found in the system for work allocation.  Especially when there is no system for work allocation. Partner comes out of office, finds associates they’ve worked with before and enjoy working with, gets them involved in the pitch.  Pitch is won, the same team does the work.  All get on very well, go for drinks at the end of the job.  Pause and repeat.

Unless you are prepared to root out, acknowledge and change areas like this, where unfairness has a huge impact on people’s experience and progression prospects, you are unlikely to make a dint in your targets.   The flipside is that if you can change this, the benefits will be immense.

7.  Remember – Everyone loves a story

The good news is that everyone loves a success story.  Get it right and you create a virtual circle.  Tell someone the story of the woman who came back to work as a newly divorced single mum and who was able to get her career back on track, who adds perspective and humour to the team and who is now helping open up a new practice area.  Or the story of the young black lawyer who was the first in his family to go to university and who was given the opportunity to join an inclusive team with a leader who actively sponsored his progression.

The McKinsey study is memorable but will never touch anyone’s heart.  As someone cleverer than me once said

Facts tell, stories sell.

Celebrating Success

Along with setting targets and creating action plans, the other thing we’ve noticed is that firms love to produce an annual “Diversity and Inclusion” report.  The good news is that if you follow these steps, you’ll have plenty to put in it.   You might even hit some of those targets.

Pull on your boots

What to do in this next Lockdown

The best laid plans didn’t fare so well last time

Back in March, everyone I spoke to was fairly stoic about the looming lockdown. Many had grand plans. They would seize the opportunity to use isolation to do a good clear out of the house, learn a new language, finally get round to reading The Mirror and the Light, watch a box set or two. Succession? Chernobyl? The choice was endless. Problem solved.

By week three, barring essential workers, everyone who could do so was working from home. In an instant the mantra “this job has to be done in the office” had been turned on its head. Suddenly, even the most dyed in the wool, traditional business leader was embracing the possibility of avoiding a lengthy, unpleasant commute and working in a quiet space with a nice view of the garden and the possibility of a dog walk at lunchtime.

The beginning of a flexible revolution?

In some quarters, there was a giddy expectation that here was the flexible revolution we’d all been waiting for. The end of presenteeism; of the office based 9 – 5 (or, more likely, 9 – 10); a new acceptance that professionals could be trusted to work from home, completing their tasks as and when it suited them. The biggest barrier to women’s careers was finally coming down.

Or perhaps not.

Women with children soon found out that the fight for equality was back in the home. And it was a fight they were losing. Research began to show that the burdens of lockdown were much greater for women, particularly those with children. Suddenly, mothers found themselves back at home, doing the bulk of the extra childcare, cooking and cleaning.

Women were also taking on the brunt of caring for elderly relatives or family members who needed to shield. Forget learning a language or reading a book, with all this extra work to do, women had enough on trying to hold down a job, even if that job was four days a week. It’s one thing to have permission to do the work at home, it’s quite another to have the space – mentally and physically – to actually apply yourself to that job.

Little wonder, then, that The Lawyer recently ran an article “Female partners with children need more understanding from their male peers.” So there we are. That’s what we need. More understanding.

Now is not the time to be complacent

My advice to women? Don’t wait around for the empathy and understanding to come flooding your way. Your situation is more perilous than ever.

Whilst you’ve been putting your head down, struggling to keep on top of work, supervising home schooling, planning, cancelling and replanning foreign holidays and staycations, waiting online for that precious Ocado slot, monitoring your children’s screen time, exhorting your elderly parents and in-laws to stick to the rules, your male peers have, by and large, been having a different lockdown experience.

Not only have they been able to work from home much more successfully than they ever thought possible, your male peers haven’t lost touch with the people who can impact their careers. I’m not talking here about their children, elderly parents and in-laws. I’m talking about their clients and the partners who lead their practice groups, who bring in work, who maintain client relationships, who are keeping the business afloat.

Talking to some senior leaders over the last few weeks, it’s clear that men have been much smarter at pushing themselves forward to not only get what juicy work is around but also to let people know how well they’ve performed in executing that work. How that deal would never have happened without their intervention, how their contribution to that negotiation was so critical. Yes, in part, it may be that they’ve had the luxury of a partner at home who is carrying the burden, but also they get it. They know how to manage their careers.

So what did you do during the lockdown  …

If you don’t believe me, think about this. Another piece in The Lawyer examined what lawyers had been up to during lockdown. Cooking, exercising, DIY were all up there (no-one, it seems, got round to learning a new language) and so was social media use. But here’s the thing. Across Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, women were more likely to have increased their usage. LinkedIn was the only social media platform where “men were more likely to have upped their presence.”

Where do you go if you want to read what experts in your sector are saying? Which platform is there to help you expand your professional network? Where do employers go to look for talent? Where are all the jobs? Which platform is best if you’re looking to build your personal brand? For business development? To extend your professional reach? Not Facebook, that’s for sure.

Now make it count

My advice to women during this next lockdown? Don’t wait for more understanding. Take control. Work out where you want to be by April, have a plan and create yourself a routine that sets you on the right path. Here are five things that I guarantee will make a difference:

  • Share the burden at home. Be it childcare, housework, home schooling, elderly care, house admin, whatever. Don’t become the “default parent”. And even better, ask your male peers if they’re doing the same. If not, encourage them to do their bit for equality, where it really matters.
  • Sharpen your difference. What’s your personal brand? What is unique about you? What do you know about, where is your expertise and who knows about it. Hint: LinkedIn is a useful platform for building both reputation and reach.
  • Pick up the phone. Talk to people. Your clients, colleagues, partners, peers, other people in your sector. No-one’s on a plane, everyone’s at home, we’re all available. Lockdown has taken down barriers and we’re all living a shared experience. It’s amazing how much easier this makes it to chat to people, whatever their position.
  • Keep learning. Forget Spanish, it’s never going to happen (unless there is a business reason) but do carve out time to read technical updates, recent cases and the like. As well as law firms and the usual subscription services, many universities offer reasonably priced individual modules. Away from law, there are plenty of online offerings that are often either free or very low cost.
  • Be at the net. Be alive and open to opportunities to make connections, bring in work, extend your network. This isn’t just about external clients. Which other teams in your firm will bring in work that will draw on the work of your team? Whose advice would be even better with your particular slant on it. We’re all business developers now.

Take your future into your own hands. Make a plan. Strap on your backpack and pull on your walking boots on. Be upfront and be bold. The bad news is that you won’t have time to read The Mirror and the Light; but assuming you get number one right, you still might have time for the odd box set. Mrs America is fabulous.