Women’s careers rarely follow straight lines. What tactics can you use to make sure your career thrives in the long term

This is Why Returnships Work

No-one told me just how tough recruitment could be. You’re in the middle of two parties, each of whom can say the right thing, do the right thing and then at the last minute pull out. That a hiring manager might suddenly decide a vacancy isn’t a vacancy after all wasn’t so much of a surprise. To have a candidate pull out at the last minute? That was new to me.

Bad start to the week

My Monday started with two candidates pulling out of second interview opportunities. Not because they’d received better offers elsewhere, but because they got cold feet.

“Not sure the time is right. I still have lots of other responsibilities. I don’t want to let anyone down.”

“I remember how pressurised it was. And the hours …. Perhaps I should be looking for something a bit easier.”

Neither response is uncommon in women who are thinking of reigniting their careers. In fact, I’d go so far as to say such responses are very normal and to be expected.

And the same goes for firms.

“I’m not sure it makes commercial sense for us …”

“We really couldn’t bring her back at such a senior level after she’s been out for ten years …”

Both responses based on looking at CVs, without meeting the individuals concerned or having any sort of conversation about expectations, confidence levels or what the candidates have been doing to keep themselves commercially sharp.

It’s all about risk

In both cases, what people are articulating is all about risk. For the women, the risk is putting themselves out there and then failing in some way. Failing to hold down the job, failing to be up to scratch, failing the family, failing themselves.

For organisations, the risk is that they take a chance on a candidate who doesn’t measure up. The risk that they fill a vacancy with someone who isn’t good enough and end up having to go through the whole process again a few months down the line.

Reframe: It’s an opportunity

Returnships take this risk, kick it to one side where it belongs and deliver opportunity. By creating a fixed term contract, usually six months, with plenty of support before and during the programme, women and the firms that are wise enough to take the leap are able to find a solution that benefits both sides.

For the women involved, it’s six months to make a smooth transition, to rebuild confidence, rediscover hidden talents, polish up rusty skills and reconnect with professional networks. The message we deliver:

  • It’s six months, not for life
  • This is your next step, not the end point
  • We will help you prepare well in advance to make sure you have a plan to succeed
  • We will provide you with coaching and support through the programme, using everything we know about the challenges you may face

For the organisations, the message is just as clear. You say you want more women, you say you’re committed to diversity, here’s an opportunity to do something about it.

  • We have screened these candidates and we know they have the grit, determination and ambition to succeed
  • We know how to support women returning from a career break and we will be there
  • Interviewing candidates on the basis of their last twelve months’ work experience obviously isn’t going to work, we will provide an alternative approach
  • The line partners have an important role to play and we will provide the training & briefing required

What’s not to love about that?

The joy of success

It doesn’t always work. That firm that sees us as uncommercial? They are unmoved. The woman who feels now just isn’t the right time? After a lot of should searching, she’d be much more comfortable knowing that home schooling really is at an end. The woman I sympathise with. The firm? Less so.

What I can tell you is that my second woman is now sitting on a job offer and is overjoyed, thrilled, excited and … yes a little daunted .. at the prospect of reigniting her career. We’ve assured her she isn’t on her own (literally and metaphorically) and we, too are utterly delighted.

And the other firm? Well, put it this way, I’m currently scheduling an interview for next week.

Now, more than ever …

I suspect that embarking on a “Returnship Programme” might have been the type of initiative companies would have done during the good times. Part of their diversity action plan. Nice to have, not essential, not affordable when times are hard. Such as in the middle of a pandemic.

My response? Reframe. There has never been a better opportunity to use a flexible, agile, experimental approach to provide opportunities to people with a huge amount of talent to add to the quality of your talent base.

As someone once said.

Build it and they will come.

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.

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.

Meet Helen Martin, who reignited her legal career after a nine year break

Helen had over nine years of post-qualification experience in insolvency and restructuring at firms including Clifford Chance and Sidley Austin before taking a career break in 2012.

With three young children, Helen decided to move out of London to Surrey.  There, she took a course in social media and set up a business to support local businesses.  Helen recently joined the Restructuring and Insolvency team at Stevens & Bolton. We talked to her about her motivation to return to private practice and her experience so far.

What made you decide to return to private practice?

I had been out of private practice for 9 years, mostly taking care of my three young children. My eldest, Harry, has cerebral palsy, and dealing with his day to day additional care, medical appointments etc, on top of everyday childcare made a return to law seem impossible. The longer I spent out of the profession, the more insurmountable the obstacles to return seemed to become.  And I really did want to return to work, to pick up my career again.

I had never particularly planned to be a stay at home mum.  I had, for a number of years, wanted to regain the work life which I had given up. For the last few years I had been really missing having a professional life out of the home.  I missed doing something more intellectually challenging and satisfying than running around after my kids.  I was also keen to have some financial independence. However, I just couldn’t see how to make it work, let alone whether I would even be able to get a job after so long.

Earlier this year I stumbled across Reignite through LinkedIn.   I saw they had roles available near me, in Guildford. Suddenly the thought of working again seemed doable.  The long commute into London was always one of the practical issues which had put me off. I joined a Reignite webinar (this was just before lockdown, when the world first started to turn virtual!) which gave me the confidence to apply. The fact that Reignite had supported other women to successfully return – some with even longer career breaks than mine – was very motivating. I felt like it was now or never.  I didn’t feel ‘ready’ exactly but I knew I probably never would, and the longer I left it the harder it would get!

How have you found the experience so far?

The experience so far has been fantastic, despite the unusual circumstances.  I still haven’t had the chance to actually work in the office, and have only had one (socially distanced) in person meeting with the rest of my team! Everyone has been very welcoming. I have felt part of the team from the beginning. I have loved reading and writing about the law again, and rediscovering skills and knowledge which had obviously been buried deep in the back of my brain for many years.

Initially I was worried that I would essentially be a glorified trainee and not able to contribute meaningfully.  My concerns were misplaced.   I have been treated as an experienced lawyer and been given appropriate work and responsibility. The coaching and support I have had from Reignite has been fantastic and has really helped me to get clear on my goals and to build my confidence.

What advice would you give to anyone else contemplating a return?

Don’t allow the negative voice in your head to talk you out of it – just go for it. There will never be a ‘right’ time, where exactly everything is in place. It will always be possible to find excuses not to take the plunge, but if you really want it then it can be done, especially with the team at Reignite behind you. With flexible working hopefully becoming increasingly acceptable after this year, there has never been a better time.  There is really nothing to lose.

Toddlers off to senior school? Had it with Netflix? The telltale signs you’re ready to reclaim your career.

The realisation that you need your career back

It was woman’s hour that did it for me. Not so much that I was bored with it, more the pain of listening to the “Power list”, realising there was no way I’d ever be on it, and wondering why I’d sacrificed my degree and twenty years of professional training and experience to become a mother/dogwalker/administrator/fixer/wife. That, along with the startling realisation that my toddlers were actually turning into teenagers.

With families spending a lot more time together over the last several months, there has been plenty of time to contemplate your role.  What do you do for others?  And what’s left for yourself?

What does your future look like?

The pandemic will end.  We will move on to something different.  Most clients I speak to envisage a hybrid way of working for everyone: some remote working, some days in the office.  What does your personal future hold?

Back in 2014,  after a six year career break I realised I had a good 20 years ahead of me to work, learning something new, make an impact and – yes – actually earn some money.  The question was, what to do about it.

Beware the voices in your head

It’s so easy to find excuses – the house will fall apart without you, the kids still need you, the tech has passed you by, recruiters won’t want to know, You’re too old. We’ve heard them all.  Some may be true (ish); many will not.  There is usually a way round any obstacle, if you have the nous and the will to find it.  And who knows, those kids might benefit from you not being around so much.

The telltale signs you’re ready to reclaim your career

Ask yourself whether any or all of these tell tale signs might possibly mean that you, too, are ready to reclaim your career.

  1. The toddlers for whom you gave up your career are now perfectly capable of taking public transport to school and could probably rustle up a bowl of pesto and pasta if left to their own devices.
  2. The last time you learnt something new it was Spanish at night school (and even then you didn’t make it to the end of the course).
  3. Your brain is ready to tackle something more complex than the intricate daily diaries of three children, a dog, a house and a needy partner.
  4. Thinking about it, it’s high time they all took care of their own needs a bit more and stopped relying so much. Except maybe the dog.
  5. The prospect of another lockdown where you have to conjure up a menu for everyone twice a day, seven days a week as the potential to send you over the edge
  6. The people you trained with are all now “Head of ..” or “Director of …”, with careers that have gone from strength to strength. Note to self: now is not the time to be embarrassed, ashamed, envious or frustrated – being in positions of influence means they can help you. And they will.
  7. Hitting forty (or fifty) doesn’t feel at all daunting. In fact there’s an awful lot that’s liberating about it. No more soft play, no school runs, more time for yourself …
  8. Spending another twenty years operating below your potential, on the other hand, does feel very daunting. And not a pleasant prospect.
  9. Whereas the prospect of getting your career back on track and having more disposable income, well, that DOES feel exciting.
  10. You’ve even gone out and bought yourself a copy of “She’s Back: Your guide to returning to work.” It set you back £7.99 so you must be serious about this.

Don’t let the niggling doubts in your head stop you from achieving your full potential. At work as well as at home. (If you’re a lawyer, check out the Reignite Academy where we have opportunities now for anyone ready to return).

Pull on your boots

How to use this crisis to get your career back on track

Never let a good crisis go to waste

A famous phrase, often attributed to Winston Churchill.  Whether he did or didn’t utter those words, they definitely resonate right now.

At the Reignite Academy, the pandemic stopped us in our tracks.  For a while it felt as though we may have no future.  However, stepping back from the business for a while has given us perspective.  Whilst there are definitely some challenges ahead, we have also seen many opportunities.

After a lull over the summer, firms are beginning to hire again.  People always need lawyers.  And the firms we work with really do care about improving the representation of women at middle to senior levels.  They also care about addressing a lack of ethnic diversity and appreciate the fact that 35% of our candidates thus far have been from minority ethnic backgrounds.

As far as our own business is concerned, we too have learnt that we can be much more nimble.  We have often used Skype to do interviews but now we use Zoom to deliver training and coaching, which means we can access many more people at any one time.  Whilst we began purely by placing people into fee earning roles, we have expanded into non-fee earning roles such as PSLs, knowledge lawyers, risk and compliance.

So, far from shutting up shop, we are taking a leaf from our own book and reigniting the business.

Change unlocks the status quo

The thing about any massive change (and I think we can all agree we are seeing massive change all around us) is that all the “old ways” are unlocked. No one is sure what “normal” looks like any more. Whilst the uncertainty that this creates can be paralysing, for those prepared to take some risks and be creative, it also presents tremendous opportunity.

This is as true for individuals as it is for organisations.

New opportunities in the workplace

Few would argue that the workplace has changed beyond recognition. Many of these changes present opportunities for women who are seeking to return to work or get their careers back on track.  Specifically:

  1. Working from home is suddenly not only permissible, it’s now the “done thing” and anyone who says its impossible clearly has not been paying attention.
  2. People are revealing their human sides. Everyone’s joining Zoom or Teams from their living room, kitchen or home office. Those of us who are parents share a little moan about home schooling. Whatever our title or level of seniority we’re all in the same boat. And more likely to be sympathetic.
  3. It’s never been easier to contact people. No-one’s on a plane. Few people are in endless meetings. They pick up the phone.
  4. Fuddy duddy, stick in the mud organisations are suddenly getting flexible. It’s not just “this job can’t be done remotely” that’s being ditched “it has to be a full time” is also in jeopardy. And as they change their business models they need
  5. Budgets are tight. This can be a good thing. Firms are willing to use contractors, to take people onto temporary contracts, to use alternative suppliers, all of which present opportunities for those people who are not in the “full time, permanent job, traditional career labour market”.
  6. Diversity matters. It really does. The Black Lives Matter movement and events of the summer have made many organisations wake up to the need to stop with the rhetoric and get serious about making a difference to diversity, on all fronts.
  7. It’s worth the risk. What have you got to lose?

Practical advice to get your career back on track

All of this means, there are opportunities for those who are agile, brave and intrepid enough to seize them. My advice:

  • Remember, your next role need not be your final destination. It’s just a step in the right direction. Treat it as such.
  • Don’t over think it. As Richard Branson once said “Leap before you look”. How will you know if you don’t try.
  • Your technical skills will come back. If you’ve had some time out, it’s easy to sit at home worrying that they won’t. They will: by doing the work.
  • Pick up the phone. Phones were originally designed to talk to people. Talking to people is underrated. Talk to the people you know who can open doors or make connections. Tell them what you’re looking for. Ask for advice.
  • Be creative. “Work” doesn’t necessarily mean “a job”. There are all sorts of models for finding ways to get paid employment. Most sectors have new entrants using technology and alternative business models to disrupt the incumbents.
  • Whether it’s “I’ve been out too long”, “They’ll have me working all hours” or your views on what the “job” will look like, be prepared to ditch your assumptions. So much has changed. Don’t let your assumptions hold you back. Be intrepid, take a leap, what have you got to lose?

Follow the Reignite Academy on LinkedIn.  That’s where we’ll post news of any opportunities.  And as soon as you’re ready to go be sure to contact us to send us your CV and let us know what you’re looking for.

Kristin Shelley

How to return to work after a 12 year break? Kristin’s story

How do you return to work as a lawyer after a 12 year break? Kristin originally trained at Herbert Smith and was one of the cohort of our pilot programme.  She returned to work through the Reignite Academy and is now working in Tax at CMS Cameron McKenna.

Why did you take a career break?

With two babies under two my husband and I decided that I wouldn’t go back to work but would stay at home until they were older. We then had a third and soon after my husband’s role was moved to Hong Kong.  Unsurprisingly, my role then became about the move – settling us all into a new life.  We stayed for two and a half years. Hong Kong is hard on expat marriages and ours broke down. As a result, I returned two years ago with the children, finalised my divorce and moved out of London to Kent.At that time, a return to work was the last thing on my mind.

What inspired your return to work?

Once we were settled in Kent I realised I needed more in my life. The children were all at school, I missed the camaraderie of work and I missed the city too. Not to mention missing being busy! Reignite landed in my inbox just as I was trying to work out what to do.  It was the route I needed to return to work as a lawyer.

Pre-Reignite I’d struggled to get a foot in the door! Recruitment consultants were not interested in me for fee-earning roles. The 12 year “gap” on my cv was a huge problem.

What has been the biggest challenge?

Nerves! Like lots of smart women I battle with imposter syndrome. I worried a lot that I just wouldn’t be up to the task. And I worried about leaving the children after so long at home with them.

At first, it felt as though I had a huge mountain to climb and I wasn’t quite sure where to start.

With support from the Reignite Academy, I was able to gradually build up my confidence.  Their coaching and support helped me set the right boundaries and create a learning plan which would help me get back up to speed.  Having a mentor and a buddy within the firm were also essential in smoothing my way through the transition period.

Looking back, how do you feel about your return to work now?

CMS were fantastic.  The firm signed up fully to the scheme and provided all the support and encouragement I needed. Partners and associates have gone out of their way to make sure I am included and supported. I love it here. The work is great and so are the people. My boss checks in with me regularly and he is aware of how much of a change this is for me on a personal level.

I am now on a permanent contract. Work is so varied and I really enjoy my job. Best of all, I have a whole new friends group and a social life in London. The team works really well together and I feel like I have been fully adopted.  My self-esteem is so much higher than when I was at home. Being busy gives me a huge buzz. I enjoy being useful and being part of this team – the Tax Powerhouse.

What advice would you offer to others thinking about a return to work after a career break?

Get on the Reignite scheme! Meet up with old colleagues for coffee or wine and talk to them about the work. I’ve had so much fun reconnecting. Battle the nerves – read self-help books, get the headspace app, talk to others who have returned.  Be brave. Ignore bad advice  – I was told this couldn’t be done (a return to fee-earning) but fortunately I ignored that advice and carried on regardless!

Finally – find other women in the same position and meet up. There are lots of us and it’s great fun meeting up for a glass of wine after work.

Forget Power, Presence & Purpose: These are the 3 Ps you really need

Many of you might recall the trouble EY found themselves in last week (and still in the news today) after a training session for women, titled Power-Presence-Purpose, was criticised for perpetuating gender stereotypes. I’ve no doubt the training was well intentioned, although advice such as not wearing body flaunting clothing and having well-kept nails just doesn’t seem to come close to the realities of the skills and knowledge young women will need to forge ahead in today’s business world.

But rather than join the voices of condemnation it got me thinking what are the 3 Ps behind the Reignite Academy? We’re 3 female co-founders which in itself is unusual. What are the 3 Ps behind the success of our business?

Pragmatism

One of us is from Yorkshire and two of us hail from Australia. Pragmatism is in our blood. All three of us believe in working with what you’ve got and facing realities head on. Don’t get me wrong, we love a good pie in the sky idea, but inevitably we come back to dealing with realities and focus on breaking them down one by one. Getting to the crux of a problem is at the heart of everything we do.

Perseverance

The 3 of us have a healthy streak of stubborn. I suspect when little we would have inevitably all being labelled ‘bossy’. When we get excited about something the shoulders go to the wheel. Often things don’t go the way we want but we don’t give up.

People

Ideas are one thing. But persuading people to come on the journey is another. Fortunately all three of us enjoy people. We enjoy meeting people, interviewing people, understanding people, and helping people. We put our people (our candidates) at the heart of our business and watching them reignite their careers gives us our job satisfaction.

So if I was speaking to my younger self here’s my personal 3 Ps:

  1. Be pragmatic.  You’re going to have to work with what you’ve got. Do your best at all times. And understand that sometimes there will be things out of your control. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Focus on one step at a time and invest your efforts where you can make positive change.
  2. Persevere.  Dig in. You’re going to want to quit many times. But remember the people who make it are the ones who don’t quit. You may not be able to have everything you want at the same time, but it doesn’t mean you have to give up. Keep going.
  3. Put yourself out there. Meet new people. Always continue to expand your network and invest time in people. Louise Webster, whom I met at the school gates, introduced me to Lisa Unwin who introduced me to Melinda Wallman. And the Reignite Academy was born.

What are the 3Ps you would give your younger self?

Reignite Academy Members Deliver on Promise to Hire More Senior Women

The Reignite Academy launched a year ago, with one simple aim: to enable lawyers to get their City careers back on track after a career hiatus.  We chose the name “Reignite” because our aim was not simply to help people return after a complete career break.  We also wanted to provide opportunities for people who might have left private practice to work in house or freelance.

How did we do?

Performance Measures

  • Six City firms joined as members to launch the pilot
  • Nine women completed the pilot programme (which is open to men and women)
  • Eight accepted permanent roles or contract extensions with member firms, the ninth found a role elsewhere
  • The Programme won three prestigious Awards
      • HR in Law Award for Direct Recruitment
      • HR in Law Overall Grand Prix Award 2019
      • FT Innovative Lawyers Award Europe for Diversity & Inclusion
  • Thirteen more firms have signed up as members, including Slaughter and May, Freshfields, Simmons & Simons and Taylor Wessing
  • Nine women received offers on the second programme
  • Between them, the eighteen women going through the first two programmes bring back eighty years private practice experience
  • The average age is around forty
  • 70% of candidates are working on a flexible working arrangement, the most common being four days a week
  • 95% have agreed agile working arrangements
  • Their overall annual earnings will be in the region of £1.5 million
  • The shortest time away from private practice was two years, the longest seventeen years
  • The average years’ PQE on leaving private practice was four and a half years
  • Eleven different practice areas are represented, including funds, banking and finance, corporate finance, tax, employment, commercial, structured finance, restructuring and insolvency
  • Sixteen people are currently going through interviews for the third programme
  • One hundred and twenty people have attended “Reignite Your Legal Career” workshops, run by the Academy team

What have we learnt?

Stories sell. 

There is no “typical’ Reignite candidate.  Which means that, to bring the programme to life, we tell the stories of our candidates. 

Kristin who left her job as a 5 year PQE tax lawyer to relocate to China with her family, where she couldn’t practice.  Returning twelve years later she was told by recruiters that the only way she’d find a role with a law firm was as a PSL. She’s kicking it as a Tax lawyer at CMS.

Anne, who had over twenty years PQE and who’d held General Counsel roles before shifting to work freelance when she needed added flexibility to be around for her children.  Finding herself with ambition and drive to get her City career back on track, Macfarlanes were able to look beyond her most recent experience and recognise the value she was bringing back to their firm.

Partners “get it”. 

The partners we are working with are not doing this to tick a box. They understand this is a valuable source of talent because they can all recall examples of some of the lawyers they lost.  Tell them a story and they tell you one back.  Of a sister who left the law and has unfulfilled potential; an associate they used to work with who they wish they’d been able to retain; their peers who seem to have fallen by the wayside.

Not only do they “get it” they are keen to understand the role they can play to make it work.

Getting back up to speed with the law is not an issue. 

To quote Elizabeth (seventeen years out, now in Corporate at Orrick):

“I didn’t need to catch up on 17 years of law changes.  I just had to get back up to speed with the law as it stands today.”

These are smart people.  More often than not, they are Oxbridge graduates who’ve trained with magic or silver circle law firms.  They are lawyers.  Learning new law is not a problem.   (Document management systems, open plan offices, headsets … now they are all a bit more problematic).

Six months works. 

It’s six months for a reason.  Yes, we want people to receive offers at the end, but week one is not the time to worry about that.  Yes, people will have billing targets but it helps if they gradually build up rather than being a pressure point from day one.  Yes, there will be bumps in the road and days when you think “I can’t do this”.  This too will pass, especially when you have a coach, a cohort, a mentor and the Reignite Academy team on your side.

Life begins at 40. 

Anna began the programme fretful about how she’d manage a return at the same time as being a single mum to a boy who wouldn’t do his homework and trumpet practice unless closely supervised.  Friends advised her to get a job as a librarian (seriously).  All she wants to do now is be the best funds lawyer she can be. Her son is proud of her and his homework hasn’t suffered.  (He’s dropped the trumpet). 

The people on this programme are ready for the next phase of their careers.  They are ambitious, ready to learn and eager to pick up where they left off, bringing with them a wealth of experience, maturity, perspective, wisdom and networks that stretch back to their days being under a training contract.

Our Single Biggest Challenge?

Spreading the word.  Not to potential clients, our string of awards and amazing PR machine (us, basically,) has that sorted.  No, the challenge is spreading the word to candidates. 

Women who might have left City firms five to ten years ago probably did so thinking they’d never return.  People who went in-house did so with the certainty that they’d never go back. They may still feel that way, and may not even be looking.   Until, that is, they wake up and realise they miss the intellectual stimulation, miss working with like-minded people, miss having someone else invest in their careers, begin to question “what does the next twenty years look like for me?”

And as one of our cohort put it:  “I didn’t want to spend the next twenty years having cups of tea with my dog walking friends”. 

For anyone in that particular situation, we’ll leave the advice to Richard Branson:

“If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.”  Richard Branson

Anyone interested in applying or to simply find out more, please get in touch via the website www.reigniteacademy.co.uk or email lisa, stephanie, sharon or tanja @reigniteacademy.co.uk

For further information for either candidates or employers, please contact lisa@reigniteacademy.co.uk