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

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

Why move from in house back to private practice?

An interview with Anne Todd, who recently made the move

Anne is an experienced commercial lawyer, specialising in telecoms, technology and data privacy.  After qualifying in private practice, her varied career has included a number of firsts.  She was General Counsel of Storm, one of the first pan-European wholesale telecoms companies; the first General Counsel of Sodexo UK, a major outsourced services and PFI provider; one of the first pioneering lawyers to join Lawyers on Demand at its inception; and one of the first lawyers to join the Reignite Academy.

Anne is now a senior associate at Macfarlanes.  I spoke to her recently about her motivations for returning to private practice and how the reality compared to her initial expectations.

You had a successful freelance career, what motivated you to return to private practice?

Working freelance brings all sorts of benefits and was the right thing for me when my boys were younger.  I was able to find work through a number of channels, including my own contacts and also platforms such as Lawyers on Demand.  Throughout this time, I worked in some interesting businesses and gained some great insights.  In time, though, I realised that I wanted more than “work”.  I wanted a rewarding “career”.

Could you say a little more?  What does having a “rewarding career” look like?

For me, it’s the feeling that someone’s investing in my career. Freelance work was financially rewarding and, to some extent, flexible.  However, there was no training, no development and no opportunity for progression or leadership.

Even when I did long term secondments, it often felt as though I was putting things in place for other people’s benefit. This made if feel as though I was building value in the organisation rather than building value in me.  It can also be a little lonely.

How has your experience at Macfarlanes lived up to that expectation?

It’s delivered everything I was looking for, from that perspective.  Partners are out there developing clients and helping me develop my own business plan. The training and business development support has been fantastic. I really feel as though the work I’ve been doing since I came here is helping to re-build my reputation and profile.

It’s also a lot of fun.  The team I work with are quite young and really engaging, there are a lot of initiatives within the team to develop our practice.  Not only that, there are plenty of social and cultural events during the daytime as well as in the evening.  I’m enjoying being back in a team environment.

How has the firm recognised the value you can add, given your previous experience?

The Business Services and Marketing team took me under their wing quite early on.  They realised that my experience working in-house could be very useful to them and got me involved in an annual event they run for the firm’s client General Counsels.  I hosted a panel of GCs talking about the subject of balance, which enabled me to draw on all those years of experience working freelance and in-house.

More recently, I worked with the Learning and Development team, designing a programme for junior associates, to improve their understanding of their in-house clients.  I thoroughly enjoyed being involved in areas that are outside my usual sphere.  It was a good way of connecting with other people in the firm, in non-fee earning roles.

What, if anything, has been the biggest challenge?

It can be a bit strange going from being a senior in-house GC, or working freelance for that matter, to being back in a partnership structure. By definition, partnerships are hierarchical.

That said, the partners here have been friendly and welcoming.  They recognise my experience and see the value I can bring, they have introduced me to their clients and have been open about getting me involved in different areas of work, even beyond my obvious area of expertise.  Which means that the barriers you might imagine to be there don’t exist in reality.

What advice would you give to anyone considering a return to private practice?

Take the leap. It’s a great opportunity to invest in the next phase of your career.  There is much more flexibility than there was years ago and people are genuinely committed to finding ways to improve diversity within law firms. 

How to navigate a non-linear career

I chose this image because the model looks both comfortable and fretful. Much like many of the young women I come across who are looking up and thinking “Just how, exactly, is this supposed to work?” Meaning, “How on earth do I keep a career on track at the same time as being a mother, daughter, partner, friend ….Do I have to sacrifice one thing for another? If I go at a slower pace, will I ever be able to get my career back on track?”

Treat your career like a game of chess

At the Reignite Academy, we often talk about having to approach your career like a game of chess. Have some winning tactics for that messy middle phase, but that all sounds a little vague. So what do those tactics look like? What, exactly, do you need to do to navigate a non-linear career?”

Well, we’ve spent the last few months talking to women – and men – who have managed to step on and off career ladders, who have take breaks and returned, stepped back a level and stepped up again. How did they manage it? Here are some of the common themes arising out of those conversations:

 

Tactics to help you win

Choose your line managers wisely. Easier said than done, perhaps, but try to find a line manager who cares, who trusts you, who believes in you and who will leave the door open should you ever want a path back. Sally Boyle, Head of Human Capital at Goldman Sachs, talked to us about her first ever line partner at a law firm, who insisted that she’d be the first phone when (not if) Sally decided to return from her career break.

Maintain connectivity. Never under-estimate the value of your professional networks. Even if you don’t have an immediate need, they keep you connected and can play a pivotal role in helping you find a route back. Evidence shows you are five times more likely to find a role through your network than through a recruiter. Online platforms like LinkedIn and Eventbrite make it easier than ever to keep in touch with people and attend events that are relevant to you.

You don’t need to be alone. Go back to the chess analogy. The queen is not the only piece on the board. Don’t underestimate the importance of sponsors, mentors and coaches. Be strategic as you think about who those might be, how they can help you and when. Within the Reignite programme we always give candidates an independent coach as we know the path back can be wobbly. And we encourage member firms to allocate mentors who can provide advice and insight from within.

Be prepared to take a risk when the opportunity presents itself. Don’t dither. Imagine the clock is ticking by the side of the chess board. Accept that imposter syndrome is a reality for many women and find ways to challenge it. If someone’s giving you the opportunity they must think you’re capable. Amanda, a senior employment lawyer had approached us about a place on our pilot programme. Whilst that didn’t work out, going through the process gave the the confidence to apply for – and be offered – a large in-house role.

Grit, determination, self confidence, self belief and self criticism. It’s never going to be easy but you’re made of strong stuff. Have faith in yourself and what you can deliver. If you leave the office before many of your colleagues, do so with your head held high knowing that the quality of what you’re doing is absolutely as good as theirs and it should be about output not hours input.

 

Kristin, a Reignite member remarked a few weeks ago that she had only just realised her role was not simply to put in lots of billable hours. She could also contribute business development ideas, innovative solutions, ways to work smarter that were probably even more valuable. Looping back to the first point, you need to be working for line managers who see that and who aren’t obsessed and impressed with presenteeism.

Look for the signs you’re ready to “Reignite” It’s not always a question of returning. Sometimes, you might be in work but operating below your potential. For me, it was listening to the woman’s hour power list, thinking “What happened to me?” For Annie, another person on our Reignite programme, it was looking at the people she was teaching at law school thinking “They’re about to have the career I should be having.”

What one thing?

As well as those themes, we asked people “What one thing” they would say as a piece of advice to a younger woman, looking ahead and wondering how on earth to navigate their career. Here’s a sample of what they said.

  • Remember that careers are long. Play that long game.
  • Don’t judge yourself by the pace of your colleagues’ careers. Go at your own pace. You absolutely can catch up over the long term, if, indeed, catching up is your thing.
  • This too will pass. Sleepless nights, toddler tantrums, ageing parents … nothing lasts forever. (But by the way, something else comes in its place).
  • Do what’s right for you.
  • Women absolutely have to help each other. All of us can make it easier for others.