Why female lawyers need to play the long game when it comes to their careers

Returning to Work? A 7 Point Plan to Relaunch your Career

When Hannah first approached us she knew she wanted to return to law but was equally clear that going back to being a real estate lawyer wasn’t for her.  Kristin wasn’t at all sure a return was possible, having been told by recruiters she was wasting her time.  Michelle’s priority was finding a role that wouldn’t demand the crazy hours she used to work as an M&A Tax lawyer.

For many people hoping to relaunch their legal careers, the challenge can be overwhelming.

As Desmond Tutu once said:

“There is only one way to eat an elephant; one bite at a time.”

The other problem is that sometimes, women who have been out of the workforce for a number of years, can experience a lack of confidence as they think about going back.  Have I left it too long? Has the technology moved on?  Can I cope?

We know from experience that a sense of making progress is a great way to build confidence, so with that in mind here is our seven step checklist as you begin to relaunch your career.  Some steps are easy, others take longer.  They will all ensure you set off on the right direction.

  1. Create your own email address.  I confess, before I went back to work my email address was a combination of mine and my husband’s name. Not a good look.
  2. Read She’s Back: Your Guide to Returning to Work.  The hard copy is  £9.99, the kindle version is 99p and the Audiobook is free. It does what it says on the tin.  The first couple of chapters explain that you’re not on your own and the rest of the book plots a path to help you find the role you want.  There are practical exercises and lots of case studies for inspiration.
  3. Practise using Teams and Zoom.  Many first interviews and meetings are still being set up on one of these platforms.  Create your own account, otherwise you could find that your face is on the screen but your son’s name is written below it (if, for example, he’s been using Teams for schoolwork). Not ideal.
  4.  Create or update your LinkedIn profile.  Use a professional photo, give yourself a meaningful title (“Experienced Commercial Litigator” is better than “Lawyer”, for example) and start to reconnect with old colleagues.  This piece has more tips about how you can use LinkedIn to support your job search
  5.  Write your “base note CV”.  If you don’t know where to start, check out My Perfect CV.  It’s a fabulous free resource; we like the “Traditional” and “Knowledgeable” templates.  Don’t include a photo and don’t use a fancy format with boxes and tables – the recruitment portals don’t like them.  Note the use of the term “base note CV”:  that’s because you’ll need to tailor this when you apply for specific jobs.
  6. Work out what you’re selling.  The recruitment market is just that: a market.  What are you selling?  Write it down.  It’s a combination of your years’ of professional experience, the knowledge you’ve gained, clients you’re worked for, sectors you understand.  Include anything relevant from your time away from law.  Think about intangible assets such as your network.  What are your top 3 – 5 strengths. If you don’t know, phone a friend (seriously, call some of the people you used to work with).
  7. Formulate your ideal role(s).   What would you consider?  Fee earning or non-fee earning?  Private practice or in house? How important is flexibility?  How important is future career progression, learning and development.  Think about where you want to be in three to five years time. Your next job should be one that moves you in that direction.

Going back to our examples, Hannah realised that her extensive knowledge of law firms and their clients could open new doors for her legal career.  She is now Head of Risk & Compliance at Stevens & Bolton.  Kristin soon learnt that all those years’ experience as a tax lawyer were very much in demand and she was quickly snapped up by CMS, where she remains a valuable member of the Tax practice.  And Michelle was able to take her M&A tax expertise and pivot into a new, more flexible role as a senior associate at Travers Smith.

We can help at any stage of the process.  Once you’re ready, just get in touch. 

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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.

Back with a Bang: How to Relaunch your Legal Career

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

My own story

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

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

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

Is This You?

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

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

It begins in your head

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

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

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

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

A Brand called You

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

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

Here’s a clue.

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

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

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

Use your Connections

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

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

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

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

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

Pivot before you Leap

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

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

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

Brush up your Skills

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

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

Remember the Basics

Your CV and LinkedIn.

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

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

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

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

If You Don’t Believe Me …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How my return to law opened up a whole new world

It’s a first!  Following her promotion, one of our Reignite Academy alumni, Hannah Edwards, is looking for a replacement. Her return not only opened up a whole new world for Hannah, her promotion now creates opportunities for others.

A little background

Hannah first approached the Reignite Academy in the summer of 2019.  She had always worked in real estate law, having trained at at Slaughter and May and later spending time at Stevens & Bolton.  She had also worked as an in-house real estate lawyer at Marks and Spencer. 

Hannah took a career break when the family relocated to Scotland.  Returning to the South five years later, she approached the Reignite Academy to help her return to the law.  She was offered an in house risk and compliance role back at Stevens & Bolton and though this was a new area for her, she made the leap.

We spoke to Hannah about her experience.

What made you choose this particular role?

It was a combination of factors.  I did love being a lawyer and enjoyed my time working in real estate, but I was beginning to feel a bit pigeon-holed. 

Moving to a risk and compliance role was an opportunity to do something different, to challenge myself and to take everything I’d learnt so far and add to it.  It was the chance to build on what I’d done to date and take it in a new direction.

There was also the lifestyle factor.  Risk and compliance work is important but doesn’t usually come with the unpredictability and long hours that some fee earning roles entail.

How did you find the transition?

Well, it was a challenge at first.  I had a learning plan all mapped out but what I actually found was that most of what you learn comes from the issues being thrown at you on a day to day basis. 

Luckily, as lawyers, we are used to looking things up, seeking out precedents, understanding new legislation and rule changes.  I also had a very supportive boss and the partners at Stevens & Bolton were very accommodating.  Everyone wanted me to succeed.

What do you enjoy most about the work?

There is a tremendous variety to what we do.  Our team covers everything from conflicts, complex anti-money laundering issues and data protection through to supplier contracts, firm policies and regulatory compliance.  No one day is the same.

Moving into this role has really refreshed my interest in my career.  It doesn’t feel as though I have “gone back”, in reality I’ve “moved forwards.”

How do you find Stevens & Bolton as a firm

I love it here.  The firm really is exceptionally collaborative.  Everyone is friendly and supportive.  The culture is great and that makes it a really nice place to work.

What does the future look like?

I’m hiring my replacement!  I have just been promoted and we need to find another lawyer to join the team and work with me.  S&B has embraced an agile working model and our team will continue with a mixture of remote working and in person collaboration in the office.

As Hannah says, there is a new opportunity for a risk and compliance lawyer at Stevens & Bolton.  You needn’t have experience in this role previously, although some experience of commercial contracts and data privacy would be helpful, along with a general awareness of the regulations governing a law firm. 

If Hannah’s experience sounds of interest and you’d like to explore this opportunity please contact us or apply here.

The Truth About Career Returners … It Might Just Surprise You

Three years in, 54  women back to work in their legal careers after career breaks spanning anything from two to eighteen years.  What have we learnt?

The Length of the Career Gap is Irrelevant

Elizabeth had a career break of seventeen years before returning to work as a corporate lawyer at Orrick.  That’s right: seventeen years.  Louise had been out for ten years, Alifya for five.

We have learnt that the length of someone’s career break bears absolutely NO correlation to their ability to succeed.  These are smart women, highly qualified and used to learning the law.  Getting back up to speed with the law as it stands today is not a problem (though I can’t necessarily say the same for document management systems and headsets).

As Elizabeth put it:

I realised I didn’t have to get up to speed with seventeen years of law changes; I just had to get up to speed with the law as it stands today.”

What Matters Is Attitude

It’s all in the head .. and the heart.  If people have determination, grit, a growth mindset, patience and resilience they can achieve pretty much anything.  And as many returners have spent a lot of time dealing with small children, patience and resilience are present in bucketloads.

Confidence Can be Built

Not all returners lack confidence.  In fact, many begin with plenty of the stuff, but have it knocked out of them when they face rejection after rejection.

In any event, we have learnt that by getting people to focus on their strengths, take pride in past achievements, talk to old colleagues it is absolutely possible to rebuild that confidence.  Our career coaches also spend a lot of time supporting candidates through the interview process and beyond, which we know helps a lot.

Partners Have the Power

As Steph often puts it, “You’re only as good as the partner you get.”  She’s not talking about the marital kind (although they do have a role to play).

When Rebecca joined our pilot programme, her line partner, Mel, checked in with her every week. Only for 5 minutes and it was a light touch, but that check in and that habit of constant feedback and conversation meant that Rebecca’s transition back to work was smooth and problem free.

In contrast, unclear objectives, a lack of clarity on how success will be measured and little feedback can leave people floundering, unsure of themselves and unable to perform to the best of their ability.

They’re Not Going Back

We have had the utmost pleasure in supporting our candidates and being with them on the journey (as they say in all the best reality TV shows).  The term “returner” is misleading.   These women are not going back, they are moving forwards.  They are taking all their experience – life and work – and moving on to the next phase of their professional careers.

As Vanessa, who recently took an in house role at ASK Partners after a 4 year career break, put it:

For me,  it’s not just about reigniting something from of old; you have set alight something very new. I feel like I am discovering myself … at a really interesting time in my life. 

If you’re a lawyer considering taking the leap, jump right in.  The safety nets are there.  We know you can do it.  If you’re a law firm toying with the idea of taking on these candidates, go right ahead. You just might surprise yourself.

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

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

Tell us a little about your career break

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

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

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

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

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


How did you find your current role?

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

How have you found the first few weeks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any parting thoughts?

I would say again – don’t give up!

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.

Meet Krista, who resumed her career after a five year break

Krista is a qualified insurance/reinsurance litigator with 9 years PQE experience. After a successful career in private practice, she took a career break to raise her family. Five years on, she was ready to resume her legal career but unsure about where to begin.

An introduction to the Reignite Academy and to member firm RPC made all the difference.

We spoke to her about her experience.

What made you decide to return to private practice?

After taking many years out to raise my daughters, I was keen to get my legal career back on track.  I had missed the work, the people, the intellectual challenges and being busy on interesting things.

How have you found the experience so far?

I have been at RPC for 5 months and it’s fantastic.  The training and encouragement from both RPC and Reignite have been excellent.  Probably the biggest challenge for me at the beginning  was my lack of confidence, but thanks to my incredibly supportive supervisor and team,  I am now taking on more responsibility and a more diverse caseload and the imposter syndrome is lifting.  Everyone at RPC has been very welcoming and friendly too, which has been wonderful.

I have just accepted a permanent role with the firm and couldn’t be more excited about the future.

What advice would you give to others contemplating a return?

Contact the Reignite team.   I could not and would not have done this without them.