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

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 Bootcamp

Returning to law after a career break

Common concerns

Getting back up to speed with the law; adjusting to a different type of working environment; working alongside colleagues who might be years younger; balancing work and family life; the technology; the long hours.

We’ve worked with several women returning to law after a career break and this pretty much sums up most of their concerns.  Underlying all these very practical worries, lies a deeper one:

“Can I actually do this.”

Whether you’ve been out two years or twenty; whether you kept your hand in or took a complete break; a return to law is possible if you follow a plan and draw on support from the right places.

At the Reignite Academy, we’ve helped fifteen women back into City careers in the last nine months.  Here’s our guide for you:

  1. Get your story straight.  Your summary at the top of your CV and on LinkedIn. Your elevator pitch.  Nail it.  Be specific and eye-catching.  Whet the appetite of any firm or recruiter looking to hire.  Be that person they want.  Now is not the time to be humble.  If you’re a Cambridge educated, magic circle trained employment lawyer, say so.  Even if the last time you practised was a while ago.
  2. Don’t ignore that bit about LinkedIn. You HAVE to be on it.  With a professional photograph.  It’s where the jobs are, it’s where recruiters hang out, it’s where people will find you and more importantly it’s where you can connect with the people you used to work with who will be critical in your job search.
  3. Describe YOUR experience.  Forget being a team player. Make sure your CV and LinkedIn profiles talk about what YOU did.  Clients, projects, cases, the type of work, your technical skills, how you made an input. Avoid fluffy, abstract cliches about being “committed, hard working, organised, a team player”.
  4. Have your practising certificate in place. It’s easy.  You restore your name to the roll of solicitors and then you apply to renew your practising certificate.  It costs £20.  Done in a day.  Can you believe that?  Me neither.
  5. Start getting back up to date immediately. Follow your old firms and partners on LinkedIn; research your industry; use free resources offered by the Law Society Chambers and LawCareersNet.  They might be aimed at students but it’s surprising what you can learn.  And checkout eventbrite for relevant events.
  6. Connect. People are five times more likely to find work through a connection in their network than through a recruiter.  So connect.  Tell people what you are looking for.  Use LinkedIn, your firm’s alumni network and also check out whether there is a “Women in ….” organisation for your area of expertise.  This one is for Women in IP, but there are many others like it.
  7. Be proud of that career break. When it comes to writing your CV, our advice is “tone it down”.  Unless you’ve done something super-relevant to an employer, don’t feel obliged to explain how you’ve spent that time.  Focus your time and words on the skills and experience relevant to them.  At interview, though, the message is different.  This break differentiates you.  You are returning re-energised, refocused and with new and different perspectives and skills.  Now is the time to talk about it.
  8. Build your home team. This return will be demanding.  Demanding of your time, resilience and commitment.  You are going to need support from the home team – your family.  Partners, children, friends, siblings may all have to play their part.  If your children are growing up, being a little bit more independent will be no bad thing; if your partner is used to having your support on tap, explain you need him or her to return the favour, at least in part and at least for a while.

It’s a journey

As they say on all the best reality TV shows.  Don’t give up at the first hurdle, make a plan and set yourself some goals.  Numbers of connections, people you’ve met for a coffee, networks joined, applications made, interviews secured.

At the Reignite Academy we recognise that getting a job offer is just the first step and we also provide candidates with six months of support in the form of training and coaching. We encourage them to make a 90 day plan to help their transition back to work.  Bear in mind the support you’re going to need once you get that job offer.

Good luck.

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.