So tell me …. What’s a middle aged woman got to offer …

Are you asking yourself this very question?

“What does a middle aged woman have to offer that a 20-something doesn’t?” It’s a question many of the women I meet ask. Sometimes, it’s a question going on in their own heads, holding them back from pursuing new opportunities.   I’m too old, surely? Who would want me? What do I have to offer.

The short answer: plenty. Get a grip, have some guts and get on the front foot. You have plenty, believe me.

You have perspective and wisdom

As a new grad, I soaked up the message that women could have it all. Motherhood was not going to get in my way. And for a while I was right, I made partner in Arthur Andersen in my early thirties and thought that was success.

Ha. Little did I know. The Enron debacle, a divorce, a new marriage, two kids, relocation… the usually messy stuff of life  …meant that, like many women, my career didn’t follow a nice straight line. I quit my job when I didn’t get a promotion I was expecting and my childcare arrangements fell apart. I spent time outside the City, volunteered in a school in a deprived area of London, became a magistrate, spent time with lots of people in other walks of life. And yes, I did the school run.

I realised that there’s more to life than false deadlines and annual performance appraisals, office gossip and billing targets. I also realised that no powerpoint presentation ever changed the world and nothing is really that important as a loved one with a life threatening illness.

Little wonder, then, that more “mature” women going back into the workplace are less likely to phased by having to say “No” to some “urgent” and impossible request.

Your social network is deep and wide

OK, you didn’t invent Facebook, but you do know an awful lot of people. And many of them will be in serious positions, influential and well connected themselves.

When Deb Khan and I first decided to set up She’s Back I was venturing into the world of work after six years “on the outside.” One of the reasons I’d left in the first place was a frustration that my peers were being promoted ahead of me (they didn’t have the responsibilities of “pesky kids” weighing them down, or if they did, they’d worked out how to off load some of those responsibilities to others).

This, obviously, turned out to be a bonus when I needed to reach out to people in influential positions for support with my fledgling business idea. Funny how I was able to put that frustration to one side very quickly indeed and reconnect with my one time peers. One of them even connected me with Arianna Huffington, who very kindly endorsed our book.

She’s Back book, endorsed by Arianna Huffington

You have energy

Anyone who’s had to live with a young child or two will know all about sleep deprivation. And the challenge of trying to carve out any time for your own hobbies, ambitions and interests.

There is absolutely no way I could have set up a business in my late thirties or even early forties. And look at me now. I’ve set up two. After She’s Back, I moved onto the Reignite Academy , helping open doors to enable lawyers to return to the City after a career hiatus.

And of course, after years of working out that it’s easier to navigate live with the support of other women, I was able to make this new business happen because it’s a collaboration with two other fabulous “older’ women, Melinda Wallman and Stephanie Dillon (who I have to admit is not quite as old as me).

You’re not easily scared

Back to my “life or death” point, having a bit of perspective and life experience also gives you some chutzpah. So what if you fail, who cares if someone rejects your idea, what do you have to lose by having a go.

I’d never pitched to a senior law firm partner in my life before we set up the Reignite Academy. In fact, in all my time with Arthur Andersen, I honestly don’t think I was successful in selling anything. (Even without Enron, I probably wouldn’t have gone very far). And now? I care about the business, I believe in what we’re offering and that senior partner on the other side of the table is about my age, so he doesn’t scare me one little bit.

You have a laser sharp focus and it’s your turn

The women I’ve met who are picking up their careers after a hiatus or a total break — whether it’s through the Reignite Academy or another channel — have thought long and hard about their decision.

They are returning because they want to: they are ambitious for the next phase of their lives. They are motivated by a need to fulfil their potential and have moved mountains to position themselves to be able to commit. They are focused and determined. And they don’t have time to waste.

Those new graduates? They’d better start worrying about the competition.


Fearless Girl Statue, City of London

So what are you waiting for?   Get ready to get yourself in shape for a comeback.  Follow the Reignite Academy on LinkedIn for more tips, tools and inspirational stories.  Join us for a “Reignite Your Legal Career” bootcamp on 20th January for some guidance and watch this space for new opportunities with both Reignite for lawyers and Inclusivity for other professions.

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.

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.

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.