How to make a returnship programme successful

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

Training, flexibility and partners who want you to succeed

It’s the feeling that someone’s investing in my career.

That was the response when I spoke to one of our Reignite Academy candidates recently, when asking what motivated her to make the leap and return to private practice.

She’s absolutely right, our law firm partners are very much invested in making this programme work.  Why?  Because they see this as a great way of attracting back experienced, talented women.  Women they know they probably lost along the way.

And it’s not simply an attitude of mind.  Here are the practical ways in which firms are investing to help you get your career back on track:

Supporting your return to work

  1. Partners identify real roles in practice areas where there is work to be done, since this is the surest way to make sure people get the right level of experience.  Not only that, they pay candidates the market rate for that work.  This means that your value is recognised from day one.
  2. Practice group leaders and partners invest their own time to to help make sure you succeed.  Everyone wants this to be a success.
  3. You have four one to one sessions with an executive coach.  Our coaches are fully qualified and have years of experience working with people making a transition from one role to another.  Or from not working to be being back in the thick of it.  They know what sort of challenges you’re likely to meet and overcome.
  4. You start with a cohort of other Reignite Associates.  This means that even if you’re the only person going into your particular firm, you’re not alone.  One of the first things the cohort usually does is set up a Whats App group and they provide each other with practical and moral support during the six months and beyond.
  5. We deliver our own training, three times during the programme.  The law firms sort out the legal and technical training. Where we come in is on the “soft skills” side of things.  Setting boundaries, time management, creativity, networking, stakeholder management, that sort of thing.
  6. We help you break the six months down into manageable chunks of time.  The first period is about settling in and getting back up to speed, the second is time to focus more on the work and proving yourself and the third is when you can think about securing a permanent role.  As a result, you will maximise the benefits of it being a six month programme.
  7. Finally, since we will soon be on our third cohort, you will have access to the support, advice and stories of the people who have gone before you.  Trust us, they are an inspiration.

Reed Smith and Reignite have continued to provide me with the tools to upskill, retrain and gain the confidence and network to build my own practice area.  (Reignite Associate)

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.

Returnships: a recipe for success

Last week we celebrated success at the FT Innovative Lawyer awards.  The founding members of the Reignite Academy triumphed as winners for Innovation in Diversity and Inclusion.  (I’ll refrain from pointing out that, since women make up more than 50% of newly qualified lawyers, they hardly represent a minority group and settle for the recognition we were granted for our work to help more women back into the profession.)

Eighteen months ago, we didn’t exist.  I was walking a dog and took a call from Melinda Wallman, who I’d only met on three or four occasions.  What could we do to deliver a returners programme that would have real impact in the legal sector? We soon roped Stephanie Dillon into the conversation and here we are, eighteen months on, receiving an award from the FT.  Not bad. 

So what’s the recipe for success?

Ingredients.  Take:

  • 3 women with 80 years experience between them
  • A good dose of passion for helping other women have long and fulfilling careers
  • A handful of leaders who are willing to try something different
  • A bucketful of lawyers who are ambitious to get their careers back on track
  • Energy, tenacity and a willingness to work together

Method

Here’s the recipe:

  1.  Whet the appetite.  No-one’s tasted this cake before.  Give them a flavour of what it might feel like.  Remind those leaders of all the brilliant women they trained with, worked with and who now are “lost to law”.  Everyone could bring someone to mind. Then remind them of the scale of the opportunity. 
  2. Paint a picture of the end result.  All the best recipe books have pictures so that you know what you’re aiming for.  At first, we had to use our imagination, as time went on we were able to show pictures of our candidates.  There is no typical candidate: ages range from 38ish to 55ish, PQE from 1 to 20 years, they cover all practice areas and I couldn’t begin to list the variety of things they’ve done in their “time out”. (OK, I could: general counsel, in house lawyer, interior designer, project manager, full-time mum, shoe manufacturer, journalist, teacher, entrepreneur ….)
  3. Get the recipe on the menu.  Entice the restaurateurs, make them want to feature what you have to offer.  Tell them what’s coming before you’ve made it. PR is a big help, if you can get it.  It also puts pressure on your team to deliver. (Not that a lack of pressure was a problem)
  4. Source the ingredients. This is the trickiest bit.  That bucketful of lawyers ambitious to get their careers back on track?  They’re spread to the four corners, they often assume a return is impossible, recruiters have told them not to bother, many have given up. There’s a huge communication job to be done and you have to be creative.   
  5. Carefully assemble the right mix.  Select candidates who have drive, tenacity, ambition and a growth mindset.  Match them with practice areas where the practice group leader is on board, committed and recognises their value.  Add in a mentor and a buddy within the firm and add a dash of independent coaching at regular intervals.
  6. Bake for the right amount of time.  In our experience, six months is the minimum. This cake needs time to settle, for the ingredients to mix, and for the flavours to mature.  Keep a light on so that you can see what’s going on but don’t open the door too early, it could flop.
  7. Digest, adjust the flavours, repeat.

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.