How to make a returnship programme successful

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.

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.

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.