How to make a returnship programme successful

How to Pivot to Relaunch Your Legal Career

Why your legal career is a lot more flexible than you might imagine

“You’re wasting your time.”

That was the response of one recruiter when approached by a lawyer with 18 years’ City experience who was looking to find a more generalist role.  Her last role was as a commercial litigator, followed by a five year break.  As far as the recruiter was concerned, her only option was to go back into her box.

Lives are Long and Messy

Let’s put careers to one side for a moment and think about our lives.  As Lynda Gratton points out in her fabulous book, The 100 Year Life , very few of us will have a “job for life”.  The days of gaining an education, working in one job, followed by a comfy retirement are long gone. In truth, lives rarely looked like that for women anyway.

I know from my own experience how careers can be derailed.  I left a successful career when my children were young and I couldn’t juggle family and career.  Sadly, no one told me they wouldn’t be your forever.  Fast forward six years and I found myself scrabbling around wondering how to get my career back on track.  Like the aforementioned lawyer I couldn’t go back to my previous career as a globe trotting management consultant.  And like her I was facing twenty years’ ahead when I knew I could make a difference.  Somewhere.

Play the Long Game

The key, I have found, is to play the long game with your career.  This means really understanding what you have to offer, drawing on not just your experience but all of your intangible assets and being strategic about the choices you make.

Pivot before you Leap

Recently, I spoke to three women who found new roles through the Reignite Academy.  I wanted to understand their experience and draw out common themes about what works when you’re relaunching after some sort of career hiatus.  One of those themes was the way they had pivoted, using their past experience to move to a new but not totally unfamiliar role.

From Private Practice to In House to Freelance and Back Again

Anne Todd

Anne had a successful private practice career and had already had to pivot from one industry to another as the economy shifted.  Finding her options to progress limited after a recession, she moved to an in house role in Telecoms, a sector she knew well.  In order to succeed in a rapidly changing market, she had to quickly learn a whole new set of regulatory requirements.

When her employer was engulfed in the Enron crisis, her understanding of these regulations and knowledge of complex outsourcing contracts enabled her to find a new role as GC at a global outsourcing company.

 

Eventually, family commitments put a strain on her ability to put in the hours required in this role but the breadth of her experience and ability to adapt meant that it was relatively easy for her to take on a freelance role for a while.

Years later, and missing the quality of work and development opportunities provided in private practice, she returned to Macfarlanes as a Senior Associate in their Commercial team.   A full circle move.  Ten years away from private practice and whilst communication methods might have changed, much is the same.

A New Direction in a Familiar Field

Claire, on the other hand, took a complete break from her career as a dispute resolution lawyer.

She had been out for fourteen years when she began to think about options to return.   Unsure about what direction to take, Claire joined our “Future Proof Your Career” course.  Through this, she was able to identify that she still loved the law and would enjoy a career in that space, though not in a fee earning role.

Joining Travers Smith’s Dispute Resolution team as a knowledge lawyer enabled her to explore those options.  Whilst in many ways, she describes this as a “soft landing”, free from the pressures of billable hours, in many ways it wasn’t soft at all.  Knowledge lawyers, by definition, have to have the facts at their finger tips and it was a steep learning curve.

Inevitably, Claire had to work closely with the Learning and Development team and it was whilst on secondment here that she saw her next opportunity.  She seized the chance to “push at an open door” and now has a permanent role in that team.

Adding a New Skill Set, Taking on a New Challenge

Finally, Vanessa, had been a real estate lawyer for many years when she felt that she needed a new challenge.  She initially joined a legal tech company who needed someone who knew how law firms worked.   She was thrown in at the deep end and, not being from a tech background, had to quickly learn not only the jargon but how their processes worked.

Once that company was established, she returned to legal practice for a short while but felt unchallenged and in need of something new.  She trained in coaching and leadership development and set up her own company, Legal by Design, to offer leadership courses for lawyers.

Like Anne and Claire, Vanessa eventually found that something was missing.  She had plenty of flexibility and interesting work but wasn’t being stretched.  And she wasn’t using the legal expertise she had spent so long acquiring.

Vanessa began to explore alternative options until an opportunity arose to join a fast growing, specialist Real Estate Investment company, A.S.K. Partners.  They were and are a small, ambitious, and energetic company, led by founders for whom “having a sense of humour” is a pre-requisite for any person joining the team.  It’s an open plan office, and whilst Vanessa’s role is primarily focused on legal matters, everyone has to know a little bit about everything.  In her words:

It’s intense.  It’s pushing me out of all sorts of comfort zones …it has set alight something new.  I fell like I am discovering myself with A.S.K. at a really interesting time in my life.”

Take-Outs

Talking to Vanessa, Anne and Claire, and thinking about the experience of other candidates who have found ways to carve out new roles after a break, here’s what I’d draw out as some key messages:

  1. You are not your job title.  Your previous roles have provided you with a set of technical skills, knowledge, soft skills, experience and wisdom that can be deployed in several different contexts.  This includes your experience beyond that job role.
  2. Be aware of and nourish your intangible assets: your networks, your ability to learn, your social connections and your fitness and health.  All of these are invaluable when you are ready to relaunch.
  3. Be strategic and play the long game. Remember, your next step is just that:  your next step.  It doesn’t need to be the end point, it just needs to set you in the right direction.
  4. Be prepared to experiment.  Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Good enough is just that.  Moving is better than getting stuck.
  5. No one cares about your career more than you do.  Find advisors you trust, ignore voices that tell you you can’t, and be prepared to take this into your own hands.  You can do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth About Career Returners … It Might Just Surprise You

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

The Length of the Career Gap is Irrelevant

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

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

As Elizabeth put it:

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

What Matters Is Attitude

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

Confidence Can be Built

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

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

Partners Have the Power

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

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

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

They’re Not Going Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell us a little about your career break

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

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

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

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

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


How did you find your current role?

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

How have you found the first few weeks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any parting thoughts?

I would say again – don’t give up!

This is Why Returnships Work

No-one told me just how tough recruitment could be. You’re in the middle of two parties, each of whom can say the right thing, do the right thing and then at the last minute pull out. That a hiring manager might suddenly decide a vacancy isn’t a vacancy after all wasn’t so much of a surprise. To have a candidate pull out at the last minute? That was new to me.

Bad start to the week

My Monday started with two candidates pulling out of second interview opportunities. Not because they’d received better offers elsewhere, but because they got cold feet.

“Not sure the time is right. I still have lots of other responsibilities. I don’t want to let anyone down.”

“I remember how pressurised it was. And the hours …. Perhaps I should be looking for something a bit easier.”

Neither response is uncommon in women who are thinking of reigniting their careers. In fact, I’d go so far as to say such responses are very normal and to be expected.

And the same goes for firms.

“I’m not sure it makes commercial sense for us …”

“We really couldn’t bring her back at such a senior level after she’s been out for ten years …”

Both responses based on looking at CVs, without meeting the individuals concerned or having any sort of conversation about expectations, confidence levels or what the candidates have been doing to keep themselves commercially sharp.

It’s all about risk

In both cases, what people are articulating is all about risk. For the women, the risk is putting themselves out there and then failing in some way. Failing to hold down the job, failing to be up to scratch, failing the family, failing themselves.

For organisations, the risk is that they take a chance on a candidate who doesn’t measure up. The risk that they fill a vacancy with someone who isn’t good enough and end up having to go through the whole process again a few months down the line.

Reframe: It’s an opportunity

Returnships take this risk, kick it to one side where it belongs and deliver opportunity. By creating a fixed term contract, usually six months, with plenty of support before and during the programme, women and the firms that are wise enough to take the leap are able to find a solution that benefits both sides.

For the women involved, it’s six months to make a smooth transition, to rebuild confidence, rediscover hidden talents, polish up rusty skills and reconnect with professional networks. The message we deliver:

  • It’s six months, not for life
  • This is your next step, not the end point
  • We will help you prepare well in advance to make sure you have a plan to succeed
  • We will provide you with coaching and support through the programme, using everything we know about the challenges you may face

For the organisations, the message is just as clear. You say you want more women, you say you’re committed to diversity, here’s an opportunity to do something about it.

  • We have screened these candidates and we know they have the grit, determination and ambition to succeed
  • We know how to support women returning from a career break and we will be there
  • Interviewing candidates on the basis of their last twelve months’ work experience obviously isn’t going to work, we will provide an alternative approach
  • The line partners have an important role to play and we will provide the training & briefing required

What’s not to love about that?

The joy of success

It doesn’t always work. That firm that sees us as uncommercial? They are unmoved. The woman who feels now just isn’t the right time? After a lot of should searching, she’d be much more comfortable knowing that home schooling really is at an end. The woman I sympathise with. The firm? Less so.

What I can tell you is that my second woman is now sitting on a job offer and is overjoyed, thrilled, excited and … yes a little daunted .. at the prospect of reigniting her career. We’ve assured her she isn’t on her own (literally and metaphorically) and we, too are utterly delighted.

And the other firm? Well, put it this way, I’m currently scheduling an interview for next week.

Now, more than ever …

I suspect that embarking on a “Returnship Programme” might have been the type of initiative companies would have done during the good times. Part of their diversity action plan. Nice to have, not essential, not affordable when times are hard. Such as in the middle of a pandemic.

My response? Reframe. There has never been a better opportunity to use a flexible, agile, experimental approach to provide opportunities to people with a huge amount of talent to add to the quality of your talent base.

As someone once said.

Build it and they will come.

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)