So Tell Me, What’s a Middle Aged Woman Got to Offer?

“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. And this time it’s something that’s holding them back. 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, my new venture the Reignite Academy is 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 fulfill 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

 

 

5 reasons “career break” lawyers are a perfect solution in the war for talent

Who’d have thought it. After all the predictions of doom and gloom on the jobs market, pretty much every legal recruiter I know is currently bemoaning the challenges they face trying to find good people.

Happily, we have a solution. Lawyers returning to the workforce after a career hiatus.

At the Reignite Academy, we specialise in finding opportunities for career returners and we have never been busier.  Law firm partners and General Counsels alike have cottoned on to the fact that this is an important talent pool that simply cannot be ignored. Here’s why.

They are well trained and bring years of experience

The CV of that woman who’s spent the last few years in volunteering as a magistrate? Turn the page to reveal a fifteen year career as an employment lawyer. That person who is currently working part time in a local school? Scroll down her CV to read about the twelve years spent in litigation at a magic circle law firm.

Our candidates typically trained in a City firm and may often have had time working in house before taking a break.  They are versatile, adaptable and are used to turning their hand to new things.

The length of the career break bears NO CORRELATION to their ability to succeed in the next phase of their working lives. It’s all about their mindset, motivation, commitment and creating a supportive environment.

They have incredibly strong networks

Women often hate the word “networking” but they are extremely good at keeping in touch with people. And even if they’ve let relationships lapse, they find it easy to pick up the phone again. As a result, they bring with them a ready made network. The people they trained with, clients they worked for, colleagues they worked alongside – all still there and often in positions of influence and seniority.

All it takes is a little training, coaching and encouragement and they will become some of your best business developers.

Their enthusiasm and motivation is exceptional

This is a conscious decision. Returning to the law after a break can be difficult. It takes guts, it can be disruptive to the rest of the family, it is change on a massive scale. Women don’t make these moves lightly.

They are motivated by a desire to rekindle their ambition, work alongside other professionals, fulfil their potential. Money and financial reward often come as secondary to other considerations. (Unlike someone who may be moving from a competitor simply to earn a larger salary).

The world of work has changed forever

Flexible working. Working from home. Who’d have thought. The technology works and mature people can be relied upon to get the work done without necessarily sitting at a desk in a large office.

70% of our candidates return on some sort of flexible schedule and all of them to a hybrid working model.  They value the flexibility this offers and we have seen candidates move from part time to full time positions as their circumstances change.

They are There.

Or should I say here? These lawyers are ready to go. Especially now that home schooling appears to be a thing of the past. Yes, it may take them a couple of months to get back up to speed technically and to rebuild any lost confidence, but let’s think about the alternative.

You go to your recruiter, who will look in the same old places for the same old candidates. Who, by the way, are probably being approached by lots of other recruiters. You need to secure more budget than you’d hoped, to lure someone away from a competitor. Assuming they accept your offer, you then need to wait for them to work three months notice.

By which time your returner will be up and running.

The war for talent is real. And so is this opportunity. Don’t waste it.

Pull on your boots

What to do in this next Lockdown

The best laid plans didn’t fare so well last time

Back in March, everyone I spoke to was fairly stoic about the looming lockdown. Many had grand plans. They would seize the opportunity to use isolation to do a good clear out of the house, learn a new language, finally get round to reading The Mirror and the Light, watch a box set or two. Succession? Chernobyl? The choice was endless. Problem solved.

By week three, barring essential workers, everyone who could do so was working from home. In an instant the mantra “this job has to be done in the office” had been turned on its head. Suddenly, even the most dyed in the wool, traditional business leader was embracing the possibility of avoiding a lengthy, unpleasant commute and working in a quiet space with a nice view of the garden and the possibility of a dog walk at lunchtime.

The beginning of a flexible revolution?

In some quarters, there was a giddy expectation that here was the flexible revolution we’d all been waiting for. The end of presenteeism; of the office based 9 – 5 (or, more likely, 9 – 10); a new acceptance that professionals could be trusted to work from home, completing their tasks as and when it suited them. The biggest barrier to women’s careers was finally coming down.

Or perhaps not.

Women with children soon found out that the fight for equality was back in the home. And it was a fight they were losing. Research began to show that the burdens of lockdown were much greater for women, particularly those with children. Suddenly, mothers found themselves back at home, doing the bulk of the extra childcare, cooking and cleaning.

Women were also taking on the brunt of caring for elderly relatives or family members who needed to shield. Forget learning a language or reading a book, with all this extra work to do, women had enough on trying to hold down a job, even if that job was four days a week. It’s one thing to have permission to do the work at home, it’s quite another to have the space – mentally and physically – to actually apply yourself to that job.

Little wonder, then, that The Lawyer recently ran an article “Female partners with children need more understanding from their male peers.” So there we are. That’s what we need. More understanding.

Now is not the time to be complacent

My advice to women? Don’t wait around for the empathy and understanding to come flooding your way. Your situation is more perilous than ever.

Whilst you’ve been putting your head down, struggling to keep on top of work, supervising home schooling, planning, cancelling and replanning foreign holidays and staycations, waiting online for that precious Ocado slot, monitoring your children’s screen time, exhorting your elderly parents and in-laws to stick to the rules, your male peers have, by and large, been having a different lockdown experience.

Not only have they been able to work from home much more successfully than they ever thought possible, your male peers haven’t lost touch with the people who can impact their careers. I’m not talking here about their children, elderly parents and in-laws. I’m talking about their clients and the partners who lead their practice groups, who bring in work, who maintain client relationships, who are keeping the business afloat.

Talking to some senior leaders over the last few weeks, it’s clear that men have been much smarter at pushing themselves forward to not only get what juicy work is around but also to let people know how well they’ve performed in executing that work. How that deal would never have happened without their intervention, how their contribution to that negotiation was so critical. Yes, in part, it may be that they’ve had the luxury of a partner at home who is carrying the burden, but also they get it. They know how to manage their careers.

So what did you do during the lockdown  …

If you don’t believe me, think about this. Another piece in The Lawyer examined what lawyers had been up to during lockdown. Cooking, exercising, DIY were all up there (no-one, it seems, got round to learning a new language) and so was social media use. But here’s the thing. Across Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, women were more likely to have increased their usage. LinkedIn was the only social media platform where “men were more likely to have upped their presence.”

Where do you go if you want to read what experts in your sector are saying? Which platform is there to help you expand your professional network? Where do employers go to look for talent? Where are all the jobs? Which platform is best if you’re looking to build your personal brand? For business development? To extend your professional reach? Not Facebook, that’s for sure.

Now make it count

My advice to women during this next lockdown? Don’t wait for more understanding. Take control. Work out where you want to be by April, have a plan and create yourself a routine that sets you on the right path. Here are five things that I guarantee will make a difference:

  • Share the burden at home. Be it childcare, housework, home schooling, elderly care, house admin, whatever. Don’t become the “default parent”. And even better, ask your male peers if they’re doing the same. If not, encourage them to do their bit for equality, where it really matters.
  • Sharpen your difference. What’s your personal brand? What is unique about you? What do you know about, where is your expertise and who knows about it. Hint: LinkedIn is a useful platform for building both reputation and reach.
  • Pick up the phone. Talk to people. Your clients, colleagues, partners, peers, other people in your sector. No-one’s on a plane, everyone’s at home, we’re all available. Lockdown has taken down barriers and we’re all living a shared experience. It’s amazing how much easier this makes it to chat to people, whatever their position.
  • Keep learning. Forget Spanish, it’s never going to happen (unless there is a business reason) but do carve out time to read technical updates, recent cases and the like. As well as law firms and the usual subscription services, many universities offer reasonably priced individual modules. Away from law, there are plenty of online offerings that are often either free or very low cost.
  • Be at the net. Be alive and open to opportunities to make connections, bring in work, extend your network. This isn’t just about external clients. Which other teams in your firm will bring in work that will draw on the work of your team? Whose advice would be even better with your particular slant on it. We’re all business developers now.

Take your future into your own hands. Make a plan. Strap on your backpack and pull on your walking boots on. Be upfront and be bold. The bad news is that you won’t have time to read The Mirror and the Light; but assuming you get number one right, you still might have time for the odd box set. Mrs America is fabulous.

How to use this crisis to get your career back on track

I know, I know. Only a few days ago I was writing about how WFH isn’t necessarily good for women’s careers. And I stand by what I wrote; there are risks. At the same time, the seismic changes that are affecting the whole world, do present opportunities.

Any crisis brings with it opportunities

The thing about any massive change (and I think we can all agree we are seeing massive change all around us) is that all the “old ways” are unlocked. No one is sure what “normal” looks like any more. Whilst the uncertainty that this creates can be paralysing, for those prepared to take some risks and be creative, it also presents tremendous opportunity.

Here’s why:

  1. Working from home is suddenly not only permissible, it’s now the “done thing” and anyone who says its impossible clearly has not been paying attention.
  2. People are revealing their human sides. Everyone’s joining Zoom or Teams from their living room, kitchen or home office. Those of us who are parents share a little moan about home schooling. Whatever our title or level of seniority we’re all in the same boat. And more likely to be sympathetic.
  3. It’s never been easier to contact people. No-one’s on a plane. Few people are in endless meetings. They pick up the phone.
  4. Fuddy duddy, stick in the mud organisations are suddenly getting flexible. It’s not just “this job can’t be done remotely” that’s being ditched “it has to be a full time” is also in jeopardy. And as they change their business models they need
  5. Budgets are tight. This can be a good thing. Firms are willing to use contractors, to take people onto temporary contracts, to use alternative suppliers, all of which present opportunities for those people who are not in the “full time, permanent job, traditional career labour market”.
  6. Diversity matters. It really does. The Black Lives Matter movement and events of the summer have made many organisations wake up to the need to stop with the rhetoric and get serious about making a difference to diversity, on all fronts.
  7. It’s worth the risk. What have you got to lose?

Be ready to seize the moment

All of this means, there are opportunities for those who are agile, brave and intrepid enough to seize them. My advice:

  • Remember, your next role need not be your final destination. It’s just a step in the right direction. Treat it as such.
  • Don’t over think it. As Richard Branson once said “Leap before you look”. How will you know if you don’t try.
  • Your technical skills will come back. If you’ve had some time out, it’s easy to sit at home worrying that they won’t. They will: by doing the work.
  • Pick up the phone. Phones were originally designed to talk to people. Talking to people is underrated. Talk to the people you know who can open doors or make connections. Tell them what you’re looking for. Ask for advice.
  • Be creative. “Work” doesn’t necessarily mean “a job”. There are all sorts of models for finding ways to get paid employment. Most sectors have new entrants using technology and alternative business models to disrupt the incumbents.
  • Whether it’s “I’ve been out too long”, “They’ll have me working all hours” or your views on what the “job” will look like, be prepared to ditch your assumptions. So much has changed. Don’t let your assumptions hold you back. Be intrepid, take a leap, what have you got to lose?

Join us for some practical hints and tips

If you’re a lawyer and are looking to reignite your career, join us at our free bootcamp on 20th January for more hints and tips.

Return to Law

The Reignite Academy

At the Reignite Academy we are creating opportunities for “career break” lawyers to get their careers back on track.

Women like Mehrnaz Afshar, who had taken time off from a magic circle firm to set up a small business, and Kristin Shelley, now a tax lawyer at CMS who took a break to bring up her three children.  Despite training with blue chip firms, they had gaps on their CVs.  As a result, recruiters would not look at them.

“Recruiters told me that my only chance of returning would be in a support role” she explained.

Recognising this was not an uncommon experience, we decided to set up the Reignite Academy.  We joined up with with six City law firms – firms who were brave enough to pilot a cross-firm returnship programme.  The idea was to provide successful candidates with six months of paid work experience, training and coaching. Our intention was that at the end of the six months our candidates would feel fully back up to speed.

 

A successful pilot

It worked.  

“With Reignite I didn’t have to kick any doors down” says Kristin.  “Firms were ready to interview me and could look past the gap in my CV.  And they soon recognised that I’ve got great experience and I’m hungry and ambitious. I just needed to get in the door.”

Our pilot Reignite Academy programme ran from January to July 2019, and all the women who completed it now have permanent jobs or contract extensions.  Building on this success, we are now running a second programme and  applications are open now for candidates for the January 2020 intake. 

We also know that whilst some people, like Kristin, take complete career breaks, others might continue to work but at a lower level.  So, places are open for lawyers like Anne Todd, who joined Macfarlanes after twenty years in house, working her way up to General Counsel level.  Anne had assumed a return to private practice was impossible and when interviewed recently explained how the Reignite Academy helped:

“It wouldn’t have been possible without their support and encouragement …I’m part of the first cohort and there have been a few learning points, on both sides, but I have an amazing coach and a great network of people in the cohort. I would recommend it to anyone going back into private practice.”

Top tips for returners

If you are looking to return to law after a break, here are our 5 top tips:

  • Never say “I used to be”: if you’re a Cambridge educated, magic circle trained employment lawyer flaunt it.  And make sure that experience is prominent on your CV. Don’t waste space talking about every voluntary role you’ve ever had.
  • Leap before you look – put yourself out there, don’t wait until everything is ready, every journey starts with a first step.
  • Play the long game with your career: think about where you want to be in five years and make sure your next move is one that moves you in that direction.
  • Use your network: the people you trained with, old colleagues, old clients – many of them will be in senior positions now and happy to help.
  • Prepare the home team: helping your children to become more independent is never a bad thing.  Enlist support from your partner (if you have one), if you’re going to be doing less around the house they’re going to need to do more.

 

Making waves & shaking trees

Making a Fuss & Winning Awards

Telling stories & planning a series…