How to recognise and value the untapped potential in women who have taken a career break

Back with a Bang: How to Relaunch your Legal Career

Ready to make a career comeback? Here are the six commandments to obey if you want to kick-start your career after taking time out – whether you want to dive back in or start afresh.

My own story

When I left my job as Director of Communication at a large City firm, I thought that was a decision for life. My kids were 4 and 6, the constant juggle had become too much and it seemed the right thing to do to put my family first.

The problem was, no-one told me they wouldn’t be 4 and 6 forever.

Fast forward six years, I began to look at the twenty years ahead and wonder what had become of my career. I wasn’t alone. Many of the women I met at the school gates were pondering the same question. Lawyers, bankers, accountants, marketeers, journalists, you name it, all had a sense of unfulfilled potential and were starting to think about what to do about it.

Is This You?

This was the title of a Sunday Times feature back in 2017 in which I tried to shine a light on the plight of thousands of women who had taken breaks from their careers, were ready to return, and who were being ignored by the recruitment industry.

Since then, I helped hundreds of women relaunch their careers after a break or career hiatus of any kind. Here’s what I’ve learnt.

It begins in your head

“I’m too old”, “The technology has moved on,” “I’ve left it too late”, “My technical skills are too rusty”, “The kids wouldn’t cope without me.”

It’s so easy to begin with the obstacles. And most of the negative stories we tell ourselves are just not true. Put them to one side to begin with and, instead, think about your future self. Where do you want to be in three to five years. What sort of work do you want to be doing, who do you want to work with, what will that add to your life?

Think about your life to date – your skills, knowledge and experience that you bring to the party. What do you have to offer that’s going to be interesting and valuable to en employer.

Jenni, who returned to a teaching role after ten years out, had worried that she wouldn’t be the teacher she once was – first in every morning and last to leave at night. She was right, she is now a different teacher, and a better one. She’s brought up two children with different educational needs and she is so much better placed to help both the pupils and their parents because of the wealth of experience she brings to the classroom.

A Brand called You

“Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room” Jeff Bezos.

How are you going to describe yourself? In one line, when you meet someone for the first time; in a short paragraph, at the top of your CV and in a bit more depth, when you take the opportunity to speak at that event?

Here’s a clue.

“I’m Catherine, I used to be a lawyer. I have two children and I’ve had a 6 year career break. I’m looking for part time work” isn’t particularly compelling.

“I’m Catherine, I have fifteen years’ experience working as a commercial lawyer for a large City firm and subsequently in-house at HSBC. I recently took a data privacy qualification and I’m looking for my next role” is much more likely to catch the eye.

Your brand isn’t your life story, it’s what you’re selling to an employer. Think Dove, Innocent, Charlotte Tilbury – all great brands with a “promise” that goes way beyond the simple product.

Use your Connections

Your network is so much stronger than you realise. Women often hate the word “networking”, associating it with glasses of warm white wine in stuffy hotel rooms.

What I’m talking about here is all the people you know – those you trained with, people you worked with, previous clients, people in your social circle, everyone you know at the school gates – those connections can be invaluable.  My research found that people were nine times more likely to find work after a career break through their network than they were through a recruiter.

Emma was 48 when I met her. Her boys were 16 and 18 and, as she put it “it’s my turn.” She wanted to get her career going again and had worked out that a law firm would be the perfect place for her change and project management skills. Trouble was she didn’t know anyone who worked in a law firm.

However, she knew people who did. So she set up coffees, walks in the part, telephone calls to ask for advice, which led to more introductions, more coffees, more walks etc. Nine months later she landed her dream job. She didn’t realise it at the time but what she was doing here was networking.

And of course, what really helped was that she had her brand nailed before she went into those coffee houses, so that the people she met were clear how to help.

Pivot before you Leap

Remember, your next job is exactly that: your next job. It isn’t necessarily the final destination.

Think carefully about where you want to be long term and make the right choices. Ayana always wanted to return to her career in supply chain logistics but wanted to move from car manufacturing to pharma. She took a job in the local school working in the admin office. No connections to either supply chain or Pharma and unlikely to help her long term ambitions.

More recently, she began work in a new role on the supply chain team of a firm supplying PPE equipment to the NHS and care homes. In this role she is also beginning to make contacts in the Pharma industry. That’s what we mean by pivoting.

Brush up your Skills

There are so many free resources available, there really is no excuse for feeling “out of touch”. Brush up your technical skills and industry knowledge: depending on your background, there will inevitably be a range of resources to draw on.

Follow the relevant thought leaders on LinkedIn, check out company websites and LinkedIn pages for the latest trends, join alumni organisations or industry-related networking groups. Use resources like Eventbrite, FutureLearn and the How To Academy to find courses or talks relevant to you.

Remember the Basics

Your CV and LinkedIn.

Your CV is your right to be considered for work.  It’s a marketing document, there to secure you an interview. It has to sing out “This woman is perfectly suited to this job and you have to see her.” This means it needs to be tailored for every job application and the summary at the top has to describe in a few sentences why you are a perfect fit.

The hiring manager is unlikely to be terribly interested in what you’ve been doing during your career break and the fact that you volunteer for the PTA. Explaining you have an engineering degree from Imperial and spent fifteen years working in the pharmaceutical industry is going to be much more eye-catching. (If, indeed, you’re planning a return to big pharma rather than a role working in the school office).

Again, you’re not on your own. There are lots of websites and resources that can help. My Perfect CV, for example, has lots of free advice and sample templates for professional job seekers.

And don’t ignore LinkedIn. You have to be on it. Potential employers will check you out there and it’s also where all the jobs are. Use the jobs listed there to research the right key words to use on your own CV, check out who’s hiring in your sector, work out where you have connections who could make an introduction.

If You Don’t Believe Me …

Join us on 4th May for more tips, advice and to hear some inspirational stories of women who have moved on to the next phase of their careers with our clients. Register here.

Toddlers off to senior school? Had it with Netflix? The telltale signs you’re ready to reclaim your career.

The realisation that you need your career back

It was woman’s hour that did it for me. Not so much that I was bored with it, more the pain of listening to the “Power list”, realising there was no way I’d ever be on it, and wondering why I’d sacrificed my degree and twenty years of professional training and experience to become a mother/dogwalker/administrator/fixer/wife. That, along with the startling realisation that my toddlers were actually turning into teenagers.

With families spending a lot more time together over the last several months, there has been plenty of time to contemplate your role.  What do you do for others?  And what’s left for yourself?

What does your future look like?

The pandemic will end.  We will move on to something different.  Most clients I speak to envisage a hybrid way of working for everyone: some remote working, some days in the office.  What does your personal future hold?

Back in 2014,  after a six year career break I realised I had a good 20 years ahead of me to work, learning something new, make an impact and – yes – actually earn some money.  The question was, what to do about it.

Beware the voices in your head

It’s so easy to find excuses – the house will fall apart without you, the kids still need you, the tech has passed you by, recruiters won’t want to know, You’re too old. We’ve heard them all.  Some may be true (ish); many will not.  There is usually a way round any obstacle, if you have the nous and the will to find it.  And who knows, those kids might benefit from you not being around so much.

The telltale signs you’re ready to reclaim your career

Ask yourself whether any or all of these tell tale signs might possibly mean that you, too, are ready to reclaim your career.

  1. The toddlers for whom you gave up your career are now perfectly capable of taking public transport to school and could probably rustle up a bowl of pesto and pasta if left to their own devices.
  2. The last time you learnt something new it was Spanish at night school (and even then you didn’t make it to the end of the course).
  3. Your brain is ready to tackle something more complex than the intricate daily diaries of three children, a dog, a house and a needy partner.
  4. Thinking about it, it’s high time they all took care of their own needs a bit more and stopped relying so much. Except maybe the dog.
  5. The prospect of another lockdown where you have to conjure up a menu for everyone twice a day, seven days a week as the potential to send you over the edge
  6. The people you trained with are all now “Head of ..” or “Director of …”, with careers that have gone from strength to strength. Note to self: now is not the time to be embarrassed, ashamed, envious or frustrated – being in positions of influence means they can help you. And they will.
  7. Hitting forty (or fifty) doesn’t feel at all daunting. In fact there’s an awful lot that’s liberating about it. No more soft play, no school runs, more time for yourself …
  8. Spending another twenty years operating below your potential, on the other hand, does feel very daunting. And not a pleasant prospect.
  9. Whereas the prospect of getting your career back on track and having more disposable income, well, that DOES feel exciting.
  10. You’ve even gone out and bought yourself a copy of “She’s Back: Your guide to returning to work.” It set you back £7.99 so you must be serious about this.

Don’t let the niggling doubts in your head stop you from achieving your full potential. At work as well as at home. (If you’re a lawyer, check out the Reignite Academy where we have opportunities now for anyone ready to return).

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 or email lisa, stephanie, sharon or tanja

For further information for either candidates or employers, please contact