How do you close a ten year skills gap?

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This question is on the lips of most of the law firm partners who find themselves interviewing one of our candidates.  And given it’s such a common question, we thought it might be useful to write down the answer(s).

You don’t

Elizabeth had a 17 year break in her career as a corporate lawyer, before returning to Orrick in their corporate team as part of our pilot cohort.  She helped me reframe the question by simply saying this:

I didn’t have to get back up to speed with 17 years of law changes, I just had to get back up to speed with the law as it is today.

If there is one thing we’ve learnt in the last 3 1/2 years, placing almost 70 women back into legal roles, it’s that lawyers are good at learning the law.

It’s the work, stupid

In her excellent book “What works”, Iris Bohnet points to research that proves the way professionals get ahead is by getting access to the right work, for the right clients and with superiors who help them develop.  Her criticism of many women’s leadership programmes is based on this data.  She says:

Women are stuck in development and coaching programs while the men get the jobs.

Coaching is fine but the best learning is done “on the job”.  What becomes important, therefore is for people to return at the right level and into the right team.  We encourage people to put aside a calculation of how many years’ PQE they had prior to taking a break and focus instead on the level of PQE work they’ll be comfortable doing.

We also recommend a forensic analysis of the work being done by this practice group. Which elements are familiar and which are totally new.  Ensuring the returning lawyer has a good mix of both will help build confidence whilst at the same time addressing any specific skills or knowledge gaps.

Plan to Progress

When anyone begins a new job, they inevitably feel pressure to succeed.  It’s human.  That pressure can be eased if there is a sense of progress, a feeling that, each week they have done something right.  As Teresa Amabile points out in her book, The Progress Principle

The secret to amazing performance is enabling talented people to succeed at meaningful work.

You will get more out of people if they feel like they’re adding value, so make sure they can achieve some easy wins.  Confidence comes from feeling you’re a success, not by being told where you’ve failed.

This is all made more straightforward if people have a plan which breaks down everything they need to learn and milestones they need to achieve in the first 30, 60, 90 days into a manageable plan.

Access All Areas

Depending on someone’s particular practice area, there is often a wealth of resources available.  Lawyers are good at research and can usually find some helpful resources. For example:

  • University law departments offer short courses. Kings College London, Queen Mary, LSE for example, all offer a range of course from 6 weeks to 3 months on topics such as digital law, international arbitration
  • Certain practice groups have their own networks and institutions which share knowledge and updates. The Employment Lawyers Association, for example, costs £95 to join and has a wealth of resources
  • Professional standards/certification institutions offer training and updates. The IAPP (International Association of Privacy Professionals) offers a range of certifications and other training
  • Law firms themselves often publish case studies and thought leadership documents – on their own websites and via LinkedIn
  • Informal professional networks exist across many disciplines – such as the IP Lawyers Network or Women in Arbitration

We also encourage our candidates to ask the partners they meet for recommendations of essential reading, and to secure a PSL login as soon as they are able.

There is so much out there: the internet is a valuable tool.

Create a Support Team

We also know that people’s development and learning is accelerated if they have access to a team of people who will support, guide and encourage.  This includes:

  • A line partner who wants them to succeed, is prepared to be engaged and will give regular feedback
  • A mentor who can provide advice and guidance, who probably as experience in the same or adjacent area of law
  • Peers who have been through the same experience – at Reignite we often connect candidates with people in a similar practice area or the same firm who can provide support and encouragement
  • A buddy – someone you can go to with the stupid question, when you’ve lost your login details, when the document management system is proving unfathomable
  • A qualified coach who has experience of supporting people making the transition back to a professional career.

Make it Fun

This might sound trite but it’s fundamental.  The image above this article is a collage of photos from a recent reunion of many of the Reignite Academy alumni.  There wasn’t one photo where people weren’t beaming from ear to ear.  They love being back at work; yes it’s hard sometimes, and it can be stressful; but on balance they are loving work and loving life.



And that, in turn, is what makes our work such a joy.

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Reignite Academy Summer Roadshow

We are excited to announce that the Reignite Academy will be on the road in May, offering you the chance to join us in person to explore ways to relaunch or pivot your legal career.

The Reignite Academy team will be joined by other women who have successfully returned to law after a career hiatus. They will share their stories, experience and advice.

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