Returnships: a recipe for success

Last week we celebrated success at the FT Innovative Lawyer awards.  The founding members of the Reignite Academy triumphed as winners for Innovation in Diversity and Inclusion.  (I’ll refrain from pointing out that, since women make up more than 50% of newly qualified lawyers, they hardly represent a minority group and settle for the recognition we were granted for our work to help more women back into the profession.)

Eighteen months ago, we didn’t exist.  I was walking a dog and took a call from Melinda Wallman, who I’d only met on three or four occasions.  What could we do to deliver a returners programme that would have real impact in the legal sector? We soon roped Stephanie Dillon into the conversation and here we are, eighteen months on, receiving an award from the FT.  Not bad. 

So what’s the recipe for success?

Ingredients.  Take:

  • 3 women with 80 years experience between them
  • A good dose of passion for helping other women have long and fulfilling careers
  • A handful of leaders who are willing to try something different
  • A bucketful of lawyers who are ambitious to get their careers back on track
  • Energy, tenacity and a willingness to work together

Method

Here’s the recipe:

  1.  Whet the appetite.  No-one’s tasted this cake before.  Give them a flavour of what it might feel like.  Remind those leaders of all the brilliant women they trained with, worked with and who now are “lost to law”.  Everyone could bring someone to mind. Then remind them of the scale of the opportunity. 
  2. Paint a picture of the end result.  All the best recipe books have pictures so that you know what you’re aiming for.  At first, we had to use our imagination, as time went on we were able to show pictures of our candidates.  There is no typical candidate: ages range from 38ish to 55ish, PQE from 1 to 20 years, they cover all practice areas and I couldn’t begin to list the variety of things they’ve done in their “time out”. (OK, I could: general counsel, in house lawyer, interior designer, project manager, full-time mum, shoe manufacturer, journalist, teacher, entrepreneur ….)
  3. Get the recipe on the menu.  Entice the restaurateurs, make them want to feature what you have to offer.  Tell them what’s coming before you’ve made it. PR is a big help, if you can get it.  It also puts pressure on your team to deliver. (Not that a lack of pressure was a problem)
  4. Source the ingredients. This is the trickiest bit.  That bucketful of lawyers ambitious to get their careers back on track?  They’re spread to the four corners, they often assume a return is impossible, recruiters have told them not to bother, many have given up. There’s a huge communication job to be done and you have to be creative.   
  5. Carefully assemble the right mix.  Select candidates who have drive, tenacity, ambition and a growth mindset.  Match them with practice areas where the practice group leader is on board, committed and recognises their value.  Add in a mentor and a buddy within the firm and add a dash of independent coaching at regular intervals.
  6. Bake for the right amount of time.  In our experience, six months is the minimum. This cake needs time to settle, for the ingredients to mix, and for the flavours to mature.  Keep a light on so that you can see what’s going on but don’t open the door too early, it could flop.
  7. Digest, adjust the flavours, repeat.
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