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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.

How to navigate a non-linear career

I chose this image because the model looks both comfortable and fretful. Much like many of the young women I come across who are looking up and thinking “Just how, exactly, is this supposed to work?” Meaning, “How on earth do I keep a career on track at the same time as being a mother, daughter, partner, friend ….Do I have to sacrifice one thing for another? If I go at a slower pace, will I ever be able to get my career back on track?”

Treat your career like a game of chess

At the Reignite Academy, we often talk about having to approach your career like a game of chess. Have some winning tactics for that messy middle phase, but that all sounds a little vague. So what do those tactics look like? What, exactly, do you need to do to navigate a non-linear career?”

Well, we’ve spent the last few months talking to women – and men – who have managed to step on and off career ladders, who have take breaks and returned, stepped back a level and stepped up again. How did they manage it? Here are some of the common themes arising out of those conversations:

 

Tactics to help you win

Choose your line managers wisely. Easier said than done, perhaps, but try to find a line manager who cares, who trusts you, who believes in you and who will leave the door open should you ever want a path back. Sally Boyle, Head of Human Capital at Goldman Sachs, talked to us about her first ever line partner at a law firm, who insisted that she’d be the first phone when (not if) Sally decided to return from her career break.

Maintain connectivity. Never under-estimate the value of your professional networks. Even if you don’t have an immediate need, they keep you connected and can play a pivotal role in helping you find a route back. Evidence shows you are five times more likely to find a role through your network than through a recruiter. Online platforms like LinkedIn and Eventbrite make it easier than ever to keep in touch with people and attend events that are relevant to you.

You don’t need to be alone. Go back to the chess analogy. The queen is not the only piece on the board. Don’t underestimate the importance of sponsors, mentors and coaches. Be strategic as you think about who those might be, how they can help you and when. Within the Reignite programme we always give candidates an independent coach as we know the path back can be wobbly. And we encourage member firms to allocate mentors who can provide advice and insight from within.

Be prepared to take a risk when the opportunity presents itself. Don’t dither. Imagine the clock is ticking by the side of the chess board. Accept that imposter syndrome is a reality for many women and find ways to challenge it. If someone’s giving you the opportunity they must think you’re capable. Amanda, a senior employment lawyer had approached us about a place on our pilot programme. Whilst that didn’t work out, going through the process gave the the confidence to apply for – and be offered – a large in-house role.

Grit, determination, self confidence, self belief and self criticism. It’s never going to be easy but you’re made of strong stuff. Have faith in yourself and what you can deliver. If you leave the office before many of your colleagues, do so with your head held high knowing that the quality of what you’re doing is absolutely as good as theirs and it should be about output not hours input.

 

Kristin, a Reignite member remarked a few weeks ago that she had only just realised her role was not simply to put in lots of billable hours. She could also contribute business development ideas, innovative solutions, ways to work smarter that were probably even more valuable. Looping back to the first point, you need to be working for line managers who see that and who aren’t obsessed and impressed with presenteeism.

Look for the signs you’re ready to “Reignite” It’s not always a question of returning. Sometimes, you might be in work but operating below your potential. For me, it was listening to the woman’s hour power list, thinking “What happened to me?” For Annie, another person on our Reignite programme, it was looking at the people she was teaching at law school thinking “They’re about to have the career I should be having.”

What one thing?

As well as those themes, we asked people “What one thing” they would say as a piece of advice to a younger woman, looking ahead and wondering how on earth to navigate their career. Here’s a sample of what they said.

  • Remember that careers are long. Play that long game.
  • Don’t judge yourself by the pace of your colleagues’ careers. Go at your own pace. You absolutely can catch up over the long term, if, indeed, catching up is your thing.
  • This too will pass. Sleepless nights, toddler tantrums, ageing parents … nothing lasts forever. (But by the way, something else comes in its place).
  • Do what’s right for you.
  • Women absolutely have to help each other. All of us can make it easier for others.

 

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.