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This is Why Returnships Work

No-one told me just how tough recruitment could be. You’re in the middle of two parties, each of whom can say the right thing, do the right thing and then at the last minute pull out. That a hiring manager might suddenly decide a vacancy isn’t a vacancy after all wasn’t so much of a surprise. To have a candidate pull out at the last minute? That was new to me.

Bad start to the week

My Monday started with two candidates pulling out of second interview opportunities. Not because they’d received better offers elsewhere, but because they got cold feet.

“Not sure the time is right. I still have lots of other responsibilities. I don’t want to let anyone down.”

“I remember how pressurised it was. And the hours …. Perhaps I should be looking for something a bit easier.”

Neither response is uncommon in women who are thinking of reigniting their careers. In fact, I’d go so far as to say such responses are very normal and to be expected.

And the same goes for firms.

“I’m not sure it makes commercial sense for us …”

“We really couldn’t bring her back at such a senior level after she’s been out for ten years …”

Both responses based on looking at CVs, without meeting the individuals concerned or having any sort of conversation about expectations, confidence levels or what the candidates have been doing to keep themselves commercially sharp.

It’s all about risk

In both cases, what people are articulating is all about risk. For the women, the risk is putting themselves out there and then failing in some way. Failing to hold down the job, failing to be up to scratch, failing the family, failing themselves.

For organisations, the risk is that they take a chance on a candidate who doesn’t measure up. The risk that they fill a vacancy with someone who isn’t good enough and end up having to go through the whole process again a few months down the line.

Reframe: It’s an opportunity

Returnships take this risk, kick it to one side where it belongs and deliver opportunity. By creating a fixed term contract, usually six months, with plenty of support before and during the programme, women and the firms that are wise enough to take the leap are able to find a solution that benefits both sides.

For the women involved, it’s six months to make a smooth transition, to rebuild confidence, rediscover hidden talents, polish up rusty skills and reconnect with professional networks. The message we deliver:

  • It’s six months, not for life
  • This is your next step, not the end point
  • We will help you prepare well in advance to make sure you have a plan to succeed
  • We will provide you with coaching and support through the programme, using everything we know about the challenges you may face

For the organisations, the message is just as clear. You say you want more women, you say you’re committed to diversity, here’s an opportunity to do something about it.

  • We have screened these candidates and we know they have the grit, determination and ambition to succeed
  • We know how to support women returning from a career break and we will be there
  • Interviewing candidates on the basis of their last twelve months’ work experience obviously isn’t going to work, we will provide an alternative approach
  • The line partners have an important role to play and we will provide the training & briefing required

What’s not to love about that?

The joy of success

It doesn’t always work. That firm that sees us as uncommercial? They are unmoved. The woman who feels now just isn’t the right time? After a lot of should searching, she’d be much more comfortable knowing that home schooling really is at an end. The woman I sympathise with. The firm? Less so.

What I can tell you is that my second woman is now sitting on a job offer and is overjoyed, thrilled, excited and … yes a little daunted .. at the prospect of reigniting her career. We’ve assured her she isn’t on her own (literally and metaphorically) and we, too are utterly delighted.

And the other firm? Well, put it this way, I’m currently scheduling an interview for next week.

Now, more than ever …

I suspect that embarking on a “Returnship Programme” might have been the type of initiative companies would have done during the good times. Part of their diversity action plan. Nice to have, not essential, not affordable when times are hard. Such as in the middle of a pandemic.

My response? Reframe. There has never been a better opportunity to use a flexible, agile, experimental approach to provide opportunities to people with a huge amount of talent to add to the quality of your talent base.

As someone once said.

Build it and they will come.

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.