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Coming back from a career break: A lawyer's story

Coming back from a career break is a common experience for women in midlife. A lawyer describes how she did it.

Louise is an experienced lawyer who recently returned to work after a career break of almost 10 years.  She has been working with Bird & Bird, city law firm, for almost two months.  We asked her about her experience and the advice she would have for other women thinking of relaunching their professional careers.

Tell us a little about your career break

I took a career break aged 42 when my sons were 5 and 2 (now they are 15 and 12) and I was fulfilled and happy for a few years. I don’t regret for one minute giving up work to be with my children – it was a privilege that not everyone has.

Recruiters did not want to know or told me to go back as a paralegal despite being a 10-year qualified solicitor.

What I do now look back on with regret is how long it took me to get back to work after my career break. Whilst it wasn’t entirely within my control (as it is never as easy for a returner to get a job as someone already in work), I now realise that a lot more was within my control than I realised.

When did you start to think about returning and what was your experience?

I started thinking about returning in 2015, took a qualification to update my legal knowledge and applied for some jobs – zero interest. Recruiters did not want to know or told me to go back as a paralegal despite being a 10-year qualified solicitor. Every now and again, I picked it all up again – made more applications but with no real momentum and always with the same result.

Confidence is so easily lost. I put a ‘proper job’ in the “too difficult” pile and told myself that I couldn’t possibly fit in a legal career with  my family commitments anyway (despite knowing many women who did!) and busied myself with my family (because let’s face it, with children and home to run, there is always something to do), my interests and some voluntary work.

I could have tried to do all sorts of things (taken an alternative job, retrained) but I didn’t – partly because my confidence was gone even for that and partly because secretly I didn’t want the alternatives –  I wanted back what I had given up but couldn’t seem to get it and it made me unhappy.

How did you find your current role?

I found this role through the Reignite Academy, which runs programmes specifically for returners after a career break.  I found out about it by chance from another mum, a solicitor who had come across it in the course of her work.  The programme is a fixed term, six-month contract of work, training and coaching, all designed to help people like me get my career back on track.

How have you found the first few weeks?

Yes, the first couple of weeks were tough and the learning curve steep. Yes, there have been a few (private) tears of frustration (mostly IT-related). Yes, the entire group is younger me and I am old enough to be the mother of at least half of them (but they don’t seem to care and I am starting not to). Yes, I have returned as a junior solicitor, yes, my sons now get the bus home instead of me picking them up from school and generally look after themselves a bit more and yes, my house is maybe not as clean and tidy as it once was but I am so enjoying working again.

At first a six-month stint was enough

I know I will last the 6 months of my returnship. And I went into it thinking that all I needed to do was survive it because it was just a stepping stone to a future career and a “fix” for my CV and it is certainly that but it is a lot more than that. I went into it thinking, “It will be a bit much but you can move somewhere a lot less full-on straight after”. But now I want to be kept on, it isn’t too full-on - it is what I want to do. And that is what a returnship does – upskills you and builds your confidence so you can do what you thought was unimaginable or impossible 3 months ago.

What would you say to someone who is at the start of this journey?

I would say that it will take you longer than a non-returner to get a job so build that into your plans and do not give up. I know from bitter experience it won’t be any easier in a few years time, it will just be harder.

And if the time is not right for you now to return for whatever reason but you think you may want (or need) to return to work in the future, then do something now towards that goal – use a free website to improve your typing speed , attend a returner event through one of the many, many companies that now have made a commitment to take returners to keep your hand in. There are great free talks on how to improve your CV etc and an opportunity to connect with many, many women in the same position as you and that is a great support.

What would your advice be to a returner who is thinking about their options?

I would also say be realistic and don’t be too fussy when considering your returning options. Don’t close any doors – because you can’t really afford to.

For example, I didn’t apply for a single private practice job until Reignite because my last experience working for a law firm had been a blur of too many hours and cancelled social engagements, ending up in depression and my resignation. I was adamant that I wanted to go back in-house. Well, so does everyone else, whereas law firms often have lots of vacancies.

You may be pleasantly surprised by private practice these days  - I have found that there is a great deal more flexibility now than there was 15 years ago: I did not raise the possibility of part-time work when I went to interview for my returnship at a law firm, they raised it with me. Technology has made working flexibly so much easier even in law firms and, whilst the lockdown has been so tough on so many, I know remote working has made my transition back to the world of work so much easier than it would normally have been – no 2-hour commute each way and only the prospect of 2 days a week in the office in the future – it makes life so much easier especially for single parents and primary care-givers who work.

How should people deal with any concerns they might have about returning?

Don’t overthink it!  Don’t think of all the reasons why you shouldn’t return to work and talk yourself out of it! Think of all the reasons why you should – independence, fulfilment, a renewed sense of purpose, intellectual stimulation, a pay packet at the end of the month.  And, when you are successful at getting your first returnship or job or whatever (because it is a case of when, not if), the utter relief of not having to spend hours and days filling out any more  job applications.

In the meantime, be smart with your applications and apply for a returner program if available to you. It is not always easy to get your foot back in the door career-wise but know that once you do, it will be a lot better and a lot easier than you think and, if you are anything like me, you will wish you had done it years ago.

Any parting advice?

I would say again – don’t give up!

The Reignite Academy provides opportunities for “career break” lawyers to return to private practice. Candidates join one a member firm and complete a six month programme of work, training and coaching which enables them to successfully transition back to a permanent role.  Working with several City firms, including Bird & Bird, Travers Smith, Slaughter and May and Sidley Austin, over the last three years the team has helped move than 35 women reignite their careers. Opportunities are available across a range of practice areas, including commercial, corporate, employment and tax.

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