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Could “Career Break” Lawyers hold the key to firms hitting their diversity targets

Last month, more than 170 general counsels and chief legal officers at major companies across America penned a letter presenting an ultimatum to law firms to hire, retain and promote diverse associates or risk losing their in-house clients' business. As in so many other sectors, lawyers are being urged by their clients to fix what is becoming an increasingly obvious and measurable problem.

The lack of diversity is not going unnoticed elsewhere and neither is it simply a client issue. In the UK, two thirds of law students are women and figures from the Law Society in England and Wales indicate that 60% of newly qualified lawyers are female. And yet a 2017 report by PwC found that this drops to 18% of partners in the top 10 UK firms 19% in the next 15 firms.

Women leave the profession for various reasons, including the difficulty in balancing the demands of a city law career with personal ambitions and commitments. Nor is this problem peculiar to law. Research undertaken by She’s Back in the UK, reaching over 1,300 women who had taken career breaks from sectors including banking, insurance, consulting, advertising and law, found that a lack of flexibility was a key driver for people stepping back from their careers.

The same research found that 84% did want to return to work but found that they faced a number of obstacles, including barriers put up, often unconsciously, by the recruiters who reject CVs that do not follow a linear career track or contain a career gap of some kind.

It is for this reason that organisations in many sectors have begun to establish formal return to work programmes. They began in 2008 when Brenda Barnes, CEO of Sara Lee, established a four to six month internship programme for people who had been out of the workforce for three to five years. Barnes was inspired by her own experience of taking time out from a senior role at Pepsico North America to look after her three children.

Since then, “returnships” as they came to be known (the term was coined by Goldman Sachs) slowly started to become more popular as organisations realised they were missing out on a huge untapped talent pool.

They are now prevalent in investment banking, professional services, telecomms, energy and many other sectors, in North America, Europe and the Far East. Firms who now run annual programmes include Barclays, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, Deloitte, PwC, Shell, Virgin Money and many others.

Whilst not exclusive to women or an age-set, such programmes have been very successful in supporting female returners who have paused their careers to start a family or take on caring responsibilities.

With the exception of a very small number of schemes - many of which simply offer a two week period of training and work experience - return to work programmes have not yet been widely embraced by the legal sector. Whilst effective, they require a significant amount of time, effort and expertise, with many organisations having a separate team dedicated to the programme: a significant commitment for any firm working alone.

Recognising this issue, the founders of the Reignite Academy in London set about creating a membership organisation to offer a return to work programme for participating city firms.

The inspiration came from a combination of three female led organisations: XX Advantage, where founder Melinda Wallman has established a well respected network for female lawyers; Inclusivity Partners, set up by Stephanie Dillon, which runs returner programmes for clients in other sectors including Shell and Virgin Money; and She's Back, which supports women who are ready to reclaim their careers.

The Academy is open to both women and men and uses a tailored assessment process which looks for potential, acknowledges the full breadth of a candidate’s experience and accepts that breaks should not be career limiting. Successful candidates are offered

  • A six month paid placement in one of the participating law firms, who have opportunities in a variety of areas including corporate, banking and finance, real estate, tax, employment law and commercial/IP

  • A rigorous training, onboarding and induction process, including support to regain practising certificates, if necessary

  • One to one coaching from specialist coaches

A tailored programme of induction and training, where participants are taught how to create their own 90 day plan helps ensure that returners are adequately prepared for the transition back to work. Whilst participants eventually complete their work experience at different firms, they conduct the initial induction as a cohort and are encouraged to support each other during the period of the programme.

The provision of a coach and support network, and the ability to be part of a cohort of people going through a similar experience has been proven to help people be ready to transition to permanent roles at the end of the programme.

The first cohort of Reignite Associates began work in London in January 2019. Those returning - and in this cohort they are all women - range in experience from one year PQE to over 20; they cover disciplines including corporate, banking and finance, regulatory, tax, commercial, employment and real estate. Whilst they are a very diverse group, they do have something in common: grit, determination and ambition; they are raring to go. For all of them, the Reignite Academy is a chance to get their careers back on track.

Manjit began her career as a TV presenter before training as a lawyer with a city firm. She worked as in house counsel for a music company and for a large telco, covering IP, commercial, consumer regulations, branding and advertising, amassing four years’ PQE prior to taking what would become a 10 year break from the law. A professional with a busy brain and lots of experience, she spent some of this time working on property development and is now eager to get her city career back on track.

Two of the more experienced candidates each have eight and twenty-plus years’ PQE. One is a banking and finance lawyer, who left a city career to go in house with two international investment banks, before working on a self-employed basis. The other is a commercial lawyer with a Masters in Communications and Computer Law. Her experience includes working for city firms and as in house counsel, focusing primarily on technology and telecoms.

At the other end of the spectrum, Elizabeth had two years’ post qualification experience, working as a corporate lawyer for a magic circle firm, including a stint in Brussels. After an 11 year break, Elizabeth was ready to pick up her corporate law career and began to do freelance work.

Annabel had just one year of post qualification experience, working for private equity fund clients. Despite her 14 year break, the partner who interviewed her made an offer on the spot, impressed with her commercial acumen, knowledge of the law and obvious personal drive.

Whilst the Reignite Academy is focusing on the London market, in the US Caren Ulrich Stacy established the OnRamp Fellowship three years ago, serving not only law firms but also in house legal departments

Both programmes provide returning lawyers with an opportunity to demonstrate their value in the marketplace while also increasing their experience, skills, and contacts. And in doing so, they enable participating firms to replenish their talent pipelines with experienced women and other lawyers who have the potential and the desire to advance into leadership roles.

The Reignite Academy began as a six month pilot. My co-founders and I had no idea how quickly it would take off. We shouldn’t have been surprised. The lawyers were the very same graduates who were hand picked to join city firms in the first place. They received the very best training and development and were exposed to fabulous opportunities to grow and develop. They parted company with a career track that didn’t work for them at a point in time.

Now, they are ready to return and retain their passion for the law. Selling the idea in to potential member firms is no longer an issue. All we need to do is tell the story and introduce them to the women involved. They are inspiration enough. If you’ve had a break from a city law career and might be considering returning, please give us your input as to why and what support you might need by completing this very short survey.


About the Author

Lisa Unwin is co-founder of the Reignite Academy and author of She's Back: Your Guide to Returning to Work. - an essential guide for anyone who has ambitions beyond motherhood. The book is full of practical advice for anyone ready to return after a break or who wants to get their career back on track.

She's Back promotes women by campaigning on their behalf and by connecting them with each other and with organisations and people who can support them. They offer training and coaching to help women navigate the messy middle phase of their career and for organisations who want to retain, recruit and promote more women. Lisa regularly speaks at events and on podcasts and writes for various publications and blogs.

A former partner with Arthur Andersen Business Consulting and Director of Brand and Communication at Deloitte, Lisa had a 20 year career in professional services prior to setting up She's Back.

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