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16 April 2019

Reclaiming your career after a career break

Published on 16 April 2019

Reclaiming your career after a career break

Every year, lawyers decide to take a temporary break from the law. They are motivated by a multitude of reasons – motherhood and child care, eldercare, travel, or even the call of other careers. The workload and rigid structure of career progression within the profession can prove challenging for lawyers looking to return to the law.

Conversely, the cost of losing trained lawyers can be high – re-training fresh lawyers to fill the same roles is expensive, particularly when an experienced mid-career lawyer could step in.

Insights explores this issue and what both lawyers and employers can do help experienced legal professionals return to the profession.


The high cost of lost lawyers

Women outnumber men in Australian law schools. They rise alongside their male counterparts in relative equal ratios until a crucial crossroads is reached – the decision to bear children.

“Women, to some degree, put their careers on hold and often it is seen by the company that they’re not serious about their career,” Law Society president of the district of Wollongong, Melinda Griffiths, said to the ABC.

“Based on the statistics, most lawyers work anywhere between 41 – 50 hours per week, so that’s very difficult to juggle while also trying to be home for a young child, drop a child off at day care or have that quality time as well,” said Melinda.

The cost to the law is considerable. Women make up 57 per cent of employed lawyers, but only constitute 23 per cent of equity partners. This reflects a considerable loss of experienced legal professionals.


No clear route back to the law

It is an experience mirrored in the UK. According to a PWC report, there are 427,000 UK women from professional/managerial backgrounds interested in returning to the workforce after a career break.

“For many women, the lack of a clear route back into a law firm or in-house role presents the toughest hurdle,” said Julianne Miles to Law Gazette UK. Many report recruiters being reluctant to put them forward for a role due to their career breaks. Other recruiters told them to try again after they had secured their first ‘returner role.’

Much of this reluctance can be attributed to employer fears around loss of skills and knowledge.

“The risks involved are largely perceived rather than real,” said Julianne. “Line managers across sectors report that the vast majority rapidly get back up to speed and most are delivering effectively in a matter of weeks.”


Creating a culture of flexible work

The onus lies equally on employers and lawyers to reap value from experienced lawyers returning to the profession. Lawyers can prepare themselves in several ways – updating their legal knowledge with refresher courses on their areas of practice or proposing inexpensive working arrangements that allow a lawyer to work on temporarily lower pay as the renew their legal skills.

However, these initiatives must be matched by employers. Some lawyers have had success with ‘supported hiring’ programs which hire returning lawyers directly into permanent roles with coaching support. Former Freshfields and JP Morgan Chase Solicitor Claire Prettejohn used a supported hiring program offered by Women Returners to secure a legal role with Degra.

“Without this support, I wouldn’t have known where and how to start my journey back to work,” Claire told Law Gazette UK.

In Australia, organisations like FlexCareers work with companies to offer flexible working arrangements and return-to-work internships for women. While FlexCareers was developed with mothers in mind, anyone who has had a two year break from their career is welcome.

“The internships give women the opportunity to dip their toe in the water in a supported environment so they can build their confidence back up and realise they can actually do this,” explained FlexCareers CEO Natalie Goldman, who is also a mother of two. “Women struggle to re-enter the workforce at a similar level as to when they left for parental leave, and there are numerous obstacles and barriers for them,” Natalie said. “Flexible work is the key enabler to return to work successfully.”

In a recent publication, the Law Society of New South Wales encouraged employers to consider introducing flexible work policies, including information on its value and how it can work.

Failing to do so may leave employers open to challenge in the Fair Work Commission. According to the ABC, the Commission will insert a new clause into all modern awards requiring a written justification, based on business grounds, for refusing a flexible work request.


Evolving business models

Some entrepreneurs have recognised the opportunity that experienced ‘career break’ lawyers offer and changed their business models accordingly. Startups like Incounsel match experienced lawyers to short term contract roles within companies or law firms. It also offers an ‘outsourced general counsel’ service to match experienced and qualified lawyers to companies, without the commitment or cost of a permanent general counsel. This kind of model ideally positions lawyers looking for their first few back-to-work roles with work equal to their expertise and experience.

Lawyers on Demand works in a similar way, allowing organisations to quickly upscale with experienced lawyers while freeing lawyers from firm hierarchy to work contract roles at higher rates.

Business models such as these reflect responses to client demand and cost pressures. However, they also present an opportunity for lawyers returning to the profession to work more flexibly or gain the recent experience they need to obtain a permanent role.

It is no secret that the legal profession is in a state of transition. Traditional rigid hierarchies and career paths which once limited opportunities for lawyers returning to the profession are giving way to greater flexibility and new business models. In this sense, this is an unusually favourable time for lawyers looking to reclaim their legal careers. More than ever, they are able to plan and design a career fit for their preferred way of work and working hours. 


Heading back to work? Here’s your essential transition toolkit