Returning to law after a career break
The reasons behind taking a career break are many and varied. Perhaps home-schooling during lockdown got too much. Maybe caring for an elderly relative has had to take priority. Or you’ve been taking some time out to try something different. Whatever the reason for your break, if you’re thinking about coming back to the law, Obelisk Support can help. Marking the launch of our first Legal Returners’ Springboard, an online programme to help you get work-ready, we’re sharing tips and advice that we’ve built up from working with legal returners since 2010.
The good news is that there really has never been a better time to get back to your legal career. In-house teams and law firms alike need talented legal professionals and are competing with each other to fill new roles. Post-pandemic, legal employers are thinking more creatively about working patterns, location and job design, so there are more opportunities for flexible working. Plus, as the demand for skills and experience increases, legal leaders are more open to providing the support and coaching needed to help someone who has been away from the profession get back up to speed.
So what do you need to do to get back into work? We spoke to two of our Obelisk alumni, Kate Lambie and Victoria Martin, to add their perspective to our top ten tips. They both took breaks for family reasons, then worked through Obelisk Support for a number of years, before going on to permanent roles with two of our clients, a major UK PLC and leading law firm respectively.
#1 Believe in yourself
When you’ve spent time away from work, it’s natural for doubts to creep in and your confidence diminish. Make a conscious effort to re-connect with your strengths and remind yourself of all the skills and expertise you have to offer.
As Kate Lambie says, “Believe you have something great to offer and that if you take the opportunities that come your way, you can carve out a really fulfilling new career. I found it hugely motivating to feel I was in control of the work I chose to do and took great pride in forming relationships of trust with new clients.”
#2 Be honest about what will work for you
It can be tempting to try and take on anything and everything that comes your way when you first come back after a break. Try to resist and instead spend some time thinking about what will work for you and how you can fit work alongside other commitments.
Kate told us, “When my children were small I found the best time for me to work was super-early in the morning before they woke up, and I would always be up front with clients about that. Without fail they were all comfortable with me doing my hours at times that suited me, so I knew I could work within a 24 hour parameter each day rather than trying to shoehorn me (and my kids) into a 9 to 5. That way everyone got the best of me!”
#3 Prepare for the unexpected
Life doesn’t always go to plan, and that’s never more true than in your first months of getting back into work. You don’t have to be perfect, things can and will go wrong. Accept that and you’ll feel ready when they do.
As Victoria Martin says, “We wait for the right time, until we have everything organised and ready. But that’s not life. Things will crop up and you’ll have to flex what you do. But by developing a good relationship with your colleagues and clients they will understand that and support you.”
#4 Embrace a growth mindset
Put simply, a growth mindset means that you are open to learning and new ideas. Try to keep an open mind and look for the opportunities in your situation.
Kate told us, “I often tell people that I only became a “real” lawyer when I worked for Obelisk. I had very in-depth knowledge of one very specific practice area from my years in private practice, and Obelisk really turned me into an all-rounder commercial lawyer. I learned to adopt a growth mindset and look at every new role as a learning opportunity. I became much more adept at finding the answers or knowledge I needed and gradually turned from a private practice to an in-house lawyer.”
#5 Talk about what you’re doing and why
Setting out your intention to come back to work and talking it through with those around you serves two purposes; it helps you to clarify your objectives and it helps friends and family to support you. Try to tell as many people as possible about your plan; former colleagues and your wider network can be a gateway to new opportunities, family and friends will be essential cheerleaders.
“I also talk to my daughter about why I work and why it’s a good thing for our family”, says Victoria, “That it’s not just financial but also because I trained for a long time to become a solicitor and I’m proud of my qualification so it’s good for me personally to be able to use it.”
#6 Under-promise and over-deliver
Getting back into work, especially if you’re managing commitments outside of work alongside your new role, can feel overwhelming and it can take time to adjust to the new demands and how long it takes you to do things.
Kate advises, “Work tasks can take longer than anticipated and family demands often come unexpectedly, so I always deliberately build in some slack on both sides from the start, to make sure I keep my promises. It also helps keep me relaxed.”
#7 Explore all your career options
“The profession has changed so much,” Victoria told us, “Everyone is completely accepting – and respectful – of part time roles in a way that didn’t really happen before. I would encourage anyone to do it and think I probably would have returned to work part time after I had my daughter if I had those opportunities then.”
In-house teams have previously been ahead of law firms in terms of offering job shares, non-traditional work patterns, flexible hours and the like. That’s changing now, with both sides of the profession opening up to new ways of working. The rise of legal consulting and working flexibly through services like Obelisk as a freelancer offers even more opportunities to return to legal work in a way that suits you.
#8 Ditch the commute
For both Kate and Victoria, the long commutes that they had when starting their families were a contributing factor to deciding to take a break. The legal profession is now much more open to hybrid and remote-working. If you can lose or reduce your commute, managing a return to work is a lot more achievable, so look for opportunities that don’t need you to be in the office all the time.
#9 Take all the help you can
On the work front, get in touch with people in your network who might help you get back up to speed or find new opportunities. Tap into programmes like Obelisk’s Legal Returners’ Springboard. Sign up for free updates and networking events in your practice area. And don’t forget the home front. There are simple ways to maximise how you spend your time, whether that’s investing in online grocery deliveries or making sure that everyone else in your household is picking up their share of the chores.
#10 Enjoy the journey
The traditional career ladder is increasingly irrelevant. Career breaks, pivots and returns are more and more common. Our working lives are likely to become longer and more diverse, encompassing time spent consulting and in employment, so it’s vital to keep learning, evolving and exploring what’s possible.
“I think being freelance is a brilliant way to assess what works for you personally and professionally”, says Victoria. Kate adds, “I worked for multiple clients at the same time on an ad-hoc or part time basis, sometimes for several years, and really enjoyed watching their businesses and legal teams grow. There is huge fulfilment in that; not least in seeing your own skillset blossom along the way too.”