Traditionally, practising lawyers follow a linear career path from trainee to partner. But does a career break, whether from choice (to go travelling, try something new or raise a family) or enforced (through redundancy, illness or addiction) have to break your career?
A heavy emphasis on track record means recruitment processes tend to be conservative, while law is unusual in rarely using interim cover even for well-planned absences. It is also a highly competitive job market, particularly in the current economic climate, with no shortage of talented applicants.
So what can those seeking to return after a break do to persuade interviewers to take a chance on their unorthodox CV? For those who have taken time out to be with their children, the question is not just whether they can break through the ‘glass ceiling’ in their career progression but if they can break through the ‘glass door’ and return on an equal footing. Pregnancy-related health issues derailed Kelly Knight’s career as a specialist in leverage finance and general banking law with a City firm. She moved to a less pressured role as a professional support lawyer but finally gave up work in 2003, a year after her son was born.
‘I was ambitious,’ she says, ‘but I looked around me and saw how few women made partner and how the accepted work culture in City law firms forced women to make a brutal choice between career – let alone career progression – or their families. It helped me decide to take a career break. If I hadn’t, I would have been sacrificing an awful lot, and for what?’ She had a second child and, with both settled at school, decided the time was right to rebuild her career. She went on the Association of Women Solicitors’ (AWS) Returners Course in October. ‘None of us had sat around watching Jeremy Kyle,’ she says, ‘and we were encouraged to include our "transferable" skills, such as being a school governor or organising fundraising, on our CVs. But in my experience, no one was interested.’
She sent out CVs for jobs she could do ‘standing on my head – just because you have been at home doesn’t mean you have lost your brain’. She was also willing to go in at a junior level, so there was the added benefit for employers that she was ‘cheap’.
She has now found a six-month contract in-house through a contact. But, she says: ‘A recruitment agent told me HR departments have a tick-box list, and if you don’t fit, they don’t even look at you. It is frustrating because I have friends who are partners and heads of legal departments who would be more than willing to take people on after a career break, but they don’t see their applications.’
There are consequences in taking a career break, particularly from private practice, says Juliet Carp, employment partner with City law firm Speechly Bircham. ‘Returning tends to be easier for junior lawyers. Their absence won’t damage their client relationships in the same way as it will for senior lawyers. Their career success is much more closely linked to their clients, who may not be "given back" on their return, and so they may have to rebuild their practice.’ It is also important, she says, that any terms agreed for a career break for reasons that are not covered by a statutory framework, such as parental leave, are properly documented.
When it comes to in-house jobs, Katie Haggerty, senior business manager with Hays Legal, says specialist lawyers who have kept up to date with CPD and market developments in their field would not be written off. ‘The only caveat,’ she says, ‘is they need to ensure they are a cost-effective option. If they are competing against someone who is currently in a job, they won’t be viewed in the same salary bracket.’ Employers want to see evidence returners have been keeping abreast of changes. ‘Becoming a school governor, for instance, shows commitment but it’s not really relevant for a legal role,’ she says. ‘But they are very open to those who have kept up to date. Those applicants tend to be cost-effective options because they can be taken on initially at the lower end of the salary scale and be remoulded. However, it is very competitive and the person has to be really ambitious and talented to do that.’
For Amanda Ashby, her gambit of offering to work for nothing paid off. After qualifying in 1990, she worked for a commercial property firm in its London and Paris offices. Once married, she returned home to Yorkshire where she worked for two years in law firms in Manchester and Leeds. She had her first child in 1996 but, with no option to return part-time, she stayed at home. Sixteen years and three more children later, she was ready to return to law. ‘My first thought was, "who would ever employ me?",’ she says. ‘But then I had a "light bulb" moment and went to local firm Walker Foster and offered to work part-time unpaid.’
After a few months, the firm put her on a more permanent footing, working three days a week in commercial property. ‘I am now being paid and it is great,’ she says. ‘I feel amazed that I found a firm prepared to be so refreshingly modern in its thinking. It was nerve-wracking to start with, but I had been doing some CPD and I still had all my other skills, and I am really enjoying it.’
Recognising there is an untapped pool of talented women wanting a different work/life balance prompted two ex-City lawyers to set up the legal outsourcing business Obelisk Legal Support in 2010. It uses former City solicitors – 25% of whom are ex-magic circle – to provide temporary transactional, contract and litigation support services to law firms and in-house departments. It has 120 lawyers – 96% of whom are women – working remotely, with a more gender-balanced pool of 60 secondees. Founder and CEO Dana Denis Smith, a former Linklaters lawyer, says they are committed to placing their lawyers with the calibre of client they had when in practice. She believes opportunities are improving. ‘The commitment we see from clients and potential clients in supporting diversity is definitely having an impact on the opportunities available to returners – and things will only get better,’ she says.
Another option after a career break is to return with a portfolio career. Darren Heath left private practice after more than a decade to become a writer-presenter for Legal Network Television. He took writing classes, and one of his screenplays was picked for production, so he set up First Born Films to be one of the co-producers. He now combines that with being ‘parachuted’ into jobs through Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Lawyers on Demand programme. ‘Combining careers is very easy when you find the right role, working with good people,’ he says.
However, the challenges for practitioners seeking to return after a break enforced by physical or mental illness, addiction or stress can be immense. Legal health charity LawCare’s helpline receives frequent calls asking how much information returners should disclose. ‘There is no simple answer to the question "should I tell them?’’’ says administrator Anna Buttimore. ‘Sadly we haven’t noticed much in the way of enlightenment from law firms. But fear of possible prejudice needs to be weighed against the advantages of disclosure in terms of support on your return and being able to explain why your problems won’t prevent you carrying out the job.’
Road to recovery
Cocaine addiction drove Jack to such depths of despair he attempted suicide. Unable to work, he feared he would never practise again. But, a decade on, he has his own law firm and volunteers through LawCare, helping others through the trauma of addiction.
Rebuilding his life took time and courage after his first attempt at rehab ended with him back in a law firm feeding his habit in the office washrooms.
After a spell in a psychiatric ward, he turned to the profession’s pastoral support charities for help. They provided vital financial support for six weeks of rehab – and this time he understood the source of his problem was not the drugs and drink, but his constant chasing for something new to fill the hole in his life, giving him the strength to stop.
Once clean and sober, the LawCare volunteer supporting Jack asked for his help with some cases. Researching the law enabled him to get back up to date without the pressure of a full-time job.
Encouraged by his supporter, he applied for a training job with a law firm, explaining the gap in his CV as a career break. ‘I am not sure if I fooled everyone,’ he says. ‘But the firm could see from my CV that I was a pretty good catch and, for me, it was a way of rebuilding my confidence.’
He did not tell his employers the real reason. ‘Some employers might think there but for the grace of God, but class A drug use isn’t something you want to publicise,’ he says. ‘I did tell them about my alcoholism – they were interested in my experiences with the 12-step fellowship programme but, by then, I was established as safe and reliable having been five years clean and sober.’
The question of how much you should disclose is difficult, he says: ‘It would be a bit hypocritical of me to say to someone in my situation "be honest with your new employer". The reality is people who have gone through recovery are unlikely to be totally upfront with a prospective employer before they have had a chance to prove they are reliable.’
For Jack, being back at work helped him regain his self-esteem. ‘I have changed beyond all recognition,’ he says, ‘and I am content with the person I am now.’
The name has been changed
LawCare’s information pack Returning to Work after Recovery says that, legally, there is no obligation to disclose the information if you are not asked specific questions on the application form or during an interview. If asked, there is no compulsion to disclose it unless your illness/addiction could affect your ability to do the work, in which case you could be dismissed for deliberately withholding it if it comes out later. The charity does emphasise that all employees have a fiduciary relationship with their employers and so they must think very carefully about damaging that relationship by being less than honest. But at the end of the day, says Buttimore, it has to be the individual’s choice.
Jane Duke, a volunteer with LawCare, was in recovery from alcoholism and had been out of work for a number of years before she joined a law firm as a secretary. She stayed for seven years, training as a paralegal and becoming the sole fee-earner doing probate. ‘I had always been very open with people and had only received positive responses,’ she says. ‘But I didn’t tell the firm about my past at the start because they didn’t know me. When I felt there was a level of trust I told them and explained I had been sober for a number of years. Because it was a small firm it was OK and they were pleased I had trusted them. But you need to use your emotional intelligence to work out whether the person you tell will understand or panic.’
One option, she says, is to ‘explain in the job interview that you have had a health issue which you have had treatment for and you are now ready to perform to the best of your ability. You cannot rewrite the past and there is always a price to pay, but you shouldn’t have to keep on paying it’. Haggerty says she has never dealt with someone returning after an addiction so could not comment. However, she says: ‘We would never submit a candidate without explaining the reason for the career break. Sometimes it can be for personal reasons which don’t need to be discussed, but we would need to know it was for a viable reason.’
Illness ended Jane Silver-Frost’s career as a senior Crown prosecutor when an inflammatory condition left her with chronic fatigue, unable to walk or think clearly. She took medical retirement in 2001. ‘I thought that was it, my legal career was over,’ she recalls. ‘My brain just wouldn’t work. But the doctors advised me to "use it or lose it" so I started taking courses, which always ended up relating back to law.’ Determined her legal experience should not go to waste, she applied to become a JP but was redirected towards the judiciary. She took the ‘excellent’ returners course in 2010, which included a talk from a judge, followed by the Law Society’s judicial tips and training course.
Against the odds
Melissa Dunnett took a career break in 2006 to try something different before having a family.
She left her job as a property lawyer with Mayer Brown and took over running the Moretolaw website (moretolaw.co.uk). She also did ‘random’ freelance work, including being an adjudicator on a Chris Tarrant game show, doing some project work for charities, and undertaking consultancies and writing.
She had her first child in 2009 and it was another two years before she went back to practising law as a part-time, self-employed ‘consultant solicitor’ in Kingsley Napley’s clinical negligence department. ‘It was surprisingly straightforward,’ she says, ‘though I had to do a lot of swotting to get through the interviews as it was a new area to me.’
She was able to go back ‘against the odds’, she says, ‘because I knew someone in the department so could bypass recruiters who may not have passed on my CV, and I was lucky that a role came up. But it was mainly because the department was run by someone who was willing to support part-time roles and give me a chance.’
Last year, she stopped practising to have her second child, while continuing to run Moretolaw. Her long-term plan is to return to clinical negligence, but she feels lucky to have the chance to be with her children while they are small.
Her advice to anyone considering a career break: ‘Enjoy it. Prepare by saving hard while you have a legal salary to give yourself some space and freedom. Use the time away to consider if you wanted a break from law per se or from the working environment or the subject.’
She adds: ‘Keep up with colleagues and contacts, and when you want to come back don’t be shy of suggesting the "consultant solicitor" role. You will be self-employed so there are none of the standard benefits such as holiday pay, but there is less risk for the firm so they may be more willing to give you a chance.’
She landed in the ‘perfect place’ as a tribunal judge in the Social Entitlement Chamber on her first application in 2011. ‘It was a struggle at first but it came back quickly,’ she says. ‘I also know my limitations. I don’t take on more than I can do so I don’t let anyone down.’ She now talks to returners on the AWS course and has nothing but praise for the Judicial Appointments Commission. ‘I never thought anyone would want me back after 14 years away from traditional practice. If they hadn’t been so encouraging and focused on personal qualities and diversity rather than direct experience, I wouldn’t even have applied because my confidence was so low.’
For other practitioners, career breaks have been forced on them by the economic climate. When Alex Harrison-Cripps qualified in 2009 at PwC Legal, there was no job for her. She had seen it coming so had saved and was excited at trying something new. She had worked as a photographer after university in Canada so set up on her own. But she kept up to date with the law by applying for part-time legal jobs, including a short-term in-house contract and clerking for local law firms while working towards her police station accreditation. She also tutored LPC students.
She kept in contact with her former department and, after a year, her boss asked her back. ‘My photography business was just starting to take off, but it was such a great opportunity to go back to law full-time.’ She was worried the break would have harmed her career but she feels it actually benefited her. ‘My skills as a lawyer have improved by having my own business,’ she says. ‘By tutoring I really got to grips with some fundamental areas of law on which to expand my specialist knowledge.’
She also loves having money coming in regularly again. ‘I have a very entrepreneurial role so it’s like having my own business but with a regular salary,’ she says. ‘I now know what colour the grass is. It is sad, but women have to think carefully about their careers if they want a family, and it’s good to have a solid employer behind you.’
Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist