Having taken a three-year career break to be with my small children, two events happened in short order which made me determined to return to work.
First, judgment was handed down by Baroness Hale in Miller v The Prime Minister, a claim brought by my old firm which found Boris Johnson had unlawfully prorogued parliament. This left me equal parts proud of my old team and frustrated with myself for walking away from playing a small part in a historical case. The realisation hit that I had left too easily a career I had enjoyed and found rewarding. Secondly, my son made a throwaway comment about mummies not working. This hit hard, as I’d always wanted to raise my daughter to reach for the stars and my sons to just expect women to be inhabiting every career echelon that they might. I felt driven to get back to work.
Where do you start when you’ve been out for several years? I felt like I had every option in front of me (employee, sole practitioner, freelance!) and at the same time, no option at all (old contacts, no clients, rusty knowledge!). I reached out to former colleagues and friends and benefitted from some great recruitment leads and career advice, but I was struggling to find anything that accommodated the way I wanted to work, which was to gainfully use all the hours that my now school- and pre-school age children were out of the house.
While I researched family-friendly employers, I also took steps to update my knowledge. A day-long conference was advertised, which I had attended many times before, when I had been in practice. Conscious that large-scale conferences make for productive networking as well as learning opportunities, I wrote to the organisers, asking if I might be able to attend as a practitioner preparing to imminently return to work, and if it would be possible to pay a concessionary price as I was not working. No reply. Tickets went out to other delegates, I enquired again, but no luck. It felt very chicken-and-egg; unable to upskill without being from a recognised firm, but unable to find a fit in such a firm without meeting and speaking to those lawyers.
I continued about my daily routine, meeting a staggering number of interesting, capable women at baby classes who had left great jobs to have a family and were now shut out of the workplace for want of a little flexibility. And then the pandemic hit, and lockdown restrictions made home-working a normality. Law firms adapted, delivering outstanding client service differently; running seminars remotely; even sending out Friday drinks in the post to share online. Firms who had not previously adopted flexible working now lived it with gusto; responsible employees were being trusted and targets being decisively met.
This experience presents a real opportunity for the future, for women to re-engage where they left off in their careers in working patterns sustainable for them, without compromising on quality of work or seniority. I would love to think that more employers may consider remote working so unremarkable that they can bring some of those resilient, adaptable women into their teams, that conference organisers might offer a returner a step-up and that some of the most time-saving switches which level the playing field, such as BD and training online, stay with us for the future.
In the end, a casual tweak to my LinkedIn settings changed everything for me. A former colleague, now a partner of a firm working in my preferred area (media litigation and reputation protection) noticed that I had updated my profile to invite career opportunities. She offered me a position to work for the firm in the flexible way I had sought. I love being back at work, applying my brain and relishing the chance to do exciting and important work again.
As we tentatively emerge from restrictions, I feel excited to be only at the beginning of my work-from-home normality. Fully up-to-date legally, with many interesting client matters on the go and having given my first seminar to 70 delegates over the medium of Zoom, it’s office life, but not as I knew it!
Natalie McEvoy, counsel at Slateford