You've taken time out to have children. How do you ensure that you can be a success upon returning to the law?
After returning to work from raising three children, I needed to decide how I would run my department and manage my practice. It was (and remains) hugely exciting to be in charge of one’s practice and to be able to plan how it might develop.
A marketing budget is the starting point. Some firms have in-house marketing; we do not, and are expected to market ourselves. That was a big learning curve, particularly with a new department and no reputation. I shamelessly namedropped one of our senior ex-partners who also made some useful introductions, and from there I attended conferences both in UK and abroad, wrote articles, and eventually, spoke at conferences and seminars.
I became involved in my local specialist lawyer groups, and within a year I began to recognise faces and see the same people at events, from where I progressed to setting up coffee meetings and lunches. It is relentless hard work (and we are all competing with each other), but there are a few pointers:
1. ‘Networking’ is just consultancy-speak for chatting! It really is just an extension of chatting to the people one meets in daily life, but with a bit more boasting involved. Use your age as a positive factor, and think of it as experience and gravitas – many people I meet at conferences are younger than me (several are around the age of my daughter) and they are just not scary. And the older men are usually happy to have a chat with an older woman who understands where they are coming from - I was recently at a seminar where the tutor was hugely excited to be going to a Billy Joel concert that weekend - I was the only person in the room who knew who Billy Joel was, so we had an instant rapport.
2. You never know where the work will come from, so never stop working. Fraudsters don’t tend to bring repeat business, so the main source of my work is fellow professionals who are conflicted or have clients who get into trouble. I see every social interaction as a potential business opportunity, whether at a dinner party, sports club or my synagogue. Most of my friends (school, university) whom I’ve known forever are now at the very peak of their careers, and include equity partners in large law and accountancy firms, bank compliance officers and CEOs of (potential client) companies. Further, many of the men who have been doing the same job for many years are jaded and lack drive, whilst we newbies are full of enthusiasm and energy, and it does get results.
3. Make sure your LinkedIn in profile is strong and keep it up-to-date. Together with your firm’s website, it’s the first port of call of anyone hearing your name and wanting to know more. I diarise every month to review both. Being active in LinkedIn in networking groups gets your name known, and you can always follow up individual contacts.
4. Work at getting into the professional directories; the applications are time consuming and demanding if you are a new partner, but a listing definitely brings in work, since it is a sign of peer approval.
5. Speaking and writing articles is crucial if you want to build your profile, even if it’s just a paragraph on the firm’s website every month. It will improve your confidence and also ensure you keep really up-to-date as to practice developments. If you read an article in your research that is helpful, write to the author (particularly if they are senior in your field) and tell them how useful it was, and you can start a conversation which may lead to a coffee, even if it was someone you might not have previously had the confidence or opportunity to approach. It also impresses potential clients if you can send them a relevant article you have written, since they assume that you are an authority.
6. Make sure you are seen on whatever your speciality’s conference circuit is. I was dismissive at first, but it really is a great way to meet people and make contacts. Getting to speak is more difficult, unless your firm has the budget for sponsorship, which is usually a prerequisite unless you are a big name. However, be alert for opportunities: at an international conference I attended last year, a panellist whom I knew had to return home suddenly, and asked if I would step in for him the next day. He had no notes, so I spent the eve of the gala opening dinner in the hotel’s internet room preparing a lecture which I delivered the next morning. On the back of that one appearance I was asked to write a long article for a prestigious law resource online, and I was instructed on a major foreign case. Luck plays a part too.
7. Dressing up, good make-up and heels makes you feel better on those days when you still feel like a woman in a man’s world: recently I was at a mediation with some 40 lawyers (there were seven parties involved) from City firms, and I was the only senior woman. The men gave testosterone-heavy presentations on the merits of their case and the deficiencies of the opponent, but I instinctively took a different approach and spoke about conflict resolution and finding points of consensus as a starting point – it carried the day.
8. The very hardest thing? Everyone is happy to go out for coffee, but it doesn’t mean they will remember your face a year later. Keeping up the contacts without appearing to be pushy is actually the hardest part when you haven’t had 20 years of peer experience behind you.
Women returning to a late-blossoming career have life wisdom, leadership skills and confidence that partly compensate for the missed years in practice. There will be good months and not such good ones, but self-belief and hard work go a long way to accomplishing so much – I never say no to a writing or speaking engagement, or any client facing opportunity.
I’m fortunate that my children are largely self-sufficient, my elderly mother is still independent (although helping her is the reason I work from home on Fridays), and I can spend Sundays and evenings working if required. It plays havoc with social opportunities, and most men are not remotely interested in meeting someone at this age who is so career-driven, but maybe lawyer dating is the subject of another blog.
- Need help returning to work? This Law Society course aims to help lawyers after a career break
Susan Monty is a partner at Seddons