Susan Monty reflects on relaunching her career after time out.

Becoming a partner and head of department at 54 was definitely not part of my career plan, even five years ago.

Tennis lessons, dabbling in garden design, and a part-time job in a small London law firm, which rarely encroached on my ‘real life’ outside of the office, had been my lifestyle since I returned to work after having my family.

I followed the fairly conventional path of the ambitious female lawyer who qualified in the 1980s, when larger City firms were opening their doors to women in increasing numbers. After a few years at magic circle firms as a commercial litigator, specialising in high-value fraud work, I was tripping my way up the career ladder to make partnership: but three babies in four years scuppered those plans, at least temporarily.

Then I discovered that I loved being at home with my children, turning all those hard-earned research and organisational skills into creative activities for little hands.

I thought that I was keeping my career skills up to date, lecturing in law at London University part time and acting as a legal consultant to an internet start-up. Nevertheless, when I contacted my old colleagues in the year my youngest child started primary school, no large firms were interested in someone who wanted to work part time, and had been out of private practice for five years.

That was the first time in my life that I had failed to get the job I wanted, and it battered my confidence. I knew that I was the same person who was being considered for partnership five years earlier, and I was no less intelligent or organised now – maybe a bit out of touch, but that was something that could be easily remedied.  

But none of the (male) partners to whom I spoke would even interview me. The easiest response would have been, as many women do, to walk away from the law as a career.

In fact I applied to the Government Legal Services, and spent a few enjoyable years at the Serious Fraud Office as a prosecuting lawyer, seeing the world of fraud from a different perspective from a defence lawyer in private practice. The transition back to work, by now some seven years after I had left the City, was tough; when I had left the City, we had secretaries, dictating machines, and our own offices – no open-plan spaces, computers, emails or mobile phones!

I then returned to private practice to a boutique fraud firm. The partners I worked with were flexible about working hours, so long as the work was done, and I was prepared to work full time if required, for example, during trials.

Emails and mobile phones were already making working remotely an easier task, and I made sure that I kept up to date on the law and procedure. This worked very well for over 10 years, and I was perfectly happy. My energies and long-term focus were on my family, and my career was intellectually stimulating but not too demanding  – networking, practice accounts, billing targets and bringing in business were not concepts that often troubled my daily life.

However, as John Lennon encapsulated, ‘life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’, and four years ago I walked out of a dead marriage, right in the middle of an economic recession, as my firm began to make redundancies. I survived the cull, and eventually moved to my present, much larger and well-known central London firm with the partner I had been working for.   

It was at that point I realised that if I was to support myself I needed to gear up my career. For some months, the routine of going to work and immersing myself in cases was therapy for me, and I worked very hard. When my partner became unwell, I stepped in and ran his practice for a while, but when my senior partner asked me out for lunch, I presumed it was to thank me. Instead it was to ask me if I wanted to be set up a fraud and regulatory department, and become a partner.

Apart from being flattered, I was terrified. He immediately started talking about profit shares, business plans and team billing targets, all matters which were far removed from my comfortable working world. However, with the support of a helpful accountant friend, and many extra-curricular hours, I produced a business plan and negotiated the right package.

Here is what I learned:

  • Ask for what you want right from the start – if you have been offered partnership its because you have a perceived value to the firm, and you will be in a strong position to negotiate a work/life balance. I negotiated Fridays working from home;
  • Use outside help, both as an objective counterpoint to your own thoughts, and to take a second look at the figures. You will need to see the partnership accounts before you agree anything, since you need to know how the firm is doing. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions; even as a financial crime lawyer used to looking at accounts, it was still a big jump to considering my own firm’s partnership accounts;
  • It helps if you can befriend a partner to ask the questions you don’t want to appear ignorant in asking, and it will also give you some insight into how the partnership operates, the cliques that inevitably exist, and the key personalities;
  • Treat other departments like potential clients. I hadn’t been at my firm very long and didn’t know all members of staff and they didn’t know much about financial crime and regulatory litigation, so I made time to take partners out for coffee, hold informal lunchtime seminars for staff about what I was doing, and produced hand-outs and information sheets;
  • There are a surprisingly large number of useful support services, in particular the Law Society mentoring programme, which provided eight sessions of one-to-one telephone business coaching and practice development for free. I also befriended a wonderful practice development consultant who talked me through many of the marketing possibilities, and most importantly, made me feel that maybe I could actually do this;
  • I presumed I was joining a select group of amazing, brilliant super-lawyers. Some are, but of course, just because one’s colleagues are partners, does into make them more clever, or better people, even though you all have a vested financial interest in working together. Be nice, you are mature enough to deal with other people’s insecurities; and
  • Use your ‘life’ experience to help plan how you want to run your practice – from my SFO experience, my commercial contacts in business and my understanding of the banking crisis in 2008, I knew that the world of financial crime was changing fundamentally. I had a vision of bringing together civil and criminal work within one team, and I have focused on that to become our unique selling point. As a partner, communicating that plan, marketing and bringing in the work is entirely my responsibility – and will be discussed in the second part of this blog.

Susan Monty is a partner at a London firm