How do you revive your legal career after taking a lengthy break? Jonathan Rayner found out at a returner course.
The room is crammed with dormant talent primed to awake. Delegate after delegate talks from the floor of years in practice, some in the City, others in-house, still others in government. But their careers, we hear, are currently ‘paused’, to use a newly popular term, by children and other caring commitments. Or they have followed, often abroad, where their partners’ careers have led. It is a familiar story and there is no apparent bitterness. It has ever been thus, seems the common perception.
On a positive note, few have allowed the grass to grow under their feet. Many have become school governors. One has started a social network for mothers, which so far has 10,000 members. Another, perhaps too modestly, confides that she has become more comfortable ‘talking about vacuum cleaners than drafting contracts’.
But all this is set to change. Years in legal practice plus ‘life experiences’, we are told, are to be the springboard to a revived career. Except it is never quite that simple. Four, six, eight years or more out of the profession and self-confidence can take a hit. How can they compete with younger lawyers who haven’t taken a career break? Those paper files they remember so fondly have been usurped by digital systems.
Social media has hitherto been peripheral to their lives, and yet the profession now embraces it as a miracle marketing tool.
How are they going to cope in this brave new world? Does today’s legal services industry, with its alternative business structures, legal aid deserts and court charges, have a dinosaur-sized gap for them?
Talent and experience
Yes, is the resounding answer to that question, according to a succession of speakers at last month’s returner course – a two-day crash course for solicitors coming back to the profession following a protracted absence. One speaker observes that if the people in the room were to unite as a law firm, ‘we would take over the world’, such is the combined talent and experience of the delegates.
The course, hosted by the Law Society’s Women Lawyers Division, but open to both women and men, sets out not only to boost delegates’ sense of self-worth. It also addresses practical issues around practising certificates, the opportunities available and how to find them, revamping the CV for 2015 and other key challenges.
Former City solicitor Dawn Dixon, now a consultant at Hertfordshire and London property litigation firm PDC Legal, facilitates the first session on CV writing and getting a job.
‘Don’t lie on your CV,’ she warns. ‘If you say you’re passionate about politics, someone like me will inevitably ask you to name five members of the shadow cabinet. Nobody’s going to be impressed when you dry up.’ She has other words of advice. ‘Be a peacock!’ she says. ‘Men never apologise, so why should you? Women agonise over the three out of 10 skill sets required for the job that they can’t honestly meet. Men sometimes can’t meet any of them, but they still go ahead and apply.’
Jane Huttly, who works in-house at Guildford diocese, says a good first step is to ‘start dressing and thinking like a lawyer again’. She attended the returner course some years back and says: ‘It gives you head space. What you do with your life really matters. You should have the confidence to talk to the speakers and leave after two days buoyed up and raring to go. I’ve heard delegates speak and it’s clear that, although they have taken a break from practice, they have not neglected the key qualities that make a good lawyer: resilience, organisation, multi-tasking, willingness to learn, soft people skills.’
Employment and immigration partner at London firm RadcliffesLeBrasseur, Lara Keenan, is emphatic. ‘Don’t under-sell yourself,’ she says, ‘which is what most of you do. Nobody can know it all so don’t worry if you think you have forgotten it all. You can always look it up in a law book, which is what we have always done. Once you’re back in practice, tell the client that he’s asked a really interesting question – there’s no harm flattering him – and then say you believe there’s been a recent development and you’ll get back to him soon.’
Keenan lists some of the CV errors that cause applicants to be rejected without an interview. ‘Just one spelling mistake means you’re straight in the “no” pile,’ she says. ‘I’m quite ruthless. Use the full name of the firm, or it’s the no pile. Avoid waffle, flowery language and management-speak. Be knowledgeable about the firm. You’re trying to convince us that you want to spend years of your life working for the firm. Convince us by telling us what’s so good about us.’ She ends on a cautionary note: ‘If you tell us you like reading, make sure you can at least remember the last book you read.’
Alexandra Marks, former partner at magic circle firm Linklaters and now a recorder, deputy high court judge and solicitor commissioner at the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC), reminds delegates that solicitors have been eligible for the bench since 1971 and yet are still under-represented. ‘Perhaps it’s because solicitors, unlike barristers who periodically lose in court, are not accustomed to exposing themselves to failure,’ she suggests. ‘It could be the first time in years someone has rejected them and so they give up after just one try. They should seek feedback as to why they were turned down and keep on applying. There’s lots of help on the JAC website.’
National corporate firm Addleshaw Goddard and niche employment firm Doyle Clayton both announce that they are offering 2016 work placements for returning solicitors who are attending the course. The placements, which last two weeks full-time or three weeks part-time, are designed to help returners re-enter the corporate world, while building a network and developing skills and self-confidence.
One of Addleshaw’s 2015 work placements comments: ‘[The placement] allowed me to realise that returning to work was not a mountain to climb, but a small bump in a long road.’
Nusrat Qureishi tells delegates what she learned during her journey from the 2013 returner course to her current solicitor role at Brighton firm Woolley Bevis Diplock. ‘Have high expectations of yourself and never accept the mediocre,’ she says. ‘Use your existing network of phone and social media contacts. Make sure your CV is honest and factual, and no more than two pages. Try approaching firms directly.
London firm RadcliffesLeBrasseur partner Susanna Heley, in the first session of Saturday morning, outlines the regulatory requirements for returning to the profession as a solicitor. For restoration to the Roll, these include disclosure of criminal convictions, financial problems, and dishonest or violent behaviour.
‘Failure to disclose,’ says Heley, ‘will be treated as prima facie evidence of dishonesty.’ Solicitors will also require a practising certificate, she adds, and must uphold the SRA’s 10 principles, which include acting with integrity and in the best interests of clients, maintaining the public’s trust in the provision of legal services, and practising in a way that encourages and respects equality and diversity.
The Gazette attends one last session on the Saturday morning, which addresses the various career options available to solicitors.
In-house lawyer Olivia Broderick, who is head of legal, regulated lending and mortgages at Barclays bank, says she has a lot of autonomy in her job, which is ‘fast-paced and always with a buzz’. She adds: ‘So long as the work gets done, it’s incredibly flexible. I have never missed a nativity play or teacher meeting.’
Helen Grimbleby, now a solicitor at Oxford firm Family First, set up and runs a charity for victims of domestic abuse. Despite attending a returner course, her struggle to find a part-time position was a long one. ‘It got to shit-or-bust time and so I took a chance and sent in my CV in photo album format,’ she says. ‘I got a job three days a week.’ She volunteers this tip: ‘Be true to yourself. Roll with the punches and keep going.’
Law Society council member and local government lawyer Maria Memoli says that her work is both varied and challenging. ‘My very first case was against multi-million-pound Coca-Cola Schweppes,’ she tells delegates. ‘Other times, we are like a piece of elastic being stretched this way and that by politicians.’ She adds that there are around 4,000 solicitors and trainees in local government. Agile working is encouraged, with solicitors often having to work one day a week from home.
Government Legal Service (GLS) solicitors Bridget Palmer and Claire Short enjoy the ‘hugely varied’ nature of their work and the fact that every three years they are moved to a new specialism. ‘You can be one of the country’s leading experts on discrimination,’ says Palmer, ‘but still find yourself moved on to company law.’ A recurring theme, perhaps, but both solicitors draw attention to the GLS’s culture of flexible working, incorporating job sharing, compressed hours and working from home.
Tony Roe founded his own practice when, upon his old firm closing down its family department in 2008, ‘the bottom fell out of (his) world’. He had never intended to start his own firm – ‘I’m the last person anyone in their right mind would expect to go solo’ – but the gamble paid off, he says.
‘I started with a kitchen table and now have three solicitors working with me. The secret is to surround yourself with a cabal of sages. You can’t expect to be an expert on IT, accounting, regulation and the rest,’ Roe advises.
Know your worth
Rachael Williams, a former returner delegate, talks about her adjudicator role with the Financial Ombudsman Service.
‘I have a background in criminal law,’ she says, ‘so have naturally gravitated towards Proceeds of Crime Act work, as well as fraud and scams. The role suits lawyers because it is evidence-based.’
She concludes with words of caution: ‘I undersold myself. With my qualifications, I should have gone in at ombudsman level rather than adjudicator. Listen to what this weekend’s speakers say: “don’t under-value yourself”.’
Solicitors returning to the profession have two matters that the SRA wants them to consider; their regulatory obligations and the competence obligations.
Those who have not worked as a solicitor since before October 2011, for example, will not be familiar with the current Code of Conduct and its risk-based approach to regulation. If the returner wants to come back to a manager’s position, there will also be a whole host of changes in the various practising requirements with which they will need to familiarise themselves.
Insurance requirements and authorisation requirements have undergone significant change in recent years, while the compliance officer regime was only introduced in 2013. Anyone who wants to be a manager must have been ‘a lawyer, and have been entitled to practise as a lawyer for at least 36 months within the last ten years’, according to the SRA Practice Framework Rules 2011 (12.2).
A number of organisations provide refresher training so that solicitors can get themselves up to speed on regulatory requirements. The National Association of Women Solicitors, for example, runs courses for members returning to work following maternity and childcare leave.
In terms of competence, solicitors have new standards that they must achieve and maintain. The Competence Statement, which came into effect on 1 April 2015, sets these standards for those looking to enter the profession and for those practising. It backs up all solicitors’ obligation under Principle 5 to ‘provide a proper standard of service to your clients’.
This new approach replaces the old system of earning sufficient CPD points through attendance at approved courses. Now, everything a solicitor does to expand their knowledge base or skills can be included as development as long as it is relevant to their role. This means that researching a case counts towards competence, when previously it did not. It also means that there is no unplanned taking of accredited courses that did not teach solicitors skills with any relevance to their work.
Solicitors will need to make annual declarations about how they have reflected, identified and addressed their learning developments. However, competence is something that should be maintained all-year round, so those returning to the profession need to ensure their skills and knowledge are at the required levels straight away.
Those returning to work do not need to make a declaration about their learning when applying for their practising certificate.
Source: The SRA