Opportunities opening up for “long neglected” returners to the law

Denis-Smith: Profession needs to think differently about roles

The legal profession’s growing appetite for hiring career returners is opening up a wealth of opportunities for a talented group of lawyers who have “long been neglected”.

But Dana Denis-Smith said firms needed to think more creatively to attract returners, many of whom identify a lack of flexible working opportunities as one of the main barriers to getting back into work.

Ms Denis-Smith is chief executive of flexible resource provider Obelisk Support, founder of the Next 100 Years project and one of the members of the Law Society council representing women.

She told attendees at a training programme for lawyers who have taken career breaks that it was only now “that the rest of the profession is embracing the idea of hiring returners on a large scale” while at the same time government policy was encouraging people to come back into the workplace amid concerns about labour shortages.

The four-day online programme, supported by the Law Society and the Society for Computers and Law, was attended by 70 lawyers and paralegals, men and women who had taken career breaks for a variety of reasons, almost half for over five years.

They heard from speakers who discussed the importance of valuing people for their experiences, both in and outside the law, those whose career journeys were not linear but who were well-rounded, pragmatic, and brought something different to the organisations they worked for.

Research by Obelisk found that, in addition to a lack of flexible working, top barriers cited by returners were a lack of confidence (58%) and gaps in knowledge relating to recent legal developments (53%).

Only 19% agreed that employers were open to applications from returners, with 42% believing they were not.

Ms Denis-Smith warned that there was still a lot of work to be done by employers if they wanted to make the most of the talent and skills of returners, with many wanting a flexible career they could balance alongside caring responsibilities.

“Many of the lawyers taking career breaks don’t want to step away from their careers 100%; they do want to continue in some way and we need to be able to design jobs and opportunities in ways that keeps talent engaged, keeps skills up-to-date without pushing them out of balance with what their life requires.

“The profession needs to think differently about roles. Does it need to be five days a week, nine to five? Does it need to be undertaken by just one person? Can we rethink the design of jobs in a way that pushes boundaries?”

She spoke of the many employers’ keen for “good talent to return, to succeed” and the wealth of options available, in private practice, in-house and at alternative legal services providers, telling the audience of returners that for those with an open mind “the world is your oyster”.

The training programme – the Legal Returners’ Springboard – was open to anyone who has taken a break from their legal career for two years or more and has an interest in working in commercial law, either in-house or in private practice.

Returners were invited to spend a total of up to 20 hours with the programme across four days, with sessions taking place only during school hours.

Obelisk, which has been working with returners for over a decade, said they made up 15% of its placements last year and was providing ongoing support to participants, including CV reviews and career advice.

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