When you return to work after leaving law practice for any length of time, you need to prepare for a successful transition. You can jump right back in, like cannon-balling into a swimming pool full of icy water. But you might be wiser to dip your toe in first—and ease into it—getting used to the temperature gradually. This part of your career transition requires care and planning as much as the reentry job search itself.
While exploring your options, volunteering, temporary assignments, project work, or part-time schedules are effective ways to slowly re-enter the working world, update your skills, and network with people who might help you in your job search. Taking temporary or less than full-time positions in a variety of environments and in a range of capacities allows you to get acclimated without making a major commitment, and sample the climate before making a long-term decision. These common re-entry strategies get your foot in the door and can lead to full-time employment.
Sign up with project attorney placement firms or, if you know you want to work for specific employers, approach them directly with a proposal to work as a short term independent contractor. Seek fill-in work, covering maternity leaves or working on discrete projects. If an employer is uncertain of its staffing needs, a re-entry lawyer’s schedule can expand or contract along with business demands. Allowing a potential employer to get to know you and see your work on a low-risk basis may increase their comfort in adding you to their regular team as a returning lawyer.
Another option for reentry lawyers who want to join corporate America is a “returnship.” Goldman Sachs copyrighted the term in 2008 to describe short term non-binding arrangements, modeled on existing internship programs, for hiring people returning from hiatus. Other major corporations, such as Credit Suisse, followed suit. You could contact potential in-house employers with established internship programs and propose a returnship.
On the law firm side, Skadden developed one of the first formal returnship programs, Sidebar, in 2006. The initiative allows lawyers to leave the firm temporarily with the expectation that they can return at any time within three years. During the transition period, Sidebar lawyers stay connected to the firm through departmental lunches, social events, and continuing education programs. While most participants leave to manage child care or elder care responsibilities, the program is open to anyone.
Similarly, the OnRamp Fellowship is a re-entry platform that matches experienced lawyers returning to the workforce with top organizations for six month and one-year paid positions. This program gives returning lawyers an opportunity to demonstrate their value in the marketplace while building their experience, skills, and contacts. OnRamp launched with four law firms in the U.S. in January 2014 and, by late 2016, included more than 30 top law firms and legal departments in the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom.
Before you accept any offer of employment, it’s critical to know what you want. Negotiate what you need in terms of flexibility, training and development, and career path. Be clear about which department you want to join, at what level you think you should return, and what your expectations are for salary and schedule. Understand the business needs of the prospective employer and convey why it’s in their financial interest to hire you. Make a business case for the flexibility you need. Hiring you as a reentry lawyer should benefit the employer as well as meet your needs.
Think long term. Instead of holding out for the dream job, you might take a lower ranked position with fewer hours or less pay than ideally desired, but with the opportunity to work your way up. When you’ve proven your value to the employer, you’ll have a better shot at reaching your goal. Obviously, you want to negotiate for as much of what you want as possible at the outset. But even if the initial opportunity isn’t exactly ideal, consider how you can use it as a stepping stone to something better while building your current work history.
Once you’re back in law practice, be prepared for potential biases on the part of your superiors and colleagues. A lawyer who removed his or her nose from the grindstone for any period of time is suspect; thus, you may be seen as a dilettante, or not committed, focused, or ambitious. Look for resistance in your interactions, assignments, and feedback to your work. Take charge of your progress, making sure you get exposure to a challenging range of work, a variety of people, and business development and career advancement opportunities.
Furthermore, as a comeback lawyer looking to reintegrate into the social structure of the firm and acquire mentors and sponsors, you also must deal with the mismatch of age and rank: you're older than most of your fellow associates while your contemporaries are your bosses. Your colleagues may view you as someone who doesn’t really fit into any category because you’re not a typical lateral hire; neither are you a junior intern. You’re something in between, so remember your position in the pecking order, be humble, and have a sense of humor. Recognize that you may need to prove yourself and establish your reputation with superiors, equals, and those lower on the totem pole. Help your colleagues whenever possible, so they’ll reciprocate when you need them—such as when you need a heads-up regarding the unwritten rules of the organization.
After you’ve been away from the practice of law for an extended period, especially if you’ve taken time off to be a stay-at-home parent or caregiver for a sick family member, transitioning to a full-time job outside the home can be jarring for both you and your family. During your hiatus, responsibility for many household chores likely fell on your shoulders. You need to create a plan for handling these duties so you can focus on your career. Organize your home life, look for back-up caretakers, and build a schedule that allows you to balance full-time work with your personal life and eliminate distractions. The process is much easier if you seek support from friends and family.
Regardless of the reason for your hiatus, you must get back in the habit of being at a certain place at a certain time, and working with other people and at someone else's pace again. As a step in that direction, before taking on a new law job, you might want to start by volunteering outside the profession, perhaps at a school, charity, or community organization. You may need to reset your body’s rhythm by reintroducing the discipline of setting an alarm clock and getting up at the same time every day. Well in advance of starting your new job, establish and practice your work schedule including your getting-ready-for-work routine, commute, exercise, mealtimes, and bedtimes.
The urge may be to dive right in, but expect a transition period before you are back at your full work pace. Of course, you should go into your new position with your best foot forward but it’s wisest to take it one step at a time.