Women in Law

Returning to work after a career break is tough. If you’re struggling to find a way back, don’t give up hope. Though it may seem like there are many obstacles in your path, there are practical steps you can take to regain your confidence and find work that works for you. That’s the message that Lisa Unwin and Deb Khan want to give women with their new book, She’s Back. Lisa  set up her consultancy of the same name as she was tired of hearing similar stories from women struggling to return to work, and decided to channel her energy to provide tactics and strategies to help them. Simultaneously straight talking and empathetic, we guarantee you will walk away from reading our interview with Lisa feeling fired up and ready to take back control of your career…

Tell us about your own experience of returning to work, and how that led you to where you are now and writing the book?

“I had what I thought was a successful career. I had started out with Arthur Andersen in 1988. As the firm collapsed in 2001 after the Enron scandal, I moved across to Deloitte who backed the firm in the UK. I was director of brand and communication there, until the wheels came off. Our nanny handed in her notice just as our children were starting school. I quite suddenly found myself struggling to work out how I was going to manage bringing up my children and managing a demanding career, and decided to take a career break. There I was a few years later wondering what happened. I had 20 years of experience behind me, and no future plan. I looked around at the school gates and saw so many people in this situation: accounts lawyers, management consultants, all trying to get back to work. That led to setting up a consultancy – there wasn’t a business model or anything to begin with but I started out by getting sponsored by organisations to do some research to prove that this was a real issue, and began looking at ways we could help them. To put a spotlight on the issue I was doing lots of writing and getting people involved in the community, and with my business partner Deb decided to write a book, which came out this year and has been well received.”

What are the most common things you hear from women who have taken a career break?

“That they are leaving because of a lack of ability to balance young children and career. Couples are making decisions about whose career will take back seat in the months and years to come, but there is no long term plan for how to get back, so when the children get older and the time comes for the person to return to work – and it is still primarily the woman – they have no idea how to get back. I can’t claim to be an expert on gender roles generally, I can only talk about what we see in the circles we work with, but professional women tend to pair with professional men, and statistically marry older men, so in general when children come along it is the woman expected to take the hit and very few see it any other way.

The other most common thing I hear when women approach me is : ‘Can you help me, I am a mum with two children, looking for flexible work?’ Being a mum doesn’t differentiate you; and you are already defining yourself as a problem by leading with what you need to work around. It’s only after you hear this that you find out they have 20 years legal experience in the City! We need to change the approach.”

So, is there an issue with the way women perceive themselves when taking a career break?

“Yes, and I say that with complete understanding of how hard it is and the difficulties that we face – we are emotional after becoming parents, and so many people live far away from family support networks nowadays, it is very hard. I say women don’t help themselves because I did and said the same things myself! I started by thinking ‘ok I need something that will work around the school run’, so I was looking on flexible working websites. But only 11% of quality professional jobs are being advertised as flexible positions – employers often will be open to flexibility in discussions but they won’t lead an advert with it, so nor should you. Tell people you were 20 years working with big four firms and you’re looking for new opportunities to apply legal skills to – that is the difference. You are 5 times more likely to find work through introductions in your network than through recruiters, but they need to have something to tell that person other than ‘she needs to work flexibly!’

We often don’t acknowledge how vulnerable and lacking confidence we can become once we have children. We can start to remember differently how our work lives went and think we only got there by luck. You starting losing touch with that driven, confident side of you, because as a mum you don’t get told you’re doing a good job – you can do everything right but you will never know because you don’t have a performance review as a parent!”

Are there other things at play when it comes to a loss of confidence in your career?

“Ageism is a big thing, and again we have to fight against external and internalised attitudes. Employers and individuals need to stop seeing post-40 years as being past peak or entering final stages of our career – we still have 20 years of work ahead of us! I have done so much more in my 40s and 50s  professionally and personally than I ever did – or indeed ever could have – in my 20s and 30s, so don’t buy into the narrative that it is too late.”

What practical steps do you talk about in the book to help people prepare for and come back from a career break?

“First, everything is so much easier if you have kept in touch with your industry and colleagues  – if you haven’t it is much easier now to seek them out and reach out again – gone are the days of the gatekeeper PA and trying to book an appointment to meet senior people. Being on LinkedIn is essential as that is where all jobs and connections are. People are really willing to offer advice and take time to meet you if you reach out to them, especially those that know what you are good at. You need to have those conversations to bring the other side of you back out.

Take part as much as you can while you are out of the workplace – networking events, online webinars, parent meetings, whatever will put you in touch with the right people – it’s all in your hands to open the door and get out there.

Don’t feel it is insurmountable, remember that there are other ways to work and find paid employment – taking on freelance projects or by joining organisations like Obelisk – every little bit helps to add to your CV, keep your skills up to date, and keep in touch with peers. All this will make it easier to step up when you are ready.

And don’t put your head in the sand when it comes to finances, plan for your financial future!”

A big concern! How do you encourage women to think long term about their career and financial position?

“Again, it’s up to us. We can’t just leave it to legislation and employers – only 2% men took up shared parental leave last year, we still have a culture where men fear their career will be harmed if they do, and that will take a long time to change.

Women need to view work like a game of chess, and play the long game. We often look at cost of childcare for the first year or so and decide it is not worth it, but we should be thinking about what happens in 8 to ten years’ time. If you decide to step back completely, after 5 years childcare costs go down but your market value has gone down even more. Short term sacrifices are worthwhile if you want to continue your career so take the initial financial hit if you can, take a part time role, pass up a project or promotion if it helps you keep your foot in the door.”

One thing that we commonly see women returning to work find difficult is how to present themselves on their CV. What advice would you give?

“It’s important to see your CV or LinkedIn profile as a marketing tool. Employers spend on average just 8 SECONDS scanning a CV for suitability so your opening paragraph must be compelling – again don’t lead with what you want, lead with what you have to offer. Another thing people don’t often realise is that recruiters use software to scan for keywords in CVs first, so make sure you are hitting all the points from the job description.

When it comes to addresses your career break, don’t jump through hoops trying to justify it with irrelevant information about being part of the PTA and so on, as it comes across defensive. Appear confident about it! Just write ‘Planned Career Break’ and the length of time. Keep the most relevant information at the top with an experience or skills summary – don’t bury the good stuff on page 2, even if it did all happen 20 years ago. Finally if you have had lots of similar part time or short contract roles list them together and summarise details in one paragraph rather than listing bullets for each to keep things more concise.”

How should lawyers seek to update their skills to become more employable in technologically fast changing market?

“As a lawyer, you will know plenty of other lawyers, so talk to them to find out what you don’t know and what gaps you need to fill. It’s so much easier now than it used to be to keep up with technology and learn independently. There are many free resources on the internet, so search for YouTube tutorials and online courses. Most technology being used today is intuitive and designed to be user friendly, so it is often a case of simply using and learning as you go – just take the time to do it. Get to grips with social media management tools such as Hootsuite to make it easier to post regularly to market yourself.”

Lisa also agrees that being part of platforms like Obelisk Support is beneficial as they provide help keeping skills up to date, such as our recent LexisPSL introductory webinar, and regular events focusing on current developments in the industry.

Final thoughts

The bottom line as Lisa states is, no one will do it for you. There is support out and information there if you reach out and look for it. Your career and success before you took a break came about because of you and the work you put in – you are still the key to your own success.

Lisa and Deb don’t just tell you all the things you need to hear in She’s Back – the book also contains useful exercises that you can carry out to help you on your way. Lisa recommends that you find a friend to do them with you, so you can challenge one another and stay motivated. She’s Back is shortlisted for CMI’s Management Book of the Year 2019 and can be purchased on Amazon. You can find out more about their work on www.shesback.co.uk

Making Work, Work

In an increasingly connected world, why are we hearing that people feel increasingly more alone? Whether in the office, at home with the baby, or working remotely, more people are experiencing feelings of loneliness. As the majority of our lawyers at Obelisk work flexibly, many remotely, we look at some of the data and causes, and how we can tackle this creeping sense of isolation.

Working Life and Loneliness

Our modern working culture has changed the way we socialise – spending the majority of our time in the office, often commuting far from our local area, means our social life often revolves around colleagues and peers who have a similar working day to socialise around. We move to where the work and schools are, rather than stay within the communities our families once grew up through generations in, so we are less likely to form a bond with our neighbours.

So, once our lives change and we suddenly find ourselves outside of the work circle, through maternity leave, a career break or a change to remote flexible working, we can start to feel isolated.

New parents are understandably one of the most susceptible groups to feelings of loneliness – 80% of mothers surveyed by Mush admitted as much.  Much like retirees, the sudden displacement from work routine and social life can leave them feeling they are removed from their usual support circle.

It’s not just those who choose to stop working for an extended period. Both office and remote workers are experiencing similar level of loneliness. Buffer’s 2018 State of Remote Work found 21% of remote workers see loneliness as their biggest struggle.

Office workers also struggle. Though they might meet and speak with dozens of people a day through their profession, time pressures and work culture may mean they aren’t able to form a personal bond with many people they work with. A long-hours culture – working through break times, skipping the after work socialising due to having to catch a train to make it home for the kid’s bedtime – reduces the opportunities to connect with colleagues and associates.

A Growing Concern

This all shows that loneliness is not confined to certain groups; both workplace and general loneliness are a growing condition of our existence.

Life is increasingly busy both at work and at home – a recent report found that the amount of unpaid household tasks we are doing in the UK has increased by 80% since 2005. We get so bogged down with things we must do, we lose appreciation of the simple pleasure of having nothing in our schedule, and using that time to reconnect with others.

Loneliness is having a profoundly negative effect on our wellbeing and how we work. A Gallup study, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, found 30% of respondents with a ‘best friend’ at work were 7 times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. Loneliness can affect our ability to self-regulate, and impact on physical aspects of our wellbeing including blood pressure, the immune system and cognitive ability.

The Paradox of Social Technology

Social media and communication apps that are meant to bring people closer are perhaps encouraging complacency. We have all the ways and means in the world to send a quick message and see people’s public updates, but this means we don’t think to stop and check in properly on how someone’s life is going behind the scenes. We see others sharing photos of group holidays and work events, and it seems like we are even more alone with our lonely feelings.

Of course, we should know deep down what we see isn’t the whole truth.  In a world of keeping up appearances, no one wants to admit they are feeling lonely, for fear of coming across vulnerable – we are fine; we are living the dream of doing what we want when we want! Thanks to pluralistic ignorance, no one wants to admit they are struggling because they believe they are the only ones feeling that way, and so the cycle continues.

How to Combat Feelings of Loneliness

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others

As hard as it may be, try to resist comparing yourself to the outside view of other people. Choose to follow more warts-and-all social media accounts that aren’t afraid to show vulnerability and the other side of the picture. This will help when sharing feelings of your own to others, as it serves to prove that there are many people out there in the same boat.

  1. Do some good in your community

Positive action, even if you’re starting out alone, will soon attract other likeminded people. Find a local community club, cause or online group for something you are passionate about. Not only will you be contributing something worthwhile, it will boost your own confidence and help you get outside of your own head for a while.

  1. Take time to say ‘hello’

Not every conversation has to be deep and personal to give you a little boost for the day. Slow down and take the time to talk to people you may see regularly but never interact with for more than a couple of seconds. Be it in a park, at the shop, or on public transport, the longer you sit or stay somewhere, you’ll be surprised at how many friendly conversations can take place – yes, even in London!

Advice for New Parents

Join local online communities – It’s hard to get out and about with a new baby, and there’s very little time or energy to put into much else, so you may need to find other ways to combat loneliness. Local online support groups and parenting forums can go a long way to help.

Be neighbourly – If you live near other houses, try to get to know some neighbours. Stay at home mothers, retirees, self-employed people who may be home in the daytime can be a huge help and provide a range of different insights and experiences.

Advice for Remote Workers

Make more phone calls – It’s all too easy to send a message when time poor, and especially so when you’re finding it hard to pick up the phone due to feeling vulnerable. Taking that first deep breath and talking to people on a regular basis really does work wonders. A message about one thing starts and ends on that subject alone, whereas with a conversation, you never know where it might lead, making the interaction altogether more stimulating and valuable.

Schedule the time – If you are not good at keeping in touch, put contacting and meeting people into your diary as you would with work deadlines and conference calls.

Choose clients carefully as a freelancer – If you can, try to choose to work with teams who value communication and human connection, and understand the challenges of remote working and the need to be connected to the organisation on a deeper level.

Advice for Office Workers

Ask others how they are feeling – The chances are that you are not the only one feeling this way, so look out for other people too. Ask them how they are doing, how they are getting on with their current caseload or particular clients. We all need an opportunity to vent at work from time to time and (as long as it’s kept professional!) can help us bond with colleagues.

Address the office culture – Feelings of isolation are likely to be due to something wrong with the organisational culture. There may be a lack of investment in social events and team cohesion, so focus on addressing the problem by suggesting events and activities that encourage better collaboration and interaction with colleagues.

At Obelisk Support we all have had experience of feeling isolated in our working lives. With a flexible core team and network of remote consultants we work tirelessly to keep in touch, organise events and create a culture that helps individuals feel continually supported and cared for. If you have any thoughts on tackling loneliness as a consultant or lawyer on a career break, we want to hear from you.

Women in Law

Obelisk Support consultant Alisha McKerron Heese provides some advice to women returners on coming back to the law after a career break, from her attendance at CMS’s two-week programme for women returning to work – the first programme of this kind to be organised by a UK law firm .

Coming back into the fold after a career break is by no means an easy thing to do. As women returners, often the barriers we face come not from the gap on our CV, but how we approach it in our own minds. The biggest obstacles we encounter in returning to work are, in fact, those that we create for ourselves by not putting ourselves forward correctly.

Putting yourself forward after a career break requires considerable time and effort – more than you might think. It requires careful consideration of paperwork, including your CV, cover letter and online presence, and putting yourself across in the right way when networking and interviewing.  Allocating a mere half hour to the task is unlikely to yield good results.

1. Start With Your CV

Your CV needs to evolve beyond just a list of employers and experience, particularly when you have a career break to incorporate. Begin with a neat profile about what services you offer, and what you are looking for, so that potential clients can identify themselves as potential clients. Your summary lets you speak directly to your potential clients, and should be used to tell them why you’re their best choice. This should not be more than two or three lines.

Next, note down your previous work experience and education. Don’t just list the names of companies you worked for – it’s important to highlight your specific involvement in the companies, as well as the outcome of your work (example sentence: “Acme Corp: involved in X task, helped Y team complete merger Z”). This paints a more complete picture of your skills. Don’t be despondent that your work experience has dated: as a returner, it’s more about demonstrating the skills you have acquired than demonstrating being up to date. Spend some time thinking about the past – be sure to include anything relevant, no matter how many years ago it was.

Don’t try to hide your career break. Do disclose the length of your career break, but ‘sandwich it’ between past experience and what you are doing at the moment, e.g. any unpaid work that demonstrates recent skills acquired. Skills are transferable, which is why it’s so important to highlight them.

2. Consider Your Online Presence

LinkedIn is an ideal place to establish your online presence as a lawyer, as it is where head-hunters will look for candidates. For work use, other social networks such as Twitter or Facebook are not as vital, though you might see a use for them if you wish to establish a blog or a presence as a public commentator. Take the time to research how to use LinkedIn effectively so your profile really stands out from the crowd.

3. Network Effectively

Networking is less about trying to impress people, and more about gathering information in order to maximise the possibility of a win-win collaboration. It’s less about being interesting and more about being interested. It’s an opportunity to ask questions, to listen, to learn and to make a connection with someone.

Treat networking as an adventure and you may find that it is more pleasant than you might think. While you should not steer the conversation towards yourself, be ready with a synopsis of what you have to offer if asked. Don’t stress about having to talk to everyone – forming a closer connection to a few people can be as beneficial as talking to many. If you do want to talk to others, however, don’t be afraid to leave one person to talk to another. As long as you give a reason for doing so, and don’t leave the person on their own, that’s fine.

4. Prepare Your First Impression for Interviews

When preparing for an interview, it’s important to think about what impression you would like to make. Your first impression is perhaps more important than you might think! Even if the rest of the interview goes well, the first impression tends to dominate the interviewer’s overall impression of you (primacy bias). In fact, they will set about gathering information to confirm their initial assessment of you (confirmation bias).

Some of these biases can be harnessed for good, however: if you are able to match their behaviour – or, better still, pick up on something which you both have in common, you will make a better connection with the interviewer (affinity bias)! Give consideration to: your entrance and exit, what you wear, your deportment and volume, and pace of your speech. Turning up late to an interview should be avoided at all costs (an example of the primacy bias working against you).

5. Practice Your Success Stories

It’s also important to find out as much as you can about the interviewer, and to have a clear understanding of the job description. Think about what competencies the interviewer may be looking for. The work experience listed on your CV should help here.

Be ready to give “STAR stories”: examples of Situations you were involved in where you were given a Task that led to an Action you took, and the consequent Result. Prepare answers for likely questions that may arise. Ensure that you have a good organisational understanding of the company at which you are interviewing. Finally, take a moment to check the news on the morning of your interview, to show that you’re up to date with current affairs. 

A well-prepared CV, a good LinkedIn presence, and good networking skills put to regular use will, sooner or later, lead to an interview. Thorough pre-interview research and preparation will help turn that interview into a job offer.

You may think it’s much more complex than that, as I know I did before I attended the CMS programme. The preparation process helped me identify my skill set, which built up my self-esteem, which in turn built up my self-confidence. Hopefully, it will do the same for you.

Family & WorkObelisk In Action

This month, as part of #MyMillionHours, The Attic is sharing personal stories of talent being reactivated into the workplace.

I never imagined that I’d be given the opportunity to re-enter the workforce, to join one of the fastest-growing technology scale ups in London after an almost 7-year career break. But here I am – motivated, determined and more alive than I felt when I left to have children. Time out of work provides perspective and children even more so. I always knew that I wanted to return to my career and that the terms on which I would return would be dramatically different and in many ways challenging to employers on the receiving end. I wanted to find a role where I could manage my work and life responsibilities without feeling like I was succeeding in one and failing in the other.

To be honest, when I did decide to actively pursue such a role, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were indeed businesses who were offering flexible working opportunities, and who were open to accepting returners and not discrediting their experience due to a break in their careers. In fact in most instances this was a complete non-issue. So I stopped making it an issue for myself and instead, focused on my experience, skills and expertise, coupled with gratitude for having spent time with my children, and having the under-valued skills that being a parent gives you, thus making me a valuable asset to any business.

Obelisk has given me the opportunity to live that truth and I have a deep sense of pride in my personal/professional story that has boosted my confidence and self-esteem. I have a stronger sense of clarity and purpose about my life; that I am a multi-faceted woman working smarter to live a life that I am already proud of.

I could only do this because I knew that returning to work needed to be different this time around on a values-basis – I knew for sure that I wanted to use my skills and be engaged in purposeful work. When the opportunity came to join Obelisk and work in a business that is focused on women in the workplace, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands – and it didn’t matter that I had zero legal experience! In fact, this was another non-issue that was refreshing and open-minded – a business that values my experience and what I have to offer even though I don’t know the industry – after all, what you don’t know, you can learn. Purpose really kicked in for me though with the talent pool that Obelisk is trying to reactivate back in to the legal industry. Even though I’m not a lawyer, I identify with these women and men who want to work differently and give 100% to achieving both their professional and personal ambitions. They, and we, shouldn’t have to make a choice between one or the other; they should and can work side-by-side.

Obelisk is currently running a campaign that is focused on bringing awareness to the available talent that legal businesses can tap into to help manage their workflow and make legal work work for them. All I want to say about the #MyMillionHours campaign is this: choosing to not explore different ways of working is choosing to stay in a comfort zone where there is no room for growth and innovation, which should get you thinking about what your business will look like in time to come – and if you’ll even have a business to look at? Not reactivating talent is choosing to participate in a wasteful economy, and that quite frankly is making the decision to not be and do better as a business, and as a human being.