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.

The Legal Update

LinkedIn is by far the most popular social network amongst lawyers, so how you can ensure your profile stands out from the crowd and you get the most from your presence on the site?

At Obelisk Support, we encourage our lawyers and non-legal staff to create a great LinkedIn profile that shows who they are and what they do. How you approach LinkedIn will depend on your own personal goals. Whether you want to build your personal brand, stay in closer contact with legal industry peers, or seek out new prospects, the following tips will help you to create a solid and searchable presence as a lawyer on LinkedIn.

#1. Create a Strong Profile

Some people think of their LinkedIn profile as a public version of their CV, but there’s much more to it. To create your profile you should approach your experience in a similar manner, but remember it’s not just a copy and paste job. Your LinkedIn profile is your chance to show a more complete picture of you, beyond your experience.

  • Use a current and professional but relaxed photo. Try to avoid over styling or using filters, as you want to present a natural and down to earth image. Some professionals use photos of themselves speaking at events to show they are active and well-regarded in their field – generally though simplicity is best for a first impression, so smile and face the front on a plain and unobtrusive background. You can show a bit more of your personality with the cover image, or use the space to display your business branding. Refer to some of the lawyer profiles on LinkedIn’s Profinder to gain an idea for freelance lawyer profiles.
  • Your headline is crucial. This is what will appear under your photo, and while many people leave it as their current title (as auto-filled by the site), it is better to write something to create some more intrigue about your profile. For example, see Business Lawyer Marcy Einhorn, whose profile appears as a top search on Profinder – her headline simply reads ‘Mediation is an Art!’
  • List relevant experience only. It can be tempting to put in everything you’ve ever done, but just a like a CV you should focus on what is most relevant to your current direction. If you are currently on or have previously taken a career break state why and what you did as factually and assuredly as you would your other experience – there is no need to get tangled up in euphemisms or start over describing your ‘roles’ and ‘responsibilities’ during this time!
  • Remember you can add your own sections to include any voluntary work, side projects, publications, board memberships and more. Here are some tips from a business growth expert on ordering your profile sections.

#2. Build a Solid Network

LinkedIn isn’t like Twitter, where you can follow and be followed by anyone and everyone and cast your audience net widely and indiscriminately. LinkedIn provides the opportunity to craft a more useful, relevant and supportive online network of contacts, many of which you will have in-real-life contact with.

  • Start by importing your professional contacts from your email. You can then select which of these you want to connect with on LinkedIn. Remember, don’t add anyone and everyone! Maintain a network of people who you feel will be valuable going forward. Use LinkedIn’s recommendations and check out 2nd-degree contacts (people who are connected to your 1st degree connections).
  • Build your online network by checking out the networks of people you have had the strongest and most valuable professional relationships with. If you are adding someone you haven’t had previous contact with, add a short message explaining why you’d like to connect.
  • Don’t feel you have to accept every contact request you get. It is your profile and you are in control of who sees your updates.

#3. Share Knowledge and Ideas

This is where LinkedIn really goes beyond an online public CV. Publishing, sharing and following others’ content can greatly expand your knowledge base and raise your own profile.

  • Keep an active presence on the site, publish relevant articles and follow thought leaders and organisations to grow your personal brand and keep abreast of the talking points and news in your area. Obelisk Support CEO Dana Denis-Smith, lawyer and Tedx speaker, regularly shares insights on LinkedIn.
  • Share relevant posts and articles from your network on a regular basis. Encourage your network to engage with share your own posts by including intro lines such as ‘Those of you in [Family Law] might want to take a look at this’ ‘I would be interested to hear your thoughts, feel free to share with your network!’
  • You can publish from your company’s LinkedIn page, and use paid-for sponsored posts to amplify your message. Company pages tend to come top in search rankings on the site, so it serves to have a company presence. LinkedIn provides guidance for sponsoring company posts here.
  • Be sure to also join relevant groups and associations (including your local Bar Association), and follow any Live events that may be of interest. Some examples you might like to follow include The Law Society who have a number of interest groups in addition to their main company page, e-Legal a popular network of lawyers from a number of sectors, and Legal Productivity, which focuses on the business of law in a changing industry.

#4. Reach out to your contacts

LinkedIn is a social network, but it’s easy to forget this aspect. Conversations with like-minded individuals, be they online or in person, are always valuable.

  • Thank people for connecting and following – it’s nice to be nice, but you also never know where it might lead!
  • If you regularly like or comment on someone’s posts, or vice versa, get in touch privately to let them know how valuable you find their information. Interaction on LinkedIn is all about give and take, and it is important to support other’s efforts too.
  • LinkedIn has many alerts to make you aware of people’s work anniversaries and new job moves. Instead of just clicking the ‘like’ button, add your own message to show your genuine interest and goodwill. Here’s a little more advice on better LinkedIn etiquette from Fast Company.

LinkedIn is professional, but the most impressive and searchable profiles do well because they also show a well rounded personality. Your profile should be approached as a living and breathing extension of you and where you want to get to in your career – because you never know, it could be the thing that helps you get there.