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

Women in Law

The journey to the top of a profession is often accepted as being a lonely one, particularly for women. It is one that involves fighting the status quo in small and big ways every day at every step of the way. The perception of the unapproachable, uncompromisingly independent woman going it alone persists in popular culture, and still permeates into real life. Rather sadly, a detailed study by HBR of female CEOs across industries found that most respondents expected little or no support both at home and at work, relying only on themselves to get to where they wanted to be.

Is this the harsh reality, and are there actions ambitious women (and men) can collectively take to change the picture? Obelisk Support places great importance on providing a support network for our consultants, and seeking opportunities to connect with leaders and mentors in the legal field. We believe no woman should have to go it alone while carving out a successful career in law. Here is some advice on creating better support networks for aspiring female leaders.

Advocate for Yourself – and Others

Forming a network that supports your efforts to move up and provide greater value to an organisation and/or clients often means speaking up that little bit louder about what you are doing, rather than waiting and hoping for people to notice and to care. We are all too often reluctant to self-promote – a trait that is more likely to be seen as negative in a woman than it would be from a man. However, female CEOs interviewed by HBR described how self promotion coupled with internal acceptance of their leadership ambitions ‘unlocked their ability to take charge of their own development: seeking out stretch assignments, learning on the job, and learning from the people in their networks.’

Of course, it is easier said than done. If you find the idea difficult, one place to start is with your social media posts. See it not as self advocacy or promotion, but as your story to tell. Sharing the highs and lows of your career journey within an online network can help you become more comfortable about selling your strengths and your ambitions in the workplace.

An important part of advocacy is holding up other people as examples and supporting them too. That can include people you work with, people you know, or people outside of your circle whose work you admire. The more you make a habit of talking about the efforts of others, people are more likely to take interest in and rally round those of your own.

Nurture Informal Support Networks

Your career support network must not simply consist of professional associates – your family and friends also play a significant part. Aoife Flood, Senior Manager of the Global Diversity and Inclusion Programme at PriceWaterhouseCoopers identifies support networks as a series of circles – personal support and advocacy as the widest circle, then professional and workplace, with you the self-advocating individual at the centre.

As a mother and a member of a family or partnership, you cannot get to where you want to be in isolation. Sometimes, this will involve difficult conversations at home about expectations and roles within the family environment. Sharing the emotional labour load is a challenge for many professional women, so be honest about what support you need. Outside of the family, talk to your friends about ambitions and life goals on a regular basis – when you are going through a difficult patch you need the people who know you best to reaffirm your aspirations and offer an outside view on what can help you get there.

Ask Directly for Help

Women in male-dominated spaces such as law are often so used to being grateful for what they have managed to do, in spite of the obstacles, that they forget that they have a right to lay out their long term goals and to tell people what they would really like to achieve beyond what they have already accomplished. They also fear that asking for support may be perceived as weakness or entitlement. But those who have succeeded in their career path didn’t get there without asking others for assistance – from departmental improvements to formal or informal mentorship, sometimes the support is there waiting for us, we just need to take a deep breath and ask for it. That’s a sign of strength, not weakness: female CEOs interviewed by HBR in 2017 showed a higher level of humility and a willingness to learn and improve on the job, ‘[demonstrating] the ability to harness the power of others to achieve needed results, and the recognition that no one person defines the future of the company.’

The response you receive will also give you a definitive answer either way as to whether the environment you are working in is where your talents will be nurtured and valued, or whether it is time to seek a new direction.

Stick to Your Core Values

Resist the temptation to emulate the paths of others and try to completely match the habits of high profile career gurus or influencers – they do of course have some nuggets of wisdom, but ultimately you can only build support networks when people have genuine belief in your authenticity and motivations. If you are not sure of yourself, your values and what drives you, it is harder to align with like-minded people and articulate what you need and what you want. Remember ,your success isn’t someone else’s perception of what success looks like, it is getting where you want to be.

With that in mind, it is important not to force relationships – as per the advice in our article on networking, go in with a genuine desire to meet and learn from others.

You are responsible for your own success, but that doesn’t mean you always have to do it solo. There will be times when the guidance and encouragement of others will be crucial, so keep yourself open to support networks around you. If you are in need of some inspiration, here are some quotes from women who succeeded – in their own way, on their own terms, but by no means in isolation…

What Female Leaders Have to Say

“No matter who we are or what we look like or what we may believe, it is both possible and, more importantly, it becomes powerful to come together in common purpose and common effort.” 

Oprah Winfrey – philanthropist, actor, broadcaster, entrepreneur… the list goes on for the woman who sees nothing as being out of her reach

“To me, leadership is about encouraging people. It’s about stimulating them. It’s about enabling them to achieve what they can achieve – and to do that with a purpose.”

Christine Lagarde, french lawyer, politician and MD of the IMF has never been afraid to speak about the reality of being a woman in a male-dominated space

“I try to seek out and surround myself with people who just percolate fresh, original, and creative ideas.”

Martha Stewart – former stockbroker and model, who created a media empire around her cooking and home improvement talents

“Lead by example: support women on their way to the top. Trust that they will extend a hand to those who follow.”

Mariela Dabbah – author and career consultant, and founder of the Red Shoe Movement and Latinos In College, Dabbah uses her platform to support women and Hispanic people on their path to success

“I do have something to say that others will value, whether they are men or women. The first step is really knowing when to speak and the second step is to speak up because it really makes a difference.”

Barbara Humpton – U.S. CEO of Siemens. She has held senior leadership roles at other major technology firms, including Lockheed Martin, and Siemens Government Technologies, which works with the federal government on energy and infrastructure projects.
Making Work, WorkWomen in Law

Networking is a term that many people have an uneasy relationship with. Most of us want to seem enthusiastic and interested in the opportunity to schmooze with influential peers, but let’s be honest – for most of us, the idea of networking leaves us filled with a sense of dread. For lawyers, more comfortable in front of a screen than in a room full of strangers, networking is an essential business skill to master.

The problem lies in the idea we have of networking. The term has become somewhat tainted, but networking is still a valuable part of your personal development – and it doesn’t have to be an awkward bragging exchange. To truly gain value from networking, it’s important to think #humanfirst (like we do at Obelisk Support) – go in with genuine desire to learn, meet like-minded peers and be ready to talk about you, your life passions and goals. Here are some alternative networking tips from The Attic to help you learn to love the process…

Breaking the Ice – Introductions

Quite simply – don’t overthink it! A simple “Hello, I’m…” and smile goes a long way. If you are attending a talk or seminar as them what they thought of the discussion and take conversation from there. You don’t need to offload your career history; listen first: Ask them who they are, where they’ve travelled from, what brings them here and reciprocate with answers of your own.

Remember to say your full name! Why? Well first, so you can be distinguished from the two other Sophies in the room, and it also makes it more likely for people to commit your name to memory. When it comes to work talk, don’t just provide a job title and company name – briefly explain exactly what it is you do and why it interests you.

Don’t ‘Work the Room’ – Work With People

Aggressive and obviously strategic tactics to get around to everyone you might think is of influence are an immediate turn off. As always in life, authenticity is key. Don’t try to be something you are not or what you think people want you to be. Whatever level you are at, you are in the process of building yourself up – just like everyone else in that room, whatever level they are at. So be open and honest, and focus on the quality of connection, rather than quantity.l If you are worried about coming across as insincere or if it all still seems too contrived, listen to these anti-faking networking tips from Marie Folero:

– Networking is lifelong practice, see it as a regular habit not just a performance at an event

– Be totally present with each person you are speaking to, it’s not about getting around to the next person

– Be honest about your availability and don’t make promises you can’t keep

– If you have discussed follow up contact/further introductions, take action right away instead of waiting

Providing Value and Gaining Value

You need to ask yourself not just what you are looking for but what you can offer. As previously mentioned, you shouldn’t have to promise the world or pretend to be what you are not – just show yourself to be genuinely interested and motivated by your work. You want to hear about what interests and motivates people and their passions, rather than a list of achievements or a job title. Others will feel the same. This is the foundation of real connections in work and life – the mutual sharing of ideas and inspirations and telling the story of what led us to where we are today.

This TED event talk on active networking talks about how most of us have the wrong idea and approach to networking. He provides some tongue in cheek observations on how we make snap judgements based on appearance, and explains how we often overlook the real value of meeting people and getting to know them, no matter how much ‘relevance’ we think they might have.

Cement Those Connections

Of course, it’s all very well having great, energising conversations at an event, but what should you take away from that? If you feel you have more to learn from and/or teach a person, you need to make sure you establish follow up contact. So ask outright: ‘Where can I find out more about you and your company? ‘Do you use Twitter?’ ‘Can I send you an email with more information?’ Some people don’t hand out business cards anymore. They just connect with you on LinkedIn on the spot.

If you do use business cards (and nice stationery is memorable in many ways) don’t consign those business cards to an elastic band and a dusty drawer, as Mark E. Sackett says! Track and log the contacts you meet – use an online address book, or Outlook, and be sure to add notes of interest that you learned about them while talking to them. This will help to prompt you to include conversational points in your follow up emails, and keep the rapport going.

Where to Network – Offline and Online

There is the question of how useful large events created especially for networking really are. For example, this article on abovethelaw.com advises against them, saying “Instead, go to things that matter. Go to talks and seminars and presentations that are actually about something (besides “networking”).” It all goes back to the question of why you are there; if it’s not going to be of real value to you as an individual it’s not worth doing. The best events to go to are the things that genuinely interest and excite you – as that will ensure you bring the best version of yourself to the occasion. It could be better, then, to make a pledge to regularly attend industry relevant talks and speaking events where the opportunities to network are the side product, not the focus aim. Consider more informal soft skill focused groups – eg Toastmasters, which have a relaxed atmosphere to help build confidence and public speaking skills. Offering yourself up to speak at events is another way of creating more opportunities for networking, so it’s something to consider if you haven’t done it so far!

Remember you can also network online – social media used to be more commonly referred to as social networks after all, so it is time to take it back to basics. Check out our article on managing your presence on LinkedIn for online networking tips.

The bottom line is it’s not just about broadcasting yourself. Think of social media as an ongoing networking event – as intimidating as that sounds it doesn’t mean you have to be posting and messaging people all day long (those are habits that will very quickly get you muted/unfollowed anyway!). It simply means your social media are an open channel which you need to use regularly and interactively to discover and nurture relationships.

Finally, if you can’t find the right group or event for you – create your own!

Sometimes, things simply won’t happen unless you create the opportunity for yourself, so if you see a lack of events or online groups that fit your current situation – be that as a freelance lawyer, someone who is returning to work or is in the middle of a career change – it’s time to make it happen. With online platforms such as Meetup it’s easy to set up a small monthly lawyers breakfast/lunch group in your local area.

Get out there, relax and happy schmoozing!