Four strategies to successfully navigate career breaks in the legal sector

This article explains why it's important for both individuals and organisations in the legal sector to support those who take breaks in their careers.

By Nikki Alderson, former criminal barrister and now specialist coach, speaker and author supporting law firms and Chambers.

Woman sat at desk holding a baby and using a laptop

Nikki shares her experiences of navigating career breaks and maternity leaves, emphasising the benefits of support and sensitivity during these transitions. She discusses why people take career breaks and the challenges faced when returning to work.

The article also provides practical strategies for both returners and organisations, covering preparation before, during, and after career breaks. It includes advice on enhancing the career returner experience in law firms and other legal organisations.

Variety is the spice of life

I was a career break returner well before I became a mother.

At the Bar, I’d navigated numerous returns to Chambers having taken sabbaticals to work abroad, first, on a New Zealand scholarship placement, then as a human rights lawyer working on Jamaican Death Row cases.

Career break anticipation

Are you eagerly anticipating yours?

It doesn’t automatically follow that everyone else at work will be. I’d encountered cynicism from colleagues around this time away, together with an isolated case of outright hostility, (being told that if I went, I’d not have a desk to come back to), so unexpected as to potentially knock me off course. I was fortunate though to feel confident and secure in standing by my decisions to go.

Maternity return

Inevitably, when it came to 3 subsequent maternity leaves, firstly, I was keen to ensure it was handled more sensitively. Second, initially at least, I perceived a need to minimise any “disruption” by keeping time away shorter than truly I would have liked. Speaking to my many career break returner clients, I know I’m not alone in that.

Parental leave and more

It’s important to acknowledge at the outset career breaks are not the sole domain of working mums. They include men and women, and cover returning after time off for sabbaticals/ secondments, caring responsibilities (whether for children or elder care) as well as to recover from ill health or bereavement.

Returner attrition

Having said that, the vast majority are maternity returners, with concerning associated retention statistics (read more about the 2022 Careers after babies report here). Therefore, it is important for businesses to focus on and cultivate this significant talent pool.

Reasons cited for their exit frequently include:

  • lack of affordable childcare;
  • inflexibility offered by workplaces; and
  • unsustainability of the demands of work and personal responsibilities

These challenges are familiar to me both through my own lived experience of parenting three children while practising at the criminal Bar, and through my career break return coaching clients.

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Talent retention

On the other hand, strategies that support the retention of returning talent tend to focus on:

  • demonstrable transparency around career progression opportunities, and
  • building confidence.

Confidence to return

Confidence is such a big topic for returner, considering the inevitable shift in priorities and the consequent feelings of uncertainly. Not infrequently, people express feeling, at best, at sea, at worse, entirely alone, as working parent guilt and people pleasing go into unhealthy overdrive. Struggles ensue around asserting healthy boundaries - or asserting themselves – due to fears around so-called “loud” parenting or, perhaps, not knowing the new team, updated case law or technological advances.

Clearly, there are gold-standard ways to handle time away, as well as less than ideal approaches. Here are four ways to embrace returner talent, whether as a returner yourself, or as an organisation committed to successfully supporting a returner’s return. This could involve offering individualised support or by educating team members and line managers on how to become better colleagues.

Four ways to embrace returner talent - for returners

1.  An often-overlooked piece in the returner puzzle, is the bit before the career break even starts. Prepare for it, and leave your work in a way that you'd like to come back to, ready to hit the ground running should you choose to do so. This includes having those all-important conversations about communication whilst you are away, and career progression on your return.

2.  During the break, consider how you wish to communicate, if at all, with work colleagues and clients, and have a plan around contact to effectively manage your imminent return and ease the transition. This might involve trialling childcare, accessing Keep in Touch Days, or consider new ways of working.

3.  Returning requires a certain mindset and positive mental health, particularly when it comes to working parent guilt and avoiding overwhelm. So work, perhaps with a career break returner coach, on staying positive, confident, resourceful and resilient. Anticipate conversations and challenges before they become too difficult:

  • How can you remain present, retain optimum focus and reduce digital distraction? What time management tools do you find useful? Eisenhower’s 4 Ds method perhaps, time blocking, or how about the Pomodoro technique?
  • Are you clear on your boundaries? What are your non-negotiables? How will you assert them? Can you learn to say no positively?!

4.  Finally, when considering career progression beyond, ask yourself: “Who am I now?” Identify your goals, and re-define success as you see it, now as opposed to in the past. Your break will undoubtedly change you, even if only in small part. Be ready to progress only when you are ready – no one else.  Don’t be afraid to lean on mentors, role models or peer to peer support groups, whilst upping business development and networking.


Four ways to embrace returner talent - for law firms and other legal organisations

Here are four strategies to improve the returner’s experience:

1. Offer meaningful, practical support which could include:.

  • Altered lunch breaks and discrete/ private rooms to accommodate new mothers wishing to breastfeed/ express.
  • Increased use of online Zoom/ teams or other cloud-based video platforms, to support flexible, remote working from home, whilst making business development and training more accessible too.
  • Offer formalised returner coaching/ training programmes.

2. Deploy effective mentors and role models, and encourage parenting or other special interest groups for returners to align with a supportive 'team'. This 'team' could include their actual team, or colleagues within the wider firm, whether peers or leaders.

3. Improve parenting policies around shared parental leave.

4.  Don’t make assumptions around career development. Ask returners directly about their needs and ambitions, whilst openly encouraging progression if that is what they want.

For a more in-depth exploration of all these coaching strategies - and more - access the Return and riseonline course for career break returners. For career break return coaching enquiries, whether as an individual or organisation, contact Nikki Alderson by email [email protected] or via the website.

Nikki Alderson is a former criminal barrister and now specialist coach, speaker and author who.

  • supports legal organisations retain female talent; and
  • empowers female lawyers to achieve career ambitions.

Nikki specialises in women’s leadership, enhanced career break returner support, and workplace resilience, confidence and wellness.

Although Nikki’s work focuses predominantly on 1-1 coaching, she is also a TEDx Speaker and delivers motivational keynote speeches and bespoke seminars, workshops and webinars on a variety of topics. Link to her latest speaker showreel, including video testimonials, is here: Showreel2024

Author of Amazon No.1 Bestseller Raising the Bar: empowering female lawyers through coaching. Nikki was a finalist in Women in Law Awards 2020 and 2019 International Coaching Awards.

Woman sat in office, smiling at the camera. Nikki Alderson.

More about the 2022 Careers after Babies report which revealed:

  • 98% of maternity returners want to return to work after becoming mothers yet 85% of them leave fulltime work within 3 years of having children.
  • 19% leave the workforce altogether, most citing lack of flexibility at work or unaffordable childcare as their reason for doing so.
  • Of the 24% who attempted to return to pre-children full time hours, 57% leave within 2 years: 36% of those saying full time work was unsustainable.

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