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Blind faith: Returners, furlough and Covid-19

by Eleanor Ludlum and Rachel Brushfield
Posted: 11 May 2020

What drives a person back to work is a deeply personal matter. I know from experience that a crisis can sometimes prompt a reassessment of life and how to live it.

During my own career break, I had never stopped wanting to return to the law. But, what prompted me to act more decisively was my husband losing his sight for eight weeks. We were forced to question how we had structured our family life, with him working full-time and me as a stay-at-home mother, as we grappled with the notion of him being blind and permanently unable to work.

In those very difficult moments, I realised two things in relation to my desire to one day resurrect my career. First, I did not want to live in a way that put all the financial and professional pressure on my husband, not least because of the risk of him no longer being able to work. Second, that the door back into work would only be open for so long and that my return would only get harder with the passing of time.

As a nation, we now face a very different crisis to the one my family encountered, but no less unnerving. 

The immediate impact of COVID-19

I suspect there will be many potential returners who, perhaps coping with loss of income through issues with furloughing or redundancy, will find themselves reconsidering the timing of their return and may decide to move things forward quite quickly once lockdown lifts.

The result for the legal market could be that there is a significant upturn in the number of individuals seeking to return to the law post COVID-19.

For those individuals who had already decided to return to work and were actively seeking to join a returners programme, the reality is that many firms will be unlikely to be hiring anyone new, returner or otherwise, given the financial pressures they are under and the desire to protect existing employees. The impact of this on prospective returners should not be underestimated.

They may well have spent considerable time building up their confidence, knowledge, and contacts to be able to take those first few steps towards returning to work. When one’s life has centred around caring for others, it becomes hard to recognise your own value outside of your role as parent or carer. It therefore takes a degree of faith that you will still be good enough to operate in the legal world.

People who had put themselves through the mental process of preparing for a return, only to find that the return itself is parked, will likely find it a big blow.

Returning and remote working

Whilst many returner programmes may no longer be running, individuals can still prepare for a return by contacting firms who usually welcome returners and opening up a dialogue.

At DAC Beachcroft, we were due to launch our own returners programme in early April, but the event had to be postponed due to lockdown. Our approach has been to tell returners that we still want to hear from them and to start to build relationships so that when we can open up the programme, we have applicants lined up.

To take individuals on now could risk doing more harm than good given that we are all working remotely, with many of us juggling childcare, home-schooling, and lawyering, and do not necessarily have the time to provide the level of support and coaching that we would like to.

One likely positive for returners though, once we are able to operate more normally, is the fact that the industry has been forced to undertake what is effectively the greatest work-from-home experiment. Throughout my legal career, I have encountered various partners who are against working from home, who view it as something which allows lawyers to be lazy and which makes it impossible to adequately manage juniors.

However, the industry should never underestimate the importance of people being able to trade one’s commute for the school run and being present for your children’s supper, bath, and bed routine. It really is something which can assuage the guilt of a parent who is leaving children and returning to work, thus making their working life more likely to succeed long-term.

Today, my whole firm is working from home, as are colleagues from across the wider legal industry. Many of us are being forced to flex our usual working patterns, perhaps starting far earlier than normal, tag-teaming with spouses to share work and home-schooling duties, and then picking up the last of our chargeable hours by working late into the evening.

This shift, in both working locations and patterns, will surely have an impact on many partners who might previously have refused a request to work from home, not believing the model could work in the legal world.

As a result of COVID-19 and the lockdown, they will have been forced to figure out how to make a success of us all working from home, simply in order to continue to meet clients’ needs. 

Supporting returners post crisis

As a Back to Law Ambassador for the Law Society, and someone who mentors people who are returning to their legal careers, I am often asked to advise on key issues for such individuals.

With lawyers being made redundant and furloughed as a result of COVID-19, I do wonder whether there will be any synergies between how they feel when they find a new role or the period of furlough ends, and those of a more traditional returner. Much will depend on the length of time those individuals are out of practice, but when you consider that firms like my own offer mentoring support to people returning from maternity, paternity, adoption and carers leave, it does not seem unreasonable that those returning from furlough might need similar help as they transition back to work.

It matters not what the trigger was, the fact is that lawyers will have had career breaks. They may, as a result, face a crisis of confidence, a nervousness about forward-planning in their career, or a concern as to where their client base will be, for example.

If firms embrace returners, or those coming back after a period of furlough or redundancy, with support, understanding and kindness, the likelihood is that they will be repaid with loyalty, drive and hard work. All qualities which firms will be crying out for as we emerge from this crisis, in order to strengthen and re-establish themselves within the legal market.

Practical tips for returners during COVID-19

With the understanding of both the short-term and long-term impacts of the current crisis on returners, how could you be spending your time to ensure you feel prepared and confident to re-join the legal market?

Along with the new obstacles brought by the coronavirus, there are many worries commonly shared by returning solicitors. Issues with self-confidence, self-worth, feeling out of touch with contacts and networks within the sector, fear that your legal knowledge and skills are out of date – can you relate to any of these?

How wonderful then, that the lockdown period provides extra time and an opportunity to ‘up your game’ and address these fears and blocks and come out of the lockdown in pole position.

Here’s some tips to help you return to the law:

1. Brush up your tech

Get up to date with tech, experiment with new tech tools, do a skill swap with a tech-savvy friend. Especially with all of the virtual and digital alternatives currently in use, it’s a great time to learn and upskill with new software and tools.

2. Engage in online networking

With online networking and digital communities being the norm right now, you can get back in the saddle, build your confidence and experience from the comfort of your home.

3. Build your confidence

Watch Ted talks, remind yourself of your career and life achievements. Get a coach, if that's what it takes.

4. Update your legal knowhow

Upskill your legal knowledge, research in-demand legal specialisms and consider retraining to get ahead before returning.

5. Reflect on your maternity/career break’s gifts

You have gained many competencies from your career/maternity break. How are these useful to help your future employer? Resilience, patience, negotiation – don’t discount them.

6. LinkedIn

Master LinkedIn. Take advantage of free webinars to learn how to use it effectively. Connect with your contacts online and join groups to gain support and build your network of contacts.

7. Consider a career pivot

In challenging times, you may need to rethink your career. Be open-minded about options and possible stepping stones.

8. Law Society website

Check out the free resources available – career transition case studies and career webinars free on the website.

9. Don’t give up

Sometimes the things that take a little time taste the sweetest. Make the most of this extra time, good luck.

Other resources you may find useful:

Book – Smarter Legal Marketing: Practical strategies for the busy lawyer

Book – Career Management for Lawyers: Practical strategies to plan your next chapter

Article – Don’t mind the gap by Rachel Brushfield

Article – Marketing yourself by Rachel Brushfield