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Returnships and other routes back to law after a career break

by Katerina Gould and Julianne Miles
10 December 2014

The innovative ‘returnship’ programme gives experienced professional women who have taken an extended career break the chance to get back into senior roles. Participants work on projects for a contracted short-term period, with the possibility of ongoing employment at the end. They are paid at a professional level and often receive mentoring or coaching as well as assistance with technology and knowledge updating. 

Through the returnship, the returner is able to refresh her skills and her CV, rebuild her professional confidence and effectively and rapidly transition back to a senior role. At the same time, the organisation has the opportunity to check out a potential hire in a low risk way while benefitting from the returner’s skills.

Current UK returnships

Credit Suisse is the only UK organisation to have completed a returnship programme, retaining a high number of their original intake at the endof the initial 10-week Real Returns programme, and they have recently opened applications for a second programme which will run from April to July 2015. There are opportunities for lawyers across the bank, particularly in the legal, compliance and risk management areas.

Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank and Vodafone currently have returner programmes and all have commented on the high calibre of professionals they have attracted.

Other routes for returners

There are many more establised routes back into law, including private practice, in-house counsel, government service and the judiciary. There are also more flexible options, which are helpful for those looking for greater work/life balance or a way to ease back into work gradually.

Associate work

A number of new organisations, such as Lawyers on Demand and Obelisk Support, have changed the nature of employment for lawyers by creating pools of associates they can draw on as needed.. Apart from flexibility of hours and, often, location, the advantage of associate work is that the contracting company is responsible for winning new work. Associates may also receive additional training and other support, but a drawback can be that there is no guarantee of work.

Project-based work

Although organisations rarely advertise this kind of work, offering to work on a project can be a great introduction to an organisation. Alternatively, discovering that working this way is appealing could lead to setting up a consultancy for project work.

Interim roles

Joining an organisation in a defined role for a defined period of time can be a great way to use skills and experience without making a long-term commitment. There are opportunities for temporary work to cover for maternity and long-term sickness and for when organisations are in transition. While there are established interim management agencies, success in finding these roles is more likely to come through networking.

Skilled or strategic volunteering

Volunteering for a legal role in a charity or community organisation can be a good stepping stone back to paid employment, retaining a great deal of flexibility while updating skills and knowledge. It can also provide opportunities for working in an alternative sector or developing a new field of legal expertise.


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