Resources Newsletter Archive Ready to Opt-Back-In? (September 2007)

Ready to Opt-Back-In? (September 2007)

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Issue # 50

September, 2007

If you left the legal workplace in order have more flexibility to care for family and are now ready to consider re-entering, you probably have many questions and concerns.

  • Will anyone even look at my resume when they see how long I've been out?
  • Do I want to work in the same kind of setting that I left?
  • How will I explain my time off?
  • Will a prospective employer take my commitment to my career seriously?
  • Will I have to start my career all over again?
  • Is my knowledge of my practice area up to date?
  • Do I have the technology skills I need?
  • What kind of compensation is it reasonable to expect?
  • I'm ready to return to work, but not full time. Is it possible to find a good position where I can work a flexible schedule?
  • How will my family cope with my return to work?
  • Where do I start?

The process of returning to work can seem daunting. Most women lawyers have heard horror stories of others who tried to re-enter the legal workplace unsuccessfully. Some have sent out scores of resumes without getting a single response. It's easy to become pessimistic and to give up in despair prematurely.

But the fact is that many women step out of their legal careers when they find the conflict between work demands and family responsibilities impossible to manage. And many who have wanted to return to legal work have found ways to do so. They've had to be patient and strategic and their careers took them in unexpected directions. But they found a way to re-establish satisfying legal careers.

The good news is that the current demand for legal work combined with a labor shortage has led many legal employers to broaden their picture of the "ideal candidate." This has created more options for attorneys wanting to return to work.

If you've been out of the workforce for a year or more, it's likely that you don't know how to begin to find these options or how to effectively market yourself. You may not even know exactly what kind of work you want to do.

Here are 10 steps to help you get started:

1. Clarify Your Reasons for Opting Back In

Besides the fact that you have a legal degree which you'd like to use, why else do you want to go back to a career in the law? What do you want to accomplish in your work? What kinds of problems do you want to solve? What kind of work would engage you? What solutions could you provide that would be meaningful to you? Whom would you like to help?

2. Network

If you haven't maintained contact with the network you'd created before you ramped off, it's time to re-activate that network. Join Bar Association groups and develop new network connections. Ask for introductions to attorneys who have successfully opted back in. Talk to people doing different kinds of legal work in a variety of settings. You'll need job leads, connections to potential employers, models and support. A strong network can provide all of these.

3. Determine What Knowledge and Competencies You'd Enjoy Using

What are you doing when you're so absorbed that time passes without your awareness? Don't only consider obvious job-related activities. You've probably been engaged in all sorts of activities since you left the workplace: organizing people and events, managing conflict, responding to crises and solving a multitude of problems. What competencies were required for these challenges? Many of them are transferable back to the workplace.

4. Update Your Knowledge of the Marketplace

Research, read and talk to people to develop an accurate and current picture of the legal market. What practice areas are hot? What's going on in your area of specialty? Is there demand for the skills and experience you already have? Where are attorneys returning to work getting hired? Perhaps large firms are not hiring non-traditional candidates in your area but smaller firms are. It's important to be realistic about your marketability in various sectors so you know where you are most likely to be able to accomplish your goals. You'll need to decide whether to focus your energy on areas offering the greatest probability of hiring or prepare yourself for the challenge of re-entry into a more resistant part of the market.

5. Update Your Skills and Knowledge

Fill in the gaps between what you needed to practice law before you left and what is required now. Take CLE classes, do pro bono work through your local Bar Association, and volunteer for community or other projects. I recently spoke with an attorney who decided she'd like to opt-back-in to a trusts and estates practice. She worked on these matters for all of her family members, attended CLE courses and asked a more experienced colleague to mentor her. Once her skills were sharp she looked for firms wanting to expand their T & E practices.

6. Clarify Your Priorities

If you left the workplace in order to have more time with your children you'll need to consider what you now need in terms of time with them and involvement in their activities. Many women who've off-ramped don't feel ready to return to a large firm where even a part-time schedule typically means 40-50 hours/week. Think about the kinds of work demands and stress you're prepared to take on. There's no point opting back into a situation that makes you want to leave again.

7. Speak to People in Legal Staffing Agencies

Recruiters can be a great source of information about the current market, compensation, benefits and opportunities. There are recruiters who specialize in placing attorneys in part-time jobs. They usually advertise in the legal press. You can ask for recommendations at your local Bar Association, search the Internet or ask attorneys who have successfully returned to part-time work.

8. Develop the Right Mindset

There's no point going into interviews feeling embarrassed about your absence from the workplace or believing that you have to make excuses for yourself. Work and life are not separate spheres. You made a choice to focus on other life roles for a period of time and now feel ready to expand your role as a lawyer. You still know how to think like a lawyer - your analytical and problem-solving competencies and your ability to think on your feet are in tact. Since you will have recently updated your practice knowledge, you may even be more on top of things than many people currently working. Not only will you have updated your knowledge and sharpened your skills by the time you're ready to interview, you'll be offering a prospective employer the sophistication and strong work ethic that only maturity and experience can provide.

Projecting confidence is the hardest challenge and the most important part of your re-entry process. Your conviction will be particularly important when you're ready to negotiate compensation and flexibility. Friends, colleagues and coaches can help you develop the right mindset.

9. Break Down Your Goals Into Small Steps

You can't do everything at once and just thinking about it all is likely to be overwhelming. Break your big-picture goal down into small steps. Set SMART goals for yourself: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. For example, you can set a goal to join your local women's bar association by the end of next week. Then you can plan to join a section related to your practice area within two weeks after that. Within a month after joining you can volunteer to take the lead on a presentation which will create an opportunity for you to update your knowledge in that area.

10. Negotiate for Shared Care at Home

If you've been carrying most of the family-care responsibility, everyone is probably used to counting on your constant availability. Returning to work means that there will be limits on what you can do and when you can do it. So, you'll need more active involvement and support from the other adults at home. The goal is not for you to opt back into a legal position and then assume "second shift" at the end of your workday. Your home life needs to be reconfigured. These negotiations take time and patience. You're asking people to change their habits - and that's never easy. For some great ideas about how to approach shared care go to

Don't be intimidated by the prospect of re-entry. You've already successfully handled law school and working in the law, as well as the greatest challenge: managing a family. With persistence and determination - and the right kind of support and guidance - you will successfully opt back in.

© 1998 — 2012 Ellen Ostrow. All rights reserved.


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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC

Rockville, MD
Phone: 844-818-9471

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