Why your legal career is a lot more flexible than you might imagine

'This article originally appeared in Modern Lawyer, published by Globe Law and Business'.

Lisa Unwin on 19/04/23

“I thought that was it for my legal career”.

That was how Helen felt when she left her job as a restructuring associate at a magic circle firm.  She had joined the firm as a graduate, qualified into restructuring and had steadily risen through the ranks.  She loved the work, enjoyed being part of a busy, successful team and had ambitions to make partner.

Then life got in the way.  Helen’s first child was born with cerebral palsy and looking after his daily needs wasn’t compatible with life in a City law firm.  Eventually, she and her family moved to Surrey where she became a full time mum to her three children and assumed that her legal career was over. 

In Helen’s mind a “successful” legal career meant completing a training contract, choosing an area of specialism and climbing a career ladder to partner.  Quite understandable really when that was the pattern for most of the lawyers around her.

The good news for Helen and for anyone else who might be feeling stuck, is that legal careers are actually a lot more flexible than you might imagine.  In fact, not only is it possible to think more creatively about your career, it’s increasingly essential.

Lives are Long and Messy

Let’s put careers to one side for a moment and think about our lives.  As Lynda Gratton points out in her fabulous book, The 100 Year Life, very few of us will have a “job for life”.  The days of gaining an education, working in one job, followed by a comfy retirement are long gone. In truth, lives rarely looked like that for women anyway.

I know from my own experience how careers can be derailed.  I left a successful career as a management consultant when my children were young and I couldn’t juggle family and work..  Sadly, no one told me they wouldn’t be young forever.  Fast forward six years and I found myself scrabbling around wondering how to get my career back on track.  

Much like Helen, I could only see one option and that wasn’t one that was open to me.

I looked around at all the women I knew and those I met at the school gates and realised we were all in a similar situation.  Lawyers, bankers, accountants, advertising executives, so many talented women who’d gone into their professions assuming they would have a “Career for life”.  All of whom were asking the same question, which went something like this:

“I’m 40.  I’ve twenty years ahead of me to make a discernible impact.  What do I do next?”

I set up a campaigning organisation called 'She’s Back' to shine a light on this talent pool and to explore how to solve this conundrum.  Through this work I met Melinda Wallman, who had worked in executive search in law firms for many years and who is passionate about improving gender diversity in law firms. Together, we established the Reignite Academy to provide female lawyers with many more opportunities to have a fulfilling, long term legal career.  Here’s what we’ve learnt.

Play the Long Game

The key, I have found, is to play the long game with your career.  This means really understanding what you have to offer, drawing on not just your experience but all of your intangible assets and being strategic about the choices you make.

Flexible career paths

Nine years after she left the magic circle firm and with her children growing older, Helen realised she had more time on her hands and ambition unfulfilled.  She’d taken a detour into social media marketing in an attempt to find work that fitted in with family life but soon realised that it wasn’t for her. She loved being a lawyer.  Was there an alternative way back that didn’t involve a return to a long hours culture.

That’s when she came across the Reignite Academy and learnt that Stevens & Bolton, a Guildford based law firm filled with ex City lawyers, could be a great place for her to test the water.  She wasn’t 100% certain it could work but was confident enough that with the coaching and support provided she should at least give it a try.

She joined the firm mid-pandemic, quickly got back up to speed with restructuring work, began to take on some finance projects and was promoted to Senior Associate last year.  Her legal career didn’t follow a nice straight line but she is absolutely back on track.

“You’re wasting your time.”

That was the response of one recruiter when approached by a lawyer with 10 years’ City experience who was looking to find a more generalist role.  Her last role was as a commercial litigator, followed by a five year break.  As far as the recruiter was concerned, her only option was to go back into her box.

Flexibility of Roles

Helen’s experience demonstrates that you can be flexible about how and when you progress, you can take breaks from your legal career and it’s perfectly possible to get back on track if that’s what you want to do. 

However, for some people that’s absolutely NOT what they want to do.  A few years ago we were approached by a real estate lawyer, with fabulous experience in-house at a well-known retailer and with a very prestigious City firm.  After a five year break when she had been living in the North of Scotland, she was back in the South and ready to return to law.

“I’ll try anything”she told us. “Except being a real estate lawyer.”


Luckily, we like a challenge.  We helped her go back to base principles and think about what all her experience had given her, over and above the technical skills and knowledge about real estate law.  She understands how a law firm works, she appreciates the commercial risks and matters addressed by in-house legal teams, she is organised, a good learner, professional, an excellent communicator, and good at making legal judgements. 

She quickly found a role in-house handling risk and compliance for a law firm.  Like Helen, it wasn’t long before she was promoted and because everyone is now used to home working she has been able to move back to Scotland without, this time, leaving her legal career behind.

Pivot before you Leap

Recently, I spoke to three women who found new roles through the Reignite Academy.  I wanted to understand their experience and draw out common themes about what works when you’re relaunching after some sort of career hiatus.  One of those themes was the way they had pivoted, using their past experience to move to a new but not totally unfamiliar role.

From Private Practice to In-House to Freelance and Back Again

Anne had a successful private practice career and had already had to pivot from one industry to another as the economy shifted.  Finding her options to progress limited after a recession, she moved to an in-house role in Telecoms, a sector she knew well.  In order to succeed in a rapidly changing market, she had to quickly learn a whole new set of regulatory requirements.

When her employer was engulfed in the Enron crisis, her understanding of these regulations and knowledge of complex outsourcing contracts enabled her to find a new role as GC at a global outsourcing company.

Eventually, family commitments put a strain on her ability to put in the hours required in this role but the breadth of her experience and ability to adapt meant that it was relatively easy for her to take on a freelance role for a while.

Years later, and missing the quality of work and development opportunities provided in private practice, she returned to Macfarlanes as a Senior Associate in their Commercial team.   A full circle move.  Ten years away from private practice and whilst communication methods might have changed, much is the same.

A New Direction in a Familiar Field

Claire, on the other hand, took a complete break from her career as a dispute resolution lawyer.

She had been out for fourteen years when she began to think about options to return.   Unsure about what direction to take, Claire joined our “Future Proof Your Career” course.  Through this, she was able to identify that she still loved the law and would enjoy a career in that space, though not in a fee earning role.

Joining Travers Smith’s Dispute Resolution team as a knowledge lawyer enabled her to explore those options.  Whilst in many ways, she describes this as a “soft landing”, free from the pressures of billable hours, in many ways it wasn’t soft at all.  Knowledge lawyers, by definition, have to have the facts at their finger tips and it was a steep learning curve.

Inevitably, Claire had to work closely with the Learning and Development team and it was whilst on secondment here that she saw her next opportunity.  She seized the chance to “push at an open door” and now has a permanent role in that team.

Adding a New Skill Set, Taking on a New Challenge

Finally, Vanessa, had been a real estate lawyer for many years when she felt that she needed a new challenge.  She initially joined a legal tech company who needed someone who knew how law firms worked.   She was thrown in at the deep end and, not being from a tech background, had to quickly learn not only the jargon but how their processes worked.

Once that company was established, she returned to legal practice for a short while but felt unchallenged and in need of something new.  She trained in coaching and leadership development and set up her own company, Legal by Design, to offer leadership courses for lawyers.

Like Anne and Claire, Vanessa eventually found that something was missing.  She had plenty of flexibility and interesting work but wasn’t being stretched.  And she wasn’t using the legal expertise she had spent so long acquiring.

Vanessa began to explore alternative options until an opportunity arose to join a fast growing, specialist Real Estate Investment company, A.S.K. Partners.  They were and are a small, ambitious, and energetic company, led by founders for whom “having a sense of humour” is a pre-requisite for any person joining the team.  It’s an open plan office, and whilst Vanessa’s role is primarily focused on legal matters, everyone has to know a little bit about everything.  In her words:

It’s intense.  It’s pushing me out of all sorts of comfort zones …it has set alight something new.
I feel like I am discovering myself with A.S.K. at a really interesting time in my life.”


Talking to Vanessa, Anne and Claire, and thinking about the experience of other candidates who have found ways to carve out new roles after a break, here’s what I’d draw out as some key messages:

  1. You are not your job title.  Your previous roles have provided you with a set of technical skills, knowledge, soft skills, experience and wisdom that can be deployed in several different contexts.  This includes your experience beyond that job role.
  2. Be aware of and nourish your intangible assets: your networks, your ability to learn, your social connections and your fitness and health.  All of these are invaluable when you are ready to relaunch.
  3. Be strategic and play the long game. Remember, your next step is just that:  your next step.  It doesn’t need to be the end point, it just needs to set you in the right direction.
  4. Be prepared to experiment.  Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Good enough is just that.  Moving is better than getting stuck.
  5. No one cares about your career more than you do.  Find advisors you trust, ignore voices that tell you you can’t, and be prepared to take this into your own hands.  You can do this.

It’s a Mindset Thing

Women’s careers rarely follow straight lines.  They twist and turn with good reason.  Ditch the idea of a career “ladder” and, as Sheryl Sandberg once advised, think of it more as a “jungle gym.”

Equally, your legal training and experience provides a wealth of skills, knowledge and attributes that make you valuable to a future employer.  Think creatively and put yourself in their shoes.  What can you do for them?  What problems can you help them solve? Where are you likely to be the solution they’re looking for. 

Be brave, take a chance.  It’s all in your head.

For anyone returning to the law who is considering a move in-house, the Reignite Academy and the Centre for Legal Leadership are hosting a one day training course covering all the basics.  Details can be found here.


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