This month, four city law firms will welcome ten women to their ranks, all entering at a mid to senior level, all with their eyes on getting their careers back on track after a hiatus.  They range in experience from one year PQE to over twenty; they cover disciplines including corporate, banking and finance, regulatory, tax, commercial and real estate. They have grit, determination and ambition; they are raring to go.

The women and firms are all part of the Reignite Academy, a unique collaboration to enable more “career break” lawyers to return to the profession and restart their city careers.  In time, having more women like this presents a real opportunity to make an impact on gender diversity at a senior level. So why is this news, and why has it taken so long.

Stepping back from the day to day work required to get this programme off the ground, I was reminded of the principles explored in the book The Invisible Gorilla and illustrated in a number of simple experiments, including the monkey business illusion.  Participants have to watch a video and count the number of times players wearing white pass a ball.  In doing so, 50% miss the gorilla that wanders in and out of the game. Have a go: watch the clip till the end.

The point is that when our attention is so focused on specific things, we can miss the obvious.

Last week saw the 100th anniversary of women being able to practise law.  Cause for both celebration and some hand-wringing, including a renewed discussion about why, despite women and men joining the profession in equal numbers, there are so few women, relatively, at senior levels.

Across the profession, firms are focusing their attention on the problem.  They are developing leadership, sponsorship and mentoring programmes to help women progress, delivering unconscious bias training and so on.  Some are also working very hard on adopting more flexible and agile working practices, key to enabling women with children to remain in work.

And in the meantime, the gorillas are out on the street, waving at the window.  Think about it. If women have been graduating from law in equal numbers of men for many years, what happened to all the ones who left?  The women who reached, or perhaps almost reached senior associate level and then thought “enough is enough” and walked away.

The good news is that they didn’t wander off into the mist, never to be seen again.  The pilot Academy programme began in September. We went out to the market telling such women that we’d love to hear from anyone who was interested in reigniting their careers.   We had a hunch that they were there, that they had fabulous experience and that – critically – some of them were motivated to return. We were not wrong.

Manjit began her career as a TV presenter before training as a lawyer with a city firm. She worked as in house counsel for a music company and for a large telco, covering IP, commercial, consumer regulations, branding and advertising, amassing 4 years PQE prior to taking what would become a 10 year break from the law.

A professional, with a busy brain and lots of experience, she spent some of this time working on property development and is now raring to get her city career back on track.

Two of our more experienced candidates each have eight and twenty-plus years PQE.  One is a banking and finance lawyer, who left a city career to go in house with two international investment banks, before working on a self employed basis.  The other is a commercial lawyer with a Masters in Communications and Computer Law. Her experience includes working for city firms and as in house counsel, focusing primarily on technology and telecoms.  

At the other end of the spectrum, Elizabeth had two years post qualification, working as a corporate lawyer for a magic circle firm, including a stint in Brussels. After an eleven year break, Elizabeth was ready to pick up her corporate law career and began to do freelance work.  She is now ambitious for more.

Annabel had just one year post qualification, working for private equity fund clients.  Despite her 14 year break, the partner who interviewed her made an offer on the spot, impressed with her commercial acumen, knowledge of the law and obvious personal drive.  

In all cases, there was a point in these women’s lives where keeping pace with the demands of a city career, which someone recently described to me not as a ladder but an escalator, just wasn’t feasible. There was too much going on in their personal lives, they had other aspirations and ambitions.  They are now at a different phase: they are looking ahead; they have time, experience and energy. For all of them, the Reignite Academy is a chance to get their careers back on track.

When we developed our proposals for the Reignite Academy, our first concern was finding firms willing to get on board.  Once that hurdle was overcome, the next challenge was finding women ready and willing to return. We need not have worried.  Of course they are there, they have been there all along, hiding in plain sight.

The women we are looking for trained at those very firms; they are highly capable and experienced, it’s just that at some point a city career proved incompatible with their lives.  All the evidence suggests that in the future, such issues will impact men just as much as women. Research tells us that millennial men aspire to be involved parents and to have more balance in their lives.

Lives are long and messy; things change.  Are the women we’re looking for ready and willing now?  Absolutely. And, unlike gorillas, they are not an endangered species and are relatively easy to find, if you know where to look.


  • Lisa Unwin

    CEO & Co-Founder of the Reignite Academy

    Lisa Unwin, CEO & Co-founder of the Reignite Academy, helping women have long term, sustainable careers. Supporting returners. Banging the drum for women at work. Writing, consulting, speaking, changing things. Mother. Reader. Cyclist. Skier. Co-author of She's Back: Your Guide to Returning to Work