Last week I had the pleasure of talking to people at a variety of city law firms about the success of the pilot Reignite Academy programme.  Eleven women are picking up their city careers after a hiatus that for some was relatively short and for others was anything but. We’re talking fifteen years in one case.

My aim?  To persuade more firms to get on board, which should be straightforward given everyone’s commitment to diversity, coupled with the obvious quality of the women I represent.  Easy, right. Well, not quite.

“We could probably consider them, provided they haven’t been out for too long.  I mean, anyone who’s been out for 6 or 7 years is going to be really out of touch …”

… is illustrative of many responses.

At first it made me smile.  I politely pointed out that I myself had a six year career break before setting up my business.  And I left the fact that I’m a start-up founder, pitching to a highly respected, global law firm, with a successful pilot under my belt to speak for itself.

Leaving the meeting, I remained in good humour as I entered the lift to descend twenty-five floors or more from the swish and imposing meeting space down to the equally swish and imposing lobby.  By the time I reached the ground, I was hopping mad. Hopping mad on behalf of all the women I know (and a few men, granted) who left secure, well paid jobs in large organisations and had to forge a different future for themselves.

Out of touch?  Deskilled? Hardly.  Strikes me that the people that are “out of touch” might actually be the ones who have always worked within the security blanket of a big organisation.  Beginning with their flawed assumptions about women whose careers simply didn’t follow a nice straight line:

They walked away for an easier life

There’s an unspoken assumption that the people who left city careers somehow “couldn’t hack it”.  That, unlike those who managed to stay, they chose an easier path.

The first flaw here is the notion of “choice”.  One of the Reignite participants had twins followed in reasonably quick succession by two other children.   Her request for a flexible working arrangement was turned down. With four children under four, she really didn’t feel she had much “choice” in the matter and resigned, later turning to one of the newly emerging platforms to enable her to secure work as a freelance lawyer.

And as any freelancer will tell you, finding a sustainable, regular source of income is hardly easy.  I spent twenty years working for large professional services firms, first Arthur Andersen and subsequently Deloitte.  Admittedly, there was a scary period with Andersen collapsed under the weight of the Enron scandal, but other than that, I was 100% certain that there would be money in the bank every single month. Not so when you’re on your own.

They are less skilled

When you work in a profession such as law, there is obviously a need to keep your skills and knowledge up to date.  So much so that employers both insist on it and support you. On the outside, it’s down to you. In our experience, some people absolutely take this on board and make sure they keep up to date.  Others, decide it’s time to learn something new.

Annabel, for example, decided it was time to indulge her passion for English and took a degree in journalism, which led to opportunities to earn money through her writing.  Her communication skills – both written and oral – are, understandably, extremely impressive.

A number of women in our network set up their own businesses.  In doing so, they had to raise funding, set up websites, work out which social media platform they needed to be on, register for VAT, manage cash flow, contract with suppliers, take on employees, build relationships with new clients.  Very little of which you have to do when working for a large organisation which has all of that figured out.

Even those who have taken a complete break retain their ability to learn.  These are bright people, who graduated from highly rated universities, won places at top city law firms, completed their training, were offered permanent positions.  They’ve had lives not lobotomies.

They are “out of it” socially

Working in a large organisation provides the illusion of being part of a strong, thriving network.  You know lots of people, they know you, you have a title, you get emails, people invite you to meetings, you may even make the odd after work drinks or networking event.  Once you leave, you would be astonished how quickly that all disappears.

You’re on your own.  With no job title to provide you with legitimacy and to open doors.

After the initial shock, which often comes with a feeling of isolation, the women we speak to tell stories of having to develop new networks (though they rarely call them that) and work out how to make connections for themselves.  

For Christine, that meant figuring out how to establish her family and three children in a new country, on the other side of the world, with no support network to help.  For Rachel, it meant finding both suppliers and customers for hew newly established bakery business, whilst for Amanda it meant developing new clients as she built her own legal business.  

What we have also found is that as the women’s lives move on, they remain connected with friends and colleagues from their time in the city.  Friends and colleagues whose lives have also moved on, and who are now in senior positions in large city law firms and at many of their clients.  

“I’m having dinner with my friend X this weekend. He’s a senior partner at Y … LLP.  I’ll mention the Reignite Academy to him”

Basically, they are now our ambassadors.  And they can be yours.

They are less valuable commercially

Let’s think about this.  There was a huge furore last year when a number of American law firms hiked the salaries of new associates to levels as high as $190,000.  Fresh out of college. And yet recruiters are prepared to question the value of a woman with seven years PQE, who qualified with a magic circle law firm, simply because she hasn’t spent the last six years working in private practice.

This point was proven to us during the process of recruiting candidates for the pilot Reignite Academy programme.  We lost four early on, when, as part of the process of whipping their CVs into shape, a number of women picked up the phone to ask for advice and input from previous employers.  They were quickly offered a job.

We ran a “bootcamp” as part of the process, where we talked about how the recruitment market works, how to write a compelling CV, why LinkedIn is such a vital platform and the like.  With renewed confidence and determination, two other participants found themselves great roles – one running the legal team at a large city council, the other as European Head of Employee relations for a multinational bank.

Point made.

At the end of the induction day for the first cohort of Reignite Academy participants (note the word “first” – we’re not giving up here) we went round the room asking people to comment on their biggest take out from the day.  They were supposed to say something about creating a 90 day plan, or the important of the relationship with their line manager, or how excited they were at the opportunity to work with a coach.

“I’m so grateful for this opportunity.  Without this programme, I don’t think I’d ever have had the chance to return to private practice.”

These women are so inspirational,  They are fired up. Returning is hard and they’ve had to put a lot in place to make this happen, unlike the thousands for whom tomorrow will just be another day at the office.