According to the Reverso dictionary, a Returner is someone who returns to work after a period of unemployment. Back to work programmes in the UK have become popular, especially with local authorities and big organisations. For instance, a South London local authority, currently runs a programme with selected organisations within the borough; to recruit those who have been long term unemployed. Participating organisations directly employ Returners and are subsequently reimbursed by the local authority. Through this programme, the unemployment gaps of the Returners are bridged enabling them to seek future jobs more easily, on the expiration of their temporary contracts.
The start of a journey
Accordingly, in the legal profession, a Back to Law Returner would be someone who has returned to the legal sector after a period of unemployment or after having worked outside the legal sector. In this article, the general trend of singularly referring to Returners as those who intend to return, as well as those who have accomplished the act of returning to work, will be adopted. This article is also being written from a Solicitor’s perspective. I qualified and then practised Law overseas for some years. Upon re-qualifying in the UK, I was faced with the arduous task of returning to the legal profession. Whilst struggling to get work in the legal sector, I came across interesting roles in other sectors and took them on. I did this to gain skills and experience elsewhere and to meet my financial responsibilities. Underpinning this move, was and still is the Department of Works and Pensions’ requirement, that job hunters are expected to take on job roles which become available to them in other sectors. This ensures that unemployment gaps are filled more quickly and that job hunters do not spend excess time at the expense of the State, searching for very selective roles in their specialist professions. Consequently, employment gaps are filled, new knowledge and experience gained; but on the flip side, some employees voluntarily or inadvertently, veer off their initial career paths and never get back on track.
Barriers to employment
From my perspective, many Back to Law Returners who strive to get back on track into the legal profession, find themselves struggling to do so. This may be because of their failure to conduct comprehensive job searches. It may also be due to, their inability to produce effective job applications or different forms of discriminatory practices, or simply due to the stigma attached to applicants who have been “away” from the legal sector for long. This stigma is linked to the failure of recruiters and/or employers to acknowledge that the experience gained by Returners in various circumstances, is valuable. For these reasons, Returners may find themselves contending with hundreds of failed applications.
A pro-active approach
Therefore, to successfully return to the legal profession, a Back to Law Returner ought to resist the urge to crack under the pressure of job hunting. This means that the Returner, even whilst working in other sectors should continue to relentlessly apply for legal roles. This is irrespective of the failure of some law firms to provide feedback information on applications. Returners should also endeavour to seek the guidance of recruitment experts to ensure that they are fully equipped to complete application forms and attend interviews and review their techniques of coping in the workplace. It is welcoming that some forward-thinking recruitment agencies are providing comprehensive coaching sessions to candidates. The Returner must also improve their knowledge and skills, through courses/seminars, attending networking events and recruitment fairs. In my case, I have attended CPD/SRA competencies-related events. From time to time, I also attend non-competencies-related seminars, regularly hosted by a large city law firm; on subjects such as Contracts, Data Protection and Brexit. Some of these seminars/courses are free whilst others are chargeable. The Law Society’s 2017 Returners course (projected through its Women Lawyers Division), was one of such paid courses which I was able to attend; thankfully funded by a well-established legal charity. The 2017 Returners course led to my subsequent interactions with the Law Society, which eventually gave rise to my current position as a Legal Support Executive in a law company. This company of lawyers, provides various support activities to law firms, including in recruitment. As a Returner, this is a head start along my pathway and other Returners should therefore be aware, that there are different pathways that lead ‘Back to Law’.
The Law Society’s Returners Programme
My own observations confirm that in the past, too few law firms collaborated with the Law Society’s on its Returners Programme, by offering placements to participants of the Programme. The few firms that did participate, were largely interested in recruiting only those who had previously worked for city firms, in mostly senior roles. Nevertheless, to my knowledge, in 2018 the Law Society, collaborating with the UK Government Equalities Office Returners Fund, revitalised its Returners Programme. The UK Government Equalities Office Returners Fund is a grants programme through which grants are issued to organisations which wish to support Returners back to employment. To support the Law Society, about twenty regional law firms in Leeds and Manchester joined in, to provide work placements to selected Returners. Fortunately, some of the participating law firms, had more flexible criteria and did not emphasise that successful Returners were to be those who had once worked in senior roles in city firms. With continued government involvement, greater education for employers, programmes run by the coaching sector, support by progressive recruiters; Returner schemes will progressively thrive.
Employer and Employee relations
For law firm owners, managing partners or heads of human resources reading this, there are several advantages to considering Returner applicants in talent sourcing schemes. It is unrefuted that some Returners can share their rich, varied knowledge and experiences gained during their ‘time out’ periods. However, Returners themselves should remember that whilst they were away from the sector, the legal world did not stand still and would need to assimilate the way consumer expectations have evolved, adapt to technological advancements among others. In the same spirit, employers should bear in mind that these Returners are adjusting to the legal environment after periods of absence and they too must endeavour to accommodate them accordingly. Indisputably, law firms could get great public relations mileage from simply opening doors!
The writer, Ngozi Adi, is employed as a Legal Support Executive at Lex Conscientia (UK) Limited. The views expressed here are solely her own and from her perspective as a Returner to the legal field.