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Reentry Attorneys: Wanting Back In (and Bringing A Lot Too)
By Carroll Welch –
There’s a huge, still largely untapped source of energy and talent available to legal employers right now, and with the recent increase in structured programs that recruit, vet, re-orient, and/or mentor these candidates, there’s never been a better time to include them in a workplace that prioritizes diversity: reentry attorneys.
Opportunities such as the On Ramp Fellowship, positions at several major financial institutions, and externships through law school programs like New Directions for Attorneys have created invaluable platforms for employers to test drive this talent –very often with fantastic results.
Who They Are
“Reentry” attorneys are generally considered to have been away from legal practice for two years or more. (I’ve seen gaps ranging from two to twenty five years.) Although the typical profile of a reentry attorney is a woman who left the law to be the primary caregiver for children, this may well change to include more men in the future. As the makeup of families and the division of parenting responsibilities changes in the U.S., more men may some day be among the ranks of those seeking to reenter the law. Changes in parental leave policies, equality in pay for men and women, and increased availability of resources and programs that make the process more accessible could add to the diversification of the reentry talent pool.
Attorneys who have taken a hiatus from the law have often done so for a wide variety of reasons besides parenting children. Some have cared for aging or sick parents, run a family business, tended to a health issue (their own or a family member’s), moved with a relocated spouse to a job in a new area, or pursued a second career. In some cases, the reentry attorney didn’t want to leave the law to stay at home full time with young children, but did so after concluding that legal practice was an “all or nothing” proposition because she wasn’t able to negotiate a satisfactory flexible or part time arrangement.
In some cases, the attorney returned to practice after having children, but the demands of a young child’s subsequently diagnosed special needs, disabilities or health issues made working outside the home seem impossible. In sum, reentry attorneys’ reasons for stepping away from practice vary widely but all are important parts of their unique personal and professional narratives.
What Sets them Apart
The reentry process is not for the faint of heart. It is very hard to return to the law, especially after a gap of five or more years. Along the way, there can be challenges that include: crises of confidence, rusty skills, changes in technology, substantive legal learning curves to master, overcoming others’ presumptions about their lack of commitment to the law, ageism (perceived or real), resentment by those who did not have the choice to “opt out”, or a lack of support from friends or family about their decision to return.
The attorney who manages to forge forward through these challenges to reach a prospective legal employer’s doorstep often has exceptional grit, resilience, resourcefulness, and energy. It’s not a coincidence that these are traits that can contribute to being a successful practicing lawyer. Also, reentry is not something that can be done ‘by default’ or passively. It’s too hard. It takes planning, purposefulness and commitment. An employer can safely assume that a reentry attorney seeking an opportunity truly wants to be part of the legal profession. Truthfully, that can’t be said of all attorneys practicing law.
Another compelling trait of this demographic is maturity. As one reentry attorney working at a large firm said, “my age and experiences outside the law give me a better perspective. I now can see how the issue or project that I’m working on fits into the broader picture in a way that I never could before.” Those in their forties, fifties and beyond often have stability in their lives that enables them to focus on this ‘second bite at the career apple’. They need fewer maternity leaves and are less likely to need to relocate for a spouse’s new job.
Many reentry attorneys also bring new skills, abilities or knowledge to their new legal positions that they would not have been able to develop without a hiatus from the law. Through experiences in other professional, personal, volunteer or community engagements, reentry attorneys can bring competencies in entrepreneurialism, lobbying, marketing, teaching, foreign languages or many other areas back with them to enhance their legal practices.
Reentry Programs: Invaluable Connectors
Reentry attorney-candidates deserve the attention of employers. Fortunately, some pioneering programs have arisen in the last several years that facilitate access to this talent pool, and quite selectively.
The On Ramp Fellowship, for example, rigorously screens candidates who have applied for six or twelve month paid opportunities at law firms or legal departments. Successful candidates who have demonstrated that they are a good fit in terms of personality, values, writing, and other skills (and whose references pass in depth clearances), will receive a highly coveted On Ramp placement with coaching and other support. According to Founder and CEO Caren Ulrich Stacy, “85% of the women who have completed the program have transitioned into longer term roles with legal organizations. The high conversation rate is due to the rigorous front-end selection process as well as the career and skill development support that both the OnRamp coaches and the legal organizations provide these women throughout the course of their internship.”
Reentry candidates applying to programs at financial institutions like Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase compete for slots in programs with low acceptance rates, and through screening processes that can include assessments of their public presentation skills and timed writing tests.
Other programs such as New Directions for Attorneys run by Pace Law School assist reentry attorneys by offering classes and a twelve week externship with a legal employer. The externship sometimes extends to become a permanent position if the candidate earns it and an opportunity exists. Amy Gewirtz conceived the idea for and co-founded the New Directions program in 2006 after, as a law school alumni career counselor, she saw that no existing resources were available to support the dozens of alumni who called her about wanting to return to work. Years later, she was delighted to find that impressed externship sponsors would often tell her how the “intelligence …and determined motivation” of the program’s participants was exceptional.
With continuing frequency, reentry attorneys also utilize the resources of iRelaunch, a now global organization offering high quality annual conferences, boot camps, coaching, and other products and services that bridge the gap between returning relaunchers and employers.
It’s an exciting time for legal employers to tap into this group of attorney employment candidates, as programs and resources provide new opportunities for access. Meanwhile, the cream of the reentry talent pool that’s risen to the top eagerly pursues avenues that will allow them to connect with employers.
Carroll Welch is a career coach and counselor who supports and advises professionals at all levels on career development, re-entry and transition issues and tools, including resume and cover letter drafting, interview preparation and networking strategies. Having helped hundreds of clients in articulating their passions, developing their visions, and achieving their career goals, Carroll is a collaborative coach, counselor and partner. She is a former practicing employment law attorney and holds the International Coach Federation’s Associate Certified Coach (ACC) credential.