A four-minute read. Aimed at law firm HR leaders overseeing women during maternity leave but equally applicable to other professions and anyone planning a career break return.

I was thrilled to see a barrister’s recent account of her “really positive” experience of returning to work at the Old Bailey as a new mum who was still breastfeeding. Fiona Robertson said the judge and court staff were “beyond helpful” in facilitating her return by ensuring she had a private room to pump in, as well as agreeing a later start and slightly extended lunchbreak.

But it was the closing words of Fiona’s Twitter thread which really caught my attention: “These measures have allowed me to retain my cases & significantly reduced my stress in returning to work… Imagine the impact this approach could have on the retention of women at the criminal bar if it was adopted throughout the court estate along with retaining CVP [cloud video platform] hearings.”

The retention of women mid-way through their careers is a big challenge within the legal profession. But as Fiona’s experience shows, an empathetic attitude and relatively small flexes can make all the difference – be that in court, chambers or at a law firm.

The career return journey should start when pregnancy is announced, continue through maternity leave and end well beyond the moment returners actually step foot back in the office. And – simple but worth stating – it starts with listening to the mum-to-be.

Here are 10 strategies for organisations to empower female lawyers and other career returners to nail a successful return throughout the entirety of that journey:

Don’t let leavers leave before they leave

The time between employees announcing they’ll be taking a career break and the date they actually depart is an important period to lay the groundwork for a successful return. It’s so much easier whilst still in work rather than ‘Mummy’ mode to gather work-related feedback about their progress to date, and to create and share an up-to-date record of the value they bring to the organisation which will keep them front of mind even whilst off. Likewise, updating CVs and LinkedIn profiles BEFORE they depart will make smoother a confident and seamless return.

Communicate

Good communication before employees take their career break is vital. Ask about their expectations for levels of contact with work whilst off, any concerns they have, and facilitate open conversations about their career progression. If the future path is clear, they feel valued and avoid any sense of being written off or side-lined on their return. Also agree how to update clients about their time off before they leave and ahead of their return, and discuss opportunities they might expect when they’re back.

Consider Creative Options to Support a Flexible Return

“We shouldn’t be apologetic or worried about asking for reasonable measures to assist,” Fiona Robertson advised other returning mothers – and employers must make this easy by listening and suggesting ways to work with new family commitments. Can part-time, flexible or compressed hours be accommodated? If a daily 4.30pm office exit is required for nursery pick up, for example, should they log-on later to compensate? Could they join CVP hearings or Zoom meetings? It’s important to have these conversations early on so that everyone knows the expectations and negotiates acceptable boundaries.

Offer Coaching and Training

Coaching has its part to play in preparing for a return: going back to work after maternity leave is a big shift, and change brings with it feelings of uncertainty and dips in confidence. Day to day work that was once second nature becomes more challenging; returners may feel rusty with both legal knowledge and the introduction of new technology. Has there been a change in personnel/ team members? Feelings of being at sea, isolated even, are certainly not uncommon among returners. A short course of coaching can do wonders to reassure that they are not alone, to bridge the gap between preparing for, and successfully navigating, a return, and to instil a more positive mindset. Likewise, if there are new online diary systems in place or changes in legislation, offer relevant training to bring career break returners up to speed quickly and effectively, empowering them to transition with confidence and ease.

Support a Smooth Transition

Help returners access every resource to facilitate a smooth transition. Make sure any keeping in touch days are honoured and effectively utilised. Could they be combined with access to training and development? What options are there for a phased return to help them upskill on new technology/ current working practices whilst preparing themselves and their baby for a more gradual change in expectations and routine? If you can, line up an empathetic internal network for returners to align themselves with.

Be Flexible and Understanding

The returner’s work schedule may be neatly planned out but the inevitable hiccup in childcare arrangements will soon test those plans. The employer’s willingness to be flexible can make or break a successful return – as well as the firm’s talent retention record. Understanding that the returner now has a commitment outside of work that is absolute and cannot be ignored (a nursery pick-up or when a child is sick, for example) makes a huge difference to their wellbeing and how valued they feel. Most employees are now fully equipped for home working, thanks to COVID, but it’s worth double-checking. Make it clear you recognise that even with caring responsibilities, parents are no less motivated or committed to their job. Discretionary parental leave for time off (as opposed to losing pay and/ or holiday), can boost a returner’s confidence, productivity and, consequently, loyalty.

Be Proactively Practical

Just as providing a car parking space to a heavily pregnant employee may be hugely appreciated, so too can offering practical solutions across the board before having to be asked. If the Old Bailey can find a private room for breast pumping and facilitate the extra time to do so, firms should be able to as a matter of course. Add in the ability to store milk in a secure refrigerator and wash equipment.

Show they’re Valued

From the little things, like making sure someone returns to their old desk, team and with the same PA, so too that sense of value can be fostered in an even more meaningful way by demonstrating your trust and faith in the returner. Be prepared to change meeting times to accommodate them, ensure they not only have a caseload to walk straight back into, but most importantly, at the same level as when they left. Avoid any sense of having been downgraded or side-lined.

Promote Role Models/ Mentors

If Senior Partners have already blazed the trail of nailing a successful return and are achieving ongoing career progression, promote them as visible role models. Consider mentorship programmes to allow the returner to align themselves with a more senior colleague who encourages and inspires them to achieve the most from their return and what lies ahead in their career.

Encourage Career Progression for when the time is right

The changes new parents go through in terms of their priorities should never be under-estimated. That said, every return is different. Some just strive to maintain some semblance of order and routine; others return with more verve and determination than ever to reach the next career rung. The vast majority, though, bide their time to get the day-to-day stuff under control first before finally deciding “Now is my time”. Encourage conversations NOW about the returner’s goals/ ambitions/ priorities and where they see themselves in the next 1, 2, 5 or even 10 years. This demonstrates that career progression is still a reality, at the time of their choosing – and shows that a career break is only ever a temporary pause.

 

This blog introduces some of the topics dealt with in my Return with Confidence Career Break Return Webinar which also includes interactive coaching exercises. For more information on how to book the webinar or coaching sessions, please email nikki@nikkialdersoncoaching.com and for further reading see: https://mck.co/30i6HTv

 

Nikki Alderson Biography

Nikki Alderson, specialist Corporate & Executive Coach, Keynote Speaker & Best Selling Author, & former Criminal Barrister with 19 years’ experience,

  • supports organisations, law firms & barristers’ Chambers to retain female talent; &
  • empowers female lawyers to achieve career ambitions.

Nikki specialises in 3 areas:

  • Women Leadership Transition & Change;
  • Enhanced Career break returner support; &
  • Workplace resilience, mental toughness, confidence & wellness.

She is the author of Amazon No.1 Bestseller Raising the Bar: empowering female lawyers through coaching , (https://amzn.to/3fodKQX) nominee for the Inspirational Women Awards, Champion of the Year Category & finalist in the 2019 International Coaching Awards, International Coach of the Year Category.