10:59, February 22 376 0 theguardian.com

2017-02-22 10:59:15
I'm tired of law, but is a career break right for me?

Are you the firm superstar, dutifully taking part at company events, mentoring the new intake and slogging away at your computer? Or are you the associate tired of late nights, Itsu lunches and Starbucks? While some lawyers don’t question their corporate career path, others have found that it is possible to leave, try something else and then get back in without being written off. Firms claim they are becoming more open-minded and leavers say the lure of the law can be strong. Could it be that a career break is a good thing?

You think it’s all over

For starry-eyed idealists with dreams of upholding justice and benefiting humanity, the reality of a legal career can be disheartening. Joseph Birkett, 31, worked for two large, corporate firms before quitting to work for a recruitment company. “I hated my training in the city,” he says. “The firm had a reputation for being a fairly vicious and unforgiving place, which to an extent was true. I then qualified into a fairly niche and dull area of the law without really thinking too much about my decisions.”

The combination of practising an area of law that he was hardly interested in, along with a brutal training contract, were his main reasons for leaving. “When I left the law, I had absolutely no desire to return to the profession. I was fairly drained by the whole experience,” he says.

Peter Craddock was in a similar situation. He worked as a corporate lawyer in Brussels for six years before deciding he was bored with what he was doing. “I found that the practice of law was interesting but I couldn’t find the drive that I needed so I started to look for different options,” he says.

Craddock stumbled across a job in the IT sector. It was a complete career break for him; practising law one day to supervising teams the next. “It was much more of a managerial position with very different working hours. I was one of the more reasonable people who tended to be nine till eight, whereas suddenly I was following a nine to five schedule and didn’t have to read any emails after hours. It was a complete luxury,” he says.

You might even miss it

Having time away from the profession might make you appreciate what you had. “Recruitment varied wildly from the law; more relaxed, less structured, more fun but ultimately less fulfilling,” says Birkett. “It was very sales-driven, which is not a strength of mine.”

Within a couple of years, Birkett began to rethink his plans. “A combination of wanting to do something more cerebral, stable and long-term made me reassess things in recruitment. It was never the plan, but heading back into another area of the law was satisfying. I also needed to start earning more as my fiancee has exacting standards”

Craddock, too, began to miss the practice of law. “It was a strange feeling that crept up on me. I realised that part of the appeal of those six years had been the constant challenge of new clients to deal with, extremely urgent matters to handle and the pressure was something that I had got used to. It challenged me to adapt to every situation almost on an hourly basis and I had much less of that in this new position.”

He says that although the experience was great fun, there was always something missing. “I thought this was it – I’m done with legal practice. But six months later, I found myself back again.”

Retraining can be easy

All solicitors must be licensed and have a current practising certificate before they can offer their services. A practising certificate lasts 12 months, so if a solicitor has been on a career break for more than a year, they will need apply for a new one. Returners must also prove they are competent to practise. Solicitors no longer need to count continuing professional development hours; instead they should reflect on their knowledge and identify any learning and development needs to make sure they are up to date and competent. Many firms help people do this internally, and the Law Society provides information, webinars and experiences from others who have done it successfully.

There are also retraining courses available, such as that hosted by the Law Society’s women lawyers division (open to men and women), which helps people regain their confidence and work on their CV.

Firms can be understanding

Firms claim they are becoming more open-minded. Adam Hembury, director of innovation at DLA Piper, says there’s generally more openness across the legal sector to people with broader experiences. However, he admits it’s not always easy to get back into the sector. “It depends on how long they’ve been out, what we’re trying to hire for and what they’ve been doing. They’ve got to have the attributes on the legal side and experience that they can apply,” he says.

When reapplying, Birkett deliberately picked firms of a certain size and stature that would appreciate his reasons for leaving in the first place. “I had a couple of interviews and most people I spoke to were fairly understanding,” he says. “I now work for a medium-sized firm in a much broader practice area. I suspect there were various concerns given that I was in recruitment for two years but none that were displayed overtly.”

No regrets

For those who find themselves back on their original path, has the experience set them back? And do they have any regrets? “This question is too thought-provoking for me,” says Birkett. “I always wish I had done something more creative but I fear I don’t quite have the gumption for any of that. I’m pleased I have a comparison against other law firms and other professions as I now know, in a long-winded way, what suits me and what doesn’t.”

Craddock, who now works for DLA Piper in Brussels, agrees. “It was good in terms of general people management skills and I was forced to adopt a completely new approach to teamwork.”

Ultimately, Birkett says he has no regrets. “I’m in a good place now, working for a decent team with colleagues who I get on well with. So, really, I mustn’t grumble.”