Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

​The Do-s and Don’t-s of a Career Break Return for Women Lawyers

Alumna, Nikki Alderson (Jurisprudence, Balliol College) works as a specialist Corporate and Executive Coach.



Time to read

3 Minutes

​The Do-s and Don’t-s of a Career Break Return for Women Lawyers


Work Life Juggle: No “one Cap fits all”

For 19 years, I worked successfully as a Criminal Barrister. In the latter 5 years of my career at The Bar, I started a family and became all too familiar with the so called “juggle” between work and family life.

I have 3 children. With my first,  I returned to full-time work too soon, after just 6 months, childcare being a combination of nursery and grandparents. With my second, I increased maternity leave to 12 months. I returned when I felt ready. This time a nanny played mum whilst I paid her for the privilege of me returning to work. By child number 3, extended maternity leave soon lead to the final line in the sand for my legal career. During that time, in 2017, I started my own business as a specialist Corporate and Executive Coach, empowering female lawyers.

This introduction serves to illustrate that no “one cap fits all.” Even within the same family, circumstances change. Deciding on the right childcare options requires a combination of creativity and flexibility.

Common Challenges for Career Break Returners

I deliver Career Break Returner Coaching Packages to law firms keen to pay more than lip-service to the needs of parents returning from maternity leave.

Clients commonly experience a lack of confidence resulting from changes in:

a)       the day to day work, ordinarily second nature, but which becomes more burdensome after an extended period away;

b)      technology and personnel whilst away from the office;

c)       their priorities concerning their next career move, how that looks, and in what direction.

I frequently hear damaging internal dialogue around not being good enough and feeling the need to prove themselves. Additionally, there are practical challenges around time management, productivity, and the need to establish clear boundaries by learning to say no.

All of these challenges are common place. Clients can be reassured that they are not alone. How to manage the challenges is another matter.

Overcoming the Challenges

  1. Consider your childcare options. Can childcare be shared equally between parents? Does the cost of external childcare outweigh part-time working opportunities? Is Flexible Working available? What are your childcare preferences?
  2. Communicate clearly with managers/ leaders in your organisation, both verbally and in writing, so that they not only hear what it is you are communicating to them about back to work expectations but more importantly that they understand it.
  3. Use Keep in Touch days, or a phased return, to upskill on technology and current working practices, network within your new team and gradually ease yourself back in.
  4. Align yourself with, and listening to the shared experiences of, a supportive “team”: an empathetic boss or a friendly co-worker for example. This will help you realise your experiences are completely normal, not unusual and most importantly, not insurmountable.
  5. Examine whether your habits and behaviours help or hinder your levels of personal confidence. Do you listen to, and are you influenced by, unhelpful negative internal chatter? Whatever the internal chatter, it is important to manage your own state to give the appearance of external control and confidence. Do you adopted a positive mind-set and use correspondingly positive, empowering language? Developing your “game-face” at work may take some conscious effort, but with practice it will soon become second nature.

Moving Onward and Upward when the time is right

Some career break returners want to successfully manage the day to day transition from home to working life, before ever considering putting their foot to the floor on the career progression path. At that time, nothing could be further from their minds in fact.

Others see the return to work as just the right point in time to go for it, all hands to the pump, and work towards the next promotion.

In my experience though, the vast majority of women fall into the category of those “deciding to decide”, a pool of hugely talented women who, having become mothers for the first time, are suddenly plunged into a brave new world of changed priorities – feeling in that moment that the next nativity play or sports day is far more important than moving up to the next rung on the partnership ladder- yet having no desire to give up on their future career progression. Nor should they have to.

For each of us, how we react and feel is deeply personal; there are no rights or wrongs here.

Getting your next move right

For those women in law “deciding to decide”:

  1. Take your time

Don’t do anything in a hurry. Take your time to adjust, if that is what you need to do; the transition of returning to work cannot be under-estimated.

  1. Be authentic

Look at your goals and ambitions as they are now, not as they were when you were younger and child-free. What now is your authentic path?

Of course there are additional considerations – not least an increased burden on finances if for example you are working reduced hours, earning less money, and you have increased outgoings thanks to exorbitant childcare costs.

But to use Stephen Covey’s analogy, it’s so easy to get caught up in life’s busy-ness, working hard to climb the ladder of success, only to discover that all this time the ladder has been leaning against the wrong wall. Be sure to put the ladder against the right wall before you start to climb.

  1. Be honest.

After you have had children, the wall you wish to climb might or might not be the same one as you were climbing before. My over-riding advice is this: “Live a life true to yourself, not the life others expect”.