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« CLE Webinar: The Top 5 Attorney Retention Strategies | Main | Work Life Winner: Skadden Arps Introduces Sidebar and FRM: Two New Programs Addressing Lawyer Work Life Balance »

More Large Law Firms Such as Skadden Arps and Debevoise & Plimpton Seek to Improve Attorney Retention by Letting Lawyers Return to Firms After Extended Leaves of Absence

Sometimes, lawyers need to take extended absences from their law firms.  Can they return and pick up their practices where they left them?  The answer depends, of course, on the particular law firm, but the New York Law Journal reports that more firms are opening up to the idea, including such major powerhouses as Skadden Arps; Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson; and Debevoise & Plimpton.  Perhaps the most common reason for leaves of absence involves female lawyers taking time off to care for newborn or other very young children, Above the Law recently reported the results of a survey of law firms offering paid paternity leave.

While it is increasingly possible to return to work as a midlevel associate after an absence from your firm, it's not necessarily easy.  Although most law firms offer some type maternity leave, either paid or unpaid, lawyers who stay away from their jobs for more than one year frequently sacrifice their job security.  Attorneys who do seek to return after such long absences often face significant challenges, including these:

  • law firms' reluctance to hire them once they have left the traditional legal career path;
  • the need to have up-to-date technology and computer skills;
  • the difficulty of dealing with associates at the same level who are significantly younger, while having bosses who are the same age as the returning attorney; and
  • a need to make up for the lost time and to fill in gaps in their professional experience.

While these challenges may seem formidable, there are ways to meet them successfully.  Planning your approach is especially important.  Deborah Epstein Henry, the founder and president of Flex-Time Lawyers, acknowledges the difficulties, especially of moving to a new law firm if your former firm will not let you return.  If you are returning to the workforce and seeking positions in new firms, Henry suggests you do the following:

  • figure out where you see yourself in your career;
  • make your objectives clear in your cover letters; and
  • describe on your resume the time you spent out of the workforce.

Linda Marks, the director of training and consulting at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, offers these additional suggestions:

  • mention on your resume any service you have done for nonprofit organizations and fundraising experiences;
  • reconnect to your contacts and tell them what kind of position you seek; and
  • propose to law firms that you work for them as an independent contract for a short time to allow them to get reacquainted with you and the quality of your work.

The article suggests some additional elements of a strategy for lawyers re-entering the practice of law after an absence:

  • stay in regular contact with partners at your firm and other colleagues;
  • explore law school programs to help you with the transition such as the Center for WorkLife Law, and similar programs sponsored by local bar associations like the New York City Bar;
  • participate in any alumni programs your firm may offer;
  • attend continuing legal education programs and other firm-sponsored events during your absence;
  • meet with partners when you are ready to rejoin the workforce; and
  • after you are hired, seek assignments that will help you fill gaps in your experience so that you can resume your career path as smoothly as possible.

Returning to the practice of law after an absence can be challenging.  However, as more law firms embrace returning attorneys, lawyers can follow some expert recommendations to make their transitions smoother, allowing them to continue on their career paths.

By Steve Imparl, guest blogger

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