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What is a returnship? 

As described by the Telegraph, ‘A returnship is a short-term fixed contract that is designed to help get people back into work after a career break. They tend to offer mentoring and specific training to help ease the transition back into a senior role’. 

It has been commented that the massive amount of experienced /talented lawyers taking career breaks who then consequently struggle to return to a similar level of employment as warranted by their experience purely based on a hiatus away from the whirlwind of the job has had a detrimental impact on the UK economy generally – PWC for one, estimated bringing women back to work after a career break would generate an extra £1.7 billion for the UK economy. This begs the question – is the legal market becoming more accepting of career breaks?

From a recruiter’s perspective, I know that an extended career break can have several impacts when coming back into work and managing expectations with this in mind is VERY important. 

There are a few things that need to be considered: 

  • A more junior position with a fast track to progression? Inherently, law firms tend to be risk-averse and with significant investment into someone who has been out of work for some time, there is some element of risk involved regardless of initiatives like Returnships. What many firms have suggested as a compromise – a more junior position (defined by something not quite at the same seniority as they were previously) with a contractual obligation of fast-track progression. 


  • Can this candidate come in and hit the ground running after a career break? Closely linking to the point above – from the firms perspective, will this candidate have the technical ability to come in straight away as a senior associate/partner after having a 6-year career break? Naturally, this is where initiatives such as Returnships come into play as they can ‘ease the transition’ – but of course, this is different from coming in and hitting the ground running.


  • Remuneration / Salary. Similarly linking to the points above, where does partner X stand after being out of work for six years. Managing expectations in terms of salaries are one of the (if not the) most important aspects of the process for a good recruiter. Initiatives like Returnships are fantastic but does it warrant a partner who has been out of work for six years coming back at the same level – this is a different question entirely. 


While there is a heavy focus on the positive effects Returnships have on women returning from career breaks/maternity leave – I believe programmes like this can be considered a positive shift across the board for all lawyers who have taken some form of a career break. Whilst it would be a stretch to claim that attending a 3-month returnship scheme would get you 100% of the way there / up to speed and the points made above still need to be considered, it is a positive change and can be seen as reasonably reflective of the direction the market seems to be going in. 

Not only does it have it's practical benefits of getting experienced lawyers back in the swing of things, but it also seems symbolic of law firms becoming more receptive/open-minded so all in all. It not only helps lawyers who have been out of work for some time, but it allows law firms to capitalise on an exceptional pool of unemployed talent.


Written By Senior Legal Recruitment Consultant - Joe Bryant (Surrey, Kent, Sussex, Hampshire)