Pressing “Pause” on a Life in Law: Will Your Career Recover (And Do You Care?)
We are excited to welcome to our blog our latest Guest Blogger, Suzannah Denholm of Hamilton Duncan, who offers valuable insight on pressing the pause button on her legal career and shares the honest reality of that decision.
Like most women lawyers who choose motherhood, I spent the first ten years of my legal career stretched razor thin. I was a litigation associate at a large national firm, and I had three children within my first five years of call. Even with daycare, nannies, paid housekeeping help, a supportive partner and family-positive firm management, by my seventh year of practice I was exhausted and unhappy in all areas of my life. I felt like a failure at work and at home. Many mothers thrive in a life in law, but it was not working for me.
I couldn’t imagine leaving law completely, especially after investing the sweat and tears to get through law school and those early years of litigation practice. For about a year I tried reducing my target to part-time hours. I’d been warned by older women lawyers about the career suicide of the “mommy track”, but I was willing to try anything.
Part-time practice was unsatisfying for me; I was paid less, but I seemed to be working the same hours. Worse, I was sidelined by my lawyer colleagues, particularly older male partners. As a “part-timer” I was given small files and boring tasks. The challenging work went to full-time associates.
In 2007 I decided to leave law completely to be a stay-at-home parent. Not forever, but for a while. My plan was to leave practice for three years until my youngest went to kindergarten, but I ended up being out of the workforce for eight years.
When I was ready to work again, it was a challenge to find a good fit back into legal practice. I had more balance in my life and more wisdom behind me, and I didn’t want to give that up. The legal landscape had changed, and I didn’t know where to start. Eventually I found a position and a firm that fit with my new priorities and perspective, but it wasn’t easy.
If you are considering a break from law here is my advice to you:
Make a Plan, Change a Plan.
Learn from the experiences of other professionals. The idea of a hiatus from law is unusual, but it is expected in other professions. Academics prepare for regular sabbaticals throughout their careers, and there are resources available for them that can help you plan an extended career leave.
Like any large project, a hiatus is more manageable if it is broken down into stages: Pre-leave planning and reflection, practical steps to prepare for your leave period, the leave period itself, and then re-entry and follow-through.
Part of the planning process for lawyers means knowing your re-qualification requirements. Rules 2-88 to 2-90 of the Credentialing Committee of the Law Society set out the various requirements, and they depend upon your years of practice. One of the reasons I chose a three-year hiatus was because that was the threshold within which the Law Society of BC would allow me to re-enter practice without a formal application and re-qualification exam. During my hiatus my personal life changed, and my family and I moved to Europe (with no regrets!) so I changed my re-entry plan, but I didn’t derail it. When we returned to Canada, I retained my own lawyer to help navigate the requirements of the Credentials Committee. Ultimately, with his advice, I negotiated with the Committee to review part of the Professional Legal Training Course (which was a terrific refresher), and I made a proposal whereby my license was restricted to certain areas of practice (for me, civil litigation) for the first year I was back to work. The Committee agreed with my proposal, and when I had been claim-free for a year, all restrictions were lifted.
Keep Your Law School and Co-worker Connections.
Being a lawyer is not just a job, it is a community and an identity. I didn’t appreciate how much I would miss my lawyer friends and colleagues, or how much I would mourn the loss of challenging work. Maybe it wasn’t true, but I felt no one was interested in staying in touch with a boring stay-at-home mom, so I let my work connections lapse. I thought it would be easy to take on a new identity, but it was a difficult transition and I wish I had prepared in advance for that loss.
If you are considering leaving law, plan in advance to keep up your relationships with work colleagues, for your own mental health. Set up monthly coffee and lunch dates. Stay current with your colleagues’ wins (and losses). Even if it means pursuing old friends or opponents for lunches and coffee breaks, make the effort and ignore the cancellations. I let most of those relationships go, and I wish I hadn’t.
In the same way, if you are considering leaving law, work to strengthen your social community outside of your firm. Eventually I found a whole new community of vibrant, intelligent mothers who had left professional careers, but I lost almost all my former law colleagues and friends because I didn’t reach out.
Find a Challenging Side Hustle.
As a young lawyer, you have your head down, working, six days a week. It was a revelation when I realized that most adults don’t put in those hours. I remember being shocked when a shopping mall parking lot was full on a Tuesday afternoon; I had assumed that everyone, like me, could only shop on weekends and evenings.
Even before COVID, other professions had innovative paid and unpaid work arrangements. I had no idea how valuable my training and experience was in fields other than law, particularly in volunteer positions. I eventually found two boards and innumerable school committees and projects, but there was no reason I could not have made those arrangements before I left practice, when my title and recent experience made me even more marketable.
Charitable or corporate board work can be stimulating, but so can local causes, politics, and creative endeavors. Planning in advance to devote a little time each week to a mentally challenging project is a worthy plan. As a bonus, it is a pleasure to join a group of like-minded people without worrying about attracting potential clients or making professional contacts; for me anyway, a life in law left little room for advancing the other causes I believed in.
Be Honest with Mentors and Employers.
Before you leave law, imagine yourself in the place of your employer, and make it your mission to be an employee who will be missed. The Harvard Business Review published an article in 2016 that coined the term “the Regrettable Loss” to describe a high performer who leaves to go on a career break. The world is full of employers who recognize the value in re-hiring their own, or someone else’s, Regrettable Loss.
Even if you think you will have no interest in picking up your pre-break practice again, meet individually with your favourite senior partner, the managing partner, or the manager of your firm, and discuss your plans with them. Not only will they have insights about a sabbatical that you have not considered, you will remind them of your value to the firm, and you will make sure you are remembered as a Regrettable Loss.
Lower Your Expectations
After a lengthy sabbatical, do not expect to pick up where you left off.
First, whatever your reason was for needing a break from law — family, health, burnout, or otherwise — that reason will likely still be with you in some capacity when you are ready to head back to practice. For me, once my kids were more independent I was able to find an associate position at a smaller firm closer to my home, but it was still tough to leave them every day to put in the hours needed to build up a new practice.
Second, accept that any time taken out of your career will put you behind. That’s the trade-off, and there’s no way around it; your earning power, your currency, and your reputation with clients will disappear, or at least fade. When I returned to practice, I had to be willing to check my ego, swallow my pride and re-learn the law from people younger and less experienced than I was. For me, it meant giving up partner track, and giving up working at a national firm.
My legal career will never make up those eight years I spent at home, but I am so glad I did it. I feel lucky to have spent that time with my kids when they were young, and to have been able to travel for years at a time in a way I would never have done if I remained working at a large firm. Taking a break from law means financial, personal, and career sacrifices, but, for some of us, that is really no sacrifice at all.
About the Author
Suzannah Denholm is a litigation associate with Hamilton Duncan and a long-time resident of Surrey. She completed her undergraduate degree at Carleton University School of Journalism, and her law degree at the University of Ottawa. She was called to the Ontario Bar in 1999 and the British Columbia Bar in 2001.