Anne Todd, partner at Michelmores

For a long time, consultant solicitor Anne Todd was nervous about returning to employed work. She had been badly burned.

Three years into a “dream job” as the general counsel and company secretary of Storm Telecommunications, a role she was headhunted for after four years with BT, the wholesale voice business met its match: the Dot Com crash. Storm, once an international $100m turnover titan, had its funding pulled. It fell into administration, before eventually being bought out by WaveCrest in 2002. Todd was left jobless.

Fuelling her anxiety also were later negative experiences lawyering in-house for another mega-corporate, whereby she encountered prejudice for being a working mother of young children. “Looking back, I was very afraid to go back into a workforce that would treat me in that way.”

Both experiences forced to Todd to take control over her career. “I thought, I can’t trust working for a company anymore, I need to set my own path. I know I do a good job, I know work really hard, but I don’t want to be dependent on the whim of the markets or somebody else.”

For the next decade, Todd was her own boss. As a freelance consultant lawyer, she was called into major companies on virtual secondments to serve as an interim head of legal or provide temporary support for fixed projects.

Self-employed Todd was able to leverage her in-house experience at Shell UK, BT and Storm to provide services to the likes of Vodafone, Tesco Mobile, Ciena and Infinity. She became more specialised, navigating the challenges and opportunities arising out of the-then liberalising telecoms industry and rapid evolutions of digital communication.

Returning to private practice was out of the picture. Todd initially trained as a real estate lawyer at Gouldens (now Jones Day) and later served a year at Clyde & Co. She never intended to stay in-house forever. However, previous attempts to move back to private practice were often met with scorn, with some law firms even suggesting that the experienced lawyer would have to start again from the bottom. “It was quite insulting really,” says Todd.

That was until Todd was approached by Melinda Wallman, a Macrae recruiter and co-founder and director of Reignite Academy, which aims at placing qualified female lawyers after a career break.

Not one to turn down an interesting opportunity provided she would be “decency and respect”, Todd was introduced to a number of firms via Reignite’s inaugural scheme before eventually landing at Macfarlanes. Her first impression of the firm’s respectful culture soothed any concerns linger from her early career experiences.

Plus, she was no longer the mother to young dependent children – they had all grown up. “It was the right time to give it a go,” she says.

After three years as a senior solicitor at Macfarlanes, Todd has now joined Michelmores as a partner, at which she hopes to broaden the firm’s tech practice – from online gaming to cyber security.

Todd’s advice is to those returning to private practice is to embrace the self-confidence you gain with greater maturity and experience, while always remembering your legal training.

“The legal training that they have, the way their brains have been trained to think, is still there. You never lose that. So, while they may not be up to date with the law in a particular area, they will still have the skills and the ability to get themselves up to see,” she says. “It’s like riding a bike, as they say.”

Hannah Edwards, head of risk and compliance at Stevens & Bolton

Previously a real estate lawyer for the likes of Slaughter and May and Marks & Spencer, Hannah Edwards took a career break in 2014 to spend time with her two sons throughout their teenage years. “I felt that I had achieved what I wanted to achieve as a lawyer, and that coincided with wanting to take a break away to focus on family.”

Edwards discovered the Reignite Academy in 2019 and describes how the team helped build her confidence. “It’s startling when you go along to the workshops that they hold; people that are in the same position as you go around the table and tell their story. The wealth of experience around that room is extraordinary. It brings it to the forefront of your mind that there is a market for you. It’s a very powerful experience.”

Shortly after joining the Academy, Edwards was offered a full-time position at Stevens & Bolton as risk and compliance manager. “I was considering going back into real estate law, but the kinds of roles I saw were very ‘City’, and I knew that wouldn’t fit well with my life now. When I read the role description, I thought it chimed in with some aspects of my prior legal jobs. I’d say it’s a role that lawyers move into rather than qualify into, and I found it a great fit.”

Edwards had worked at Stevens & Bolton when she had her first child in 2001 and remembered their forward-thinking nature. “I told them I wanted to come back as part-time, which was really rare in law in those days, but they said they wanted to make it work, and we did make it work.”

In 2021 Edwards was promoted to head of risk and compliance. She finds conflict of interest situations particularly interesting. “When a client approaches us with a query , we chew over the issue, and I find collaborative work that involves discussion really rewarding. It’s not black and white: we must make judgement calls and think over how we want to work, what our client base is, and how we want to serve it.”

Going back to work after a break can be daunting, but Edwards believes it to be possible. “You’ve got worthwhile skills regardless of your career break, and the work you’ve done previously and the experiences you’ve had stay with you, and you can bring those skills forward to use them again. There is a demand for you.”

Manjit Sandhu, legal counsel, Ryan

Manjit Sandhu

She initially longed for a career in drama but due to family expeditions Manjit Sandhu found herself in law. After finishing her law degree, she got a job at Virgin label V2 Records. Starting at the bottom and working her way up the team, it was an intellectually demanding role focusing on media and IP recording rights.

Following her second child, she left V2 for O2, and tried balancing work and her young family, but decided she wanted to be at home with her children. “Juggling is fine and I think a lot of people manage it perfectly well, but I decided I wanted to be home with them.”

Sandhu ended up taking a 12-year break. She kept busy during that time with a business of her own and chairing the PTA but found herself with other women who were in the same situation. “We’d all be talking at the school gates, just lamenting the fact that there was all this talent just being wasted, and asking why wasn’t there a way where we could give back or make use of our training and brains while the children were at school.”

After signing on with the Reignite Academy, Sandhu was placed at CMS in the media and tech practice. When a memo circulated CMS’s office in 2019 that its client Ryan, was looking for its first lawyer in their London office, she jumped on it. She has always preferred in-house over private practice. “I’ve gone back to being that business partner, the commercial person, the pragmatic lawyer, the person who de-risks and helps the business in a way where you facilitate what’s going on, as opposed to being in private practice where you’re given something, you work on it and you give it back, and you’re never involved with the rest of the journey.”

She has been promoted twice in just three years at Ryan and is currently working towards the vice-president position. “It’s not the actual title that matters. What I’d like to be able to do next is within our organisation there is take the opportunity to revisit our processes and improve the way we do things.”