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Northeastern University School of Law

Ask the NUSL Expert

A monthly question-and-answer series brought to you by Northeastern University School of Law and the Women in the Law Programs.

 

Katherine Miller

Katherine B. Miller ’87, Of Counsel, Donahue, Tucker & Ciandella, PLLC
Kate's Biography

What is the best approach for women who have taken an extended leave (10+ years) from the profession to re-enter the workforce? Do they need to go obtain more education? If yes, what types of programs are available?

Women in the law have come a long way in the past few decades, achieving greater equality in the profession and, yet, women still tend to spend more time moving in and out of the profession than men do. Women are more likely to take time off from practicing law for family or other reasons. The issues involving “re-entry” to the profession are therefore more common for women than men.  “Re-entry” issues for can be compounded by:

  • Changes in the law;
  • Moving and changing jurisdictions
  • Changes in research and writing technology

Based on my experience, including taking time out to raise kids, moving six times since law school, taking three bar exams, practicing in four new places and living in five states, here are some tips for re-entering the profession.

Knowing What You Know

An attorney who is knowledgeable in an area of substantive law can probably get back up to speed relatively quickly, even after an absence of 10 years or more, if she is practicing in the same jurisdiction. For the most part, the law changes slowly and incrementally, so the basic outlines of an attorney’s knowledge area should still serve that attorney well, even after time away from practicing law. Brushing up on substantive areas can be done through:

  • Continuing Legal Education (CLE) seminars
  • Reading up on recent changes in the law
  • Joining practice sections of local, state or national bar groups.

To a large extent, retaining confidence in one’s professional abilities, even after a long hiatus from practicing law, is key. If an attorney was an excellent researcher, writer, speaker and advocate before the break, she will still have all those skills when she returns to the profession.

 Using Your Networks


Staying in touch with former co-workers and colleagues can be invaluable, even if it is just having lunch or coffee once a year. Even if you change jurisdictions, it is good to stay in touch.

Joining or re-joining the local and state bar associations will give you access to CLEs, section meetings on substantive topics and networking events. The American Bar Association and national groups in particular practice areas can provide the same, often at a more in-depth level.

Many areas have women’s bar associations, which are excellent places to network and brush up on substantive areas of the law. Many women’s bar association have groups or seminars on “re-entry” issues, in particular. Some women also find it more comfortable to network and mingle at professional social events with women than with men.

School alumni/ae associations, both at the college and law school levels, can provide excellent contacts for informational interviews. With all my moves, I have always found that I could contact Northeastern University School of Law alums for informational interviews. Our alumni/ae directory is very helpful in that regard. Fellow grads have been uniformly gracious and willing to meet to discuss the geographical area and/or various practice areas. At the end of such interviews, they have always been willing to suggest others to contact, whether NUSL grads or not.

Technology Can Help

We have ever-increasing tools to help us in practicing law. For a lawyer who has been outside the profession, some of these tools may be new, but the developments in the legal profession parallel those outside it, so to the extent women have remained current with technological changes generally, those now common in the legal profession should not come as a great shock.

We now have increasing online options for:

  • Legal seminars, or “webinars”
  • Keeping current with developments in the law, through joining list-servs, etc.
  • Online legal research, both from the legal publisher “giants” Thomson-West and Lexis-Nexis, but also cheaper alternatives such as Findlaw and other free websites  and, available through many bar associations, Casemaker.

It is also easier to research law firms and job opportunities online, and to network informally. Attorneys younger and more technologically savvy than I would use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn or other professional social networking tools to get and stay connected with professional colleagues. Definitely check out the School of Law on all three of these sites; more than 1,000 grads are connected to the school’s LinkedIn site.

Remain Open to All Options

If possible, it helps to be flexible in the work arrangements considered. If a full-time associate or lateral partner position does not seem possible, consider contract or part-time work to get back in the profession. Doing well in one spot can be a stepping stone to another position, either in the same office or outside it.

I had a notion when I was in college and law school that my career would take some kind of linear path. Most likely those graduating now are not so naïve. I have been surprised at where career and family have taken me, and the way in which work and family have blended. It is a constant negotiation with my husband regarding who does what when, to meet work and family commitments. At times, I have been able to do things I never would have expected, such as:

  • I brought my infant daughter to work with me for three months when I was a staff attorney at a county court. It would not have worked with every infant (not even my other two) or with every job, but it worked for us that time, and I was very grateful. Don’t assume employers will say “no” to requests.
  • I worked part time on a contract “of counsel” basis for eight years, with my schedule determined mostly by my needs — balancing my work commitments to allow me to be home with kids when they got out of school.
  • I am now on a partnership track with my firm, having never been a “traditional” associate in terms of hours worked, by demonstrating my commitment to the firm and its clients in ways other than just raw time.

It is my impression that work arrangements are becoming more flexible, but they only develop that way when attorneys and firms or other employers look for creative ways to use the valuable talents of workers, including those who may have been out of the profession for some time. Good luck! 

 


The NUSL Women In the Law “Ask-the-Expert” monthly series will be ongoing in 2009-2010. If you have a question for future experts, please email M.Marquis@neu.edu. Keep in mind that we have three workshops, two additional brown bag luncheons and the second annual Women in the Law Conference (4/2/10), which will be held this year. Visit the Women in the Law for more details about these programs.