How to Take a Career Break from Law
Most women will take a career break at some point in their lives. And with 2020 blurring the lines between work and life, more of us need a break now more than ever. But how do you know when it’s time to take a career break from law? Here’s some pointers from someone who has been there before – me.
The Difference Between a Sabbatical and a Career Break
A sabbatical is a period of paid leave, usually lasting between one month and two years, with the understanding that you’ll return to your employer. The sabbatical period is typically meant for the employee to study or travel in order to become a better employee. There are no laws requiring sabbaticals – it depends on the agreement between an employer and employee.
In contrast, career breaks can last a few months to decades. Most career breaks are usually not completely funded by an employer. For example, a woman can take unpaid maternity leave after her paid leave runs out. Given the lack of pay, there is no agreement with the employer to return and only 24% of women return to their employer after a career break. The purpose of a career break is primarily personal and can range from child care, elder care, medical illness and/or personal time off.
Why Should You Consider a Career Break?
For many women, especially millennial women, a career break is inevitable. Many women plan to have children and realize that it would be beneficial to their newborn children and their jobs, not to try to juggle them at the very beginning. Further, if your career break is due to medical illness or family care – you never know when that’s going to happen. Better to be prepared and early.
As they say, when you start thinking about the future, it’s either “too early” or “too late.” You are unlikely to plan at the perfect time – that’s why you have to err on the side of too early.
Tips for Planning Your Career Break From Law
I’m not saying I have a lot of advice except that I’ve been there. I took a two-year break from law. And I didn’t explicitly plan for the break but I had the money to rest and travel and look for a job without too much stress. Here are some tips I’ve learned.
1. Save For a Career Break, Even if You Never Take One
It’s never too soon to start saving for a career break. If you never take a break, the extra money won’t go to waste.
But chances are you’ll take a break. And it will likely be earlier than expected. People either leave law firms earlier than they expect to or want to leave earlier than they expect to. You don’t want to be stuck in a job you’re desperate to leave without the money to do so. It’s always better to have the option and money gives you options.
2. Talk to All Relevant Parties.
What do you expect to do if you have children? Are you planning to stay at home and if so, for how long? What does your employer offer in terms of paid time off? Is the baby’s other parent going to take time off? Can you get additional childcare from friends or family? How much is paid childcare? These are all questions you’d like to know the answer to before determining how much time you plan to and will be able to take off.
If your parents are aging, it’s good to know early on what their expectations are and what their finances can support. As you mature into an adult, you realize more responsibilities will fall on you. But that doesn’t mean that you will be the one that has to do the caretaking. Get your siblings involved, your aunts and uncles, and anyone else willing and able to help. If you all start planning now, there will be a lot fewer firestorms should the worst come to pass.
3. Update Your Resume.
You want to make sure your job responsibilities are written down while they’re still fresh in your mind. Plus, it’s a good time to look at your strengths and weaknesses. If you’ve just started working and you take a career break soon, how could you show your commitment and knowledge to a potential new employer? If you took a career break and wanted a diminished role in the future, you have to show that you have the skills now for those coveted reduced-time slots.
Start thinking about what you can do during your break (or doing now) in order to position yourself for a career in the future after your break.
4. Deal with the Guilt.
I had no idea what to expect from a career break. Would I realize I’d given up on work only to realize that work wasn’t the problem? Furthermore, how would I handle the nagging voice that told me that I was a failure if I chose wrong?
The advice I would have for you is, you don’t really know how it’s going to turn out. Sometimes you just have to experiment and it’s fine if you don’t know what’s going to happen and things don’t turn out in the best case scenario. A career break will likely not be the defining moment of your life. And that’s good. Less pressure.
5. Realize It’s Ok Not to Have a Goal Yet.
A lot of people think that you should be taking a break in order to do, learn, or become something. I used to think that too. But with the hectic hustle and bustle of life, that could also mean that you don’t have time to figure out why you should take a career break.
Saying you need to have a plan for your break while working is like saying you have to figure out your destination while you’re driving. It makes more sense to stop and look at a map to determine your destination than juggling the map while still on the road. With your career, you could just be reacting to everything based on your stress. If you don’t know where you’re going, who you’re becoming, or what you’re passionate about, that might be an excellent reason to take a break.
6. Don’t Worry About the Obstacles So Much
Prepare for the likely obstacles, but don’t let the obstacles dictate your choices. For sure, some people jump without looking. But lots of people are paralyzed with fear. Sometimes I worry that people spend too much time preparing and not enough time doing. It’d be better to be prepared, but taking a break without preparation is something some people just need to do. Sometimes the baby is born, the relative gets sick, or you can’t take it even one more day. The need outweighs the planning.
If you’re really worried, think about the worst case scenario- which is probably that you’re never able to find a job and you’ll have to work some minimum wage job. Then think about absolutely everything that would have to go wrong to make that happen. Sometimes we scare-fantasize about worst-case scenarios like they’re inevitable. But, just like best case scenarios, a lot of “luck” is required for the worst to come to pass.
7. Be Prepared for A Longer Career Relaunch
You probably don’t want to take the first job you see, because you might just land back into the same old habits. If you’re waiting for the right fit, and you should, it’s going to take longer than normal. If, for example, you quit your job in March of 2020, you could certainly expect a longer relaunch period as corporations had to deal with the uncertainty of dealing with the pandemic (I know I did). So in addition to preparing yourself financially for the inevitable job search, you have to prepare yourself emotionally and mentally. It doesn’t mean you’ll never find a job if you don’t find one in a few months. Sometimes you need to be patient.
8. Look Up Resources for Relaunching Your Career
This not only gives you an idea of what obstacles you may encounter, but also provides case examples of people who have successfully relaunched their careers. Also you know that you’re not alone and have a sea of mentors.
Carol Fishman Cohen is the pioneer on returning to work after a career break. In addition to creating iRelaunch – an organization that hosts Return to Work Conferences and works with companies on return to work initiatives. Her Tedx talk that has been viewed over 3 million times – How to get back to work after a career break. She wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review The 40-Year Old Intern about companies embracing those returning to work.
9. Know You’re Not Alone
Women have an uphill battle still in order to achieve parity in the workforce. Most women will take a career break. We are in this together and we can not get ahead if not together. Embrace the community. If you can find women or other workers where you can talk honestly and openly about a career break – about your worries about your careers and your lives – that would go a long way in staving off burnout, and in preparing you for the challenges that lie ahead.
Conclusion – Before You Take a Career Break from Law
Returning to work after a career break is a growing area of discussion, as it should be. When we discuss this more, we can better prepare and normalize the experience.