May 17, 2007
Can Professional Women Really "Opt-In" to the Work Force After Leaving It?
Posted by Christine Hurt

We see women around us who re-enter the work force after their children go to school:  teachers, nurses, etc.  These are jobs where workers are in short supply in some communities and I suppose the basic skills don't change rapidly.  (I'm guessing here -- I also have a vision of Jane Fonda returning to work in 9 to 5, but not knowing how to run a copy machine.)  However, no one thinks it's easy for an investment banker or a lawyer to go back to work after five or so years off.  Putting aside biases against employment gaps and the priorities reflected in opting out of the work force, how much does the work change in five years?  I left Skadden nine years ago to go into teaching.  My section isn't even called the same thing.  Does it do the same thing?  Would I be able to hit the ground running?  And forget about me, someone who has been in academia and at least following my industry from a distance.  What about a parent who has been rearing children and occasionally reading the WSJ?

Today's NYT has an article about "opt-in" programs run by large employers and groups designed to ease the re-entry into the work force.  For many, this re-entry is on a contract or part-time basis.  The reporter wonders if these programs are merely window dressing or a true realization that valuable human capital is being untapped.  I would think for a law firm, a parent who had left the firm as a fifth-year associate for a few years would be much easier to retrain than a fresh graduate.  Of course, there would be a negotiation as to pay scale, but I get the sense from most women I know who would like to re-enter the work force that they are willing to be flexible.

Who could run a good opt-in program for lapsed lawyers?  I think law schools would do a lousy job because we aren't in the building of updating information or honing skills.  Perhaps bar associations could have reverse "bridging the gap" programs.  Litigators could take CLE on new discovery rules, etc. and transactional lawyers could catch up on SOX and other developments.

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