How to ensure a strong first 90 days back in the saddle

In a nutshell?  “Agree a transition phase with your line manager, prioritise re-connecting with key people and focus on quick wins to build confidence."

When you're back at work

Jenny Allan
"Take it one day at a time and know it gets easier every day. Your confidence in your abilities may be a bit low as you have been out of practice but this quickly returns, and you won't feel like this for long."

Jenny Allan, senior associate, CMS Cameron McKenna

"Make sure those around you understand that it is a big transition returning to work, so getting into work on time in clean clothes is an achievement in itself. Make allowances for yourself to adjust whilst not using your status as a constant excuse."

Carly Mason, associate, MacRoberts LLP

5 Agree a period of transition and co-create a plan with your line manager

If you've not already talked with your line manager about your return to work being period of transition (perhaps on a KIT day, for example) it's good to talk about this on day one. Transition simply means a period of adjustment where the expectations of you are different (more leeway, fewer demands made of you, time allowed for training/non-client facing activity for a number of weeks). Some organisations have formal transition policies - for example, employees at the law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP who are returning from maternity leave have a 50% reduction in their targets for the four weeks before they leave and the four weeks after they return. Do signpost your line manager to the guide for them in this series. It's also useful to co-create a written plan of what you're going to do over the first 90 days or work to a shorter plan of 30 days if that suits your business better. You may need to explicitly ask your line manager to make (re)introductions to new and existing clients to put you in a good position to reach billing targets once you are out of an agreed transition period.

Kate Gillies
"Arrange to sit down with your line manager to discuss expectations/workloads/how to manage childcare issues. This will set appropriate boundaries and expectations. Take time to read in to matters. This will hopefully provide a fairly gentle reintegration into legal work and means that when you start working on cases yourself, you are familiar with the details of them and can get to grips with developments and complications as the matter progresses."

Kate Gillies, solicitor, Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP

Janet Hood
"Make sure you and your partner understand that life does change when you have a baby. Make sure you have spoken to HR at work and discuss your return with your partner/boss to ensure they are aware that you may have some differing needs. Agree flexible working. This often suits clients who may be delighted to see you, eg later in the day after normal working hours as that might suit them. This will only work if your partner is willing as he/she should be to look after the baby during these times or if you have flexible child care."

Janet Hood, solicitor, Janet Hood Consulting

"Phase back in if possible. Ask for any training if you identify any areas where you are struggling, such as an IT refresher course or for handouts on changes which have taken place in your absence."

Claire Whyte, legal counsel, RBS

6 Manage your energy

Do get out of the office to eat lunch and have fresh air. You might find it useful to find somewhere you can go to close your eyes and rest your mind without disturbance. It is likely to be a false economy to push on through so, when your mind needs a break, take it.

Anna McLaggan
"There is guilt at leaving your child with a childminder or nursery so go easy on yourself because it is a big adjustment returning to work. Expect to feel very tired because, although you may have been up all night looking after the baby, going back to work is a different sort of tiredness. You will also have days where you are less productive than others due to lack of sleep but try to make up for this on the days when the little one has slept through."

Anna McLaggan, associate, Brodies LLP

7 Make a beeline for your maternity cover colleague(s)

It's normal to question and compare your performance with the member(s) of staff covering your role, asking yourself ‘Has s/he done a better job than me? Do people like him/her more than me?’ Do put all that to one side though and make a beeline for him/her/them to bring yourself up to date - and also the junior members of the team, who will have been keen to impress in your absence. What's gone well? What's been challenging? What's the most pressing priority now? What do they wish they'd known when they first took over that could be useful to you now? Listen intently and without any feeling of having to have any answers - you're in transition and you're getting the lie of the land. Also see the guide "How to ensure a smooth handover to and from your cover.

Katy Wedderburn, Macroberts
"Have a thorough handover with your cover person, if you have one. Don't question your capability. Your mind stores all the work stuff in a box in your head. The box opens again when you re-engage that ’work’ part of your brain. It takes a short while to get back up to speed so don't run before you can walk."

Katy Wedderburn, partner, MacRoberts LLP

"Look at all the files on your return and make sure that, if there are any problems etc, they are highlighted in a short time frame”

Solicitor, private practice

Siobhan Darlington
"Allow others to help you. Do not jump straight back in thinking everything will be the same as before you left. There will be changes to systems, files you are unaware of and in the day-to-day workings of the office that will be new. Take the time to get to know these changes."

Siobhan Darlington, assistant to solicitor, Munro & Noble Solicitors

8 Connect with key people and be curious

Make a list of all the work-related people (team members, other colleagues, suppliers, clients) who are relevant to you having a smooth return and/or onward career success and prioritise having a one-to-one catch-up with each in your first month. Returning from maternity is a great 'excuse' for recalibrating relationships that could have been better before you left as well as getting on the radar of people you don't know particularly well - even very senior people, so make the most of it. The table below might be a useful format.

"Don't expect everything to be the same, take your time to re establish yourself. Get to know any new people."

"Focus on being seen by clients, use your office support. Fake it till you make it. Don't go to every social event, or only go for 15 minutes. Do as little administration as possible."

Kate Temple, solicitor, in-house public sector

"Reconnect with people - you're easily forgotten when you leave for a period of months. Read up on what's been happening in your sector/area of law while you've been away - but only when you're just about to go back. Don't expect to slot back into the same place you were before. Be prepared to be flexible - but don't allow yourself to be sidelined: there's a difference."

Joanna Clark, director, DLA Piper LLP

" If a strong first 90 days is a key focus then the best thing is to re-establish all your connections, make sure you catch up with colleagues and contacts, to feel part of things again, be visible and speak to people face to face, including third party contacts. I would focus on the medium/longer-term - set a goal/target/review dates for six months’ time."

Partner, private practice

Kate Gillies
"Take the opportunity to renew connections by arranging coffees/lunches/calls with old clients and contacts using the return to work as an excuse to get in touch. This allows you to re-establish connections and to get an update on developments in the past year from the perspective of your clients/intermediaries. Do the same internally with colleagues you have not seen whilst on maternity leave. People will be delighted to catch up and those with family are generally more than happy to discuss families/childcare issues with you as well as what's been going on in the firm. Meeting friendly faces eases the transition and assists with reintegration into office life."

Kate Gillies, solicitor, Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP

Planning key conversations 

Who?Why?What do I want him/her to THINK, FEEL and DO as a result of our meeting?Priority rankingBy when?
KatyBeen my cover - got inside track on everything - and she's going to be staying in the team.THINK - that I'm interested in her achievements and that I'm looking forward to working with her.
FEEL - she can trust me; positive about working with me.
DO - give me the detail I need at the pace I need it.
#2Day two
VeenuLine manager #1First Day
9 Have weekly or fortnightly one-to-ones

Research shows that performance drops off if line manager-team member one-to-ones happen less frequently than once every fortnight - and that there's not much gained from having them more frequently than that. That might be much more frequently than either of you is used to and now's a good time to put them in both your diaries for the first three months. Keep talking honestly, making adjustments accordingly and seeking feedback on your performance if it's not being volunteered.

"I had weekly meetings with the partner to ensure I was supported."

Nicole Conroy, trainee solicitor, Caird Vaughan

10 Have a short-term focus and seek out quick wins

The transition period you've agreed with your line manager probably needs to include some quick wins. Naturally, being successful feels good and it also builds self-esteem and a readiness for taking on bigger projects. If you find you're being asked to take on more than you're ready for (for example, a 'benevolent' line manager who thinks he or she is signalling their trust and confidence in you by putting something demanding on you) flag it and/or say what extra resources you'll need. 

"Start as you mean to go on. Part-time workers are actually great value for money for employers - you fit a lot in to a small space of time, so don't undervalue yourself and don't try to impress by working extra hours. Impress by getting the work you can realistically achieve done in the time you are there."

Karen Baird, solicitor, Williamson and Henry

"Don't expect to be the solicitor you were before immediately on your return. Your whole life has changed and adjusting to working with a family takes time but you will quickly adapt."

Lindsey Anderson, solicitor, Stewart and Watson

Katherine Allan
"Throw yourself into work when you are in the office to get back up to speed as quickly as possible and you will actually be surprised how few times during the day you think about the child you have left at nursery/home/with Granny. Do not feel guilty about this - it is healthy and makes you a nicer, more focused parent when you see your child at the end of the day. Don't be surprised if your work rate is very slow to begin with after a long period of leave. Just as after a two-week holiday, it takes a while for your thinking and typing speed to get back to the level it was at."

Katherine Allan, solicitor, RBS

11 Ask for feedback

It's much easier for people to give feedback when you give them permission. Maximise the chances of hearing something that will make a helpful difference to you by asking people you trust to give honest, specific feedback. Ask questions, such as: ’I'm really keen to know how I come across in X meeting and I know you'll be honest. What's your impression?’ or ’I've been back four weeks and I want to gauge where I am - could you let me know three things you think I've done well (behaviours or output) and a couple of suggestions for what I can do better?’  It’s better to ask the questions than wait for feedback (and not get it). Some people interpret absence of feedback as 'I'm doing a terrible job, they'd tell me if was doing well’, whereas others don't think to give praise and instead operate on the basis of 'I'll let them know when something's wrong'.

12 Performance planning at the end of the first month

Line managers who are keen on order and following protocol might be keen to get performance development plans/objectives written down as soon as you're back. In reality, it's probably better to wait until you've been back a month or so and can see where your focus needs to be for the remainder of the performance development cycle. You can use outputs from all the conversations you've had with colleagues and clients to make a case for what you put forward to be included in your plan. If you have a hands-off manager, you may need to drive this aspect of your return yourself, which is a great way to demonstrate your commitment and being on the front foot.

13 Share longer-term aspirations

Use the time you discuss performance development plans to agree to have a broader conversation about your longer-term aspirations in another couple of months - or now, if you feel ready. There's no right or wrong timing and most returners report it taking anywhere between two and six months to feel as though they are operating as comfortably as they were pre-leave. If you've worked with a coach and used a strengths profiling tool, it's worth sharing this with your line manager. It could help him/her see how they can get the best out of you now and link in with other opportunities on the horizon that might be satisfyingly stretching for you.

Over to you

  1. How and when will you position transition time with your line manager? Do you need to sell it in?
  2. Who do you need to reconnect with? What's the first step with each person?
  3. What are the benefits of co-creating a plan with your line manager? Any thoughts on what  you'd like to include as quick wins and longer-term projects?

Further Resources