Law: Many happy returns ...

After a six-year break, solicitor Eva Crawley had trouble getting back into work. Once she had managed it, she decided to make the process easier for others. Grania Langdon-Down reports

When Eva Crawley wanted to return to private practice, part time, after spending six years looking after her two daughters, she was told by a local firm that they wanted a man.

"It was 1964 and they could still say that," Mrs Crawley remembered. "But I talked them into taking me on for a month and I stayed 10 years."

However, her experience in returning to the legal world lodged an idea in her mind that was eventually to become her "baby" for 20 years.

"Having decided to go back to work, I rang the Law Society to see it there were any courses for people returning after a break, but was told there was no demand for such a thing. I even asked the College of Law if I could pay to sit in on some of the lectures, but they refused," she recalls.

However, the need for a course to update returners in changes in the law and boost their confidence in their abilities remained at the back of her mind. Six years later, Mrs Crawley was involved in revitalising the 1919 Club, named after the year women were legally allowed to become solicitors, which has now become the Association of Women Solicitors (AWS).

Through the AWS she met the bursar of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, which took mature women students, and the college's legal tutor.

"Between us, we set up the week-long residential course. The first one was held in 1977. We received no financial help from the Law Society, which still maintained there was no demand. But 25 women and one man signed up for the course," she says.

"We never thought a man would apply, but he had been in the army and was desperate to come. We said okay, but he would have to sleep out because the bathrooms were shared between five rooms. He was very nervous and sat at the back. Since then, we have had courses of 40, with a quarter of attendants men. They tend to come for different reasons to women. Some are older and have had careers in industry and want to come back into private practice, others have been ill or working abroad. We had one who had been captaining a millionaire's yacht but had married and had children and wanted a more settled career.

"The women have generally taken between two and 20 years off to look after their children. One change is the number who are divorced and having to go back to work, or whose husbands have been made redundant."

The second course was held in 1980, when the Law Society gave a grant of pounds 200. It was then held every two years until 1984, since when the course has been run annually.

Mrs Crawley said: "Now, thank goodness, we do get a reasonable grant from the Society. This pays for the lecturers and the course notes and means we only have to charge for accommodation. The pounds 300 cost is still quite a bit to find.

"But if we charged what it really cost, it would be about pounds l,500. We did find some people in full-time practice were coming on it as a cheap, refresher course, which we had to stop," she explains.

The content of the course has changed enormously over the past 20 years. "Conveyancing, for example, is a lot less important. For the first time last year we had a section on personal injury. We have also added an introduction to European law as well as sections on children and welfare law. We no longer spend much time on legal aid, since so few people can get it and instead include it with family and welfare law."

One of the problems for returners, many of whom do not want to go back to working full time, is the "inherent prejudice" about part-time work, Mrs Crawley maintains.

"The most usual reason for not taking you on part time is that clients don't like it. One way to overcome any reluctance is to offer to work for nothing for maybe a month, to show what you can do. What you cannot expect is to go back as if nothing has happened."

Mrs Crawley has now retired, although she remains on the national committee of the AWS. These days the course is organised by fellow committee member Geraldine Cotton, who sent out questionnaires after last September's course to see how the returners were faring. She also highlights employers' reluctance to take on people part time.

"There may now be more jobs for newly qualified solicitors but for others, it is as bad as it has ever been. The mood against part-time is so strong, many of these women are finding it very tough to find work," she says.

"I have worked in commercial conveyancing for years and what you are seeing is teams run by a few partners who are desperately overstretched with a great mass of one- or two-year qualified solicitors. I get the impression that risks are being taken and jobs are not being done properly. The headline rate for them may be cheaper, but they do not get through the work any more quickly.

"The answer is obvious but it is just not being heard."

It can be a tough fight for women to re-establish their career. Mrs Crawley dismisses the claim by the Law Society's president, Martin Mears, that women did not suffer discrimination.

"As a young solicitor, I remember answering an advertisement which said the firm was looking for women applicants. I was pleased until I asked why and was told it was because the job had no prospects," she remembers.

"I think there in still a glass ceiling for women. I still believe women have to be better than men to get on. I personally feel that because there are so many women joining the profession, in time, when we really make up half, then I do not see how we can be held back. But those in charge may still prefer men."

GETTING BACK ON TRACK: RETURNERS WHO HAVE SUCCEEDED

After two years as a househusband, Dick Thompson decided it was time to renew his career prospects by going on the Association of Women Solicitors' returner course.

His previous job was with a small firm in Penistone, Yorkshire, where he lives with his wife, a public health doctor, and their two daughters.

Mr Thompson, a 37-year-old Australian, said: "I mainly did conveyancing. It wasn't the ideal job for me but I persevered due to indecision over where we were going to settle.

"I then decided to take one or two years off, as I was very keen to be a househusband and look after our two girls and show them that a father can also care for the family. The two years slipped by and last year I realised that for my own long-term employment prospects I had to get into something sooner rather than later.

"I went along to the course last September, feeling rather lacking in confidence and uncertain what type of work I wanted to go into - though it definitely wasn't going back into small-firm conveyancing.

"I used to work in a legal-aid practice in Australia, and the first speaker on the course talked about welfare law and legal aid and he fired my enthusiasm.

Mr Thompson has been working as a volunteer adviser in the Barnsley Citizen's Advice Bureau for two days a week, and is now applying for a paid position which would combine casework with a mix of training and legal education.

While some on the course subsequently reported a depressing lack of response to their applications, others had now found work - one who offered to shadow and help out for free was taken on after three months.

Sandy Bannister, 34, lives in Swindon with her husband who is a teacher. She took about six years off to look after her three children, now aged four, five and seven.

"My confidence took a real knock during that time and it was hard to imagine myself back in a work environment. I went on the course as a test to see whether I still wanted to go back into law.

"Whenever I heard legal programmes, I switched off mentally because they made me aware how much I didn't know any more.

"The course was a very good refresher and I was relieved to find I hadn't forgotten as much as I thought. It was also good to meet people with similar worries and to know you are not alone."

After the course, Mrs Bannister, who has been blind since birth, went on a computer course and the organiser put her in touch with a local solicitors firm, McEwen's. Within a few weeks, she had been taken on part time, concentrating largely on matrimonial work and will-drafting.

"Luckily the firm was very understanding about part-time work and I have very clear ideas on how to make it effective. I think some employers can be needlessly dismissive of it.

"I wasn't designed to stay at home for ever, but I don't think I could have done it if I hadn't been on the course."

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