Marisa, Commercial Legal Team, National Highways (16 year break)
I joined National Highways’ Commercial Legal Team in January 2021, as part of the company’s Returners Programme, which supports people transitioning back into the workplace following a career break.
In my case, my career break meant the best part of 16 years away from practising law. I initially took time out to raise a family, however when our youngest daughter was diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition aged just 3, all career ambitions I had evaporated. All my energy was devoted to my daughter’s care, juggling 24/7 medical interventions and hospital trips with relentless efforts to secure the educational support necessary for her to attend school. I spent days sat at the back of my daughter’s classroom, attending every school trip and trailing her on playdates, simply to ensure that she had the same experiences as her contemporaries.
When I wasn’t looking after the children, I dedicated my time to raising awareness of my daughter’s condition, attending Parliament, lobbying MPs and organising numerous fundraising events. Around this time my father fell ill, so I ended up co-running our family corporate events business in my ‘spare time’. Although my days were insanely full, I really missed my legal career and longingly watched from the side-lines as my ex-colleagues climbed their respective career ladders.
As the children got older and as my daughter became more independent with her care, I started considering whether it might be possible to return to my career. I took an administrative job to test the water and joined the Women Returners’ Network, where I heard many inspiring stories of people like myself who had managed to transition back to their careers years after leaving.
Through Women Returners I attended a National Highways’ presentation on its Returners Programme. The Programme consisted of a 6 month placement, with full support in place to smooth the transition back to work. What stood out was that National Highways were recruiting with vacancies in mind – if the placement went well, a role would be waiting at the end of the 6 months. Exciting opportunities were available across the business, however my interest was piqued to hear the Head of the Commercial Legal Team discussing the legal roles available. It was clear from the outset that National Highways valued the unique life skills that were often gained during a career break – I would brush up my legal knowledge via comprehensive, bespoke training provided during the 6 month placement. I left inspired, completed the application form and, after an interview (which focused on how I had spent my career break and National Highways’ values), I was thrilled to be offered a place on the Returners Programme.
I joined National Highways in January 2021, just as the country was entering the third national lockdown, with schools shutting around me: far from ideal with two children at home! However, from the outset I both surprised and grateful for the genuine support that was forthcoming – during our first conversation, my boss emphasised that I was to take whatever time was necessary to assist my children with home schooling. This level of understanding and empathy set the tone for my placement, leaving me deeply impressed from the start.
As part of the Returners Programme I was given my own mentor, who provided outstanding support and fast-tracked my settling in process by sharing his considerable knowledge of the company. There is also a buddy system, where you are connected with a previous Returners’ Programme graduate in your department. I was fortunate in this respect, with 3 of my direct colleagues having joined National Highways via the Returners Programme.
During the 6 month Programme my cohort of Returners attended a series of bespoke career coaching workshops hosted by Women Returners, focusing on the development of soft skills, such networking, each designed to ease our path back to work. We also had our own series of business insight presentations from key individuals across National Highways. These sessions were incredibly useful and introduced us to the different teams within the business.
All things considered, my remote start was extremely smooth – everything was in place for me from day one, with IT equipment delivered to my home and superb remote support from the ever-patient IT Helpdesk. My team were amazing and went to great lengths to make me feel welcome, with virtual coffee breaks and chats promptly organised and buddies on hand to answer my questions. One thing that struck me early on was the quality of the work we do. If I’m honest, I never thought that I would find roads exciting, but I feel privileged to be involved in some high profile, fascinating matters. I have been given a broad range of interesting work and always feel that my input is valued. The legal resources and training are excellent and have allowed me to quickly bring myself back up to speed. I find I am being stretched, but in a positive way – one thing that stands out is just how willing everyone is to take the necessary time to talk through matters – the support is phenomenal.
Like many businesses, we are slowly transitioning back to the office. The company recognises that individual circumstances differ and has made it clear that everyone should move forward at their own pace. For my part, I was delighted to finally meet some of my team ‘in person’ back in May and I am looking forward to an Away Day next week where I will meet the rest of my team face-to-face.
I would highly recommend National Highways as an employer – I couldn’t imagine a more supportive, welcoming and inclusive environment. Equality, diversity and inclusion really do lie at the heart of the business and the Returners Programme perfectly encapsulates these values. The Programme itself is outstanding, reflected in its numerous awards. I am incredibly grateful to National Highways for the second chance I’ve been given to pursue my legal career and I fully intend to make the most of every opportunity that comes my way.