New program helps attorneys return to legal field after hiatus

Published Jul 8, 2013 at 10:45 am (Updated Jul 8, 2013 at 10:45 am)

Like many women in the South Hills, Upper St. Clair’s Erin Gibson Allen decided to step away from her career as an attorney after her children were born.

But last summer, after a 13 year hiatus, Allen decided it was time to reenter the workforce. In the fall of 2012, she started working part-time with Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan, chief magistrate for the U.S. District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania. According to Allen, the seven-month, unpaid “returnship” was an “ideal” way to get back into the legal field, as the job provided opportunities for her to get back up to speed with changes in software and research methods and to polish her legal writing skills. This May, Allen joined Reed Smith, LLP as a staff attorney with their investment management group.

While researching her options for the best way to reenter the legal profession, Allen discovered that Pace University in New York City and American University in Washington, D.C., offered programs specifically designed to help lawyers reenter the marketplace.

“I wish a program like that had existed for me,” said Allen. She realized that if she was looking for a way to reenter the legal profession, there were probably other women in the same position. Allen reached out to another USC mom and attorney, Alysia M. Keating, the director of Diversity and Gender Equality for the Allegheny County Bar Association (ACBA), to see if there was any interest in starting a similar reentry program in Pittsburgh.

Keating was a partner in a Florida law firm with two children at home with a nanny when she decided to take time off from her career. During her seven years out of the legal market, the family moved to Pittsburgh. After her youngest child started grade school, Keating was ready to return to the law, and the experience was one that she still remembers well.

Returning to the legal field after you step out is a shock to your confidence, Keating said. “I had been a partner in a law firm and was applying for a non-traditional position, and I still felt out of touch.” She said it would have been nice to have a way to reenter the field, so when Allen approached her, Keating was interested in developing something to make it easier for others trying to come back to the law.

The result of Allen’s and Keating’s efforts is a program called Back to the Bar, which will launch this fall. Sponsored by the ACBA, Back to the Bar is designed to provide attorneys looking to return to the traditional practice of law or those who are looking to use their legal background in a non-traditional career with the skills they need to successfully transition back into the workforce. Allen and Keating believe that the program is the first program of its kind being offered by a metropolitan bar association.

Keating said the ACBA has been a trendsetter on issues like gender equity for many years, so it was natural for the organization to be doing Back to the Bar. She said that law classes are about a 50-50 mix of men and women, but when you look at equity partners in law firms, only about 15 percent are women. Back to the Bar is a way to help “get the talent back”.

Back to the Bar was created with input from practicing attorneys, attorneys using their legal background or degree in non-traditional careers, career services personnel and faculty from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Duquesne University School of Law, and attorneys currently seeking to return to the legal profession. The program provides training in practical legal skills, career-related workshops and the opportunity to network with similarly situated individuals and members of the local legal community. Special Council, a legal placement service, is an initial corporate sponsor.

Keating said the people who put the program together understand and know what people need to return to the law because they had been there. “It’s based on our own experience,” Keating said. “It creates a safe environment with similarly situated people, both men and women, to build their confidence and market themselves to come back in the profession.”

Allen said that law is such a time-consuming career that many attorneys walk away for a while, sometimes to care for children or elderly parents, or even do volunteer or part-time work. She said one of the topics covered in Back to the Bar is how to translate those life experiences, like being a PTA president, to valuable skills on a resume.

Back to the Bar opens with a presentation by iRelaunch co-founder Carol Fishman Cohen. Subjects covered in the program include guidance and workshops on creating a resume and cover letter; presentations on interviewing techniques and opportunities to practice, including mock interviews; instruction by a leading expert in social media; primers on online legal research and current software used in the legal profession; panel presentations on civic and bar association involvement and career re-entry options; assistance from legal writing experts in creating an effective writing sample; a mentor in the legal community who can provide guidance; and networking opportunities in the legal community.

Since returning to the legal profession, Allen said that in some ways law is very different, but in other ways, it feels as if she never left. She said that Back to the Bar helps attorneys realize they still have the skills and that they come back surprisingly quickly.

Allen said reentering employees offer life experience and maturity, as well as the ability to practice law. There’s a definite value, said Allen, and there’s been a lot of support from the legal community about developing this program.

Back to the Bar will be held two days per week over three consecutive weeks to allow time for reflection, preparation and the completion of “homework”, e.g., creating a resume and writing sample, between sessions, which generally run from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. The program is scheduled to start on Sept. 24 and conclude on Oct. 10.

All program sessions will be held in downtown Pittsburgh, with the majority of the sessions being held in the ACBA conference space on the Ninth Floor of the City-County Building (414 Grant Street). The group will move to other venues downtown, and tours of the county law library and the federal and state courthouses may be available.

The cost of the Back to the Bar program is $395, and includes a one-year membership in the Allegheny County Bar Association.

Since class size will be limited to ensure individualized attention, early registration in recommended. For more information or to register, visit the program’s website at

comments powered by Disqus