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EP 246: Returning to the Legal Profession After a 12 Year Career Break, with Kendra Johnson


Episode Description

Kendra Johnson is currently Senior Counsel/Manager, Management Liability Claims at the global insurance giant, Markel Corporation. Kendra had been out of the legal profession for over 12 years when she attended our Spring 2019 iRelaunch Return to Work Conference in metro Chicago, at a pre-Pandemic time when our conferences were in person! Shortly after attending, she was hired at Markel handling management liability claims. Now at Markel for over three years, Kendra has been promoted twice, and was recently honored with one of the Markel Style Awards for Excellence, awarded to only 11 people in the entire company. Kendra discusses the "play by play" of her job search, recounting in detail how she relaunched successfully back into the legal profession.

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Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Before we get started, I want to remind our listeners who are actively relaunching to make sure to register and upload your resume to our iRelaunch Job Board. Employers looking to hire relaunchers regularly peruse our job board for candidates for their career reentry jobs and programs. Okay, onto our podcast conversation.

Today, we welcome Kendra Johnson. Kendra attended our June 2019 in Chicago. That's when we used to have our conferences in person, they're now virtual, but at the time we were in Chicago. Shortly after attending, she was hired at the global insurance giant Markel Corporation handling management liability claims, and is now senior council/manager.

Kendra had been out of the legal profession for over 12 years at the time. She's now been at Markel over three years and was recently honored with one of the companies Markel's Style Awards for Excellence. She was one of 11 people in the company who received the award this year. Kendra, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Kendra Johnson: Thanks for having me. I'm so excited to be here.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, it's so great to read about your progression from our conference to getting this role, to being singled out for your excellence in performance. I just love reading about that and thinking about that. But let's start at the beginning and I want to know if you can tell us a little bit about your background and what you did prior to your career break, and what prompted you to step away to go on career break.

Kendra Johnson: Sure. I grew up in central Illinois and went to the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana. Spent four years there and knew pretty much all along I wanted to go to law school. Went to Chicago, Kent College of Law in Chicago, finished there in 1995 and went to work at a medium size law firm in Chicago.

Worked there for about seven or eight years, then I moved to another medium sized law firm for, I think that one was three years, and then moved to my final law firm until 2000 late, 2006, early 2007. I had a daughter in 2000 and then in 2004, I had twin girls. And so after spending twelve-ish years doing commercial litigation at firms that I loved, and with people I enjoyed working with, the parenting and working in a law firm combination was very difficult. In addition, one of my daughters was diagnosed with type one diabetes, and at that time, the technology was not exactly what it is today. So she was young, she wasn't even two, and trying to make sure that she was being treated appropriately, that was not a responsibility I wanted to give to somebody else. So, I had the opportunity step away and spend some time raising my daughters, which was an amazing experience.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. That's a lot, and it's interesting to hear about the progression there and also what led to that career break and a number of years home with your daughters. At some point, was there a moment where it was like a sudden moment where you thought, this is it and I have to go back to work, or was it gradual, or how did you figure out the right timing for relaunching your career?

Kendra Johnson: Sure. I did work for a little bit from about 2013 to 2018 in a school system, just working in a health office. And so that was perfect. I was on the same school schedule as my kids, it was some great benefits, but it was not a lucrative career to say the least. So in 2018 I had some personal life changes and knew that I needed to support myself, and my family accordingly.

So I decided I wanted to go back to the practice of law in some way. I knew I did not want to go back to a law firm, that was not something that I thought was appropriate for me at the time and where I was in my life. So I started looking at legal jobs that were either in house or with insurance companies or something that wasn't specifically a law firm.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And, what was that journey like? You were attending, you attended our conference in 2019, you mentioned that you were thinking about this in 2018. So can you talk to us about some of the things that were going on that were part of that search, and was there any updating involved, was there networking? Maybe bring us back to that time for a little bit.

Kendra Johnson: Sure. I got serious in January of 2019 of looking for a job. I had to go back and reinstate my law license and had to learn how to use LinkedIn, I was not using that, and began doing some searches with respect to relaunching and whether there were any relaunching possibilities in the legal field.

That's where I initially found iRelaunch, and was looking at articles and discussions on the website. I started reaching out to my network of colleagues. I had stayed in pretty good contact with a large number of people that I worked with over the three firms that I worked at. And they had all ended up in different places.

A few were still left at one of the firms, but most of them had moved on to other areas. So I reached out to them. I talked to my neighbors. I did searches online to look for jobs that I thought would be appropriate. I gave my resume to a good friend of mine who's a general counsel at a firm.

She went through it, updated it. She contacted people she knew. Other friends I had that I reached out, had lunch or dinner with them, asked them, what's out there? What do you think would be good for me? Is the company or place you are working, hiring? If you don't know of any of that, do you have any other leads?

And so I was continuously submitting resumes. Most of the interviews I received were based on a relationship that I had with a colleague somewhere. . So I would apply into what I like to call the dark abyss online. Yeah. And, I would then contact, I would look in LinkedIn, see who went at that company I knew, or who had a contact at that company, reach out to my contact and say, Hey, do you know of anybody over there? Could you look at my resume? Could you submit it to somebody? And so that ended up getting me two or three interviews. And then, I was still in the process of looking, and I went to the iRelaunch conference at Northwestern, which again was in person, which was great.

Understandably can't be done right now, but it was a great experience. There was a group of us who were there that were lawyers. Which again, trying to relaunch into the legal space is a lot different. There's not as many returnships. There's not as many opportunities. I'm hoping that's grown a lot in the last three years.

But at that time there wasn't. So we were all talking in one of our breakout sessions about what it was like to look for a job as a lawyer and what everybody else was doing. And then around that time is when I applied to Markel. I reached out to a very good friend of mine and said, Hey, it looks like, somebody there, would you be willing to send my resume. And she said, of course. And then that person happened to be outta state, but they sent it to the person who eventually hired me in Chicago. She called me up and said, Hey, I don't have a position right now, but would you be willing to do of contract for a bit until we figure out whether or not, we think a couple positions may open, but we don't know for sure.

And, that's a risk and a gamble because luckily there was benefits with it. So that helped me be able to make the determination. But, I said, sure, I'd love to try it. And it's a great opportunity for me to make sure it's what I wanna do and you to make sure that I'm the right fit for the company.

So I spent three months almost before the official position opened up. And that's when I became an official employee, but I had been working there since July of 2019. And that was a great way to launch into a space, because nobody was stuck with the commitment, but everyone got a chance to see what they liked. And in this case it worked out great.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. Okay. That is, that's quite a story and there are so many pieces of it I want to highlight. I'm just thinking about first, when you said you had to reinstate your law license, so what was it, did you have to take the bar again? Did you have to take continuing ed? Like, what was involved in that?

Kendra Johnson: So in the state of Illinois, you can put your law license in retirement, and you don't have to take CLEs at the time. And so at that time it was just paying a fee. I didn't have to take the bar again, thank goodness. I didn't wanna have to do that again at my age. So it was just paying a fee. At the time they were trying to decide if you had to go back and do at least half of your CLEs that you'd missed while you were retired.

But subsequent to when I reinstated my license, the state Supreme Court determined that no, you did not have to go back, you just had to start moving going forward to get CLEs. So it was not a difficult process. There was some concern that I might have to sit in a lot of CLEs, 'cause I had been out for quite a while.

But it ended up working out well that I did not have to do that.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And just for our listeners, CLE, continuing legal education.

Kendra Johnson: Yes. Correct? Correct.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. All right. And then you said that you networked with the lawyers that you worked with at the three different law firms. And you had already been out a number of years. So I'm just struck by how at iRelaunch, we talk about being frozen in time and I had this whole thing myself when I had been out for about 10 years and I got back in touch with the people from the past and they all remembered me. And that's like a point that's hard for some relaunchers. They think either someone's not gonna remember them or they'll remember them, but be mad that they weren't really in touch.

Now you said you were in touch, but what did those conversations? What were they like? Like how did you open them? What did you say or write and did most people remember you and you picked up where you left off? Or was something else involved?

Kendra Johnson: There were different levels. There were people that I worked closely with, one partner in particular, I had followed him to several different firms while we were working together. So he and I, the bulk of the work that I did was with him. So he was one of the first people I reached out to. So we had been in contact on social media and occasionally when I was in the city, we would meet for lunch.

So that was an easy contact, and a couple of the women that I worked with also easy contact, I was still in touch with them on social media, reached out and said, Hey, I'm going back to work, let me know, what you think? Can we sit and talk about it? But there were some people that I reached out to that had I had worked with, but had not really stayed in touch with, or if I had, it had been very slight on social media.

And, you're gonna get all sorts of responses. You're gonna get some people who are like, great, I can't wait to help you. Like my friend who was the general counsel who spent a good two hours looking at my resume and giving me suggestions, and my former boss who got me my first interview.

So, you have that and then you'll have some people that'll just say, oh, I don't have anybody right now, which they may not, they don't have the contact. Or, you'll have people that you don't know really well, that will go over and above for you. And people that, you know really well, that just are like, I don't have anything.

So it's, you get all sorts of responses. But I would say, I'm a very outgoing person. So for me, reaching out to people, it was a little awkward, but not terrible. I think you just have to make that step, that first step. Most people want to help. I know when I get a contact from somebody, whether it be somebody's child now that are looking for a job, or former colleagues, I'm always one who says, yeah, let me see what I can do. And sometimes I can't help, and I let them know that. But most of the time I'm willing to see if I can at least find something, connect that person with something. And so it wasn't terribly daunting, but it's a little awkward in some way, especially in the legal field when you've been out for so long, the law doesn't change.

But some of the technology behind how you bill your hours or what programs you're working on, those have changed. But the law itself has only changed in a way that is updated to the times. It's still the same legal analysis. It's still the same thought process. So luckily I didn't feel like the skillset really was out of touch or had not really developed as it should have.

I did also start trying to do a little bit of legal work pro bono, or just trying to sharpen my skill set a little bit when I first started looking as well.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, I want to ask you about that in a minute, but before I do, I just want to point out a couple of things that you're illustrating. Number one, going public with your job search. You spoke with your neighbors, you spoke with your old colleagues. You, you spoke with people who you were recommended to speak with. You didn't even really know, or you connected with somehow on social media. You certainly went public with your job search. And then the description of, sometimes people who you don't know very well are the ones who help you the most and the ones you know well, don't help you.

It's this illustration of you have to have lots and lots of these conversations to yield the few that act are actually meaningful in some way. And I just love how you, you have a perfect illustration of that.

Kendra Johnson: Yeah. And I would say too, I applied to 30 or 40 jobs to get three or four interviews. It was not uncommon even with contacts, even with having somebody put my resume in front of the right people, it still just didn't happen, for whatever reason. So it does require a lot of continuous follow up, applying at a lot of different places and using as many contacts as you have.

Carol Fishman Cohen: But those contacts are so important to getting you to the point where you had those interviews. So you mentioned that you had a few interviews. Can you talk about an interview or two that didn't go the way you thought it was gonna go, or maybe you thought it was great. Or did they ask you questions where you didn't really know the answer? What were some of those interview experiences, good and bad

Kendra Johnson: Sure, the first interview I had, I actually thought I was gonna get the job based on the conversation in the interviews. They had one other person to look at. The guy was very impressed with me. He said he was willing to look at what I had done in the past and thought it would be a good fit.

And then it took a long time to get a response. And then when the response came, it was, thank you for your application. We've found somebody who's a little more qualified. And that was really disheartening, cause, you know, I thought maybe that was it. So that was the first one.

And then I had, the second interview I had was, I walked into the company and the person who was interviewing me, she and I had been on opposite sides of a case when we were both practicing. And her, our names had changed, so we didn't realize who we were . And so we were both like, oh my gosh, Hey, it's great to see you.

Again, that one didn't work out for me either, but it was a little bit outside my skill set, so I wasn't extremely disappointed. I remember going to one interview where the person who was interviewing me asked me about all these programs, computer programs, and again, technology is not my biggest strength.

I'm certainly good enough at it, but I wasn't up to date on all of the new programs. Which today, I'm not even sure where those would apply but he was asking me all these questions. And I did not think that one went well, 'cause I had no idea what he was talking about. So those are some of the highlights of the interview process that I went through.

And then of course, the last one where she was very upfront with me and said, we don't have a position, but I think we can find work for you. And I think we can figure it out, and that worked out perfectly.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. So that's super interesting. So it was like, we don't have anything right now, but the person immediately went to this concept of doing some sort of contract work. So there must have been something about the interaction that was making her feel like this is a good bet, and to try to bring you in on a contract basis.

Kendra Johnson: Yes. There was a person who was out intermittently on leave. And so I was backfilling that role, but she had also gone to the same law school I had gone to, much later than I had. But, she was a very big proponent of hiring people from our law school. She knew that we had good skills, they were smart. She knew the firms that I worked at, and was a big champion of promoting women in the workspace. So I think all of that fit in, and then when she met me and I met a couple other people in the company, I had inter same interviews that I would have if I was coming in laterally for a real position, she made sure I met everybody, made sure I liked everybody and they liked me. And so that was a, I think, a really important step ‘cause she knew, I think she saw that there was some good experience and skillset there. And she knew my background and said, let's give this a try. We need somebody we've got work to do. We're not sure we have a full role. This might be a perfect way to launch.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And was she kind of a mentor, like, as you were, or were there other people who you were working with that gave you some support knowing you were coming back after a career break? Or what was it like in the first month that you were there?

Kendra Johnson: So our group was relatively small in Chicago. We have people all over the country in this group. But still at the time it was maybe eight or nine people. And she was my manager at the time. So yes, she was very much a mentor. So were the other two people that worked in the Chicago office with me. They were the ones who got the daily questions. What is this? Am I doing this? Because I had not had claim experience.

I had lots of legal experience, but I had never worked in claims. So there were some things that I didn't know, intuitively. And so I needed just a little bit of a reminder that, Hey, what is this? And how does this work in this program? And should I be doing this? Especially looking at things like coverage as to whether or not the policy covers the event.

That was something that, again, I needed more guidance and everyone was fantastic about that. And then my manager, the one who brought me in got promoted to director and another one of my colleagues was promoted to my manager. She's currently still my, I direct report up to her. Both of those women have been instrumental in really making sure that we have a diverse group of people and really promoting women in particular.

And in my case, really making me feel confident and comfortable and making sure that my career path was going the way that I wanted it to. And, ended up having two promotions in the last year, and that's been a great experience as well.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. It almost mimics a returnship type program to have, there's not the sort of formal programming that's in place, but the contract role and the media assignment and the mentoring, there's a lot of overlap there.

And it sounds the people who you were working with were particularly astute and supportive. Did you have to learn new systems? Did you get trained along with any other people, who I don't know if anyone else was starting out, how did that part of it work?

Kendra Johnson: So Microsoft word and Excel, were systems that I luckily knew when I was working in the school system. I had gotten pretty comfortable with those. But the systems that we use for the actual claims management are completely unique. And I had never worked with those before. So I definitely needed hands-on training with respect to those systems.

In fact, I don't know if other carriers even use these systems. Again, I've not been in other insurance companies, so I can't say, but they definitely needed to train me. There was not anyone who came in at the time that I was starting. So it was very much looking to my neighbor to the right or my neighbor to the left and saying , Hey, I'm trying to issue a check from this system. How do I do that? I'm trying to find a document in this system. How do I do that? And even today I still find little tips and tricks that make it easier to use those systems. So that was something that I definitely needed training on. We have since grown to almost 20 people and we do formal onboarding, and it's through the last few years, I've seen them really get good about how we train people, how they come into the group and really making sure that it's an easier transition when you're working on brand new systems.

Carol Fishman Cohen: You mentioned you're, you've been promoted twice in a three year period and your title now includes manager. So I'm wondering, did you move from an independent contributor role into a management role where people are reporting to you? Or like what, tell us a little bit about the promotions.

Kendra Johnson: Sure. So at the beginning of January, 2022, I was promoted to an executive role. At that point, no one was actually reporting to me, but there was some discussion that that might be eventually something that would happen down the road.

But I was doing things such as mentoring other people who had come in, supervising in a way of assisting, and helping new hires. And then fortuitously, though a loss for our group, my manager decided to take another role at another company and they said, apply for it please.

And so I applied for the job and got it. I now manage eight people. Which to go from zero to eight is a big difference. But I also have raised three girls, and I think that my experience as a parent, and being a little bit older has made that an easier transition than it might have been elsewise.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's terrific. And you also got the award, can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Kendra Johnson: Sure. So we have a corporate creed, the Markel style, and every year people are nominated for that award. And it is given out to a small group of people. This year it was 11 of us. And, I did not know I was nominated. I did not know that I had won.

We have a presentation where the whole company gets to see it on video, the awards presentation on video at nine o'clock Eastern standard time, 'cause we're all over the world. And, I had gotten a call the day before saying, Hey, we're gonna, we think somebody from our office has been awarded this. We're gonna all meet in the office and watch it online. And that was a little shocking to see that I had won and not know that it was coming. So it was, it was amazing. And then I had the opportunity, the company offered us the opportunity to come for our shareholders meeting.

I think there were six of us who made it and those six individual, five other individuals I met were just amazing people. And it was such a great experience. I got to see the company. I had never been to the corporate office in Virginia. And I got to meet other people in the company in different roles and got to meet senior leaders.

And it was really a great experience. And I was extremely honored to have received that award. It was the first year in several years that somebody from claims had been in, had been awarded the award. And actually two of us from claims got the award that year. It was something that made me very proud of what I had done over the last three years.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes, I'm just thinking about you as a relauncher coming off of that long career break, being with the promotions and going from independent contributor to being a manager and winning this award, it's, it's such an example about relaunch your potential, and I am so excited that we're having this conversation because I want more and more relaunchers to be inspired, but I also want more and more employers to hear exactly what you're talking about, it's so important.

Do you think, are there people in your, I guess the Chicago office and also in the bigger company, do you think they're aware that you took a career break, but, or at this point you've been back a number of years and people don't even realize it.

Kendra Johnson: I'm very vocal about it actually, because I do think it's important. I think that those people who have left their career, their career for whatever reason, for an extended period of time, have a great skill set that is extremely valuable and sometimes gets overlooked. And I think, again, being a little bit older, I had some maturity, I had some life experience on top of my skill set, and I think that makes a difference. A big portion of what we do is client relationships and relationships with our colleagues and relationships with people in the company. And I'm really good at that. And I learned that skill over 30 some years, that didn't come right outta college. And so I think having that skillset and having that ability to make those connections really helped me in the role that I was in, 'cause that was often what we heard back from clients or colleagues, she's always responding. She's responsive. She helps us when needed. She will take care of things that maybe aren't her responsibility, but get us an answer.

And that's an important skill. And I don't know that you, not that you can't come out of college knowing that, but I think it develops as you get older.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, I totally agree. And that's one of the great attributes of relaunchers in general. So again, illustrating something so important about the relaunching population, and that's a great way to wrap up our conversation, because we're already at the end of our time. And I want to wrap up by asking you the question we ask all of our podcast guests. And that is, what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about.

Kendra Johnson: My best piece of advice is network, network, network. Make the calls. Reach out to people whether you know them really well, or whether you just have a casual acquaintance. Explain to them what you're looking for. And sometimes they won't be able to help you, but that's okay, it might lead you to somebody else. Because I did have a circumstance where one of the jobs I applied for, a colleague said, “Oh, I don't have anything, but I know somebody over here that does.” And so then I reached out to that person and we got connected again. It wasn't the role that I ended up in, but it was a more interviewing experience and gave me another lead.

And that's really what you're looking for when you're trying to relaunch. You're looking for, if you don't have the ability to go through a returnship, you are looking for leads for positions that fit what you're looking for. And I think when you've been out of the workforce for a little bit, you know exactly what you want and what you don't want.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yep, exactly. Yeah, we talk about that. We are more self aware. We're more fully formed as people. We've lived more life, and it's different than when we were in that exploratory mode much earlier in our career, another attribute of the relauncher pool. So I'm really glad you pointed that out.

And I, I couldn't agree more about this, this networking piece of it. And when you think about it, you really have nothing to lose.

Kendra Johnson: Exactly. Yeah. You have no job as you're sitting there. So the worst thing that's gonna happen is you're gonna still have no job. The best thing that's gonna happen is you're gonna have a contact that leads to a job.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Exactly. I think that's a perfect place to leave it. Kendra, thank you so much for joining us today.

Kendra Johnson: Thank you so much for having me. It was so great to meet you.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes, it was great for me too. And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories.

I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. One more reminder for our listeners who are actively relaunching to make sure to register and upload your resume to our iRelaunch Job Board, because that is where employers are looking to hire relaunchers for their career reentry jobs and programs.

Also be sure to visit iRelaunch.Com to access our many return to work tools and resources, and to sign up for our mailing list. So you can receive our weekly return to work report featuring career reentry programs and jobs.

Thank you for joining us.

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