How to Come Back After Time Off Due to a Disability

Q: I have taken several years off from practice because of a disability. I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to an overwhelming trauma. I greatly enjoy practicing but the PTSD simply made full-time work impossible.

I want to return to full-time practice and do not know how to explain the time off from practice. My game plan to reenter practice is to volunteer, attend seminars, conferences, study on my own, and network. But I also need to address several possible concerns by an employer. My concerns are as follows:

  • First, I am concerned that the gap calls into question my commitment to law. I don't know how to explain that the absence was due to unfortunate life events and not a lack of commitment on my part.
  • Second, I am concerned that the length of my absence -- several years -- calls into question my ability to practice. I don't know how to explain I was simply dealing with something so bad it would make practice impossible for awhile but after treatment would not interfere with my practice. In part, I think I can ameliorate that concern by pro bono work, but I'm not sure what to say.
  • Third, being truthful is important. At the same time, how something is presented is important and the amount of information given is important. I am not sure what to say and how much to say.

Any guidance would be greatly appreciated. I am one of those people who actually loved law school and found practice exciting and stimulating -- even as a junior associate.

A: I commend you for your desire to be truthful, and there is certainly nothing shameful about having suffered trauma. However, a disclosure of this nature is likely to raise more questions in the minds of most lawyers than you will wish to answer, or than you will be given a chance to answer. An overly-defensive posture regarding this period of time may also increase the concern of an interviewer. I would recommend emphasizing always your most positive qualities: your love of law practice before your departure, your enthusiasm for returning to law practice, and the fact that "personal circumstances unrelated to the practice of law" required you to take a leave period that has now ended. That should take care of it. By not getting into too many details you can avoid follow-up questions that lead you farther into an unproductive discussion and away from you most marketable qualities and experiences. If anyone does inquire further, I would find something else very general but truthful to say -- that an unspecified medical condition intervened, that there was a life challenge you needed to face, or that you took a period for introspection and reflection. That should take care of it. As a practical matter many potential employers will avoid further inquiry into your medical background since doing so could create liability for them under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If you respect your own need for privacy, others will also be likely to do so. I hope you find a challenging and rewarding position soon.