Introducing the Agony Aunt

Welcome to the new face in The Attic – our very own Agony Aunt; here each week to answer all your questions and quandaries about how to make work, work.

The first question was raised at an Obelisk event this week – and goes to the heart of so many real life situations for lawyers – both women and men – who are juggling work and family life. “I’ve just started a new project, but my child is ill. What do I do?”

The Agony Aunt’s advice on this issue is below. But first, let us introduce you to the Attic’s Agony Aunt, who draws on Obelisk’s diverse experience and expertise to make your dilemmas a doddle. She is skilled in the art of under-complicating life (no matter how busy and demanding family and work life can be) and, above all, she is always human first.

Every question and real life story put to the Agony Aunt will be treated with total respect and everyone who gets in touch will remain anonymous. The Agony Aunt – a new weekly column here in the Attic – is a safe place for you to turn to get professional and practical advice in response to the questions and quandaries that so many lawyers face when making work work.

If you are feeling out of your depth in the digital age, if you’ve lost your Magic Circle mojo, need to brush up on training or, like so many lawyers with a young family, you are struggling to create the right model for returning to work without impacting on family life, send your questions and share your concerns with the Agony Aunt and she will be your guide.

Our first question is perhaps the best place to start. Weeks into a new project, one of our consultants was facing a classic work life/family life dilemma; her child was ill. Turning to the Attic’s Agony Aunt for help, she asked: “What can I do?”

“Returning to work and starting new projects can be difficult, even at the best of times. It’s very common for lawyers with children – women and men – to feel detached from the profession they knew so well and, to a large extent, defined them. After months if not years away from the office your confidence can be a critical issue. What do I say in interviews? What do I wear? How on earth does this new technology work? Not to mention all the changes that have taken place since you’ve been away from work, to the legislation and how the legal profession now operates. Having become a mother or father – both internally and externally – it is a huge and painful step to go back to work, leaving your child behind. Until you experience it, you can not prepare yourself for the guilt you feel when you pick up your son or daughter after their first day at nursery. You know from those eyes that they have been crying all day. But thankfully, after just two of three days, most children take to nursery like ducks to water, leaving you free to dive back into your work with real energy and determination. Then, illness strikes.

I understand the depth of the dilemma when, after going through the pain of returning to work, your child becomes ill and the model you have built for combining work and family life is potentially under threat. Cliches are often based on real truths; you suddenly find yourself between a rock and a hard place; as a dedicated, loving parent, and a talented, ambitious lawyer. So, what do you do?

The good news is there is a simple strategy to follow. Take control of the situation, by using the true power of flexibility, communication and Obelisk’s expertise to manage what I’m sure will be a short term situation.

First, and obviously, establish how ill your child is – for your child’s welfare primarily and so you can plan your time and your work in the days ahead. If you think this is a medical situation, make a doctor’s appointment or go to A&E asap. But let’s assume the illness is not serious, given that is relatively rare, and your child has a bug or virus ‘going around’ at school. This means you need a plan for the next 24 hours, or the next two or three days ahead at most, until the bug has gone and your child is well again and back at school.

Remember children are incredibly resilient and often make full recoveries (with nothing more than a cuddle and a dose of Calpol) within hours. What appears to be a very real and difficult situation developing at home may not actually materialise and impact on your work.

The next step is to communicate with Obelisk and your client. The experts at Obelisk will be able to help and advise you on how to manage this situation, and by keeping your client fully updated they will be aware of what is happening and how you plan to continue the project whilst your child is ill. This is where the true power of flexible working will take effect. Be as flexible as you can be during this period, and be prepared to work in short productive bursts when you can. Stay focused as ever on producing high quality work for your client, working to the delivery date, and incorporate this short term situation into that timetable.

Remind your self this is real life. Children do become ill, whether you are working flexibly or full time. Remember we are all human – and dealing with a sick child is a very human situation. How you respond and manage the situation is what counts. With good communication and common sense, plus clever and strategic use of any time you have during your child’s illness, you can be there for both your child and your client, providing for both.

Delivering a great service for your client is critical, but ultimately the most important thing is your child. If your child is ill, it does not mean you are a bad lawyer. It means your child is ill. When your child has recovered, and when you have put quick, effective measures in place to make sure your project work can continue in a managed way that suits you and your client, then your work and family life will be balanced once more.

Another key part of the solution is calling on family and friends to care for your child during working hours. Starting with your husband, wife or partner. Bringing up a child is parents’ work – not a job for just the mother, or just the father. This teamwork will always get you through two or three days of child sickness.

So, if you get a phone call at home or at work, asking you to collect your child from school or nursery, of if your child wakes one morning and says ‘I don’t feel very well …’ use this strategy; assess the illness, communicate with Obelisk and your client, be as flexible as you can be around work and family life and remember the vast majority of illnesses come and go very quickly. Many of your clients will have children too, and will deal with this very same issue at some point. Follow these steps and they will understand your situation and as people, respect you for being human first.”

Have you faced this dilemma? What did you do?

Email your thoughts, or your new questions, to me via the Contact page. Together we can make work, work.