“For all the moms out there, I was playing for you today.” Serena William’s on court interview after finishing runner up in the Wimbledon final on 14 July 2018 resonated with me. I have spent the past 8 years championing women back to work – when they believed they were ‘just a mum’, I believed they could be whatever they wanted to be.
Irrespective of their profession, I cannot think of a better role model for mothers to return to work than Serena – she acknowledged in the press conference that a couple of months before she didn’t know “how I was, how I would be, how I would do, how I would be able to come back; it was such a long way to see light at the end of the road.” Do these questions sound familiar to new mums? Of course they do. But hearing the self-doubt that does not spare even a most accomplished athlete like Serena Williams is both familiar and refreshingly honest.
In a survey we carried out for Obelisk Support, all those we interviewed said they stopped work because when they became mothers they couldn’t juggle work and family and often they found employers not being open to flexibility.
Last week, Obelisk Support turned 8. I founded the business to change the way work was outsourced in the legal sector to be more inclusive and for sure, not to alienate a fantastic talent pool – mums. Our mission from the outset, was to empower lawyers to get back to work from home and thus to make sure that talent remained active in law. About 80% of our 1,000+ consultants are women looking to balance personal responsibility and work, and many would not have thought working flexibly would be an opportunity available to them in their chosen profession. Since 2010, we have seen the stock of working mothers rise and rise and it is great that last week we had the most visible returner mum to date take to the global stage in Serena Williams, just 10 months after having her baby girl.
With a little help from Serena, here’s what I learnt in 8 years of championing lawyer mums back to work:
#1 Take the Opportunity
One of our first client jobs involved a mum of 3 coming all the way from Bristol to work for a couple of days in London. She needed to cut her teeth on a routine corporate due diligence transaction to able to measure her level as a lawyer; she had been out of work for 7 years and was keen to earn some of her money to spend on Christmas presents, as it was just around the corner. Taking the opportunity was the best decision she made – not only did she secure further assignments with Obelisk, while working from home, but with time she ‘graduated’ into a permanent role in a local firm.
#2 Take it One at a Time
Especially when returning on a freelance basis, taking it one job at a time is a great approach not just to understanding how clients work, but also how you want to work. There are new ways of working that allow you to test the water before committing to a full return. Sometimes the flexibility is offered after a settling in period, once the client gets comfortable with the lawyer skills set and communication style. Getting back to doing even an ad hoc piece of work can help pave the path for a higher volume of work.
#3 Stay In the Game
There is no doubt that having a longer career gap makes clients ask more questions, and a lawyer can find it harder and harder to explain away the gap. Some businesses carry out ‘gap analysis’ of CVs that go as far as needing to prove the number of children by providing their birth certificates! If this doesn’t persuade you to stay in the game, however little, I don’t know what will. However, that’s not to say that we haven’t had returners such as Jane that show a long gap doesn’t make your return impossible.
#4 Work On Your Game to Get Better
Some clients refer to returning mums as “rusty.” Newspaper headlines welcomed Serena back in similar fashion earlier this year when she first competed after having her girl. But it didn’t take long before the ‘rust’ was shaken off and she made another Grand Slam Final.
If you have the will to work, then you can improve the skills and keep getting better. Excellent advice for those that think the law changes so quickly you can’t keep up and therefore it’s better to stay out. You’d be amazed how quickly the knowledge returns with a little positive focus on improving all the time.
#5 Continue On Your Own Path
Many mums don’t have their sights set on a career ambition when they first return. Whilst board positions or leadership roles could come, the pressure of achieving too quickly can also be a reason to drop work altogether. So take your time, as long as you stay on the ‘path’.
#6 Don’t Make Any Excuses
Once you decide to return, and businesses make decisions that rely on your presence and contribution, it is only fair that you take work on a ‘no excuse’ basis. Being professional is critical to success and your attitude at work can create the best or worst impression for a client. Once you commit, be reliable and understand that you are dependable at work and at home.
#7 Your Priority is Your Baby
I know of no parent that doesn’t agree with Serena in this respect. By being open, she has yet again given permission to working mothers to talk about their kids. We are no longer living in a time when kids need to be hidden out of sight but similarly, she said that she is disciplined in separating work from her time with the child. She has set a clear timetable to make time to train in the morning after which she spends the bulk of her time with her daughter.
#8 Be More Ready
Before starting a role, it is important to prepare –read about the client and the type of law, ask questions and be ready. Understand what you wish to achieve and how you need to fit in to do the best you can during an assignment.
Ultimately, The Choice is Yours
You can be whatever you want to be if you want to go back to work – and there’s no pressure to do that as having a child is a completely full time job. But to those that do want to go back to work, “you can do it, you can really do it.”