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Media

Obelisk named in Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2016

For the second year running Obelisk Support has been named in The Times Top 50 Employers for Women, which champions the UK’s most inspiring companies leading on gender equality in the workplace.

The on-going recognition from The Times newspaper brings Obelisk’s values to life; a business that is all about people and Human First.

In a special supplement published today, celebrating the Top 50 Employers for Women 2016, The Times said: “In 2015 Obelisk helped women to mix flexible work with family commitments, and it turned the First 100 Years project into an industry-leading digital platform.”

Obelisk was established in 2010 to provide world-class legal outsourcing to in-house teams within major corporates and law firms. Having spotted the legal profession was developing a “lost generation” of highly-trained female lawyers as a result of unfair policies and opinions around mothers returning to work, Dana created a new concept in professional outsourcing, driven by technology.

Through Obelisk, highly skilled ex-City lawyers who left the profession to raise families can work for major clients, in the UK and around the world, with the flexibility they need to make work work for them.

Today Obelisk has 800 lawyers on its books of which 90% are mothers, and the business has a core team of ten based in its office in Farringdon, of which 80% are female.

Dana Denis-Smith said: “To be named in The Times Top 50 last year was a great honour and it was a great milestone in Obelisk’s journey. But to be named two years running is much more important. It shows we are building very permanent foundations for Obelisk – a business that is all about people.”

“This on-going recognition from The Times proves what we are doing is both right and relevant for businesses and people. We are creating positive change in the workplace and in society, and we are constantly growing our own business too – up 200% year on year. So by putting diversity, inclusion, flexibility and equality at the heart of our business, Obelisk is continually achieving great things.”

In addition to The Times Top 50, Obelisk has been shortlisted in four categories in this year’s Legal Week Innovation Awards, for driving innovation in Marketing, Human Resources, Diversity and Supplier Services.

Kathryn Nawrockyi, Gender Equality Director at Business in the Community, which produces the Top 50 list each year in partnership with The Times, said: “Huge congratulations to Obelisk on being named in The Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2016. They should be extremely proud of their success.  They have demonstrated a commitment to fundamentally changing workplace processes and cultures to make them inclusive to all, benefitting women and men at every level in their organisation, and I hope they inspire other employers to do the same.”

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Family & Work

Major study reveals huge drink problem in legal sector

If you walk down Oakley Street in Chelsea, heading towards the river and the beauty of Albert Bridge, on the left hand side, tucked away in a tiny back street, is a classic ‘London boozer’ called The Phene Arms.

It was made famous by perhaps the nation’s most famous alcoholic – George Best – who lived close by and made the Phene an extension of his living room.

You’d see him inside the main bar – an open, square-shaped space – enjoying a drink (often a large glass of white wine), a chat with friends or yet another photo opportunity with people who wanted their picture taken with George. This usually involved buying him a drink (often a brandy) before the photo was taken – all smiles and ‘arms around celebrities and heroes’ in the pub.

I used to drink in the Phene too, so I got to see George Best a lot, in a range of moods and moments, which gave me a fascinating insight into how an alcoholic truly operates.

Sometimes, George would come into the pub, smartly dressed in a tweed sporting jacket, smart trousers and neat slip on shoes. He’d have his black and white Fulham scarf around his neck, a smile on his bearded face and that iconic twinkle in his eye. He’d drink of course, but he looked fine, and as alive as The Fantastic Mr Fox.

Then, on other days, he’d be disheveled – dressed in a cheap-looking shell-suit, slumped in a seat, propped up on one arm. He looked down, out and gone.

I spoke to George a few times at the Phene, and stood next to him at the bar often. I remember looking down at his feet, thinking these are the genius feet that tricked and turned every footballer on the planet, and scored some of greatest goals we will ever see. Now here they are, carrying this drunk to and from the pub at the end of his road, day and night.

From what I saw, for all those smiles, in all those photographs taken inside the bar, there was a fragility and a sadness to George Best. His talent was colossal, but his drinking was destructive and, as we all know, despite his heart refusing to give up until the very last moment, it finally killed him.

But George Best’s decent into alcohol addiction isn’t a nihilistic story of fame and fortune. Ordinary people in all professions depend on alcohol – to celebrate, to connect and to drown their sorrows – opening the door to the same level of personal destruction that George Best reached. As the night wore on at the Phene, I saw he would pour the brandy into the wine, as one more fan lined up another drink after their photo had been taken. And, following the publication of a series of recent reports from around the world, it is increasingly clear that it’s lawyers who abuse alcohol the most.

The first report, published by the University of Queensland earlier this year, revealed lawyers in private practice have the “highest levels of alcohol” abuse compared to people in other professions. Now a new report, commissioned by the American Bar Association and the Betty Ford Foundation (always synonymous with Hollywood, drunks and drying out) – has found over 30% of practicing attorneys in the US are ‘problem drinkers’.

This is the most comprehensive study of alcohol abuse in the legal profession ever carried out, with more than 12,000 attorneys taking part across America. To put the results into context, based on how much and how often people drink, there are more than twice as many lawyers with a drink problem compared to doctors. So, there is clear blue water – or should I say clear red wine, or clear golden beer – between lawyers and other educated, high-earning professionals who also work in stressful jobs. The question is why?

From the data we now have on lawyers who admit to abusing alcohol we now know:

  • 27% said their drink problem began in law school
  • 44% said their drink problem emerged during the first 15 years in practice
  • More than a third of lawyers aged under 30 are problem drinkers.

Traditionally, lawyers have tended to drink more the older they get, or – more accurately maybe, the higher they climbed within their firm. I’ve known lawyers who have almost made drinking a part of their job once they reached partner level, when entertaining clients and winning new business became a greater part of their role.

But it’s clear lawyers are now abusing alcohol far earlier in their careers. One theory now gaining momentum is the more modern, additional pressure of starting your career with so much student debt, plus how hard it is today to secure a training position within a firm and then keep up with the pretty brutal workload in this highly competitive sector.

The net result of all this pressure can be found in the medical evidence that the new report puts forward, showing the link between well-being and using alcohol as some kind of crutch, masking serious conditions such as depression and anxiety.

The new report found that 28% of attorneys have depression, 23% experience stress and 19% suffer from anxiety. So, after another hard day (or night) in the office, or as part of a regular ‘gang’ who drink after work, or to medicate yourself against your emotional self, it’s very easy to say “I’m in …” when a colleague asks “Who’s up for a snifter after work tonight?” In Britain, for years, it’s been all too easy to hide behind the culture of drinking, disguising a personal issue with the power to consume and kill. Remember the legacy of George Best. A genius, reduced to a drunk.

Back in the 1960s Manchester United failed to look after their young rising star, but, to be fair, fifty years ago we understood very little about drink and drug abuse compared to today, and there was nothing like the infrastructure that we have today to provide support for those who need it. But, in 2016, can modern day law firms really look you in the eye and say they don’t know alcohol is a problem for lawyers, or they don’t have the methods or the means to provide the help their lawyers need to put alcohol back on an even keel?

We should applaud the legal sector on the other side of the pond for carrying out such a major study, to help lawyers and law firms address the very real issue of people drinking too much, too often. In the words of a classic pub landlord, it’s “time, gentlemen please” for a similar, thorough review of the situation here in the UK.

  • Binge drinking

This is top of the list. Binge drinking comes in two forms; drinking a lot in a short space of time (driven by how few spare hours lawyers can have these days to do anything else but work) or setting out to drink to get drunk.

We never use the word in our invitations. You don’t hear one lawyer say to the other “I was thinking of going binge drinking tonight, would you like to join me?” – but this is precisely what many lawyers set out to do when they leave the office at the end of the day. Come 6pm, bars, pubs and pavements across the City are packed with lawyers, drinking a lot, in a short space of time.

Now I’m no puritan, and I’ve had many, many hilarious and wonderful nights out with lawyers and ‘booze’. My mind drifts back, rather vaguely I must admit, to evenings at the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden, back in the late 1990s, when I would drink beer after beer with a bunch of lawyers from a small to medium sized firm (you might say a pint-sized firm …) that no longer lives within the shadow of the Lamb and Flag – which, just like The Phene (oh dear, there’s a pattern emerging) – is another classic London ‘boozer’ tucked away up an old side street. So, I’m not anti-alcohol, I don’t count units (because I think we all know when we’ve had too much …) and I’m not dismissive of the ‘good times’ it can bring.

But there is a difference between social drinking, and problem drinking. There is a problem when the drinking takes place when people are alone, or when the drinking is really the appeal, not the company, or when people just can’t stop. And I believe – from the people at the bar serving the drinks, to the partners and colleagues at work – we all have a responsibility to look out for the people who need support, not another drink. We can’t afford – as responsible employers, and as ambitious businesses – to have our team dragged down by alcohol.

  • Addiction

Left untreated, problem drinking can become an addiction. This is a drug, with a stronger grip than many others we have banned, that requires a fairly major programme to help kick it, if it does become an addiction. The legal sector, like most of British society, welcomes alcohol too readily, ignoring the serious issue it can become for many people.

Paul Merson, the Arsenal and England footballer (which makes me wonder, do footballers drink more than lawyers ..?) captured the on-going problem of being an alcoholic perfectly when he talked about living with this disease, avoiding temptation and working hard to preserve yourself. Reflecting on his own battle with alcohol addiction Merson said: “If you go into the hairdressers seven days a week, well, by the end of the week, you’re gonna have a hair cut.” Lawyers who struggle with alcohol and keeping the discipline you need to avoid pubs and parties etc must learn to ‘not go to hairdressers’ in order to avoid the inevitable.

  • Well-being

I’m not sure where or when it started, but the idea of ‘going dry’ for January is a great thing, and one that appears to have captured the imagination of lawyers across London and the whole of the UK.

Maybe it’s the love of rules and frameworks, but here, for 31 glorious days, we have an excuse, a reason, to stop drinking too much, too often. We can allow our minds and our livers to detox, and blossom once more. We can go to the gym (for once, rather than just paying the monthly membership fee …) and start to see and feel the health benefits. Put simply, we can start to live more normal lives. If you’ve spent January ‘dry’, remember how good you felt and, regardless of any national campaign or cultural event, make this your new way of life every month.

I remember spending a weekend in Wales with a great friend, who’s father was a recovering alcoholic. Usually on these trips, we stayed up late, drank too much and lost most of the next day to hangovers and sleep. This weekend, I didn’t drink much at all, and as a result I got up early and walked to the edge of their garden, to look at at the Black Mountains, washed in glorious sunlight, all majestic and inspiring. It was exactly the kind of moment a drunk would miss. As I stood there, my friend’s dad walked over and said: “It’s great, isn’t it?” “Yes” I said, thinking he was talking about the view. Then he went on “ … you can get so much done when you don’t have a hang over.”

In our busy lives, and as ambitious people, we all want to ‘get so much done’, so it’s always a tragedy when talented people don’t achieve what they are capable of achieving because of alcohol. How many more great games would George Best have played, how many more incredible goals would be have scored, if alcohol hadn’t taken over his personal and professional life? He was just 27 when he quit Manchester United. How many more talented lawyers will we allow to go the same way as George Best?

If you have a problem with alcohol, and want help and support, contact:

LawCare on 0800 279 6888 or Alcoholics Anonymous on 0800 9177 650

Categories
Family & Work

The Agony Aunt: How Baby Boomers Are Now Key Carers

Traditionally, her Majesty has always kindly sent a special birthday card to each one of her subjects who lived long enough to see their 100th birthday. But with one in six of the UK’s population now aged 65 or over – the so-called ‘baby boomer’ generation – our poor old Queen may soon end up doing nothing else but sitting there, day after day, signing a never-ending conveyor belt of birthday greetings, as more and more people beyond the Palace gates celebrate their centenary.

But no matter how many cards the Queen has to write, the real burden of parental care is falling on the middle-aged in society – people like you and me – who were born in the baby boom and now face the prospect of spending all our Summers of Love caring for our dear old mums and dads.

Ageing – Perceptions vs Reality

Talking of the baby boom, I saw a 72-year-old Mick Jagger strutting along the King’s Road this week (on his way to open a new exhibition on The Rolling Stones) with the same spring in his step that he had back in the Swinging Sixties. But although this Jack Flash is still actively Jumpin’, we shouldn’t always be fooled by the modern image of ‘old people’.

Ad execs (now thankfully called Mad Men) gave us the socio-demographic of the Silver Surfer (aged 65+, with pockets full of money and a house now empty of kids) who (according to advertisements for holidays and investment products) spend their days in open top sports cars driving along winding roads on America’s West Coast or in the South of France, without a carer in the world. That’s not a typo by the way. But the truth is many Silver Surfers struggle to even stand up (which is important for surfers, so I hear …) let alone ride the wave of retirement.

As a young pup reporter I remember being sent out to care homes to interview and photograph ‘old people’ with 100 candles on their cakes. My memory of these birthday boys and girls is of proud people, with frail bodies and contented but tired eyes. They sat in chairs, with their heads slightly titled to one side; struggling to listen and keep up with what was going on around them, but smiling and enjoying it all deep inside, somewhere.

My grandmother – aged 95, one of 18 children, who lost her home during the Blitz in Coventry in 1941 – now has dementia. Whenever I used to ask her ‘Are you alright nan?” she always used to say ‘Well, I’m still breathing’ or (her favourite) ‘No, I’m half left …’) But today, she would just look at me, squinting, trying to place me.

When Caring Collides with Career

So, as the reality of old age kicks in (and the cabriolets of California or Cannes grind to a halt, if they existed in the first place) let’s explore the new phenomenon within many modern families: “Is the time and emotional energy it takes to care for elderly parents starting to affect your career?”

If the short answer is “yes” (and short answers are fine, given how stretched you are already caring for your children, your parents and, oh yes, your careers …) then at least take some comfort in the fact that you are not alone. This is the scale of the issue now facing society in Britain;

  • 10 million people in the UK are now aged 65 or over
  • By 2050, this figure will have nearly doubled to 19 million
  • 3 million people in the UK are aged 80 or over, and this figure is set to reach 8 million by 2050.

That’s good news for the future of Britain’s tartan blanket industry (I don’t know why but that line reminded me of the late, great Ronnie Corbett, who lived until the age of 85 until last week) but not so great for the tens of thousands of middle-aged professionals who already have busy work, family and social lives – and not the time or space to think about caring for their parents on top of all their other key responsibilities and commitments.

Between friends, I hope it’s not too cold or callous (is it?) to say we had grown up thinking that pensions, care homes and retirement plans would look after our parents in later life. We didn’t think we’d ‘end up’ (a great telling phrase) being the ones who have to care for our parents in such a continuous and hands-on way.

Regardless of what Philip Larkin (who also came from Coventry) once wrote about, shall we call it, the ‘influence’ parents can have on their children, we do still love them. We call on the phone, of course. We visit, once in a while. We send birthday and Christmas cards but look after them 24/7? What? That was never part of the plan.

When you move out of the family home – after college, after landing your first serious job or after one too many parties where you raided your parents’ drinks cabinet (yet again) – you think that’s it. You are leaving the family nest, and your nuclear family will live under the same roof again.

But just as business models are being turned upside down, or certainly changed, the family model is changing too. So with private care costs (like house prices) now beyond most peoples’ reach, how do you adjust into your new role as ‘carer’ – cleaning your parents’ house, looking after their garden, cooking dinner, taking them to the doctors, or (the big one) moving your mum and/or dad into your own family home – when the day comes when they just can’t cope any more?

Advice and Guidance for Caring for a Relative

The key word is support. Support for you and your parents. And, from the outset, my advice is reach out for and accept this support as soon and as much as you can, because caring for elderly parents brings real practical, financial and emotional challenges for us all.

  • Get in touch with your local council to arrange a carer’s assessment for yourself. This will give you a professional perspective on what kind of support you need to successfully care for your parents.
  • Remember the carer’s assessment does not measure if you are a good carer or not. It works out how much support you need. So be honest about how much care your parents need, and how much care you can give them, set against the other demands on your time.
  • Prepare to deal with generational attitudes that lead some elderly parents to reject external help from the local authority. A lot of people, through both pride and being in denial about actually needing care, try to cope without external support, which only makes the situation worse for you as their main carer.
  • Contact your local Social Services to get a professional assessment of your parents’ health and social care needs. This may lead to you getting support from the local authority, with any equipment you may need installed at home, so the property (yours or theirs) is suitable for your parents.
  • Work out how much any external care will cost, and work this into your overall finances.
  • High quality care can come in the simplest of ways – from reading, playing music and just talking.
  • And remember to take regular breaks from being the main carer. It is vitally important – for your own well-being, family and career – that the care you provide to your parents does not consume all your time. It’s very human and honorable to take on the role of carer (this is your mum and dad after all …) but you will be in better shape – as a parent, an employer or employee and their carer – if you step to one side and let someone else take over, so your own independent life can continue. This is where other family members must step in and play their part (but sadly, I know this can be easier said than done).

The Gender Care Gap

Support does exist. But there are two worrying trends. The first relates to the speed at which business adjusts to social change. Look at the many years it has taken society to make flexible working a reality for parents who want to care for their children as well as their careers. With this track record, we should not expect companies to embrace flexibility based on parental care at any great speed. Having time off, or working flexible hours, to look after your child is made a lot easier by the fact that you can bring your beautiful little boy or girl into the office and melt the heart of even the toughest boss. You can’t really drag your old mum or dad into work, dressed in their overcoat and their old slippers, moaning about this and that, and expect your colleagues to respond in the same ‘goo goo, gaa gaa’ way.

The second relates to who does the caring. In families where there is a son and daughter, there appears to be an unsaid, unquestioned rule that the daughter should take on the role of the carer, sometimes regardless of geography, economics or much else. We have quickly and quietly assumed that caring for your parents, just like raising children, is women’s work. It’s not, it’s the responsibility of the children of those elderly parents, no matter what sex those children may be.

It’s taken women in the UK too long to get to the still unfair position around equality in the workplace, with gender pay gaps still being far too far apart, the number of women in senior roles still being far too low and the whole idea around starting and raising a family being one of ‘shared’ parental leave.

In the last five years, 200,000 women in two-parent families with children have returned to work. That is something we should celebrate and build on. It will be a tragedy, and a major step back, if we allow the issues around our ageing population to put these women back in the home once more, with their talents and their productivity discarded because they are now expected to care for their elderly parents.

We love our Queen for her sense of duty, her workload and how she sits at the head of our Royal Family. Every woman has the right to lead such a full and fascinating life. Every woman has the right to successfully combine work and family – caring for both their careers and their loved ones, from new born babies to old centurions. And, judging by the Queen’ health and well-being at her grand age of 89, it’s clearly a very happy and human way to live life. Despite having to write all those birthday cards…

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Family & Work

Facing up to redundancy with the Agony Aunt

Given the UK has been doing ‘ok’ for a while now, or at least a bit better than many other countries (source: my holiday in Greece last year), our latest official redundancy figures raised more than an economic eyebrow here at the Attic this week.

Government records show that in the three months leading up to January 2016 (which obviously includes Christmas and the season of good will) 111,000 people were made redundant in the UK.

That’s equivalent to the entire population of Exeter being dismissed in just twelve weeks. 111,000 people losing their jobs, their income and their security – not to mention their dignity, as they return home to tell their loved ones the devastating news.

It’s not a sweeping statement (which is rare for me) to say how rare it once was for lawyers to be made redundant. Being a lawyer has always been synonymous with both security and high salaries. The old saying was that lawyers are always busy, in recessions and booms.  But with the legal sector now as exposed as any other side of the British economy to competition and change, lawyers are no longer immune to work’s version of being dumped – making this week’s question for the Agony Aunt – “What are the best steps to take when facing redundancy?” – all too real and relevant.

This column is all about the real world – your real world – so if I asked you ‘How safe is your job?’  or ‘How safe is your firm?’, what would your answer be?

This growing lack of job security in the legal profession was confirmed by The Law Society at the start of this year, set out in black and white in its ‘The Future of Legal Services’ report.

“It seems inevitable that solicitors and lawyers face a future of change on a varied scale, depending on area of practice and client types. Business as usual is not an option for many, indeed for any, traditional legal service providers. The combination of a number of factors including the recession, market liberalisation and reform to legal aid make it extremely difficult to predict the future size of the profession in the long-term.”

That phrase ‘the future size of the profession’ has a chilling edge to it. With so many lawyers and firms increasingly surrounded by change – as businesses and economies around the world still try to adapt to the new order post 2008, as more clients buy legal services in new ways, as technology continues to change how lawyers work and with new kinds of firms creating new kinds of competition for the old guard – the future has never been more unsure.

So, as the legal sector prepares to shrink, or at least downsize, let’s prepare ourselves for what redundancy can bring – so we can cope with the immediate impact and then rebuild our careers once the dust has settled.

The immediate impact will hit you personally and emotionally. No matter how much the writing was on the wall, redundancy often comes as a shock. Nobody likes rejection. Despite all the talk about innovation within law firms, most lawyers are conservative types and very at home with rules and systems.  It is hard for some, and impossible for others, to picture waking up in the morning with no job and no office to go to, no salary at the end of the month (but some fairly substantial bills to pay) and no route to partnership any more.

You and your life can change, overnight. Whereas life was once all about being part of the firm, and having five Jermyn Street shirts beautifully ironed and on hangers on a Sunday evening, post-redundancy your horizon can be framed by anger, frustration, blame, worry, anxiety and a sudden loss of self-esteem.

Last week (when looking at bullying in the legal sector) I wrote about a new report that claims “lawyers have the worst mental health of all professionals” which leads to higher levels of alcohol abuse. Redundancy – that slap in the face, after all your effort and all those hours – can spark even greater personal problems. So it’s critical you don’t turn to alcohol to escape from this situation. It’s vital you don’t let redundancy make you redundant.

My advice is feel free to open a good bottle of red wine with family or friends when you first get the news that your services are no longer required. Have a glass or two (or three even, if it’s really good bottle of wine) and talk with the people who care about you most about how you feel about being made redundant. Don’t bottle any feelings of anger or shame up inside. And in today’s economic climate and changing world, remember redundancy is more about the re-shaping of law firms than the failure of individuals. In today’s project-based, contract-led, flexible world of work, moving on from one job, or being out of work for a short period of time, the stigma around being made redundant has gone. Your position was made redundant; not you and your skills.

Inspired by your human heart-to-heart with family and friends, allow the practical, talented lawyer to take over once more. Keep your dignity and your work ethic intact. Because, despite how you or others may define it, there’s work to be done.

Here are five key steps you can take to when facing redundancy;

  1. Read your contract

It’s the perfect place to start for all lawyers – checking on your firm’s policies and your entitlements.

Is your redundancy legally fair? Would you like to stay at the firm, if you could? Would you or they accept a pay cut, or a reduction in hours? Is there an alternative to redundancy? And are you getting all your redundancy pay? If you have worked at the firm for more than two years you’re entitled to statutory redundancy pay of a week’s gross salary for each full year of service if you are under 41, or 1.5 weeks’ gross salary for each full year of service if you are 41 or over. Your contract should set everything out for you to check.

  1. Work out your financial position

Work out your savings, plus how much you are owed through salary, holiday pay and redundancy pay. Then calculate how much money you will need for all living expenses for the next three months. A talented lawyer will be back in employment within three months. Making a financial plan like this will instantly give you a workable strategy to survive now, and then move on to your next role.

  1. Refresh your CV and social media profile

It may well have been some time since you put your CV and story together. Make sure all your relevant skills and specialisms are detailed. And make sure your story is consistent across all platforms, from your traditional CV (try to keep this to one or two pages …) to your Twitter and LinkedIn profiles. Set out a clear story to tell about why your last firm made you redundant. Get references from your last firm, recommending you and your abilities. And use this moment to spot any skills you would like to get, to add to your CV so far. This could be the perfect time to take a break and put yourself through new training to completely refresh your CV, making yourself as relevant as possible for the market today.

  1. Start looking for a new job straight away

Regardless of how financially secure you may be, look for a new job as soon as your redundancy is announced. Future employers are more likely to take notice of someone in work rather than out. So use the time between the redundancy being announced and your actual departure date to seek out new employment opportunities. Use recruitment agencies, job advertisements and your own contacts and network to find out about new jobs. And take this opportunity to find a job you really want to do.

  1. Be active

Exercise. Read. Spend time with loved ones. Enjoy your hobbies. Use the time you have to stay active and immerse yourself as much as you can in the things you love most about life. With a financial plan to get you through the next three months, dedicate yourself to finding a new job and living life.

One more strategic step you can take, is taking a new approach to law. For those of you who are made redundant from private practice, this could be the right time to move in house. One in four lawyers are now working in-house, with a growing number of specialists moving from law firms to major corporates. And, going one step on from this, more and more lawyers are taking th e very modern and very wise step of working flexibly, via legal services providers such as Obelisk Support.

Obelisk Support is driving real change within the legal profession by supplying lawyers to law firms and in-house legal departments within major corporate clients on a flexible basis. Men and women get paid the same salary at Obelisk, with most lawyers earning over £40,000 a year working fully remotely, at home, based around their family commitments.

So, given time, redundancy could be a very positive thing – acting as a springboard for you to enter a new, better job, or new training, or a new, flexible way of working. It is no longer something to be ashamed of, so don’t take it personally. But if you need more support, there is lots of help around within the legal sector. You can call The Law Society for example on 0207 320 5795

Solicitors can call for information on personal, financial, professional and employment problems. The Law Society will then refer you to the most suitable helpline for your needs.

If you have a story or an insight to share with the Agony Aunt about being made redundant, please get in touch via the Contact page on the Attic. All emails are treated with care, anonymously.

Next week’s question: “Is the time and emotional energy it takes to care for elderly parents starting to effect your career?”

Categories
Family & Work

The Agony Aunt tackles the injustice of bullying

Those of you who read the Agony Aunt regularly each week will have by now become accustomed to the occasional joke in my jottings – a funny one-liner here, and a clever quip there – to help bring a more serious issue to life. Well this week you may be sorry (or glad …) to hear that this week’s Agony Aunt is strictly joke-free. Because this week’s question – “Are you being bullied at work?” – is sadly a very serious and very real issue for many people.

Statistics show that one in four lawyers have suffered some form of bullying in the last five years. The lawyers who suffer most are women, trainees and people who have been qualified for five years or less, along with lawyers from ethnic minorities, and lawyers who are gay or bisexual. So much for diversity and inclusion …

There are many occasions when it is possible to look at other professions –banking, insurance or politics for example – and say lawyers are no worse. But bullying at work is not one of these occasions. The truth is the legal profession is the most serious, serial offender – fuelled by its hierarchical traditions, its adversarial systems and the personality type of the typical lawyer. I would normally add a joke here, about most lawyers not being particularly well known for fading into the wallpaper, or only having one glass of wine at office parties, or never being wrong or out done. But, like I said, bullying is no joke.

To understand both bullying and the kind of person who bullies others in the office, it is worth looking at the dictionary definition. The word ‘bully’ means ‘a person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate those who are weaker’. Sound familiar? The dictionary lists other interchangeable words and phrases; persecute, oppress, tyrannize, torment, browbeat, intimidate, coerce, strong-arm, subjugate, domineer; push around/about and play the heavy with’. Anyone spring to mind?

There are two types of bullying lawyers, with both men and women fitting the profiles. The “serial bully” selects one “victim” in the office and bullies them until they leave, before moving on to bully someone else, apparently at random. The “Aggregate bully” bullies everyone around them. Why do they do it? Experts say a perceived threat, personality differences, or simple but sinister desire to wield power is what drives people to treat others in this way.

As an Agony Aunt, I deal with human emotions, but I also use raw data too, to show that the issues we are exploring are based on reality. Here’s the data on bullying.

  • Of the 25% of lawyers who report being bullied in the last 5 years, 75% of them said the bullying was carried out by senior colleagues
  • 70% of lawyers say they have been bullied for a year or more
  • Bullies in the legal sector tend to be Aggregate bullies, with over 75% of bullying cases relating to groups of lawyers or even whole departments.

The bullying – although I think words like persecution and tyranny are far more descriptive of the impact, given so many of us link bullying to childhood in a way that can almost be forgiven because the bully is still learning and growing up at this stage in their life – can take many forms;

  • unfair and public criticism
  • always threatening to sack people
  • focusing on someone’s sexuality or race
  • not allowing holidays or time off
  • overloading someone with work
  • setting unrealistic targets
  • not giving any praise.

So, with 25% of lawyers experiencing this kind of treatment in the last five years, working in this environment every day, it is hardly surprising to read headlines like Report claims lawyers have the worst mental health of all professionals”

This recent report – written by Dr Rebecca Michalak of the University of Queensland – reveals lawyers have “significantly lower levels of psychological and psychosomatic health well-being” compared with other professionals. The knock-on effect of bullying is lawyers becoming isolated and over-worked. And, as night follows day, the report says lawyers in private practice have the “highest levels of alcohol and nicotine” abuse compared to people in other professions.

The continuous strain leads to mental and nervous breakdowns, fear of social situations, depression, physical illnesses and suicide. Even the strongest character can crumble as a result of unrelenting criticism and harassment, day after day. Bullying can leave talented lawyers and decent people with their abilities, self-confidence and self respect in tatters. For many bullied lawyers, the only way to end the persecution is to leave the firm, which can then set back their careers. We should all be ashamed that far too often the legal profession allows the victim to suffer and then suffer again, rather than tackling the individual and the bullying culture by developing policies and guidance to wipe out bullying in the workplace, or increasing the support for the most vulnerable; women, trainees, gay lawyers etc.

By visibly tackling bullying in the legal sector, more lawyers will feel that they can come forward and report the harassment they are experiencing, and name those responsible. And we all know how weak bullies really are. There are a number of things you can do, to take control and to take action;

  • remember you are a talented, highly qualified lawyer and be proud of what you have achieved in your career so far
  • get strength from the love and support of your family and friends
  • make work just one element of your life, with your hobbies, friends and family taking equal if not higher billing
  • tell yourself the bully has a problem, not you. Work out what their problem is; perceived threat, personality differences, a desire to wield power
  • document the bullying. Get your evidence; the bullying behavior, dates, times, who was involved, emails etc
  • report the bullying through the proper channels
  • tell the bully to stop, tell them what impact they are having on you and your work, and tell them you have reported their bullying to senior people at the firm.

This one heart-breaking but ultimately heart-warming email that I was sent this week says it all – and serves as a clear reminder to any law firm or chambers that still tolerates bullying as some form of strength or right of passage. Here is this week’s story and and insight. As ever, dealt with anonymously.

“I understand that law firms are here to serve their clients, and that requires a huge amount of dedication from everyone within the firm. But I urge any new lawyer coming in to the profession to learn, very quickly, that they work for a firm, not individuals. At first, when I was given more and more work to do, I felt quite excited .. to have this challenge to prove myself, and to see that the firm was growing. But when the work load just kept on growing, and growing, and the excitement turned to sheer exhaustion, I started to see this flow of work from my manager to me not as an act of delegation, but quiet aggression. I can still see the slight smile on his face, each time he handed more work over to me, with insincere questions about hoping this wouldn’t keep me at the office ‘too long’. Not once was I thanked for the effort I put in, and the sacrifices I made to get this work done. I often worked late into the night, knowing my husband and my children were yet again having dinner without me, and then having story-time without me. I’d get text messages from my husband late at night asking was I finished yet? And I’d reply ‘not quite’ knowing full well I still had hours of work on my desk. I justified things by looking around me and seeing colleagues doing very similar hours, and wanting to get on at the firm, for the sake of my career and my family. But I was slowly being beaten down, by a senior colleague who clearly enjoyed piling more and more work on to people, knowing what the result would be. I’ve seen colleagues go from vibrant and brilliant lawyers into broken shells. I’ve seen lawyers who enjoyed a drink after work turn into depressed alcoholics. I’ve seen marriages collapse. But not because of the law firm I joined – because of the bully I worked with. They are different, and it was only when he tried to stop me taking a day off work to go to my mother’s funeral that I realised this was bullying, and always had been. I went to my mother’s funeral despite not having the ok to do so. It’s vitally important when you are being bullied to remember family and friends, to find that moment to stand up for yourself, and to expose the bully.”

Consulant A, London

If you are being bullied at work, and would like to talk to an experienced team of people who can help you, here are a few links and contacts;

LawCare – charity supported by The Law Society and The Bar Council – helps lawyers tackle workplace bullying. 0800 279 6888. If your health has suffered as a result of the bullying contact your GP. Or you can speak to the National Bullying Helpline on 0845 22 55 787.

If you would like to share your stories and insights into bullying at work with the Agony Aunt, please get in touch via the Contact page on this site. All names and details will be treated anonymously, with care.

Next week’s question: “What are the best steps to take when facing redundancy?”

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Read all about it! The Agony Aunt looks at ‘CVs’ on social media

This week’s question for the Agony Aunt – “Do you know how to market yourself via social media?”– is made up of just 45 characters. That’s nearly 100 less than Twitter currently allows (pssst! a little birdie told me that Twitter is looking at increasing its iconic limit from a snappy 140 characters to a War and Peace-like 10,000 …)

So, in many ways, this week’s question (and my latest bit of gossip) is a perfect example of social media in action – short, relevant and shareable. I hope my question was ‘pinged’ around the Attic’s online community this week, in a digital deluge of retweets and likes.

With over 90% of employers now using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to screen applicants, I wanted to hear your stories of how tweets and posts have helped or hindered your career. Because, despite tweets sounding ‘short and sweet’, it is increasingly clear that social media has the potential to be both incredibly powerful, and incredibly damaging. Online, in the cloud and stored forever on hard drives somewhere, your professional and private lives are now searchable and visible, on PCs, Macs and mobile phones. In the same way that geofencing is becoming the new way for legal teams to put a defence or prosecution case together, social media can determine your own fate too.

The digital age is re-writing the rulebook when it comes to job applications and the paper-based, edited versions of our lives that we used to send to employers, along with a carefully crafted, handwritten letter. Anyone remember letters?

It’s hard to imagine now but there was a time – not that long ago – when people would think twice about writing ‘CV’ rather than Curriculum Vitae at the top of the sheet of A4 (that’s a piece of paper, for anyone reading this under the age of 30 …) in case it looked too informal. Now we are happy to upload photographs and videos of ourselves on social media, wide eyed and legless at a bar-be-que, dancing gangnam style at a wedding or sitting watching Britain’s Got Talent, smoking a fag, wearing a onesie. It’s very hard to look someone in the eye after they’ve seen this lot, and convince them you really are a serious professional, whose hobbies include cycling, gardening and Modern American Literature.

Now, if anyone still thinks social media is a fad, or something that doesn’t apply to them, let’s look at the data (which is now called big data, because like social media, the amount of data we leave behind is getting to be pretty massive too).

According to a recent survey, 55% of the companies who use social media to screen job applicants reject people because of what they discover online. Via sites like Twitter, Facebook, You Tube and Instagram, employers can get a good insight into who people really are, and then match this to the kind of person they want on their team. It’s fair to say, social media gives employers a window into our real world, in a way that traditional CVs do not.

It’s rare for example for someone to admit to having a drink or drug problem on their CV. Yet on social media, to capture and celebrate every moment of our lives, and to share these personal and special moments with our 1,527 best friends on Facebook, we upload photos and write posts that suddenly feel like incriminating evidence in the hands of a potential employer. 45% of companies say social media content referring to drink and drugs had put potential candidates in a bad light.  39% have rejected applicants after finding negative comments they have written on social media about their previous employers and colleagues. 38% have been put off by ‘inappropriate photographs’. I think – or should I say I hope – that refers to the mobile phone snaps of the Gangnam-style dancing, or the onesie. Heavens forbid that anyone had to walk into an interview room, only for the panel not to recognize them with their clothes on.

But this is not a new version of You’ve Been Framed (although with social media that’s often the case, by yourself …) Social media, when managed in the right way, is a serious platform for us all, on which we can build a clear and powerful presentation of who we are, what we do and what we believe in. We can use social media to connect with new groups, new companies and new people who can help our careers grow. The best advice I can give you about social media is to ignore the word ‘social’. This is media, above all – a way to communicate with the world, or a selected percentage of it. Think of social as driven by society; not sharing personal details from your social and private life. I’m sure even Andy Warhol would look at social media today and long for just 15 minutes of fame for us all.

So, how do you market yourself via social media?

  • First, register and get active on Twitter and LinkedIn if you’re not already using social media
  • Write a clear, compelling profile and keep it updated
  • Showcase your skills – your key skills. Keep all copy crisp and clear
  • Make your social media story relevant to the sector you are in, and the career you are building
  • Write at regular intervals. People will notice that you didn’t tweet or post for months at a time. Be consistent
  • Use blogs to position yourself as an expert and a voice of authority
  • Connect with new networks that are right for you and your career – LinkedIn and Twitter are especially powerful here
  • Google yourself and check what people can see and read about you
  • Use your privacy settings to give yourself maximum security
  • Upload a positive photograph of yourself
  • Always remember everything you upload, and everything you enable others to upload about you, will be visible to potential employers.

Let’s open some of the emails that you’ve sent me this week, to see if you are all following the do’s and don’ts of social media. Here are some of your stories and insights. All are dealt with anonymously.

“It pays to think of yourself as a brand when you use social media. Brands have guidelines for people to follow, about how or where the brand can be used, what the corporate colours are, and the font – and above all what the brand’s message and values are. Marketing departments and advertising agencies spend huge amounts of time and money making sure brands are always on message – so that the brand is always liked and believed in. It’s the same with anyone using Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn. These sites are like our billboards, promoting our brand. I don’t have a set of guidelines – you don’t have to be that rigid about it – but I do always look at a post or a photograph or a retweet before I press ‘submit’ and test it against who I really am, and how I want to be seen and judged by the world.”

Consultant A, Windsor

“I’m not in a position within my firm to write white papers or think-pieces on certain aspects of the legal profession, but I enjoy writing and sharing what I know and think about one-off issues or on-going topics that shape the legal sector. Social media gives me the opportunity to write, and to explore thought-leadership, with people around the world that I would never know or connect with without sites like LinkedIn and Twitter. By joining the right groups for you, and by selecting to connect with the right kind of people, you can benefit hugely from this audience. I’ve discovered statistics, insights and stories about the law via social media that have been incredibly useful to me at work. And from the replies I get, I now have an audience for the pieces I write myself. Social media is a real asset.”

Consultant B, London

“I told my senior partner on Monday morning that I got my black eye playing rugby at the weekend. He’s just seen a photograph of me on Facebook, taken on Saturday night, that shows the real story. I have a meeting with HR in 15 minutes.”

Consultant C, Birmingham

Next week’s question: “Are you being bullied at work?”

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Best years of our lives? The Agony Aunt helps with exam season

This week’s question for the Agony Aunt – “With exam season looming how can working parents help their teenage children prepare and keep their own sanity? – is perfectly timed, with schools and education very much in the air in homes around the UK.

For parents with children aged 11, about to make the giant step from primary to secondary school this September, March is the month when you get the all-important phone call, letter or even text these days, confirming that your son or daughter has been offered a place at their first choice school. In too many postcodes across the UK, this good or bad news can be life-changing, with some children skipping off to outstanding schools, while others slope in to others judged by Ofsted as ‘requiring improvement’. Remember the days when every lawyer in the land could afford to send their children to private school, and by-pass the world of performance league tables and Government inspections? Nowadays, most people are looking to buy a house close to a good Academy, rather than work every hour of the day to pay the £15,000 a year private school fees, plus all those skiing trips, and school uniforms, and keeping up with the Armstrong-Joneses …

Then, just as you are recovering from this selection ordeal, exam season looms on the horizon, casting a dark, worrying shadow over the long hot summer. The word ‘mock’ has never felt so cruel.

One letter (written in best handwriting) that was slipped into my school bag this week went to the heart of the issue. One of our consultants asked: ‘How can I manage my teenage children’s study with my own work?’ Of course, just when the demands on parents at this critical time in the school year couldn’t peak any higher, you then have to juggle this with the pressures of your job.

Any mention of school always takes me back to my own school days, and without wanting to sound like one of those ‘old fogeys’ in a bus stop or sitting on a park bench, things are very different these days aren’t they? When I was growing up, parents did grown up things, like go to the pub, or read the paper, or hand their children over to a nanny. Now, it’s de rigueur (I learnt that in French, in 1982) for parents to be so hands on, especially when it comes to learning and personal development, that they barely lose contact with their child during the day.  Reading at bedtime is a beautiful and important thing. And helping with homework is fine (if not slightly challenging, or is that just me?) But in today’s world we run the risk of being de facto (I think that’s how you spell it, I struggled with Latin) home tutors, with not enough time for our work, ourselves or our wider families.

So, what is the best approach for parents to take ahead of exam season, to make sure their children prepare well, and they remain sane? The answer is (now turn to page 142 in your books …) there are two positive approaches you can take; the Supportive Bystander and All Round Support.

Supportive Bystander

Rather than adopt the role of a strict teacher, giving orders to your child about the work they have to do, be sympathetic about the work load they are facing. It’s a clever tactic to say: “It’s so tough, all this work. I imagine it feels really intense.” By being supportive, you can be involved.

Remind your child they are not alone, and steer the conversation towards the revision and exams that the entire school year is facing. Ask how other children at school are managing, and what tips the teachers have given the pupils:

  • How teachers have suggested you should plan your time?
  • Tips for effective revising?
  • Have they been given any past papers?

And the Supportive Bystander will offer to help:

  • Create their child’s revision plan
  • Visit school to hear what needs to be done and focused on
  • Set the time table for revision and deadlines
  • Get all the essential books and materials
  • Condense notes onto postcards to act as revision prompts
  • go through school notes or listen while their child revises a topic
  • time their child’s attempts at practice papers

All round support

This approach relies on the whole family playing a part at this critical time, so the home feels calm and secure. Everyone in the family needs to be aware of the pressure that their son or daughter, brother or sister, is under at this time. A happy, healthy home will create a great platform for learning and a confident performance during the exams.

Make sure there are lots of healthy snacks in the fridge and try to provide good, nutritious food at regular intervals. Keep energy levels and well-being high.

Encourage your child to join family meals, even on busy revision days – so they can dive back into family life and take a break from their books and computer.

Suggest your child takes regular exercise. A brisk walk around the block can help clear the mind before the next revision session.

And it’s important that your child gets a good night’s sleep before an exam, so discourage them from last minute, up all night cramming sessions.

So, support is critical for both roles, whether you choose to be the supportive bystander or take the all-round family support approach.

Above all, it’s vital that your child knows you’re interested in their work and that you are proud of them.

Bribery isn’t always the best tactic, but it’s fine to provide small treats to drive their performance; a piece of cake after a chunk of revision, or a Friday night trip to the cinema after a week dedicated to school work.

Want to find out more? Visit

http://www.youngminds.org.uk/for_parents/worried_about_your_child/schoolwork_exam_stress/getting_help

Next week’s question: “Do you know how to market yourself via social media?” With over 90% of employers using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to screen candidates, it will be fascinating to hear your stories of how your tweets and posts have led to your rise or fall. Write to the Agony Aunt via our Contact page, and feel free to use more than 140 characters.

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