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?”

Family & Work

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?”

Family & Work

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

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.

Family & Work

What should the ‘E’ stand for in PQE? Ask the Agony Aunt

This week’s question for the Agony Aunt – “Is your career being held back because your PQE is actually turning into post qualification inequality?” – led to a number of important issues being brought to our door here at the Attic – about maternity leave, taking sabbaticals away from the law and how PQE can act as a barrier to lawyers on a non-linear career path. It’s amazing that three little letters can have such a major impact on people’s lives.

From reading your emails and stories it’s clear PQE – or Post Qualified Experience – is seen as a big issue by employers and lawyers a like. To help everyone, I want to focus on the ‘E’ side of the story – the Experience – because this, I think, is the most crucial chapter.

Historically, PQE is the traditional means to recruit lawyers. Job adverts echo this with descriptions in the number of years required for a certain role – such as “3 years PQE” – driven by the salary that the firm wishes to pay. So, the ‘experience’ element of PQE ends up as a ‘mileometer’ value which has helped to create a sector in which peoples’ careers in many ways, and often to their detriment, are shaped by their age. We know that lawyers wishing to return to work are happier to take a broader look at pay – if it means they can gain entry into the workplace in a way that suits them, and whilst pay is important, it’s not the ‘be all and end all’ factor.

Every law firm needs to know its lawyers are capable of doing the work, and looking at a lawyer’s professional experience based on age and years in the job is one way to gauge this. And of course there will be a link between the seniority of the solicitor, again based on their age and experience, and their salary and fees. But the historical approach to PQE fails to deliver anything else for law forms individual lawyers beyond this. PQE is too rigid and not dynamic enough in a sector that has to embrace a more flexible approach to its work force and staffing needs. PQE does little to spot and nurture talent and it does nothing to drive a wider view of experience which can deliver very concrete commercial benefits for modern day law firms.

Equally, by putting the focus on the number of years (and linking this to a salary levels) rather than a broader metric of experience, historically PQE can act as a barrier to, highly talented men and women.

On the other hand, it can also penalise younger lawyers. Let’s switch from the letters and do the maths, as they say. A job ad asks for 10 years PQE. You did your A levels at 18. You took a year out (to see the world …). You graduated at 23. You went to Law School, then joined a firm, and did your training. Before you know it, under the hard and fast rules of PQE, you’ve got to be a minimum of 35 years old before you can apply for this job, on paper. Yet in reality, you could be one of many brilliant people out there who fall short of the magic figure of ’10 year’s service’ who will who miss out on the role and opportunity. Which means the law firm misses out too. This is where traditional PQE starts to fall down.

The big question – especially having heard your responses this week – is has the legal sector evolved enough around PQE?

Your experiences and insights reveal too many solicitors equate their age and experience with their ability because of the straight-jacket of PQE. Women lawyers who have left full time work to start families have returned to work at the same level where they left off, but have then seen the firm is charging them out at a higher rate. And there is still some stigma attached to lawyers who have left the corporate lifestyle behind temporarily to pursue other professional or personal interests – such as using the law to help social causes, or taking time out to travel and see different countries and cultures – and then returned to private practice. In other walks of life, this broader experience would be embraced and optimised, but too many law firms are still operating with very traditional, and frankly outdated, business models. PQE.

Here are some of the stories and insights. All are dealt with anonymously.

When I returned to private practice in 2013, after spending four years away from the law raising my two children, I was amazed at how my age and PQE worked – and worked against me. It was the first time I had looked into the detail of PQE. I think its much fairer for them to look at the demands of the role and match to the candidates rather than getting tied in artificial knots about age and formal PQE numbers.”

Consultant A, London

“Ever since I joined my firm as a young trainee I have always respected the experience and wisdom of the senior lawyers and partners around me. I work in a large firm, so it’s not always possible to get access to the top team of lawyers, but when there is an open door policy and people have a spare five minutes it’s invaluable to sit down with people with far more experience than me to discuss a certain detail, or to hear their view on how best to work with clients. But ultimately I believe lawyers are permanently learning – and there is no point in our careers where we know it all. And I believe there comes a time, sometimes quite quickly in some people’s careers, where age is not a real reason to position somebody in a certain way. I have dedicated myself to the law and now to this firm, and all round, from my profitability to the quality of my work, I am confident that I am on course to be a partner one day. But when PQE comes into the picture, that ‘one day’ fades more into the distance, as PQE determines some aspects of my career and progression. It’s totally at odds with my ambition and my ability.”

Consultant B, Bristol

“I work in HR, which sounds like the brother or sister of PQE. I know it’s not a perfect system but firms need some way of finding and filtering people during the recruitment stage, and PQE is there to help do this. It is also a framework for the financials – for paying people, and for setting client fees. So firms have needed PQE for a number of reasons. Like so many things today, it is outdated in its original form, and many firms in my opinion are re-thinking what makes a great lawyer and what clients need– and length of service or years in the job is not always the answer to that. The rise of apprenticeship schemes for example, and how these apprenticeships go on to have their own supervised case loads at an early stage, shows there doesn’t have to be a set of rules around what lawyers can and can’t do at whatever age or stage in their career. The trick is not picking holes in PQE, which can be done, but coming up with a new system that works for lawyers and law firms today.”

Legal HR, Liverpool  

So, we need to be more progressive around PQE. The world of work in the legal sector is very different today and that change is increasing. Technology, project-based work, 24 hour demands from clients and new values around work and family life are all reshaping our careers – making people’s CVs far less linear than they used to be. You just cannot look at the meat and two veg of the classic CV – education, career to date and hobbies and make a valuable judgment on what that person will bring to the firm, in every sense. PQE is no measure for assessing the innovation, the communication skills, the empathy and the humanity that someone will bring to the firm, that the firm will benefit from, because of the complete life experiences they have. This human richness is where the real value is. That is why it is so important when you look at PQE to put the focus on the E, with as wide a wide angle lens as possible and repeat after me, ‘Please Quit Evaluating lawyers just on age and experience.’

Next week’s question: “With exam season looming how can working parents help their teenage children prepare and keep their own sanity?

Family & Work

Are we really free to freelance? Ask the Agony Aunt

This week’s question for the Agony Aunt – “I’m thinking about going freelance, but is this a bad move for my career?” – sparked some great stories and insights from across the Obelisk community. Thanks to everyone for getting in touch.

It’s clear from the mailbag here in the Attic that both men and women have real concerns about how their careers could nosedive on the back of a decision to switch from full time to freelance or flexible working.

Lawyers who take the progressive and healthy step to change the shape of their lives day to day, 9 to 5 (or whatever hours they choose to work), make this decision because they want to play a more active role as a parent, they want a sabbatical or they don’t sign up to the inhumane pressures of the rat race which prevent them from spending valuable time with their family and friends. It does not mean they have thrown all ambition out the window, and they are suddenly adopting a utopian, almost anti-corporate lifestyle. A lawyer can work flexibly, and be as ambitious, as talented and as productive (if not more so) than anyone chained to their desk, losing their soul to slavish hours and workloads.

But, sadly, your answers show too many organisations across the legal sector are still ‘not getting it’, despite the commercial and human benefits of flexible working being increasingly crystal clear. For those who still struggle to see the benefits, let’s make it simple for you. Do you want your business to grow? Do you want happier, healthier, more productive people on your team? Yes? Then embrace and introduce flexible working now and make it a way of life within your corporate culture – based on a model your FD, CEO and HR Director will understand; more money, happier employees.

Look at the evidence uncovered by Vodafone. The telecommunications and mobile phone giant asked companies in ten countries around the world, including the UK, if flexible working had been a good or a bad thing for their business. The results are undeniable;

  • 80% said it has boosted productivity
  • 61% reported an increase in profits
  • 58% saw their company’s reputation enhanced

But, despite the data and the commercial reality on the ground, the answers you have sent in to the Agony Aunt this week show employers are still putting up barriers to flexibility – which is causing real concerns for individual lawyers and lost opportunities for a sector with growing pressures on profits. Here are some of your stories and insights. All are dealt with anonymously.

“When I spoke to my firm about the possibility of working flexibly – so that I could dedicate more time to my family at the right time of the day – it became clear the firm did not have a structure in place to make this happen. So instantly, any discussion about flexible working became personal, rather than professional – based on a policy and framework. As lawyers, we live and breathe contracts and agreements, yet here I was, battling for something positive for me and the firm, yet held back because we have no policy to work to.”

Consultant A, London (female)

“I’ve worked at my firm for many years now, and my colleagues and the senior team know me and my family well. So when I said I wanted to change how I worked at the firm because I wanted to take on more responsibility for bringing my children up, and therefore being at home more during traditional office hours, I thought they would completely understand my reasons for wanting to do this. But their reaction took me by complete surprise. When it came to me wanting to be more active as a parent, it was clear they thought this was an odd ambition for a male lawyer to have – and completely at odds with wanting to be successful. And when we talked about work, it was equally clear they thought that flexible working put a block on the things most people go to work for – from pay rises and promotion to intellectual challenge and a good social life. They totally failed to see how flexible working could fit in with their existing system, or do me any good at all. For them, life plans mean partner, or nothing.”  

Consultant B, Manchester (male)

“I felt like a naughty school boy again; not being trusted by the teacher. It’s incredible that people who are rightly respected for their intelligence, and who talk a lot these days about innovation, could look at a proposal from me to work flexibly and the first question they ask is ‘so why should I pay you the same amount to do less?’ We are living in a culture that has been defined for decades by hours. How we charge our clients, and how we show our dedication to the firm, has always been measured in hours. We need to break out of this system and focus on delivery and productivity. Flexible working doesn’t mean less. It means different.”

Consultant C, London (male)

So, looking at the Vodafone research, making work, work for you, your employer and your family is not a compromise. It is a human, strategic and successful way to shape careers and businesses in the 21st Century. But looking at what some lawyers are coming up against when they propose shifting to a flexible or freelance working model, it’s clear the legal sector has still not understood and embraced the real benefits it can bring to everyone.

Next week’s question; How has your career been held back by PQE turning into post qualification inequality?

Family & Work

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.

Family & Work

This week’s Agony Aunt Question

This week’s question for the Agony Aunt is: “I’m thinking about going freelance, but is this a bad move for my career?”

It’s a burning question, especially for men – after recent research shows working freelance, flexibly or part-time can lead some unhappiness, brought about by how society and employers respond to them.

Men who shift from full-time work to flexible working – because of child care, or wanting to get out of the rat race – can be seen as lacking ambition or not being committed to their careers. This out-dated view of flexibly working fails to see the many positive benefits that flexible working bring for both individual members of the team and the business overall. Research carried out by Vodafone into the rise of flexible working in ten countries around the world, including the UK, makes an overwhelming case for flexible working;

  • 80% of the organisations that have embraced flexible working said it had led to a boost in productivity
  • 61% reported an increase in profits
  • 58% saw their company’s reputation enhanced

Making work, work for you, your employer and your family is not a compromise. It is a human, strategic and successful way to shape your career in the 21st Century. It is the future.

So, send me your thoughts and experiences of going freelance. Is it a bad career move?

Get in touch via the Contact page.

Family & Work

Winter fur-fur-fashion

Anyone who has been to one of Obelisk’s Refresher Courses for women looking to return to their career in law will know that fashion is a big thing in the Attic.

Dressing for success is a key part of preparing to return to work; from feeling confident about yourself to making the right, first impression.

That’s why we like to keep a close eye on the fashions we see on the street in and around Farringdon – home of the Attic, and some very cutting edge creative types – and what the in-crowd are wearing on the pages of the top magazines.

With Winter approaching – hold on, just looking out the window now – with Winter pulling up and about to step out of the taxi, here’s the Attic’s guide to this year’s Winter look.

  1. The Fur Stole
  2. The Fur Scarf
  3. The Blazer
  4. Fur again, this time the Fur Clutch
  5. The Trench (this is going to be huge this Winter, you heard if first here)
  6. Beanie hats
  7. Black and white prints are in
  8. Head-to-toe sequins are in too for evening wear (very 1920s Hollywood)
  9. Full length velvet dresses
  10. Arctic Fur with Eskimo-style hoods (you apparently can’t have too much fur this winter)

As ever, be sure to select the right colour that suits your skin tone, your hair and your eyes. Match the clothes you buy to your body shape too. And think about the message you are sending out with the colours you wear. With temperatures about to drop, I would usually say wrap up warm, but with all that fur flying around, I don’t think that’s necessary this winter.

Family & Work

Back to School

So, we made it. The children are back at school – all kitted out smartly with new Clarks shoes, Smiggle rucksacks and Messi football boots (as in Lionel Messi, ‘the greatest footballer who ever lived’ as my son tells me; not an old pair of boots still baked in mud from last term) – and another Summer Holiday is over.

It’s always a strange time of year; these first few days just after the six week break. I was going to say six, long weeks – and there’s the contradiction.

The Summer is a wonderfully enriching time for mothers, giving us so much time to spend together with our children, but it is a busy and exhausting time too, as the practicalities of organising clubs, day trips, sleepovers and family holidays gradually takes its toll.

But now school has started we are ‘free’ again between 9 and 3.15, Monday to Friday, and, as our own person, we quickly and guiltily start to enjoy this freedom. You go for coffee, catch up on emails in the Moondance Cafe (that’s where I go), listen to the chit chat of sun-tanned mums (“where did you go?”), and start to relax into life sans children (“we went to France”).

At home, you really sense and enjoy the calm and the quiet that suddenly descends. The house feels silent. In the kitchen you can hear every tick of the clock, every text message ping and, for the first time in weeks, every word Jenni Murray says on Woman’s Hour.

The house that appeared to be – no, was – turned upside down in July and August is restored to its ‘Homes and Gardens’ glory once again in less than a day, when you’d convinced yourself you needed to bring in a construction team to cut into the grime that six weeks of children at home had created.

As you pack away the toys – the Monopoly and the Cluedo that you reached for during those rainy days, and the snorkels and masks from those beautiful days in the sun and the sea in Kefalonia, Majorca or the Isle de Re – warm and wonderful memories surround you, like a great family party, as your mind drifts back to the summer you have just had. No matter how exhausting the Summer holidays might be, of course you’d swap your new-found peace and quiet in a heartbeat to wind the clock back to July, to be with the children once more and ‘do it all again’ – packing the bags, getting up at 4 in the morning to catch the bargain flight, finding the hire car, finding the way out of the airport, going past Hertz for the fifth time as you try to find your way out of the airport, then finally arriving at your holiday home – your dream villa – with a pool that is about to splash with noise and laughter for two weeks, and a balcony where you’ll sit back with a book and a glass of wine at the end of the day. But, in early September, ‘doing it all again’ is not an option, which makes you miss the little ones even more. Back home, if you work your routine kicks in and the demands of your job take over. But if you’re not working right now, like I said, this can be a strange time of year.

I’ve always struggled with the concept that the time we spend on holiday is more precious than our everyday lives. It’s not. It’s a real treat to go to Greece, or Italy, or France, but we should value our everyday lives – our working life and our family life – in the same way.

That’s why flexible working is the perfect model, where you can build your career around yourself, your family and your clients. Flexible working is a real option if you want to combine the best of the Summer months – spending more time with your family – with the best of working life – stimulating challenges and real rewards. With the children now back at school, and the house restored, there is no better time than now to make your first move.

The benefits of working flexibly for you and your family are life-changing – allowing you to control the amount of hours you work. And the benefits for you and your clients are equally impressive. Statistics show flexible working boosts productivity, saves costs, attracts real talent and leads to healthier employees. That’s why business and society is really waking up to this modern change in working life.

In the legal sector Obelisk Support is leading the way in making flexible working a way of life for mothers, families and clients. Over 800 lawyers are now on the books, making Obelisk the largest pool of talented ex-City lawyers in the world. The company, which was founded in 2010 by Dana Denis-Smith, herself a mother and an ex-Linklaters lawyer, offers two ways for you to get back into work, and to perfect the art of flexible working.

First, you can join our team of talented lawyers. Obelisk is always on the look-out for great lawyers – from corporate and commercial to sector specific. If any of your friends are finance lawyers who are looking for exciting opportunities, then Obelisk would love to hear from them. Contact Jane, Recruitment Coordinator, on [email protected].

The second step you can take is to register for Obelisk’s Refresher Course, which helps women plan and prepare for returning to work. The course covers a range of key issues, from reminding yourself how to prepare for interviews and introducing yourself to potential clients, to what story you should tell people about you and your skills, to re-booting your confidence in the workplace, including style advice on what colours and clothes suit you best.

So, we no longer have to live with the extremes we feel at this time of year; that sense of loss after spending so much time with the children, mixed with enjoying the calm and quiet. Flexible working gives you family and career at the same time, all year round.

Family & Work

The Rising Stock of Returning Mothers

In this new age where agile and flexible working practices are no longer perceived as a novelty, and where a culture of assessing individual input and output to calculate merit is – quite rightly – being valued above presenteeism, the time is ripe for those who need to work around other commitments to make their return to the workplace, with mothers being a prime demographic. A gap in your working history does not necessarily equate with the deterioration of your value. New parents learn new skills: how to juggle, how to negotiate, how to time manage. So why does the stock of mothers seem to devalue dramatically whilst they are on a career break?

The whole attitude towards returning mothers needs to be seriously reconsidered. Employers accept that having a diverse melee of experience, talents and skills within their workforce makes for an innovative environment. There is no scope for workplaces to evolve if employers do not embrace the differences of their employees: different experiences, different perspectives and different backgrounds. Surely, then, this should extend to mothers too – despite the fact that they might need to work in a slightly different way.

Part of the problem are the negative assumptions and sweeping generalisations made about returning mothers: that they are unambitious, that they only want to work part time, that they will be too slow to get to grips with the way technology has moved on. But this is simply not the case. Imagine any other group being discriminated against en masse in this manner. It simply would not, and could not, happen. For many returning mothers, though, it does: a 2012 study showed that women returning to work are very often forced to into accepting lower-paid, part-time jobs.

Some industries are taking steps towards improvement: returnership programs as first introduced by investment banks are slowly becoming more and more popular. And statistics show that more women are returning to work. Between 2011 and 2013, 200,000 mothers from two parent families with dependent children returned to work, compared to just 185,000 between 1996 and 2011. Equally, recent legislation has dictated that all parents of children under the age of 17 are entitled to request flexible working (but whether this request will be accepted is an entirely different matter – and, indeed, not legislated for). So, we are moving in the right direction, but evidently there is still much to do.

Women returning to work naturally feel daunted – but is this partly (and paradoxically) due to the fact that everything out there tells them that they ought to feel daunted? Most returnership programmes are aimed at reinstilling lost confidence and getting women up to speed with the necessary skills they need to return to work. But why can’t the emphasis shift, at least in part, to one which empowers mothers, and shows them how they can use their new found skills to improve upon their previous experience – bettering themselves, rather than hauling themselves back up to their previous level. Why do we treat women as though their stock has devalued or, at the very best, remained stagnant for the years they have been out of work? The fact is that women are returning to the workplace with more life experience, a fresh perspective and a whole host of newly acquired skills: if anything, their stock should has risen.

So, how can employers get better at accommodating the needs of returning women?

  • Hire them! Respect the decision of women to return to work (in many cases it’s not an easy one) and give them a chance to impress you.
  • Accept that all circumstances are different – don’t assume that all working mothers want the same thing. Part time work might be great for some, but others may want to return to work full time. Never make assumptions.
  • Think of flexible solutions. Do you really need this employee to do all of their work from the office, and in office hours?
  • Make sure that your IT system allows for remote and flexible women.
  • Lead by example. If you show a proactive attitude to employing returning mothers, and accommodating their needs, then your employees will follow suit in respecting their value.

By believing and investing in the skills of a returning mother, you will more than likely find yourself working with an exceptionally reliable, focused and motivated employee – and surely these qualities far outweigh those possessed by many employees who are able to (unproductively) keep their seat warm beyond office hours.