Women in Law

Returning to work after a career break is tough. If you’re struggling to find a way back, don’t give up hope. Though it may seem like there are many obstacles in your path, there are practical steps you can take to regain your confidence and find work that works for you. That’s the message that Lisa Unwin and Deb Khan want to give women with their new book, She’s Back. Lisa  set up her consultancy of the same name as she was tired of hearing similar stories from women struggling to return to work, and decided to channel her energy to provide tactics and strategies to help them. Simultaneously straight talking and empathetic, we guarantee you will walk away from reading our interview with Lisa feeling fired up and ready to take back control of your career…

Tell us about your own experience of returning to work, and how that led you to where you are now and writing the book?

“I had what I thought was a successful career. I had started out with Arthur Andersen in 1988. As the firm collapsed in 2001 after the Enron scandal, I moved across to Deloitte who backed the firm in the UK. I was director of brand and communication there, until the wheels came off. Our nanny handed in her notice just as our children were starting school. I quite suddenly found myself struggling to work out how I was going to manage bringing up my children and managing a demanding career, and decided to take a career break. There I was a few years later wondering what happened. I had 20 years of experience behind me, and no future plan. I looked around at the school gates and saw so many people in this situation: accounts lawyers, management consultants, all trying to get back to work. That led to setting up a consultancy – there wasn’t a business model or anything to begin with but I started out by getting sponsored by organisations to do some research to prove that this was a real issue, and began looking at ways we could help them. To put a spotlight on the issue I was doing lots of writing and getting people involved in the community, and with my business partner Deb decided to write a book, which came out this year and has been well received.”

What are the most common things you hear from women who have taken a career break?

“That they are leaving because of a lack of ability to balance young children and career. Couples are making decisions about whose career will take back seat in the months and years to come, but there is no long term plan for how to get back, so when the children get older and the time comes for the person to return to work – and it is still primarily the woman – they have no idea how to get back. I can’t claim to be an expert on gender roles generally, I can only talk about what we see in the circles we work with, but professional women tend to pair with professional men, and statistically marry older men, so in general when children come along it is the woman expected to take the hit and very few see it any other way.

The other most common thing I hear when women approach me is : ‘Can you help me, I am a mum with two children, looking for flexible work?’ Being a mum doesn’t differentiate you; and you are already defining yourself as a problem by leading with what you need to work around. It’s only after you hear this that you find out they have 20 years legal experience in the City! We need to change the approach.”

So, is there an issue with the way women perceive themselves when taking a career break?

“Yes, and I say that with complete understanding of how hard it is and the difficulties that we face – we are emotional after becoming parents, and so many people live far away from family support networks nowadays, it is very hard. I say women don’t help themselves because I did and said the same things myself! I started by thinking ‘ok I need something that will work around the school run’, so I was looking on flexible working websites. But only 11% of quality professional jobs are being advertised as flexible positions – employers often will be open to flexibility in discussions but they won’t lead an advert with it, so nor should you. Tell people you were 20 years working with big four firms and you’re looking for new opportunities to apply legal skills to – that is the difference. You are 5 times more likely to find work through introductions in your network than through recruiters, but they need to have something to tell that person other than ‘she needs to work flexibly!’

We often don’t acknowledge how vulnerable and lacking confidence we can become once we have children. We can start to remember differently how our work lives went and think we only got there by luck. You starting losing touch with that driven, confident side of you, because as a mum you don’t get told you’re doing a good job – you can do everything right but you will never know because you don’t have a performance review as a parent!”

Are there other things at play when it comes to a loss of confidence in your career?

“Ageism is a big thing, and again we have to fight against external and internalised attitudes. Employers and individuals need to stop seeing post-40 years as being past peak or entering final stages of our career – we still have 20 years of work ahead of us! I have done so much more in my 40s and 50s  professionally and personally than I ever did – or indeed ever could have – in my 20s and 30s, so don’t buy into the narrative that it is too late.”

What practical steps do you talk about in the book to help people prepare for and come back from a career break?

“First, everything is so much easier if you have kept in touch with your industry and colleagues  – if you haven’t it is much easier now to seek them out and reach out again – gone are the days of the gatekeeper PA and trying to book an appointment to meet senior people. Being on LinkedIn is essential as that is where all jobs and connections are. People are really willing to offer advice and take time to meet you if you reach out to them, especially those that know what you are good at. You need to have those conversations to bring the other side of you back out.

Take part as much as you can while you are out of the workplace – networking events, online webinars, parent meetings, whatever will put you in touch with the right people – it’s all in your hands to open the door and get out there.

Don’t feel it is insurmountable, remember that there are other ways to work and find paid employment – taking on freelance projects or by joining organisations like Obelisk – every little bit helps to add to your CV, keep your skills up to date, and keep in touch with peers. All this will make it easier to step up when you are ready.

And don’t put your head in the sand when it comes to finances, plan for your financial future!”

A big concern! How do you encourage women to think long term about their career and financial position?

“Again, it’s up to us. We can’t just leave it to legislation and employers – only 2% men took up shared parental leave last year, we still have a culture where men fear their career will be harmed if they do, and that will take a long time to change.

Women need to view work like a game of chess, and play the long game. We often look at cost of childcare for the first year or so and decide it is not worth it, but we should be thinking about what happens in 8 to ten years’ time. If you decide to step back completely, after 5 years childcare costs go down but your market value has gone down even more. Short term sacrifices are worthwhile if you want to continue your career so take the initial financial hit if you can, take a part time role, pass up a project or promotion if it helps you keep your foot in the door.”

One thing that we commonly see women returning to work find difficult is how to present themselves on their CV. What advice would you give?

“It’s important to see your CV or LinkedIn profile as a marketing tool. Employers spend on average just 8 SECONDS scanning a CV for suitability so your opening paragraph must be compelling – again don’t lead with what you want, lead with what you have to offer. Another thing people don’t often realise is that recruiters use software to scan for keywords in CVs first, so make sure you are hitting all the points from the job description.

When it comes to addresses your career break, don’t jump through hoops trying to justify it with irrelevant information about being part of the PTA and so on, as it comes across defensive. Appear confident about it! Just write ‘Planned Career Break’ and the length of time. Keep the most relevant information at the top with an experience or skills summary – don’t bury the good stuff on page 2, even if it did all happen 20 years ago. Finally if you have had lots of similar part time or short contract roles list them together and summarise details in one paragraph rather than listing bullets for each to keep things more concise.”

How should lawyers seek to update their skills to become more employable in technologically fast changing market?

“As a lawyer, you will know plenty of other lawyers, so talk to them to find out what you don’t know and what gaps you need to fill. It’s so much easier now than it used to be to keep up with technology and learn independently. There are many free resources on the internet, so search for YouTube tutorials and online courses. Most technology being used today is intuitive and designed to be user friendly, so it is often a case of simply using and learning as you go – just take the time to do it. Get to grips with social media management tools such as Hootsuite to make it easier to post regularly to market yourself.”

Lisa also agrees that being part of platforms like Obelisk Support is beneficial as they provide help keeping skills up to date, such as our recent LexisPSL introductory webinar, and regular events focusing on current developments in the industry.

Final thoughts

The bottom line as Lisa states is, no one will do it for you. There is support out and information there if you reach out and look for it. Your career and success before you took a break came about because of you and the work you put in – you are still the key to your own success.

Lisa and Deb don’t just tell you all the things you need to hear in She’s Back – the book also contains useful exercises that you can carry out to help you on your way. Lisa recommends that you find a friend to do them with you, so you can challenge one another and stay motivated. She’s Back is shortlisted for CMI’s Management Book of the Year 2019 and can be purchased on Amazon. You can find out more about their work on www.shesback.co.uk

Making Work, Work

We are delighted to have Louisa Van Eeden of Lexis Nexis UK join us as a guest blogger on The Attic. Her first post takes a look at how millennials are shaping the future of the legal industry.

Millennials. They’re the generation that everybody loves to blame for, well, pretty much anything. They are branded as “snowflakes”, and written off as a problem that either needs to be overcome, or ignored until they ‘grow up’ and become more like the older generations. But who are they really, and what impact are they having on the legal industry?

Much like Generation X back in the 1990s, the term millennial is often used in the media to refer to anything related to a youth culture that other generations generally don’t understand that well. Unlike Generation X, the Millennial Generation was typically born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, and grew up in a dramatically different landscape to their forebears. The world has changed: the internet dominates our lives, job security and home ownership are not a certainty; the future of the planet is at risk through climate change; and it’s becoming rapidly apparent that continuing with a business as usual attitude, just because that’s the way it’s always been, is untenable.

Consequently, millennials simply aren’t as compelled by traditional practices as previous generations, both in life and work. They are who they are. Where previous high achievers would chase salary, millennials now typically look for a company that aligns with their values. For the millennial, culture reigns supreme. In fact, a study recently conducted by Fidelity showed that millennials are willing to give up (up to) £7,600 in salary every year for a job that gave them a better environment and culture.

The Millennial Takeover

Considering that millennials now form the backbone of staff and client bases, making up to 35% of our current workforce, with that set to increase to 50% of the workforce by 2020, this is not a demographic to underestimate. Millennials are not just a vague notion of youth culture, they are real people progressing into management positions, and are shaping the technological and cultural landscape of every industry, including the law.

The “The Millennial Takeover”, identifies three key areas where the legal industry is seeing the impact of millennials:

#1 Talent Acquisition

This is a key battleground for law firms and one which millennials are well-positioned to approach and understand, especially because, as the Financial Times continues to report, firms are struggling to source and retain talent in today’s rapidly changing marketplace. Attracting the best and brightest young talent is more important than ever before, and harder than ever before, with this generation taking a markedly different approach to their careers. Millennials are key to helping law firms communicate their vision of the future, enabling firms to modernise with an eye to the demands of new talent and driving a competitive edge.

#2 The Ability to Drive the Profession Forward

Law firms are already changing with the millennial worker in mind. As the Law Journal Newsletter reports: “A number of firms have moved, remodelled or completely overhauled their physical workplaces with millennials in mind, favouring common areas, for example, over large corner offices.” But it’s not just physical changes, but more fundamental ones as well. As one of the co-founders of the Legal A-Team asserts, the partnership model – one of the traditional prestige markers in law firms – is no longer the aim: “Millennials want what they want and they want it now. The patience factor is not one of their fortes — they’re not going to stand around for 12 years.” In order to retain and attract millennial talent (and not lose them to agile, tech-forward start-ups), law firms will need to significantly adapt their culture and perhaps even their company structure.

#3 A Creative Approach to Business Practices

Law firms and lawyers need to think more creatively about their working practices in light of the rise of consumerism in today’s legal market. Client power is increasingly dominant, with billing and efficiency becoming ever more important. New and agile practices, from social media to technology, are areas where millennials excel. They also prefer to work collaboratively rather than as a silo, which may well serve firms well moving forwards. Being open to change and engaging in a dialogue with junior members of the team may be beneficial here, in order to ensure that the firm remains stimulated and doesn’t fall behind.

Millennials and Legal Tech

While all three areas are important to understand, technology is the one that underpins them all. The agile working practices and lateral knowledge-sharing solutions favoured by millennial legal professionals and legal start-ups are all enabled by technology. Indeed, there are already reports that legal tools are being used with increasing regularity. A recent LexisNexis In-house Insights report, ‘Legal Technology – Looking Past the Hype’ found that 85% of in-house legal teams surveyed have introduced multiple technology types and almost three quarters (73%) of respondents who have already introduced legal technology tools are making plans to expand their implementation. It is very likely that the next generation of lawyers will practise law in very different ways.

As Head of the Global Cyber Security Practice at Herbert Smith Freehills Andrew Moir suggests, lawyers have an obligation to stay up to date with legal developments and new technologies: ‘There have always been areas where an understanding of both the law and technology is helpful, such as patents, IT contractual disputes or cyber security. But now we’re increasingly being instructed on the legal aspects of cutting edge technology such as blockchain, electronic signatures, artificial intelligence, and data analytics, to name a few. Before we can advise on these sorts of developments, we really need as lawyers to understand the technology behind them.’

The Flexible Generation

Technology is undoubtedly changing the legal profession, and it’s likely that the next generation of lawyers will practise law in very different ways. Indeed, there is already a growing section of the workplace – populated by those who have different life demands and values – who no longer fit the traditional working model. This has led to an increase in portfolio careers as well as flexible working models designed to benefit both employee and employer. This can be seen in the continued success of organisations such as Obelisk Support, which recently joined the FT Future 100 UK list as a diversity leader – the only legal company to do so.

This trend is likely to continue to increase and evolve as more millennials dominate the workforce, bringing with them their approach to work-life balance, their use of technology as a natural enabler, the importance they place on purposeful business (one which looks beyond the profit line), their desire for flexibility, and their alternative definitions of success.

We are entering an exciting era for the legal industry, one in which we wait in watchful anticipation to see who will accept and accelerate this new approach to working culture, and what impact it will have across the legal profession and wider society.

For more insights on how young lawyers are best positioning themselves to weather the upcoming changes, check out our post on “The Legal Profession for Millennials”. 

Making Work, Work

New Year Resolutions: Whether you’re a fan of them or not, when it comes to improving work life balance it can be useful to start the year by making some pledges to yourself before you fall into the same old habits. Here are some work life balance resolutions for 2018 you can start applying immediately.

#1 Make Regular Plans For Time Off – And Stick to Them

Start the year by adding holidays and breaks to your calendar. Rather than booking in holidays and days away around your work schedule as you go through the year, plan further ahead and ensure that you take time off more regularly. Even if you have to change the days slightly as time goes on, what you have written down will push you to book that city weekend or day out with the family you’ve been promising yourself since the beginning of 2017.

#2 Count Your Leisure Time as You Count Your Work Hours

The quality of your leisure time is just as important as the quality and productivity of your working hours. If you wouldn’t idle away your work day on social media, why waste vital leisure time constantly checking inboxes and reading documents that can wait until you are back in the office? Failure to switch off properly has a very real impact on your productivity overall, so take both work and leisure time equally seriously. Start thinking about just how much rest and enjoyment can be achieved in the free hours that you have. This mindset will help to allay any guilt over wasted time – knowing you’ve spent every minute helping yourself to rejuvenate and spend quality time with others will remind you that you deserve your downtime and that it should be protected.

#2 Stop Working on Your Commute

Yes it’s tempting to try to get ahead on your journey to work, but how productive are you really while sitting on the Tube? Travel time shouldn’t be lumped in with work time. Your commute is an opportunity to clear your head and prepare mentally for the work ahead, and to wind down after the day is done. Make a pledge to resist the temptation of the inbox and use the time to practice mindfulness, with these tips for commuting. Or why not take the time to listen to a podcast, such as one of our favourite legal podcasts from 2017, or read a book to stimulate your imaginative, creative side. If you don’t have to travel very far, or at all for work, make sure you still allow yourself time either side of your work hours to unwind, even if it means getting up a bit earlier it can make all the difference.

#3 Put Work Related Notifications to Sleep For Good!

Take the time to go through your devices and set them so email/chat notifications don’t interrupt your down time. Most smartphones can put notifications to sleep for a time period of your choosing, and messages marked urgent can override this if you are worried about missing anything important. You even could take it further and do away with notifications altogether. Let’s face it: when we are working we tend to check necessary communication channels through habit anyway; removing the constant ping-ping of devices around us would eliminate a creeping modern day stress point.

#4 Give Up What Isn’t Working

In the quest to better ourselves, we can get so caught up spending time taking part in activities because we feel we should, or because we’ve already committed to it, rather than asking if it is really providing value in our lives. Take an honest look at your regular activities: if there is a feeling of dread when the time for something rolls around, or you’re only really doing it to avoid disappointing someone else, it might be time to reassess. Let go of time consuming activities that have run their course or that you are doing for the wrong reasons, and start investing that time in things you’ve always wanted to do but have been too busy for.

#5 Consider a Career Overhaul

While assessing your work life balance and what isn’t working in your life, you may come to the conclusion that your overall work schedule is the aspect that needs to change. This can seem a process too overwhelming to even contemplate at the beginning of a new year, but you don’t have to abandon your ambitions or sacrifice your career to make big changes in your work life. Why not check out some of the stories from our consultants who have taken a similar leap, and see what could be possible for you in 2018.

What resolutions have you made to improve the quality of your working life? Check out our previous articles on work life balance for more tips on setting boundaries and making work work for you in 2018 and beyond.

Making Work, Work

For a positive start to 2017, you might be thinking of taking the opportunity to learn and hone a new skill. Hobbies and interests can fall by the wayside in our busy working lives, but working towards mastering something new can renew your energy and zest for life, allowing you to be more productive in your work and more efficient with your time. Making a long term commitment to developing a long lost or completely new skill will enhance every aspect of your life. After all, making New Year’s resolutions is about being happier and more fulfilled in the year ahead and beyond.

The beginning is always the most daunting part of learning something new, and from the start point it can feel like you will never master it. Particularly when taking on something later in life, acquiring a new skill can feel an almost impossible task. Don’t listen to the voice that says it may be too late to embark: your mind never loses the capacity to learn new things; it’s just a matter of a different approach to learning. It really is never too late to start something new!

Of course, the practicalities of finding time around a busy career and family life are something most of us didn’t have to contend with when we were younger. Still, you don’t have to let that stand in your way – here’s some guidance on managing time and pursuing a personal project around other commitments:

Tell people

Make friends, colleagues and tutors aware of your new learning intentions and how it will fit around your work and home life. It helps for people to understand all commitments that you have, so they don’t make extra demands on your time or they can be more flexible around your schedule.

Make practice a priority

It’s all too easy to let life get in the way of learning a new skill as we tend to prioritise everything else that is happening currently – as it is something we are doing mostly for ourselves rather than out of any urgent necessity associated with work we tend to put it at the bottom of the list. Make your practice or study priority on par with everything else. This is your personal development and it should be treated as equally important. Allot time for single tasks rather than constantly multitasking. The more you have to do, the more important it is to focus chunks of time on one thing rather than trying to do several things at once.

Use a separate room

If you have the luxury of space, set up a corner or room dedicated to that activity alone to prevent distractions creeping in. If you are studying as well as working from home, try to keep your workspace and study space as separate as possible to maintain focus.

Set small and regular milestones to keep you on track

Be realistic about what you can achieve in the time that you have, and reward yourself for taking each step towards your end goal. Small steps all add up so each one should be celebrated – those little wins will keep you motivated.

Revive your ‘dead’ time

Any dead time you have – on the bus, in the car, waiting for the kids to come out from school, the first quiet moments when you get up, the last moments before bed – turn it into productive time and use it to revise something, listen to audio clips etc. to help you on your way and keep you inspired.

Use the Eisenhower Matrix

If you feel you need to adopt a strategy to carve out more time, a good place to start is the Eisenhower Matrix. Divide up your tasks and responsibilities into the following categories:

  1. Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).
  2. Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).
  3. Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).
  4. Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).

You may also add an estimate of the time each task takes up, to give a clear idea of the time that can be saved and put towards other endeavours. More information on the Eisenhower Matrix method can be found here.

Above all, be patient and kind to yourself. Learning a new skill should be an invigorating and enjoyable endeavour. Learning takes time, so don’t be disheartened if busy periods or unexpected events temporarily knock you off course – just pick up where you left off when you are ready.

We’d love to hear what you plan to achieve in 2017 – let us know @TheAtticLondon

Family & Work

I have been finding it difficult to switch off from work on days off in recent times, particularly due to a demanding client I currently work with. It’s taking its toll on my health and I really want to have some proper downtime with my family this Christmas. How can I make sure work won’t creep in during my break?

All of us who feel passionately about our work can find it difficult to switch off during days off. We constantly think about solutions or new ideas, and that often inevitably leads to: “I’ll just note that down”, or “I’ll send that email now so I don’t forget” and before we know it we’ve lost a couple of hours doing research and notes and checking inboxes.

It is incredibly important to make sure you take a proper break from work, particularly if you work remotely where the lines between work and the home can become all too easily blurred. There are very real consequences of burnout and an increase in sick days taken, as well as an increase in malaise and dissatisfaction with work that you never feel you have distance from. It is up to you to use your extended holiday wisely and come back refreshed and ready to get stuck in again.

It can be even more difficult to take that one eye off the email for an extended time when you are facing pressure from a particularly difficult client or colleague. As long as you have everything completed before the official holiday periods that you said you would, you are under no obligation to fulfil additional demands when you have confirmed holiday dates. If you feel you are being coerced or pressured to work over the festive season, it is time to push back. Your time is managed by you, you should be trusted to have completed what needs to be done and continue to do so after the break you are so entitled to. Be firm and politely reemphasise that your days off are as agreed and that you will not be available between those dates. Explain what you have completed and what will be picked up on your return, to reassure the client you are in full control of your workload and schedule.

Switching off – figuratively and literally

A big part of the switching off problem is our constantly connected culture. This Christmas, make it a priority to be strict with social media and technology. Switch off work laptops and computers and turn off email alerts on mobile devices. On social media, consider un-following any industry related pages temporarily to stop reminders of work and associated feelings of stress and guilt creeping up as a result. Read books and magazines rather than articles online to avoid getting distracted and sucked into a rabbit hole of information.

It’s one thing to switch off from the screen, it’s another to switch off mentally and be fully present with family, relations and friends. One thing particularly hard is to not think about what is coming on the other side; watching the days count down to the return to the routine. Keep perspective and remember you are not the only one taking a break – the vast majority, or if not all of those you work alongside are too, so not much is happening without you! Spend the eve of the holiday writing a to do list for your first day back, so you know you have everything clear in your mind what you need to do from the moment that next working day comes around – then put it away and don’t look at it again until the eve of the return!

If you are a natural planner and miss the routine, it may also help to make a series of plans for fun things to do. Even if the list consists of simple things like watching a particular movie on television together, mapping out what relaxing and fun activities you have in store will stop boredom creeping in and endangering your focus on family and friends.

With all that said, sometimes spending time with relatives comes with challenges of its own, whether it is dealing with underlying conflicts or even just simple logistics of getting to see everyone. It is important to allow your own time for relaxation. Remember not to put too much pressure on yourself to ‘please’ and feel you are responsible for everyone’s happiness. Don’t let visits become your sole responsibility either: if you’re finding it difficult to visit everyone, request they come to you or arrange a suitable half way point where you can all be waited on and escape the pressure of hosting for an afternoon. This is your holiday too and stress and obligation should not take over the joyful festivity of the season. Sit back, enjoy, let all the family do their part and share in the responsibilities – if you have children who are old enough give them tasks such as wrapping or laying tables, young people love to feel helpful and part of the preparations so you’re giving them more enjoyment too, while taking the pressure off your own shoulders.

The Agony Aunt wishes you and all our readers a happy and healthy Christmas.

 

Family & WorkWomen in Law

“It is fantastic to be able to provide a useful service despite lifestyle changes, and to be valued for what you can contribute.”

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am an ex-city asset finance lawyer, happily living on the Sussex coast, wife to my childhood sweetheart and mum to Podge the house rabbit, an uber-intelligent autistic 8 year old son and my ballerina/vet/future prime minister 5 year old daughter.

Why did you decide to go freelance and work for Obelisk?

I have been with Obelisk for about two and a half years. I moved into freelance work because combining family life and my city work pattern was becoming impossible.  After a short career break I felt that dipping a toe into freelance work through Obelisk might just work, and two and half years later it still is!

What has working in this way enabled you to do differently?

I work completely differently to conventional work patterns, working at any time during a 24-hour period and fully remotely.  This means I can do the school run, help with homework, have a life and still commit to the number of hours of work a day my clients require.

What roles have you had during this time?

Through Obelisk I have been placed in 7 different roles, three of which are still on-going. I have worked for IT, media and telecoms companies and also for a large online retailer. My roles have included everything from large due diligence projects, holiday cover, ad hoc support and projects spanning several months.  My work is incredibly varied, and my role for my clients varies from being their sole legal resource to being part of large team of in-house lawyers, to everything in between.

How do you work with clients?

I work fully remotely (with the occasional trip into London for a client meeting), and I prefer to work part-time for several clients at a time. In terms of how we communicate, on one of my placements we had a weekly “team meeting” which everyone dialled into, to update the team on their current matters and seek help/advice as needed.  That system worked very well for me, as being remote it is important to link into the wider team you are supporting.  Another of my clients Skypes me for regular chats and to give instructions, which again enables me to participate in a similar way as I would in an office environment

Have you been able develop skills or extend your experience into other areas?

My skills and experience are unrecognisable from those of the specialist city lawyer I used to be.  I have learnt to research things I need the answer to, draft without precedents and understand business need quickly.  My city-experience was 11 years of asset finance, but now I am also confident to review and advise on IT/media/telecoms and retail matters, which is an opportunity I would never have had in city private practice.  As a result, I am a much more well-rounded lawyer.

How has the legal services market changed over the course of your professional career?

It is unrecognisable since I did my first city vacation placement in 1998.  There was one career path then: you either moved up to the next PQE level, or you left.  Equally for clients, they had very little choice in terms of the legal services available to them, having to pay for lawyers’ office overheads and services which were not necessarily tailored for their needs, or hire full time permanent in-house lawyers.  Now there are so many paths available to lawyers, and clients have so many more flexible options for how to resource their legal needs.  So many of us find that our ambitions and lives change during the course of our careers, it is fantastic to be able to provide a useful service despite lifestyle changes, and to be valued for what you can contribute, using your life experience as well as legal experience.

 

Family & Work

When work doesn’t fit with the multiple facets of our lives, we are in danger of losing sight of ourselves

We can sometimes make the mistake of going to extreme lengths to keep ourselves in the career loop when life changes. We try to do things the same way we did before, allowing little room to focus on developing particular skills and industry knowledge. Working endless hours in the office with no real gain, or working at home with a baby yet to settle into a decent routine, while you simultaneously try to get to grips with all the accounting and filing that come with life as a newbie freelancer, does not make for a happy productive mix – the latter being my own experience. It’s true that even when taking the leap to being your own boss, you can still fall into the trap of working to benefit others, rather than figuring out what works best for both of you.

When I look back on those early days, however, I am grateful as it made me realise what I was able to deliver, and pushed me to pursue steadier, on-going projects that really captured my interests. Realising things weren’t going well allowed me to focus and truly develop, and organise my time more effectively, rather than flying by the seat of my pants each day. I’ve taken leaps of courage, and in many ways this has made me a better mother too, as my own routine is more settled I can focus better attention on what my daughter needs from me – simple things such as prolonged conversation, planning ahead for costume parties and all those other important things in a school child’s life.

Perspective and clarity is needed to make those leaps of courage and push yourself outside the comfort zone. You need to be able to look forward (and indeed back) to make those defining decisions; and you can’t do that if you’re only living in the urgent now. And it’s an ongoing process: to be able to periodically take stock to see where you are, where you want to be, and what you need to do to get there, requires work that fits with you and your life. Having that headspace and emotional wellbeing is vital; without it you cannot be in the mind frame to study, train or even decide on the next project that’s going to take you to the next level in your career. There is no point barely scraping through bits of work that don’t contribute to a bigger picture – you don’t do your best work, progress is slower and it can actually be less financially rewarding, as the lack of confidence that comes with it can leave you not feeling in a position to ask for better rates. Perspective makes you able to see your strengths and what you are truly worth, so even if you are still caught up in the daily grind, it really does pay to take the time you think you don’t have to assess whether you really are working in the most effective way – the way that allows you to be as present as possible in every aspect of your life.

For some, there is still the sense that if we allow life to ‘get in the way’, we’ve let ourselves and others down. We can forget that all of life is what makes us, not just our work, as important as that is. We also forget that we are not alone in that situation, that everyone is juggling something; be it young family, care for elderly relatives, spouse illness, or numerous other priorities. The more we are honest and communicate with one another about these things, rather than pretending to be super human, understanding can be found and better teamwork and productivity follows. On the other side, as an employer if you provide a workplace that allows people to work in harmony with the changes in their lives, you attract talent that you would otherwise miss out on, preventing everyone else from getting stuck in the cycle too.

Of course it will never be perfect: there will always be a period of daily fire fighting or unforeseen circumstance. But if it seems like every hour of every day is taking that shape, it may be time to step back and look at what needs to change. You could be amazed at where a little bit of perspective can take you.

Making Work, Work

Without access to flexible working, a large pool of knowledge and talent is going to waste. This is costing us greatly, stifling growth and impacting workplace wellbeing.

For all the progress made in communication technology and digital working platforms, and for all the conversations on work life balance and the importance of workplace wellbeing, it seems society is still attached to a culture of long office hours and presenteeism. Women’s careers continue to stall due to a lack of options for flexible working, so say the findings of recent in depth studies into flexible working and the progression of women in the corporate workplace.

A report compiled by Digital Mums in association with Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found 60% of mothers with children under 18 do not have access to flexible working. 64% of returning mothers found that their skills were compromised in some way in order to find a flexible job. The findings indicate that women are still finding it hard to return to work, and feel unable to progress as a result of career breaks, maternity leave and family commitments.

The Women in the Workplace 2016 study looked even more in depth into women’s career development and presence in the workplace in corporate America, finding that women are still falling behind men on the corporate ladder, with companies struggling to put their commitment to gender equality into practice for a number of reasons, including concerns about positive discrimination. And where flexible working programmes are offered to parents, it was found that 61% of employees worry that working part-time will hurt their career, with 42% believing taking a leave of absence or sabbatical will do the same.

Why should so many women have to compromise their experience and skillset in order to find work that suits them? Why are employers and managers stretching every hour given, instead of calling on the expertise and skills they need when they need them? Why are there pools of latent talent still being left untapped? These are the questions we still find ourselves asking of the legal sector, and indeed many other industries beyond.

What happens when we increase the opportunities for people to work flexibly and remotely, when different life stages mean that they cannot be tied to the office and commute from dawn to dusk? It’s not a stretch to say that productivity is boosted and everyone’s work life balance stands to improve. The real, tangible benefits of flexible working and of changing traditional approaches to legal consultancy can be seen every day at Obelisk. From talent reactivated after a lengthy career break, to those changing to freelance remote work as life priorities change, the talent and expertise is there ready and waiting for the opportunity to take on new challenges, to find work that fits with their lives and fulfils their sense of purpose.

The CEBR also calculated that widespread access to flexible working could add 66 million hours more work per week, with an economic output boost to the UK of approximately £62.5 billion. But the benefits go even further than economic gain. It is not sustainable for business owners to be pulled on all directions when they need the time and headspace to create, shape and grow their business. Nor is it sustainable for employees who will not feel valued or incentivised by restrictive and lengthy hours expected of them, when there are people with the knowledge and talent available. Allowing people the time to concentrate their efforts on their core responsibilities and the bigger picture of their business, rather than fighting daily fires such as contract resolutions and other areas of time draining micro-management can change our overworking, long-office-hours culture for good, for the benefit of everyone’s wellbeing and personal growth, as well as the growth of the economy as a whole.

It’s time we all asked ourselves: What would we do with #MyMillionHours?